Education Uprising – Education for Democracy
Historically, one of our society’s central problem in improving public schools has been our disagreement over the purposes of public schools. We believe in three central purposes: preparing students to participate in our democratic society, empowering students to learn on their own, and encouraging them to explore their dreams.
A free and adequate public education is a right of every child. Not all children attend public schools, but all Americans must support public education that both fosters democracy and is treated as a right. Public education is a public good. It is a part of the commons for which we are all responsible. We start this brief essay by discussing the nature of education as a public good before we delve into meeting the individual needs of students, the curriculum, instruction, teachers, and accountability.
Education as a Public Good
There are two parts of education as a public good. One is the role of education in developing citizenship—not reflexive obedience but a deliberative and engaged public. If adults need the skills and confidence to debate public policy and act wisely, students need to learn those skills. The other part of public education is the obligation to operate democratically—to provide equal educational opportunities and to operate transparently and accountably.
Using public education to foster democracy is largely consistent with using public education for individual goals. Public schools should empower all students to follow their dreams and encourage them to have dreams worth having. "Proficiency" in math, science, and reading is not sufficient. There are two reasons for emphasizing breadth today. First, we need a counterweight to the current obsession about a narrow range of tested skills. If graduates can calculate but not understand misleading statistics, have we gained anything? If graduates can write a formulaic essay but will not read and do not know what they could be reading, we have lost some measure of citizenship. Beyond the limits of our narrowed curriculum today, education is a foundation for citizenship in an unpredictable future, not a factory that produces an easily-described workforce. We cannot predict the needs of our society, even if we were talking about the narrow confines of paid work. Nor can we ethically limit the dreams of our students by the social class of their parents.
Being Treated as a Right
We disagree with the president and with some Democrats in Congress on how to treat education as a right, providing equality of educational opportunities. The Federal government cannot impose its will without significant costs. It can and should help communities maintain equity, and it is in the area of equity where the federal government has the greatest obligation, where the inevitable costs of federal involvement are justified by the moral obligations of democracy. In addition, the federal government can and should support research in a range of approaches to learning and teaching. But the federal government is too far removed from the reality of individual communities and individual students to micromanage teaching. It is our job to craft a better balance.
Today, national educational policy uses the carrot of additional funds to effect change. Together with Title VI of the Civil Rights Act and several court opinions, Title I funding pushed Southern schools to begin substantial desegregation in the late 1960s. The lure of funding in the 1970s provided an incentive for states to accept federal guidelines on special education. But the power of the purse is a tempting power, and one that we have seen misused in the last 6 years. Both state and national policy must recognize that not all students learn the same way and that not every parent nor every community will want an identical education for their children. Yet there is a role for central governments, to guarantee equality; if we do not address questions of inequity, we will perpetuate many of the problems that have troubled our schools over recent decades.
The obligation to guarantee equality covers inequality within schools and some aspects of inequality outside schools as well. First, schools need to be fairly and sufficiently funded. In many states, such as here in Illinois, there are still vast differences in funding levels between poor and wealthy communities. Even in states that equalize spending to some degree, it is highly imperfect. A major role of state and federal governments in education should be to make sure that there are enough funds to meet the needs of students, especially in areas with weak tax bases. Neither the No Child Left Behind Act nor the federal special-education law has been fully funded, and both must be. Even the buildings are a matter of equity and adequacy. The American Federation of Teachers has begun to document the extent of leaking roofs, rodent infestation, broken furniture, and moldy "sick" buildings, many of which will not be fixed without pressure and funding. Finally, states and the federal government can make sure that geographic location does not hinder opportunities. To provide broad access to alternative approaches, states can facilitate the ability of students to attend in neighboring districts and to use technology to give access to courses or different approaches not available in the home school or home community. While arguments rage about the effectiveness of online learning, there is no doubt that having virtual classes in unusual courses provides opportunities that many students would otherwise not have access to.
