written by H. Michael Hartoonian

The media appears fond of parading out pundits and “experts,” exclaiming that our public schools are a mess and need fixing. A high priority among their remedies is the sorry state of teaching, particularly among our nation’s poorest performing schools with low test scores.

Recently, I met over coffee with a veteran junior high principal in a sizeable school district. The district was diverse enough to include affluent neighborhoods, populated with more educated families, juxtaposed with more disadvantaged families in the state. City opinion makers were quick to praise the high scoring elementary schools and staff while assigning blame accompanied by stark solutions for those at the other end of the achievement spectrum.

Blame the Teachers Cartoon 1

So, I asked my friend, if the principal and entire teaching staff from School A (high achieving and privileged) were exchanged with the principal and teachers of School X (the most impoverished) would test scores at either school change measurably. It was clear from his hesitation, that the issue had never been presented as such, yet his unequivocal answer was “no”! He may have been speaking for most educators who really understand what is going on with American education.

If the school leaders and teachers are not the problem, then what is the issue with our so-called broken schools?

We assert that the real problem is that we want our children to do the heavy lifting, while the adults simply rely on platitudes like, Children First, No Child Left behind, Race to the Top, and on and on. This process has had a corrupting influence on children as well as the rest of us.

We have simply been kidding ourselves for years. We have been, and still are, confused about the purpose and complexities of education and the fact that it defies the simple notions that are practiced in the marketplace. Without serious reflection, we have been telling schools, children, and teachers that they are cogs in a market, draining meaning and purpose from their lives, and training them with models based on business assumptions.

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At least since 1957, when the schools were perceived as academic waste lands, causing us to fall behind the Soviet Union in the space race, to the Right-to-Read programs ten years later, which diminished content learning, and then to calls for national and state standards, and hundreds of millions of dollars spent on testing, we still find ourselves clueless. Through all of these gyrations, children were never “first.” They were seen and used as a way to enhance other people’s objectives of consumer and worker with little thought for what this was doing to the culture of democracy, to civility, and to critical enquiry and empathy.

We have come to believe that children should do the economic work without the attending meaning and purpose – other than an economic purpose. Our dilemma in education is similar to the one attempted by the Supreme Court when it pretended to treat the desegregation of our schools after Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka (1954). The Court thought that bussing children would resolve the issue. It didn’t work, simply because you don’t ask teachers and children to do something that you won’t do. We refused to do the “heavy lifting” to integrate society by working for open housing, fair employment, and more investment in schools. We are moral cowards when it comes to doing what it takes to address education, race relations, and economic justice. But, we say that we do put children first. Really! Year after year, data from the Children’s Defense Fund pose the following question, all with the same answer. Who are the poorest among us? Who are the most abused? Who have the worst diets? Who have the most meagre health care? In all cases, it is the children.

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In order to merge integrity and education, we should admit to systematically having turned our culture into a market. Value and money have now become synonymous. Money seems to trump learning, civility, and citizenship. The notion that we would put money before children is shameful. We are expecting students to value something as precious as learning when the only measure of its worth that we give them is related to economic utility and the marketplace.

Our schools have been captured by a business model, and this market-driven behavior is, again, corrupting children. The lessons that public schools should teach children are the value and fragility of our democratic republic, the critical civic and civil behavior needed to be a citizen, the sensitivity and richness of the arts and sciences, the beauty of languages and literature, the importance of meaningful work, and the truth of our personal and national identity.

True reforms will never gain traction until we understand our identity and purpose as citizens. Thus, public education must be established with one primary goal – enlightened citizenship, taught through the liberal arts, where rich content can enable students to become excited about the complexities and mysteries of human history and contemporary life. A citizen, as opposed to a consumer, needs to ask critical questions that can lead to examining self and the larger community. These are the necessary conditions for meaningful work, life, and general wellbeing in a democratic republic.