Asking the Question: What Is the Purpose of Public Education in a Democracy?

Today’s blogger is Aaron Samuel Zimmerman, an Assistant Professor of Curriculum and Instruction in the College of Education at Texas Tech University, whose recently published article Democratic Teacher Education: Preserving Public Education as a Public Good in an Era of Neoliberalismappears in the special issue of The Educational Forum on educator activism in politically polarized times. In that article, he argues that teacher educators play an essential role in preserving public education as a public good.

In your opinion, what is the purpose of public education?

  • To prepare students with the skills they need for the workforce?
  • To provide students with credentials that will facilitate their social mobility?
  • To cultivate the virtues that students need in order to participate as active citizens within a democracy?

Americans tend to hold multiple (and sometimes conflicting) priorities when it comes to public education (Labaree, 2011). We tend to believe that public schools can prepare students for democratic participation while simultaneously preparing students with the knowledge, skills, and credentials they need to advance in a capitalist economy. When we examine the current state of public schools in our country, however, we disturbingly find that schools tend to function almost exclusively as private businesses catering to consumers rather than as public institutions committed to preserving the public good (Ravitch, 2014).

I understand this to be just one more symptom of neoliberalism, the political and economic ideology that places a premium on privatization and self-interest. At this point, the influence of neoliberalism in our country is so prevalent that we are hardly even aware that it consistently shapes our values and decision-making (Giroux, 2008). One need look no farther than Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos—and, before her, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan—to see the way in which neoliberal values have crept into public education. Parents are treated as customers, schools are positioned as businesses producing a product, and students are taught how to become diligent workers (and faithful consumers) in a capitalist economy.

Sadly, teacher education tends to perpetuate neoliberal ideology. Most teacher education programs (both university-based programs as well as alternative routes to teacher certification) focus on helping teacher candidates learn how to raise student test scores (Kumashiro, 2010). Indeed, teacher quality is often measured by standardized test scores (Harris & Sass, 2011); but, unless teacher educators actively challenge this paradigm, early-career teachers will enter the profession assuming that high scores on standardized tests represent the ultimate goal of public education.

Of course, this is not to say that we should never measure student achievement or teacher quality through standardized tests. Public education in our nation, however, is in danger of being completely overtaken by this neoliberal logic. Teachers in public schools do more than help students achieve a credential; public school teachers also play a formative role in sustaining democracy by cultivating the virtuous dispositions required for democratic participation (dispositions such as open-mindedness, honesty, imagination, and generosity; see Huber-Warring & Warring, 2006). Our country’s democracy will suffer if teachers and teacher educators do not actively defend public education’s democratic purpose. We need to remind ourselves that public education can do so much more than provide students with degrees, grades, and GPAs. Public education has the potential—and, perhaps, the responsibility—to nurture democratic citizens.

Therefore, I would like to ask teachers and teacher educators the following questions:

  • What do you believe is the purpose of public education?
  • Do you actively pose this question to the aspiring teachers whom you mentor?
  • Do you pose this question to the members in the communities whom you serve?
  • What are ways that we can collectively invite teachers, students, and, indeed, all citizens to reimagine the role that public education can play in our democracy?

I titled this blog entry “Asking the Question” because, indeed, asking the question is half the battle. If we do not actively ask ourselves questions about the purpose of public education, other people will answer the questions for us . . . and those answers are likely to be justified only by a profit margin.

KDP is proud to partner with Routledge to share an essay from the special issue of The Educational Forum with the education community. Access the article at Taylor and Francis Online, free through August 31, 2018.

References
Giroux, H. A. (2008). Against the terror of neoliberalism: Politics beyond the age of greed. New York, NY: Paradigm.
Harris, D. N., & Sass, T. R. (2011). Teacher training, teacher quality and student achievement. Journal of Public Economics, 95(7–8), 798–812.
Huber-Warring, T., & Warring, D. F. (2006). Are you teaching for democracy? Developing dispositions, promoting democratic practice, and embracing social justice and diversity. Action in Teacher Education, 28(2), 38–52.
Kumashiro, K. K. (2010). Seeing the bigger picture: Troubling movements to end teacher education. Journal of Teacher Education, 61(1–2), 56–65.
Labaree, D. F. (2011). Consuming the public school. Educational Theory, 61(4), 381–394.
Ravitch, D. (2014). Reign of error: The hoax of the privatization movement and the danger to America’s public schools. New York, NY: Vintage Books.

 

Advice for the Next President of the United States

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“While we try to teach our children all about life,
they teach us what life is all about.”
— anonymous

You are likely reading this on the brink of our national election.

There have been months of bickering, insult slinging, and behavior that would not be tolerated in most of our classrooms.

Certainly there are adult issues that must be addressed, yet I sometimes wonder that if we remembered more often the voices and ears of children, we might find the margins of compromise that allow debates to become more about the “us” and less about the “them.”