In addition to providing sufficient resources inside schools, governments have an obligation to dampen the inequities that children face when they are off campus. The inequalities in wealth, housing, environmental quality, and health care are far greater than the inequalities in school funding. While most of those topics deserve their own sessions at YearlyKos (and many have them!), a few issues are directly related to schools. Too many students do not have access to adult support, computers, books, and other opportunities outside of the school day that many middle-class children take for granted. Many lack a safe and quiet space in which to do school work, or to interact with peers. Before and after school programs can address these issues at least partially. Children’s physical needs can also be partially met on school grounds. Vision and hearing screening should be an essential part of school, and students with identified problems should have access to glasses and hearing aids where appropriate. The same need for access to care is also true of psychological and psychiatric needs.
The "Stuff" of Education
The above issues fall into those areas which central governments can feasibly address, in supporting schools and in safeguarding the equal opportunity all should have. But in most of the day-to-day operations of schools, redesigning education is a state and local matter.
One issue that can only be addressed at the local level is the student perspective. Schooling to foster democracy is consistent with redesigning schools to accommodate student perspectives and needs. Fundamentally, we need to structure schools to encourage personal relationships. Students tend to do better in an environment where they feel trust, which in turn develops when students have relationships with adults who know them as individuals, more than their performance in one class. Schools are an essential opportunity for building relationships between adults and children, what sociologists call social capital. Schools should be structured so that meaningful relationships are easily formed. Meaningful contact between adults and children will also improve peer-to-peer relationships. Students do not learn as well if they are either afraid physically or emotionally, or if they feel as if they are being treated as inmates.
Experimenting with Curricula
A second issue that must be addressed at the local level is the curriculum. Despite the various arguments about whether we need a centralized curriculum, we have one. It is determined by the cultural script of what a "real school" is, and it is reinforced by the textbook purchasing practices in the largest states. McGraw-Hill and other publishing companies tell teachers in Wisconsin and Indiana what math they teach, a math curriculum that is remarkably similar to the math taught in California, Texas, and New York. While the current structure may work for some students and satisfy the desires of some parents and communities, we should be exploring alternative approaches. There is wealth of material that has been put out, some well examined, from modified traditional to Montesorri, Orff schools, Waldorf, and the radical but comprehensive approaches of panel member Marion Brady.
We need a diversity of approaches—in instruction, in organizing the curriculum, in assessment—because our children have different interests and needs and our parents and communities want different things for their children. Public education must be structured in a fashion that not only allows but encourages a diversity of approaches while ensuring some minimum commonality of education: common skills in math, scientific understanding, history and government, and the use of language. But that commonality should not define a good education. Students need more. Note: Curriculum is one of those areas which Education Uprising diarists debated vigorously, and this is a majority rather than a consensus statement.
We need to change how we select, train, support and retain our instructional staff. This will have to include reexamining issues of compensation, workload, responsibility and flexibility in delivering instruction and mentoring. Teachers need to be flexible to meet the needs of students, but they also need to have a better education in the repertoire of skills necessary to adjust and individualize instruction. They should have a greater voice in designing curriculum and assessment, and they need sufficient time to consult with one another, reflect on what has happened in their classrooms, and use all sources of information to modify instruction and classroom environment for a more productive learning environment for their students. A scripted and so-called "teacher-proof" curriculum may succeed in raising test scores in the short term, but it is not conducive to long-term learning nor for modeling how adults think and work.
Because teachers have great responsibility for and influence on the successful development of our young people, they should have more support and feedback in learning how to be effective. Teachers should gradually transition from learning about teaching to taking full responsibility for classes, with a period of gradually decreasing supervision from experienced teachers who can mentor them. Those who mentor need to be appropriately educated for the task and given sufficient compensation and time away from teaching responsibilities to do the job properly.
