The Erosion of Public Education

The purpose of education has always been to everyone, in essence, the same - to give the young, the things they need in order to develop if an orderly, sequential way into members of society. This was the purpose of the education given to a little aboriginal in the Australian bush before the coming of the white man. It was the purpose of the education of youth in the golden age of Athens. It is the purpose of education today, whether this education goes on in a one-room school in the mountains of Tennessee or in the most advanced progressive school in a radical community. But to develop into a member of society in the Australian bush had nothing in common with developing into a member of society in ancient Greece, and still less with what is needed today. Any education is, in its forms and methods, an outgrowth of the needs of the society in which it exists. 
A progressive education movement has been the outgrowth of the realization by educators of the fact that our highly complex, rapid, crowded civilization demands and has been met by changes in school subjects and practice; to make these changes effective something more is needed than simply the addition of one subject after another. The new subjects should be introduced with some relation to each other and the ways in which they operate and integrate in the world outside of school. It is also the outgrowth of the desire to put, into practice in the classroom what the new science of psychology has discovered about individual learning and individual differences. 
The desire to adjust a school curriculum to society results too from the use of the new psychology to increase the pupil's learning. When one tries to adjust a school curriculum to society, it immediately becomes necessary to formulate a conception of what that society is. What are its strengths that should be stressed in the schools, what its weaknesses that children should understand. Is it a good thing to bring up the young with desires and habits that try to preserve everything just as it is today, or should they be able to meet change, to weigh the values and find good in the new? How much of the background and development of our civilization do children need to be able to understand what is in the world today? How much do they need to become cultivated individuals, able to enjoy leisure and carry on worthwhile traditions? The answers to these and many other questions, and the skill used in translating them into practice will determine the kind of school. Both these factors will differ according to, the temperament, beliefs, background and experience of the individuals who answer them. In a world changing as rapidly as ours, expression of differences of opinion by different kinds of schools is a wholesome sign and an encouragement to progressive education.
John Dewey
Professor of Philosophy at Columbia University, New York
The Philosopher,Volume. XII, 1934
John Dewey, often referred to as the father of American Education, wrote these words in 1934. Reading them carefully, they resonate just as loudly today. Troubling is the thought that we are grappling with the same frustrating challenge of what we want our public education system to be, and what we want it to do. Considerable legislation has challenged the American educational model to transition from a system designed for everyman (person) to a system expected to serve the needs of each man (person). Addressing the individual needs, challenges and learning styles within the public system, is a very good thing. Devolving the system into a free market driven model is quite another. Allowing assessment to replace valid pedagogy is quite another. Of equal concern, what is the impact of a seemingly endless randomized series of fiscal reductions on teaching and learning? … The question of our commitment to a community of teaching and learning… must be addressed. What is the pedagogy that best defines what we want for our children? What is the curriculum plan in place to drive that philosophy? What is the teacher training model in place to help our professional staff develop the requisite skills to help children accomplish 21st century learning and gain 21st century learning skills? It appears to me that we are making budget decisions and then fitting educational goals into the funds that remain. We have not drawn ‘a line in the sand’ in regard to what learning we feel is critical for our children.

In her book, The Death And Life Of The Great American School System: How Testing And Choice Are Undermining Education (New York: Basic Books, 2010), Dr Diane Ravitch says “we must make sure that our schools have a strong, coherent, explicit curriculum that is grounded in the liberal arts and sciences, with plenty of opportunity for children to engage in activities and projects that make learning lively. We must ensure that students gain the knowledge they need to understand political debates, scientific phenomena, and the world that they live in. We must be sure that they are prepared for the responsibilities of democratic citizenship in a complex society. We must take care that our teachers are well educated, not just well trained.” 

