Struggling for the "Hearts and Minds" of Americans. . .
There have always been conflicts, disagreements and debate about the best methods for educating our young people. While many of us like to remember the "Good old days", back when we were united as a society around our public schools and there was a common sense of purpose about education, the reality is that there has never been consensus about many of the questions that surround our efforts to educate students in our public schools. The history of public education is one of constant struggle between different views about the purpose for our schools, what should be taught in them, and who should pay for them.
During the colonial period and the time immediately following the American Revolutionary War, education was primarily a private matter. Children were taught in the home, or in small groups. Instruction focused on religious teaching as well as basic mathematics and literacy skills. Education was not a vital tool for most people. By necessity, more fundamental survival and trade skills took prominence in a child's education. Yet, even during these early days, prominent thinkers like Thomas Jefferson recognized the importance of some education for citizens. This was communicated in 1787 to James Madison when he stated, "And say, finally, whether peace is best preserved by giving energy to the government or information to the people. This last is the most certain and the most legitimate engine of government. Educate and inform the whole mass of the people. Enable them to see that it is their interest to preserve peace and order, and they will preserve them. And it requires no very high degree of education to convince them of this. They are the only sure reliance for the preservation of our liberty."
Yet, even early on, there was the idea that not everyone was equal in the pursuit of education and that the knowledge and skills that were gained by any individual could be parceled out based on their social status, gender or ethnicity. To quote Jefferson again from a communication with Peter Carr in 1814, "The mass of our citizens may be divided into two classes -- the laboring and the learned. The laboring will need the first grade of education to qualify them for their pursuits and duties; the learned will need it as a foundation for further acquirements." This division between the "laboring and the learned" excluded a significant number of people from access to more intensive educational opportunities.
The debates continued through the 19th Century as the needs of our nation and its citizens changed. During the 1800's the Department of Education was created, educator organizations were founded, local governments won the right to tax their citizens to pay for public schools, and the groundwork was laid for the public school systems that exist today. We also see the roots of the current struggles becoming entrenched in our societal soil. Conflicts around the use of schools to indoctrinate or educate, depending on one's perspective, Native Americans and new immigrants to our nation arose. Private funding of schools, especially in areas where citizens were struggling to access educational resources became a source of support as well as conflict. Debates over standards and curriculum were common.
The 20th Century saw these conflicts continue and new ones arise. A focus was put on making sure that American schools could compete with their European counterparts. By 1918 all states had some form of compulsory education that was paid for with public money. WWI and the need to screen recruits saw the introduction of standardized testing, a tool which was quickly adapted for school use. Segregation of different groups was common practice and "separate and unequal" was the norm for most of our public and private schools. Curriculum and the societal values that were to be taught in our schools varied from community to community.
The history of public education mirrors other aspects of our society in many ways. The struggle to incorporate different ideas and groups, the conflicts between public and private funding, the changes in our understanding of ourselves and our world, all are found in the educational battles over the past centuries.
This historical context gives us a perspective on our current situation. It shows us where we came from, but also demonstrates why it is so difficult to build consensus around our public schools in modern America. Schools have always been a strange combination of tool and weapon. A tool for promoting values, building knowledge and skill, and giving hope for the future. A weapon for forcing conformity and controlling access to wealth and power. Who controls the schools and the dialog around education gets to decide what purpose our educational efforts will serve.
There are many ways that we see education used as a weapon in our current situation. While often masked behind the rhetoric of "choice", "freedom" and "equality", those who seek to dominate the debate around education are returning to the values that Jefferson expressed in his later years. The idea that there should be two (or more) tiers of education is one that resonates through our educational debates. We see this in the effort to privatize our schools, to implement standardized curriculum in some schools, but not in others, and in efforts to evaluate schools, students and educators.
A year ago, the Common Core appeared set to sweep the nation. Now, Indiana leads the way in reevaluating state standards...but not without controversy.
The Heritage Foundation
Those who seek to use education as a weapon do so for a variety of reasons. There are some who truly believe that they are doing what is best for the majority of students and families. They believe the rhetoric around education "reform" and seek to improve our schools by buying in to the ideas that are commonly expressed in the media and espoused by our educational "leadership". It is important that we work to get accurate information out to everyone so that the public can make informed decisions about our schools.
If leadership is appointed and anointed by those in power, than it can be revoked by those in power....
There are others involved in our educational efforts who have less altruistic motives. These are the individuals and groups who seek to actively control the debate around education for financial or political reasons. They shape the discussion and attempt to control the direction our educational efforts take by using combination of political and financial influence. They use their influence to perpetuate myths around our public schools in order to build public support for the "reforms" that they garner huge profits from.
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The Good, The Bad and
The Ugly. . .
The Good . . .
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The Bad . . .
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The Ugly . . .
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