Monday, September 17, 2007

What Should Public Education Be?

Many schools across the U.S., particularly public ones, face budget constraints and challenges to beef up standardized test scores. As a result, they’ve severely cut, if not eliminated, music and arts education.

In the course of its 24-year history, the Rex Foundation, like many other philanthropic organizations, has helped to fund grassroots groups that find innovative ways to foster creativity in young people and serve as models for similar efforts elsewhere.

But to consider where the arts fit into public education, we first have to consider the nature of public education itself.

Over the centuries in which it's been a key component of American society, it's been perceived as (among other things) preparing the younger generation for the responsibilities of democracy, giving them the necessary job skills to support themselves and contribute to the economy, providing them with critical thinking skills, or helping them find their own most fulfilling path in life.

A key issue, of course, is that public education is funded by the taxpayers, who not unnaturally see themselves as stakeholders, and hence is greatly subject to the vicissitudes of political wind-shifting.

As you see it — as a citizen, a taxpayer, possibly a parent and certainly a former kid — what do you think the true job of public education is? Where is the current version measuring up? Where is it falling short?

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At 12:14 PM, Blogger Concert Corps said...

love this topic!

here in new hampshire, the state board of education has responded to the challenge of inadequate funding by getting the entire community involved and empowering students to follow their own passions and design their own curriculum:

At 12:18 PM, Blogger Concert Corps said...

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At 12:19 PM, Blogger Concert Corps said...

new hampshire has responded to challenges in funding education by redesigning the high school curriculum to coach young people to follow their passions and create their own curriculum - and environment - for success. it's going to take the entire community to make it work, though... and the grassroots really need to push for this reform. it's currently law, but won't be enforced without leadership from citizens.

i'd be interested to hear what other people think about it... i think it's a model that puts kids in the best possible position to be successful. musicians can be in bands. artists can be inspired and then inspire. people who are called to make a difference can find a local non-profit and volunteer...

At 4:15 PM, Blogger steveie ray said...

i wish we could all just try harder to find a comunitive answer. would not the ne the best

At 10:59 AM, Blogger Barbara Ruth Saunders said...

I am a product of private education. I am often distressed at what gets left out in most discussions I read about public education. The educational community in which I grew up succeeded precisely because it was rooted in a common set of values.

Money afforded certain luxuries. I am convinced that even those luxuries "worked" as education because parents, teachers, and administrators shared a common vision of what children were supposed to learn and what kind of community they wanted to create.

The guidelines -- "not for self but for service" is the motto; the method (a paraphrase) choosing the best innovative and traditional methods in the arts and athletics as well as academics to develop the whole child.

This succeeded in producing diverse adults, some who followed conventional paths to success, others who opted out of prestige careers so they could travel, some who found fame on Broadway or TV, some who founded nonprofits, highly decorated military officers, and so on.

At 10:34 AM, Blogger MaryE said...

Following up on these posts, and on some discussion we've been having in the background, I have a growing sense that "What Should Public Education Be" frames the issue badly -- it begs the question by implicitly assuming that public education is the chief or somehow proper vehicle for education itself.

The question really is, what should education be, and, just as fundamentally, who gets to decide? And personally, speaking only for myself, I think the kid gets to decide, and the parents get to decide, and after that I have grave misgivings of the various priesthoods, vested interests and authoritarian entities who think they know what's best for other people and/or have turf to protect. While the public schools are hardly the only place where that's an issue, they are certainly a classic example.

By their very nature, and quite properly, public schools are what the relevant taxpayers are willing to pay for. Judging by concert corps' excellent post, in New Hampshire that's quite good, driven by the needs of the individual student and the community's wishes.

In California, where I live, where I used to teach school and two of my sisters still do, public school is pretty much a hideous mess with no real prospect of becoming otherwise. This is the legacy of a number of unfortunate developments, probably starting with Prop 13, which prevailed because, quite simply, people were being taxed out of their homes on a grand scale and the trend showed no sign of letting up. Before Prop 13, California's public schools were pretty much state-of-the-art. Since then they're among the worst in the nation, despite the best efforts of many heroic teachers; the sheer unwillingness of taxpayers to fork over more money is certainly a factor, though not the only one.

Adding to this debacle is the fact that, thanks to various court decisions and social agendas, local schools do not meaningfully belong to the local community. Various "balancing" agendas (ethnic, economic, etc.) ensure that in many cities, kids have zero chance of actually attending the school in their neighborhood, or the public school their parents prefer. Well-intended judicial and legislative attempts to level the playing field between rich and poor districts have resulted in property taxes being taken by the state into a vast pool that's doled out to districts statewide--on the basis of "average daily attendance," AKA "butts in seats."

The toxic effects of this cannot be overstated. Teachers and administrators spend inordinate amounts of time chasing down kids who don't want to be there so they can get paid for their presence; they expend great effort distinguishing between "excused" and "unexcused" absences (because they get paid for the kid's attendance in the former case)... The list goes on.

None of the incentives have to do with doing right by the individual kid or indeed with any issue of actual educational merit.

While this is not terribly surprising considering that American public education was fundamentally intended to crank out factory and office workers with the chief skill set being showing up on time, being compliant and not making waves, the question does arise whether that is the appropriate skill set for today's world, or what any of us would want for our own kids.

Add to that fundamentally flawed structure trends like "no child left behind" and other inducements to conform to boilerplate standards, and teachers not only spend inordinate time corralling the reluctant, they spend even more inordinate amounts of time teaching kids to be good test-takers at the expense of actual learning and intellectual development. Critical thinking skills? Forget it.

(I somewhat support exit exams, because public high schools should not be graduating kids who can't read. On the other hand, I don't support the Procrustean standard that refuses to give special ed students their diplomas because they can't pass the exit exam. How is that driven by the good of the kid???)

Public schools work well where there is a strong sense of community ownership and participation, where the control is local and there are strongly shared values. While exceptions can be cited, essentially the only places in California this happens is in communities where the parents value education highly, and have the resources of time, money, and expertise to augment the sorry baseline the state funds.

And it doesn't help that the public school establishment fights tooth and nail against putting the power in the hands of kids and parents, bitterly and stridently opposing vouchers, homeschooling, and any such threats to their hegemony.

All of which is to say, I question whether California's public school system can be fixed in any meaningful sense in the academic lifetime of any kid now in the system; and, that being so, whether trying to fix the broken system is the appropriate issue. The issue is not "what should public education be?"; it's how one gets each and every kid the education they need and want for themselves, by whatever method works.


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