Are we doing that? Does our pedagogy include these characteristics? Cutting people, programs and concepts without a comprehensive commitment to a teaching and learning compact is not the answer. A year by year budget cutting model, leaving some stones unturned, is not the answer. Determining that decreases in art or music or in media center service is ok, site by site is not the answer. As a parent of two professional artists – both products of the Broward County School System – I can state strongly that would not have been the answer for my children. As an advocate for Broward County’s children, I must counsel a different approach – one that addresses the whole child, one that allows teachers to teach with the passion that they bring to the position, and, finally, one that prepares our children for life far beyond today.

Earlier I said “Devolving the system into a free market driven model is quite another.” By transitioning the educational system in America from a public institution to a free market system, I believe that we are inherently supporting a model that perpetuates inequality and segregation. The free market system is built on the foundation that there will be both winners and losers. That simplistic description works in a production business. Public education, as John Dewey clearly states in his comments, represents an opportunity for every child. There should be no winners and losers in public education and, therefore, in American Society. A school culture based on the marketplace inherently supports the concept that although some children will be ‘winners’ some will be ‘losers’. Public education creates a climate where, conceptually, all children can be winners. Furthering the conundrum, based on the way public education is funded, dollars diverted from the public system guarantee fewer services available for all children. Virtually all of the research on the educational placement options available in America clearly indicates that the public school system is funded with fewer dollars, yet left with the clear responsibility to provide educational opportunity with the most challenging students. The students, who do not fit into the marketplace choices currently available, remain the responsibility of the public system. 
In 1900, the graduation rate was approximately 5%. Why? Primarily because we had not yet transitioned to a full-fledged industrial economy. There was clear delineation between rural opportunity (farming) and urban employment. Education was not yet a requirement for employment. In the 1940’s, the United States graduation rate was approximately 45%. Why? We were in a war-time boom. Many of our young men were ‘employed’ in the armed services. The lack of white young men entering the workplace was a contributing factor to black mobility from the South to urban sites where employment opportunities were ripe (Detroit, Chicago, etc). A high school diploma was still not critical to gaining employment. Both the Union movement and on-the-job training programs supported employees once hired.

What changed? Technological advance, spurred by World War II, began a geometric spiral, building on itself. At the same time, our economy was challenged to incorporate the returning soldiers into the workforce. This enhanced competition for positions. The G.I Bill encouraged furthering education. The Cold War and the advent of the Space Age continued to accelerate technological advancement, which continued to beget a requirement for more and more educational expertise.

From that point, the graduation rate continued to climb until it peaked, in 1969, at 77%. The national rate has remained within this range ever since. Unfortunately the demands of the marketplace and the ever-expanding technological advance have demanded a more educated workforce. This demand has fueled consistent criticism of our public education system and the appearance that public education (regardless of the graduation rate rising from 5% to 77% in 70 years) is not meeting its’ mission.

A few other factors contributing to the state of public education; the women’s movement and the cross-pollination of global economies. Throughout United States history, the two professions populated by women were teaching and nursing. As a result of the women’s movement, career opportunities across the employment spectrum have expanded for women. That is a wonderful thing. Not so wonderful is what that has done to teaching and nursing. The closed societies within those two professions allowed the women to develop a strong sense of ownership and professionalism. Both professions have suffered as a result of the more open employment marketplace. Technological advances have also leveled the employment playing field world-wide. As a result, American Youth are working with people from all over the world. Technology has made production less human capital intensive with more global participation for the remaining positions. Two of the critical 21st century skill sets necessary to be successful in the global economy are: problem solving and communication abilities. Unfortunately, in an assessment driven educational climate, these are the very skills that are sacrificed in favor of test taking skills. This is a further erosion of what we expect from our educational system. 

Finally, the United States fiscal crisis has not supported the needs of our children as they participate in public education. Coupled with the diversion of funds due to the proliferation of Charter Schools, we are in, perhaps, the most difficult straits ever experienced. The large foundations are driving the system more and more toward the free market model, without any existing evidence that is the correct model. For the most part, the Foundations’ efforts to redesign education have been a failure; hence they have turned to remaking education into the model from which they accrued their wealth: the free market model.






It's Always the Right Time to do the Right Thing-Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.