Children truly have wisdom and perspective that adults sometimes forget or lose in the busyness of life.

I am sharing three links in this blog that are the voices of younger children and adolescents. What if those running for political office, as well as those who already hold a policymaking position, and the media gave more time and attention to the wisdom they have to offer?

The first link is a video made by children at the IPS/Butler Lab School. They offer advice to the next President of the United States, which includes the importance of remembering the Golden Rule and why it is best to choose kindness over meanness.

Our children are watching; so how do they reconcile what they are told is appropriate behavior for them and then see adults not modeling it? 

The second video, also by the IPS/Butler Lab School is of the children reading the famous 100 Languages poem by Loris Malaguzzi, founder of the internationally known schools in Reggio Emilia, Italy. Listen carefully and ask yourself, “Am I allowing students to learn and demonstrate their understanding through multiple forms of communication?”

Are you asking the child “to think without hands, to do without head, to listen and not to speak, to understand without joy?”

The third link is one of the most powerful messages I have seen, created by three young adolescents. Their message, cited in unison, provokes deep thinking and questioning about their school experience, their life as a student, and their questions about society and culture. How do we answer the question they raise as to why we ban certain books but we will not ban assault weapons, especially in light of school shootings?

While you may not agree with all of their questions and observations, it will definitely provoke thinking about issues and concerns of today’s adolescents. 

What I found in each of the three messages was the power of a child’s mind and heart and their openness for understanding.

It reminded me of the quote by Aristotle: “Educating the mind without educating the heart is no education at all.”

I encourage you to find time to listen to children of any age that surround you and be open to learning from their minds and hearts.

Dr. Ena Shelley has served as dean of the Butler University College of Education (Gamma Nu Chapter) since 2005, championing the College’s mission “to prepare educators for schools, not as they are, but as they should be for all learners.” She has taught courses on early childhood education and kindergarten instruction since joining the college faculty in 1982. In 2012, she presented at the Indianapolis TEDx conference on “The Solutions Within.” Watch her TEDx Talk by clicking here.

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Education for a more sustainable 21st Century

I volunteer in a first grade classroom at a local elementary school. This week the students are learning about measuring time in months and hours and are learning to spell “ai” words. Their teacher is giving them a wonderful start in their academic career. Nevertheless, I worry that the education they will receive in their remaining 11 years in school may not prepare them for the future. The next generation will be larger, yet there will be fewer natural resources (e.g., timber, unpolluted fresh water, and fish stocks). Both citizens and leaders will face huge environmental, social, and economic challenges.

When I went to school, the education of the day prepared me to be successful in the current society. Repeating that type of education would do the students of today a disservice. The pace of change is accelerating. The direction of that change is both awesome (e.g., changes in communication technology blending computers and telephones) and frightening (e.g., degradation of the majority of Earth’s eco-systems and a growing gap between the “haves” and the ‘have nots”). With globalization and climate change the problems that were once geographically distant are arriving on our doorsteps. To deal with the problems of tomorrow students of today will need to learn to deal with complexity, work collaboratively across disciplines, and make decisions in an uncertain environment.

There are a number of educational initiatives that attempt to address the questions associated with what type of education should we provide to students of today to prepare them for the workforce and civic participation (e.g., Partnership for 21st Century Skills and EdSteps Global Competencies). Such initiatives seem to fall short, in part because they do not identify the purpose of primary and secondary education. While the vast majority of school districts wrestle with providing a quality education for students—which is admirable—often the purpose of that education goes undefined. Is the purpose still to create a workforce that will keep the U.S. economically competitive as mentioned in A Nation at Risk in 1983? Educating for economic competitiveness created a few short-term winners and lots of losers. In the long run every country is currently paying or will pay the price of ecological deterioration, social inequity, and economic instability inside their borders or in a neighboring country or trading partner. Could the purpose of education become safeguarding the well being of the students now and in the future which would entail working toward the common good, global stability, and a brighter more sustainable tomorrow?

Some states and provinces (State of Washington and the Province of Manitoba of Canada) as well as countries (Finland and India) have included sustainability as a major curricular theme. Education for sustainable development (ESD) has become an overarching paradigm for educational discourse outside of the USA as a result of the United Nations Decade of Education for Sustainable Development 2005 – 2014. As I look at the first graders and think about their collective future, I am of the opinion that the formal education community in the U.S. should engage in exploring the ESD paradigm.

Rosalyn McKeown is the Secretariat for the UNESCO Chair on Reorienting Teacher Education to Address Sustainability at York University in Toronto, Canada

A Powerful Voice

You are invited to attend our first kdpedpolicy live Webinar, “A Powerful Voice in Critical Times,” on Monday, March 19 at 8 PM EDT. We’d love to have your voice with us. If you can’t join us Monday, revisit this link after Monday for the recorded Webinar.

Register here.

P.S. Kappa Delta Pi offers other topical Webinars, known as eChapter Events, on its eChapter Communities site.