The End of Public Education As We Know It and Other Fears for the New Year.

For the last half century we have been proposing “big ideas” to cure the ills of our education system. In the wake of Brown v Board of Education school districts around the nation, either by court order or voluntarily began to racially integrate schools. In the sixties the passage of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) and Title 1 of the act drove targeted federal dollars to the neediest schools. In New York City school decentralization granted to the largest extent possible the decision-making power in school districts to elected school boards.

All were widely applauded with high hopes, and schools in high poverty zip codes remained low achieving with abysmal graduation rates.

In 1983 “A Nation at Risk” challenged colleges and schools across the nation in stinging language, “… the educational foundations of our society are presently being eroded by a rising tide of mediocrity that threatens our very future as a Nation and a people …. If an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today, we might well have viewed it as an act of war.”

Although the clarion call of the report resonated around the nation, with the exception of Al Shanker, the establishment pushed back and rejected the harsh criticism. A decade after the report Shanker revisited  “A Nation at Risk” and wrote,

At the time it appeared and since, many reports and studies have been fixated on teacher accountability for student achievement, ignoring the fact that in countries with successful school systems, students, not teachers, are held accountable for their achievement. This report supported student accountability, and that’s the note on which it concluded. In the final pages, the authors addressed students directly, telling them that they were responsible, finally, for what they got out of school: “When you give only the minimum to learning, you get only the minimum in return. Even with your parents’ best example and your teachers’ best efforts, in the end it is your work that determines how much and how well you learn.”

Shanker’s prescient comments fell on deaf ears.

Reform after reform, “big ideas” continued to sweep across the landscape.

In the last decade the rise of publicly funded charter schools is part of a school choice movement, in effect providing a competing set of schools.

The 2002 No Child Left Behind reauthorization of ESEA established a testing regimen in grades 3-8 as well as requirements to restructure or close struggling schools.

Economists, sociologists, public policy gurus, MBAs, with the support of think tanks and elites, aka the Gates and the Broad Foundations, have driven policy from the outside; very little of what they advocate deals with actual practice inside of classrooms.

Diane Senechal, in an essay in the current edition of the AFT journal The American Educator  writes,

“America is made by and for big ideas,” and quotes Alexis de Tocqueville.

America is a land of wonders in which everything is in constant motion, and every movement seems an improvement. The idea of novelty is there indissolubly connected to the idea of amelioration. No natural boundary seems to be set to the efforts of man; and what is not yet done is only what he has not yet attempted to do.

Senechal warns us that education reform sweeps up these big ideas “…with enthusiasm, applies them broadly and continues to champion them even when they begin to flounder.”

As the clock clicks down on the waning hours of 2012 let’s take a look at the wide range of “big ideas” that are infringing on the millions of classrooms around the nation.

Milton Freedman/Ayn Rand/Governor Jindal:

For the acolytes of economist Milton Freedman and philosopher Ayn Rand the answer to improving education is the fickle winds of the marketplace, public schools, charter schools, private schools, cyber schools all vying for publicly funded vouchers. The success or lack thereof of schools will depend upon the demand on the part of families. Governor Jindal, an aspirant for a presidential run in 2016 has become the prime supporter of vouchers – although Louisiana courts have placed a roadblock. The attraction on the part of governors is simply to save dollars. Union-free schools, no pressure for additional funding, no lobbying by labor unions or parent advocates, no pressures due to “failing schools.” Public schools become the “schools of last resort.” Under a Jindal voucher plan for-profit charters or private schools can compete for voucher dollars, the Louisiana school system would effectively become a privatized school system. If it fails … que sera sera.

The public school system as we know it would disappear, an acceptance of two nations, the haves and the have-nots, a nation permanently divided by income, and under the surface, by race.


Federal policy is a combination of a market approach fostered by the introduction of charter schools – competition provides a motivation for public schools to improve and the measurement of student growth drives schools, principals and teachers to improve their practice through the creation of a massive testing regimen driven by two national state consortia. “Success” defined by test scores, which may drive higher remuneration, the lack of success to school closings and perhaps teacher and principal dismissal. What happens in the classroom: the actual day-to-day instruction would be based upon a set of standards, the Common Core, which would be reflected in the tests constructed by the national consortia (New York State belongs to PARCC). A better, more effective national school system, or, yet another “big idea” that will fade with time.


With the creation of the wide range of mobile information delivery systems, from I-Phones to I-Pads to tablets with I-Cloud storage, have brick and mortar schools become an anachronism? In fact does it make sense for classes of students to gather at the same time in each and every school make educational sense? Wouldn’t it be better to hone an educational agenda to the needs of each child? Shouldn’t students move ahead at a pace that suits the needs of each individual child? Advances in technology have made it possible to personalize education to fit the skills, abilities and interests of individual children. Teachers can become virtual teachers, communicating with students through the use of cyber devices. The world of work is rapidly becoming a cyber-work world; the next generation of jobs will be based on the ability to access information, to use information to create solutions to an infinite range of challenges. Our schools should reflect the world of work, not impede our student’s ability to function in the new cyber workplace. On the other hand by disconnecting school from teachers, from live human beings who serve as role model and mentor and coach and surrogate parent, aren’t we further alienating an already dysfunctional world, especially for the students of poverty who desperately need a caring adult in their lives?