While there is a separate roundtable on assessment and accountability, we have discussed it extensively online, and it is one of the areas of greatest divergence among Education Uprising diary writers. On the other hand, we all agree that assessment needs to improve instruction as much as evaluate overall performance. In the language of evaluation, we need formative as well as summative uses of assessment. Those who wrote the diaries have different views of standardized testing, but we all agree it should not be the sole method of assessment nor have high stakes consequences assigned as the result of a single test.
For more discussion of assessment and accountability, come to the Assessment and Accountability roundtable August 4 at 10:30.
Our work began back in October, when teacherken posted YEARLYKOS 2007 - Educate America - what do you think?. This diary solicited ideas to be considered for a new plan for education.
Next came Educate America - Yearlykos 2007 - doing the impossible?. This laid out the scope of the task, and readers were warned:
The task before us is realistically undoable. So was electing Jim Webb and Jon Tester. So I invite you to continue reading. I warn you, this is a long diary.
In early December we offered Yearlykos2007 - the education panel - an update. In this we presented the 11 categories which we were proposing to address in our efforts. These categories came from the many comments to the two diaries above, and one previous diary of teacherken entitled I think we have lost our way. The ideas from these three diaries circulated for group consideration, were put into these divisions by DeweyCounts.
On December 30 we reported back to the community again in Ed/Up Education UpRising - Educating for Democracy (Yearlykos). Among other things this diary introduced the members of the education working group at that time. Others have joined, some dropped out, but it gave an idea of the scope of effort involved.
Near the beginning of the year, our resident educational historian took over. SDorn first posted a diary entitled History diaries starting Saturday for Education UpRising (Yearlykos) notifying the dailykos community of what was to come. This was followed by the first of his four diaries reviewing some of the key issues in American educational history, The purposes of public education (YearlyKos). That was followed A thumbnail history of school bureaucracy (Ykos), then The history of teaching (YKos), and finally (In)equality of educational opportunity (Ykos), four significant diaries over a period of 5 Saturdays.
Next Marion Brady offered a new view of curriculum, first by notifying us on a Friday of what was to come, then the following day, Saturday as is our practice offering Education Reform: The Curriculum, in which he analyzed the weaknesses of our current approach to curriculum and offered his own unique perspective, the product of a lifetime of thinking about the subject.
Reino followed two weeks later with [YKos Ed/Up] Serving Students Better Through School Reform in which he presented a series of recommendations to better serve students.
Mi Corazon took over. First he offered an annotated list of diaries to date. He followed that with two more diaries on teachers and teaching, entitled respectively It's the teachers, stupid! Ed/Up:Ykos, and then, as might be expected, It's the Teaching, Stupid! YKos, Ed/Up
DeweyCounts then took over for two Saturdays, addressing the issue of educating for democracy, in Yearly Kos: Education for Democracy followed by A Democratic Education Pt 2 (YKos Ed/Up). He offered five basic tenets of a democratic education.
plf515 offered an example of a specific program that makes a difference, the Math Circles of Bob and Ellen Kaplan, in his wonderful diary The joy of participatory learning Ed/Up.
In April, va dare offered us an examination of how NCLB is limiting some of the good things that were happening in our schools in her diary Like Oil and Water - TAH, NCLB, and the decline of K-12 Education in Democracy.
Finally, Mi Corazon added on additional diary in June, Ed/Up-YKos: 2.4 Million Ways To Reform Public Schools, in which he argued that the best single way of improving education is to change how we bring new teachers into our schools and classrooms.
As you can see, a lot of people did a lot of work in preparing for the panel, and the list of diariests does not represent all who contributed. Some offered suggestions on diaries, and many members of the community not part of our group contributed through their participation in the discussions.
We hope as many of you as possible will come to the see the results, not only at the Education Panel on Friday August 3, 1-:215, but also to the separate Roundtable Discussion on Assessment and Accountability, Rethinking Educational Accountability, Saturday August 4rd, 10:30-11:3o.
Hope we see you in Chicago!
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