A Teaching Moment Not to be Missed

wb-422BY Rob Schofield
Keeping NC Public Schools Strong” event highlights the central public policy debate of our time

In case you missed it, there’s a rather important public policy battle taking place right now in North Carolina and around the country. It involves a little item commonly referred to as “the future of public education.”

Sadly, this characterization is not meant to be funny or facetious, but as a hard truth.

On one side of the debate stands a large, well-funded and increasingly powerful network of “free market think tanks,” Wall Street corporations and conservative religious groups that is bound and determined to blow up and privatize the current American model of universal, free public schools. Frequently camouflaged behind terms like “school choice” and “opportunity scholarship,” this group is doing its worst to foment public dissatisfaction, denigrate professional educators, slash funding and promote the notion that K-12 education is a “product” to be shaped and molded to meet the demands of “customers.”

And on the other side? For years, it’s been a disparate and frequently disorganized and divided collection of teachers, parents and school administrators, supplemented by a smattering of anti-poverty and civil rights advocates. Though unified on many of the basic ideas of public education (e.g. the notion that it ought to exist in the first place), this group has, like a lot of nominally “progressive” alliances, often wrestled with the challenge of fighting to improve schools without tearing them down; with fighting to preserve them without slavishly doing the bidding of flawed bureaucracies.

Unified by an existential threat

For better or worse however (probably a little of both) events have conspired to change the nature of this debate and the dynamics between the participants. With a rising tide of corporate money and religious zeal aggressively advancing the cause of privatization, defenders of the public schools are finally, if belatedly, starting to come together in earnest to combat an existential threat.

Thus while it’s clear that many schools are flawed, that many do much less than they should for poor and minority children and that most perpetuate an unhealthy obsession with testing, it’s also clear that none of these problems can be solved by merely attacking the public education establishment or suing for a court-ordered “fix” as might well have been the approach 20 years ago. Today, if public schools are to remain the glue that binds our free society and not just a dumping ground for the underprivileged and disabled, progressive advocates must work both to preserve and transform public schools for the better – both from the inside and outside.

This, of course, will be no mean feat. The pro-privatization brigade is well-funded and energetic. Meanwhile, average citizens are confused and overwhelmed by the size and complexity of the issue. Most people’s instincts are good – the idea of vouchers, for instance, remains broadly unpopular – but the consumerist language is alluring. For many people steeped in America’s corporate- and technology-driven culture, the idea of a cheap miracle fix handed down by Bill Gates or some other imperial CEO is a lot easier to wrap one’s arms around than that of expensive, painstaking, democratically-driven progress.

And yet, despite these obstacles, the need for the latter phenomenon and for the revival of a vibrant, diverse, inclusive and universal public education system remains greater than ever.

An important vehicle for change

Enter, happily, groups like Public School First North Carolina (PSFNC) and the very special forum its leaders have put together for Saturday May 3rd in Raleigh. The event is called “Keeping NC Public Schools Strong” and it’s a “must” for anyone – progressive, conservative or otherwise – who is seriously interested in preserving free, universal public education.

The philosophy behind the event is actually spelled out quite well in the overarching belief statement from PSFNC’s website:

“’The whole people must take upon themselves the education of the whole people and be willing to bear the expenses of it. There should not be a district of one mile square, without a school in it, not founded by a charitable individual, but maintained at the public expense of the people themselves.’

John Adams, President of the United States (1797-1801)

We believe that public schools are the foundation of the American dream and the core of America’s strength. Public schools must take all children and provide them with an education, regardless of their race or their parents’ income or where they live. With adequate resources and excellent teachers, public schools are the best places to promote student growth and academic achievement. They can offer a robust curriculum, they can meet special needs and they can challenge the gifted. They also bring communities together and are often the only place where different kinds of people come together with a shared purpose.

We believe that effective public schools benefit everyone—from the students they serve to the businesses that recruit well-educated graduates to the taxpayers who benefit when well-prepared students graduate and give back to the community. We believe that when a society educates its citizens, it preserves our democracy and fuels a vibrant economy. Every member of society needs the necessary skills to participate in the constitutional freedoms of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

And so it is that the May 3 forum will feature some of the most compelling voices in the state education policy debate, including: key state lawmakers, prominent academics, leading state and local school administrators and successful classroom teachers.

Headlining the event will be a prominent national voice, Professor David Kirp of the Goldman School of Public Policy at the University of California, Berkeley. Kirp is a prolific and provocative thinker and author whose latest, book, “Improbable Scholars: The Rebirth of a Great American School System and a Strategy for America’s Schools,” argues that there is a way to rebuild universal public education without first destroying it or relying upon magic bullets and miracle cures.

PSFNC Executive Director Dr. Karey Harwood described some of Kirp’s findings this way in a recent email:

“He does not offer a simple blueprint for success. He does emphasize the importance of ‘a community that is habitually respectful of teachers’ and the following core principles of effective school systems:

  • They put the needs of students, not the preferences of the staff, at the center of decision making.
  • They start early by investing in quality preschool.
  • They rely on a rigorous, consistent, and integrated curriculum.
  • They make extensive use of data to diagnose problems and pinpoint what’s required to solve them.
  • They build a culture that combines high expectations with respect and a ‘we can do it’ emphasis on the positive.
  • They value stability and avoid political drama.
  • They are continuously improving — planning, doing, reviewing — turning a system comprised of individual schools into a school system.

Kirp is also highly critical of tactics of intimidation and a ‘no excuses’ culture for students and teachers. He also discusses at some length the cheating scandals in Washington, DC and Atlanta that many believe were the very predictable result of tying teachers’ jobs to test scores.”

A promising start

Clearly, neither Kirp’s nor PSFNC’s (nor John Adams’) messages are ones that have regularly been a part of the debate in Raleigh or Washington in recent years. Happily, however, despite the group’s status as a relative newcomer to the state public policy scene (the May 3 forum is its first real statewide event) initial reactions to PSFNC’s efforts to reinvigorate the original American vision of public schools have been extremely well-received. All over North Carolina (and, indeed, outside the state as well) people thirsting for a positive, pro-public-schools message have reached out to the group to learn more about its work and its vision.

Let’s hope that many of those people find their way to Raleigh on the first Saturday in May and that the “Keeping NC Public Schools Strong” forum is just the first of many such events.

To learn more about the forum agenda, click here. To register, click here. To contact PSFNC, click here.

Cross posted with permission from NC Policy Watch. See more at: http://www.ncpolicywatch.com/2014/04/22/a-teaching-moment-not-to-be-missed/#sthash.dn7N63GN.dpuf




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