Political ideology is not a substitute for educational principles
“Keep your eye on the ball!” Those were my Dad’s words of wisdom as he coaxed me to improve my tennis game.
This is also sound advice for those advocating for great public schools. It’s important to keep your eye on the ball—the right ball!
Privatization and the accountability movement have cast long shadows over everyday life in our schools. The goal is to cripple public institutions. They are selling a political ideology, not a philosophy of education. They justify these policies as levers to improve schools through competition, but they don’t work. It’s been a distraction from paying attention to what does!
The corporate reformers are not intent on a public-school learning experience that leads all children to find their passions, their voice, and their place in making a better world. They do not want to create schools that make young people thinkers, problem solvers, engaged citizens and productive adults.
They want parents to have choices, and they want citizens who are good test-takers. This is a very low bar and cynical view of educational excellence. It is not a way to make a strong nation. This political agenda has distracted me from what matters, and what matters is what happens to the kids.
At the second Heights Coalition for Public Education forum on democracy and education, we explored the underlying values that make public schools worthy of defense, and contrasted them with the ideology of Betsy DeVos, the libertarian secretary of education. It was a great reminder: Our public system is a treasure worthy of our attention. We should not have to defend it from a laissez-faire marketplace ideology that ignores the rights of children and our common purpose as citizens.
The next step in our educational journey that night was a review of John Dewey’s My Pedagogic Creed, which was published in 1897. Dewey saw the school as primarily a social institution and believed that education was a process of living, rather than preparation for future living. He thought that, through continual and sympathetic observation, adults could see what a child was ready for and on what material the child could work most readily.
The discussion of Dewey’s work sparked energy and excitement. It brought us back to the microcosm of the classroom—the amazing growth and joy that dedicated, professional, caring teachers create when they build a community with their young charges and engage them in activities that inspire discovery. This is what matters! It makes education worthy of our resources and stewardship.
By comparison, how do test-driven education, large classes, computerized learning, fear, and no-excuses discipline fit into this philosophy? How does education as job preparation fit into a philosophy of building on passions and empowerment? Education isn’t about the free market, it’s about human beings! The solution isn’t in school choice or test scores. The solution is in investing in the development of every child’s potential. Dewey was brilliant about human potential and the power of education. This is the stuff that we should be paying attention to!
We need to keep our eyes on this ball: what happens in children’s minds and to their character as they carry out their lives as members of a community of learners. We need to pay attention to our expectations for how we ask teachers to structure time, experiences, social interactions and leadership possibilities for the children they teach. We need to embrace a broader purpose.
What if all the time and resources that went into writing tests, preparing students to take the tests and evaluating test results had gone into giving teachers time to design and implement new opportunities for students to explore their interests? What if all the resources that went into creating a parallel system of for-profit schools had gone into building bridges with parents and our communities? What if all of the energy that has gone into fighting bad policies had instead gone into mobilizing communities to work with children?
I want to keep my eye on how to make a school day a wonderful day every day.
Susie Kaeser is a longtime resident of Cleveland Heights and former director of Reaching Heights. She serves on the national board of Parents for Public Schools.