How should teachers react when they see the President bulling a teacher at a Town Hall meeting? Teachers are angry, hostile and afraid; angry because of the incessant bashing of teachers. Program after program to rid the system of “bad teachers” which will create the “shining city on the hill.” By dangling merit pay teachers will work harder, implying teachers don’t work hard each and every day. From presidential candidates to talking heads to the richly funded foundations the fault is teachers.

Teachers are hostile to change. After five years the dust settles, depending upon the zip code anywhere from thirty to seventy percent of teachers leave the profession. The lifers, the remaining teachers are prodded to change, to gear their practice to a metric, Charlotte Danielson or Kim Marshall or another list of proficiencies that will be assessed. Change is hard and especially hard when teachers doubt the efficacy of the demanded change. A few years down the road won’t the “next new thing” be another unproven “big idea”?

And afraid, a bad score on an assessment, a new charter school draws away kids, my school closing, cuts in health benefits, a once secure job in jeopardy by conditions beyond the power of teachers to address. Is the only answer to find a higher achieving school?

Teacher Unions:

Teacher unions are scrambling to survive. In Wisconsin and Michigan and a number of other states legislation is limiting the ability of unions to organize and negotiate contracts. Non-union charter and cyber schools are growing across the country. Unions are responding by negotiating contracts that include, to some extent, the core principles of the advocates of “school reform.” In Newark, Baltimore, New Haven and a host of other cities contracts are including some iteration of merit pay and a multiple measures approach to assessing teacher performance.

For unions the battle is for survival, to quote a seer of revolutionary change,

When a prolonged, stubborn and heated struggle is in progress, there usually begin to emerge after a time the central and fundamental points at issue, upon the decision of which the ultimate outcome of the campaign depends, and in comparison with which all the minor and petty episodes of the struggle recede more and more into the background.

Unions slide and weave and fight for the hearts and minds of the public.

The American Federation of Teachers is a major player in an attempt to revive one of the poorest, must dysfunctional counties in the nation, McDowell Country in West Virginia (“Reconnecting McDowell“) . The Cincinnati School District, with the active involvement of the union, has created a “community school model” with the full range of wraparound services. On the national scene the AFT has called for a “bar-type exam” to certify prospective teachers.

Rather than fighting losing battles the AFT is building a coalition of like-minded public school proponents and staking out their own reform agenda.

Diane Senechal asks, “How did the ‘big idea’ mind set take over education reform?” and answers, “Its recent ascent is due, at least in part, to the weakening of the middle class and gradual loss of a liberal principle of education.”

I was sitting at a Christmas party, the hostess handed out song sheets and, with enthusiasm, we bellowed through the classics. Someone suggested, “The Twelve Days of Christmas, I tapped on my smart phone to access the lyrics and led the songfest. The lady sitting next to me, protested, “You’re cheating,” she was only half joking.

Change is difficult, and for many threatening. The more we know about how the brain works and how children learn the more we should be applying this knowledge to our teaching.

I watched a three-year old pick up her parent’s I-Pad, enter a code, tap on the proper icon and play a “game” she was asked to place numbers in the proper order. The program congratulated her by name, corrected her, and she worked away for twenty minutes. She was learning in front of our eyes.

Google allows us to access tetra-bits of information within seconds.

Senechal argues, “One thinks creatively not as a result of trying to think creatively, but as a result of close study of a subject-or, in the K-12 years, a range of subjects.” I agree with Diane but I am not convinced that her example, a deep study of Robert’s Frost’s poem, “Birches,” is the best example for many of the kids we teach.

Take a look at Lupe Fiasco’s lyrics to “Bad Bitch,” (

Watch/Listen to his U-Tube: (

Teach a unit on Misogyny concluding with a properly referenced term paper dealing with an aspect of misogyny – perhaps including a power point and the use of informative data.

Post the class papers on the web.

Other classes in other schools and cities conduct the same project.

All the classes participate in a discussion in an online World Cafe format.

I fear we are battling against the tsunami of change; we are battling to save a classroom in which we are comfortable, a classroom that may not be working for the kids.

The gnomes, the faux seers, the “quick fixers,” the apostates of the “big ideas” are responding to a school system that has bypassed the neediest kids, kids in McDowell County West Virginia, in the urban inner cities and the trailers at the end of dirt roads in the Adirondacks.

At times I fear that the corporate vultures will pick the flesh and bones from the public school system and also marvel at the wonders in innovative classrooms that speak to the children of the 21st century.

In those depressing moments when some idiot “talking head” praises an idea which is destroying public education I give thanks that Diane Ravitch and Randi Weingarten as they continue to fight the good fight.

Let’s end with a minute of Woody Guthrie:


One response to “The End of Public Education As We Know It and Other Fears for the New Year.

  1. Education at its best is an Art form. It involves communication on many dimensions with equally as many dynamics. Acquisition of knowledge is easier today then ever before in History. Wisdom is still illusive and a lifelong journey. Technology will be a welcome new and ever changing asset teachers can and will use. However the most IMPORTANT “lesson” Educators can support students to ‘LEARN’ is how to relate. Even today”s news shows that with all the technology available we as a human community are in the learning stage of human interaction and understanding. Technology is a TOOL not an answer. It can help students to achieve success with the guidance of a teacher! Then the student can achieve the “I CAN!” moment of success. That attitudinal change creates the potential for the most significant and profound vision of Education- a change in BEHAVIOR! Adults with the special training and life experiences it takes to make an effective TEACHER can accomplish this essential and basic human component.


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