Monday, February 06, 2017

Public Education

Disclaimer: 
I took a couple of teaching classes, even a field experience. I was very involved with my son's grade school and middle school. Education's been an interest of mine. But I am not an educator. I'm not even an educator lite. I don't think I'm even qualified to run for the local school board.

One of the Cabinet nominees who has been receiving a lot of resistance has been Betsy DuVos, the nominee for Education Secretary. While she has a demonstrated interest in education, she doesn't seem to have the expertise or training needed to oversee the many programs run by the DoEd. They run from higher education grants and loans, to standardized testing of grade schoolers, to voucher programs for charter schools (one of her favorites) to university campus safety programs, to name a very few. The Secretary of Education obviously can't be an expert in all these areas, but should understand and be conversant with basic educational concepts, know the pros and cons of standardized testing (regardless of their own opinion), know what laws and regulations govern education nationwide and how they are applied, and so forth. They should understand that these regulations and laws apply to all students equally, not only the ones the Secretary (or the Department) feels comfortable with (that is, not only students attending certain schools, or of certain religions, or in certain states, etc.). 

There's a couple of reasons public schools were instituted in the US, and they are intertwined. One was because only some parents could afford to send their children to private schools, others could only afford cheap, low-quality schools, and some could not afford any schools. So we ended up with the same stratified society as Europe had, and that the US was, at least in part, formed to escape. Those with education were the ones who owned all the land, the banks, the stores; those without education were labor. I'm talking about the late 1800's, by the way--before then, there was no public education, or very little. But with the rise of industrialization, those very industrialists began to realize it worked--at least somewhat--in their favor to have an educated workforce. Workers who could read and calculate, who knew how to figure a right angle and write a coherent paragraph--these were what they needed. And so public schools were born. The added value was that everyone got the education--child of the bricklayer, child of the electrician, child of the grocer, child of the senator, child of the steelworker--every child in the public school got the same education. At least theoretically. 

An employer could require a high diploma as part of her hiring requirements and assume that the person could read, write, knew the four basic functions of arithmetic, had a passing acquaintance with algebra and maybe even calculus, had had some civics and maybe some rhetoric. Perhaps they had had some shop or home ec; they had some music and art classes. They certainly had had gym class. 

So those two reasons--equality of education and accessibility to education--were intertwined. Whether it was a bit of an unholy alliance is another question. The goals were laudable, certainly. 

It's gotten harder over time. When I went to high school, we weren't required to take gym--and in retrospect, we should have been. We didn't have rhetoric, and I think it would have useful. Shop I had in middle school. But we did have a richness of art classes, of music, including jazz and marching band; a full roster of home ec, of advanced placement science, language, English, history, and math classes. And the changes have only gotten more complex. When my son graduated from high school ten years ago, he didn't have rhetoric either. But he started using Powerpoint in middle school for class projects; he graduated from high school using Excel, Word, and the Internet as a matter of course. He had art classes, he had home ec, had music and gym. 

I recognize fully that we were both fortunate in that we went to well-funded schools--we had access to music and art and gym and advanced placement classes and computers. 

But my point is more about the changes in curriculum and the philosophy of education--why do we educate, why have a public education system? 

When I lived in Canada, I learned they actually had three school boards. There was the public school, the Catholic school, and the French school. The debates about the degree of autonomy each should have and what each should be required to do were sometimes quite heated (all received government money). The debates generally narrowed down to this: the schools saying "We are independent for a reason, parents want us to teach their children in a specific way, and that is our charter;" and the government saying, "You receive government funding, therefore you must follow government rules." Generally the French board followed the rules. The return salvo was usually the Catholic board saying, "But religion!" Whether the topic was hiring, teaching sex ed, gay-straight alliances, or how many vacation days to offer. 

To me, the solution seemed straightforward. If you want to make your own rules, don't use government funds. If you don't have enough financial support without government funds, then there isn't enough demand for your services. Now, in Canada, there is a bilingualism law, so the French school option may be required--I am not sure. 

Here's the point I'm trying to make: Public schools exist to educate the public--equitably and well. The Department of Education exists to ensure that not only public schools but all schools--public and private, the latter of whatever designation--are also educating students well. In order to do that, the Department of Education needs to be headed by someone who understands what education is, who has a thorough grounding in education, who is able to understand what works and what does not, who will recognize fads and false quick fixes for what they are, who has hands-on experience working in the classroom at some level with students, who has taught, who is an educator. Betsy DuVos is not such a person.

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