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Is Public Education on Its Death Bed? Should It Be? Seven Points of Argument, Leverage and Change.

Last week, I was lunchtime speaker at the local Mensa group's monthly meeting. The program chairman who asked me to speak suggested this title for my talk: Is public education on its death bed? Should it be?

I readily agreed to talk about the possible demise --lamented, in my case--of public schooling. I thought it a provocative and timely topic.

One could easily make the case that public education doesn't work well, is stuck in a previous century, is cumbersome and inequitable and failing lots of kids. It deserves to die, because it's not doing its job consistently. The question is: What will replace it?

One could also make a passionate case that a free, high-quality fully public education for every child is one of America's best ideas--and that some things should not be subject to market pressures. If we've ever laid claim to being a great nation, it's certainly public education that built the framework for that greatness. The question is: How do we build on the values and pieces of the current system that work well?

We talk about our public schools all the time (usually in a negative sense), but we seldom discuss schooling in the abstract, from 30,000 feet up. Unlike other nations (hint: Finland), we have never had a structured, purposeful national conversation about gutting and reorganizing the system around the kind of education we want for all children. What are our primary goals? What does educational success look like?

Instead, we've built policy on unresearched assumptions, wishful thinking--and nostalgia.

What points of friction are defining the way we talk about our schools? If public education were to be revitalized, what areas of consensus would need to be forged? Here are seven sticky issues that we could be talking about. None are black and white. They're not controversial programs or mandates (like the Common Core). They overlap and impact each other. They represent places where the educational system might shift, if public opinion shifted.

1. Head vs. Hands
What adult work is valued, seen as long-term goal, in our educational system?
Who are our role models--adults with degrees from prestigious universities? Financial success? The decades-long push to go to college has given us credential creep, plus a whole generation of college-educated kids working at jobs where a degree doesn't matter. There's evidence that three million skilled manual-labor jobs are going unfilled--and we're still closing down secondary vocational centers, in favor of "raising the bar," academically. Charter schools boast of their "accepted to college" stats--rather than long-term employment rates of graduates. Something's seriously wrong.

2. Standardization vs. Individually Tailored Instruction
Some people have to follow a recipe but others cook creatively and skillfully with the ingredients on hand. We are moving rapidly toward a system where teachers are compelled, Cheesecake Factory-like, to teach the same lessons--like a champion, no less--and live or die by the same test results. Arne Duncan says we all need the same goalposts-- but if mandating state-created standards and benchmarks didn't make states soar, educationally, what makes us think creating national standards and tests will work?

There's no hard evidence that common tools and standards-aligned curricula will be effective in raising any of these: student motivation, aspirations, achievement. Nationally developed standards and assessments are work we know how to crank out, however. They're a well-advertised campaign that confuses the noble goal of an equitable education for all children with equal curricular benchmarks and outcomes. Do educators, parents and communities--whose families, lives and work depend on successful schools--want a standardized education for their children?

3. Private vs. Public
There are now school superintendents and tech coordinators in my state who are anxious to create niche markets with the goal of luring other districts' students (and their state funding), eager to run their schools like profit-making businesses. And just when did Exxon Mobil start directing our thinking about public education--"let's get back to the head of the class, let's solve this!" K-12 education is one huge, barely tapped marketplace. The core question for discussion here: Are there some things that are too critical to human well-being to be for sale?

4. Quality of Life vs. Economic Growth
Is the purpose of school to build strong communities, by educating all children to be responsible contributors? Or is schooling a public service, offered to individuals as a means to get the skills or credentials needed to make the best living possible? Is our national goal dominating the global marketplace? Or are we more concerned about providing an opportunity for everyone to have a higher standard of living?

Whenever high-achieving schools in Finland are mentioned, some latter-day Adam Smith is likely to remind us that Finns live in smaller homes and have fewer possessions, not to mention higher taxes. The principle of unlimited economic growth drives a lot of social policy, but deciding which matters most to us, as a nation, could provide clarity in redesigning our K-12 system.

5. Traditional Neighborhood Schools vs. 21st Century Learning Delivery
Here in America, we have an enormous fondness for things we've long outgrown. Technology makes instructional delivery vastly more flexible, illustrative and engaging, but it's unequally distributed--and can also easily become the platform of "quick, dirty and cheap." Balancing traditional instruction with the wonders available electronically is something we're still sorting out.

One interesting thing about charter schools: they're often designed to look like Catholic schools in the 1960s, with plaid-skirt uniforms, rigid rules about raised hands and walking in straight lines, evidence of a deep-rooted belief in tradition. There's reason to endorse convention and reason to embrace innovation--but a crappy education is a crappy education, whether it happens in a brick building in your neighborhood or over the internet.

6. Equity vs. Meritocracy
One of the worst aspects of high-stakes testing is the assumption that a test score is reality, that human meritocracy can be accurately measured. Can you assess merit? What if it's defined as "contribution to society"--are the highest scorers those most likely to be civic leaders, innovators and creators, good neighbors and excellent parents?

When it comes to access to elite educational resources, the assumed answer is: yes, worth can be measured. And the worthiest "deserve" the best. Gifted education is all about meritocracy. So is Teach for America, which assumes that the "best and brightest"--by traditional admission-to-the-club standards--are, without much training, going to be effective teachers. If we continue to define success by test metrics and credentialing, we're missing other valuable human assets.

7. Local vs. State vs. Federal Control
Where's the locus of power and decision-making around public education? Where should it be? We've been wrangling over this since Horace Mann drafted his Six Principles of Education and promoted the common school. Lately, power has migrated upward; federal policy initiatives are coloring work that used to be shaped in districts, schools and classrooms. Is that a good thing? If you live in an area where local control has historically been used to support ideas like racially-based inequality, you probably have a different take than parents at the well-off, publicly supported suburban school that's integral to the whole community.

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So--what did the Mensa members think? It was hard to get through all seven big ideas, because everyone had vast experiential knowledge and strong opinions. The conversation was rich--and indicative of what might happen if we all engaged in wrestling with these questions. Maybe we could rebuild a system that works for everyone.

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