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Public Schools: Whose Schools Are They?

          April 2006

Who do public schools belong to, and where should decisions be made is the topic we ought to be discussing. And aren’t. Except in a skewed way.

In a promotion for David Matthew’s new books  Reclaiming Public Education by Reclaiming Our Democracy,” in the Public Education Network’s NewsBlast the article states: “[there are] significant differences in the ways citizens view problems in the schools and the ways professional educators and policymakers talk about them.” The presumption is made that “education professionals” is a category that includes classrooms teachers and policy makers. It couldn’t be less true that they see themselves that way. In my own travels about I find parents and teachers are more likely to be saying the same thing, although they often don’t know it! They both think that those closest to the action–the kids and their daily lives–have least to say about what matters to them. Even local school boards are more and more paper organizations. Policy makers are usually talking from as distant a vantage point as they can, assuming that policy will be most powerful if it comes from the Federal Government, next most powerful from the states and on down the line. They are interested in finding “levers of change” that can by turning a single switch alter what happens way down the line inside a child’s heart and mind. So it’s hardly a wonder that the “policy” makers approaches often seem frustrating to those who want to see themselves as the makers of important decisions. But, citizens may be right in their view that teachers fall somewhere uncomfortably in-between, too often thinking of “the public” as a synonym for resources, not ideas or co-responsibility for thinking about teaching and learning.

The headline itself “Do Americans Believe The Public Schools Belong To Them?” is part of the obstacle, and few are those who go beyond the summary. The headline presumes there is a group called “Americans” who believe something, although PEN (and Matthews) above all knows that there are a range of beliefs, some of which use the same language to mean different things, and who–depending on how one asks the questions–can often say contradictory things. This phenomenon is what makes schooling–or all acts of learning–so fascinating. We can think we are saying one thing and be heard to mean many different things on matters as fundamental as that two and three “makes” five or that a verb connotes “action.” Simple words like “up” and “down” enter our vocabulary naturally at a very young age but can cause us trouble if not re-examined deeply year in and year out. Two citizens clamoring for more basics or more discipline can be imagining quite opposite means as well as ends. The trouble with trying to decide policy close to the ground is that such differences flare up and interfere with practice, precisely because they get to the heart of what is at stake. Papering over differences is easier to do the further up the ladder of power and status one goes, until we’ve lost what speaks to the passions of our citizenry. We breathe a sigh of relief. We can now talk about objective and neutral matters–such as test scores. Who can be against them being higher? In the process we’ve lost the real public–us as citizens, parents, kids, teachers.

Until we acknowledge and celebrate differences, and figure that disagreements are the lifeblood of democracy, not its downfall, we will perpetuate the divide between the arena of “policy” and the arena of “practice.” When all the power of coercion rests with the policy-making side of government then the actual implementers of policy fall back at best on trying to interpret what they aren’t invested in, or quietly resist and sabotage on behalf of what they do believe in, or worst of all numb their own minds and hearts in the presence of kids. A democratic society defines the act of social responsibility differently than a top-down corporate body or totalitarian state would. It’s not mostly a matter of pulling one’s weight in accomplished prescribed tasks, or even caring for others so that they too can pull their weight, or even having the skills needed to improve the nation’s (or organization’s) position within the world of other nation states, and on and on. None of these are evil goals, but the most difficult and counter-intuitive skills needed in a democracy require rethinking the way we divide policy from practice. We rest our democratic vision on the absurd and unprovable notion that ordinary people’s ideas must be respected–and not only respected, but carry weight equal to that of exceptional people That’s what “one person-one vote” means! And to make matters even more difficult, democrats argue that this can work even in a society in which “the people” come in so many different shapes and sizes, with very different underlying assumptions about matters of deep importance. We pass over the demands that such beliefs make upon us far to swiftly, and at their heart is precisely the issue that we need to be talking about.

The trouble is, we are unlikely to take the time it needs to unravel the dilemmas posed by democracy, much less the time it would take to respond to them so that the discussion moves forward, not just goes back and forth between alternating fads. If we hear each other out only in sound-bytes rather than conversations around real live local schools and local school “systems” we may appear to make progress, but never stop to consider whether it’s progress toward what matters most to us. When schooling occupied a minor interruption in our early years we could better afford to ignore a discussion of ends. But ironically it as schools have become more critical that this conversation has moved further and further from “the people.”

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