The beginning of the new year is a propitious time to ask a direct question about public schools: Just what do we want them to do? Without a clear vision, the contentious debate over their future will never end. I was reminded of this after reading an essay by Louis Menard in The New Yorker ("Today's Assignment," Dec. 17). Although the subject of his piece was homework, Menard made a larger point. He explained that countries with the most successful schools are characterized by agreement about the role of their schools. He cited Finland and South Korea as prime examples. But there are others as well.
If Menard is right - and I think he is - then the outlook for schools in the U.S. is bleak. Unlike other countries, the U.S. can't find common ground on what schools should be doing. For example, some taxpayers want back-to-basics schools; others want schools that emphasize creative thinking. Some want teacher-centered classrooms; others want classrooms where students study what interests them. As Menard wrote: "Americans have an egalitarian approach to inequality: they want everyone to have an equal chance to become better-off than everyone else. By and large, for most people school is the mechanism for achieving this."
But even this conclusion is controversial. If all students were given an equal opportunity to achieve, I doubt that we would accept unequal outcomes. In other words, we want it both ways. The achievement gap is a case in point. No matter what we do to provide equity, we are not satisfied when differences exist between ethnic groups. This leads to heated exchanges over causes and remedies. Other countries have no such problem, probably because they are far more homogeneous than the U.S. Our multicultural society, which is a great asset, can be a huge liability because it makes it extremely difficult to develop a consensus. Others countries also do not have the huge disparities in income that exist here. As Menard explained: affluent parents are most hostile to homework because they want their children to spend their after-school time taking violin lessons, while less affluent parents support homework as a way of keeping their children off the streets.
Public schools have a vital role to play in the new world economy. Yet they won't improve unless we can first agree on what they should look like. About the only thing everyone wants are safe schools, as the Sandy Hook carnage made clear. But it will take more than that to assure their continuation in the years ahead.