Since our nation’s founding, public education has been central to advancing both our democracy and our economy. The founders, from Jefferson to Adams, saw schools as places in which active citizens and contributors to the nation’s development could be formed. They envisioned education as a source of opportunity and upward mobility, and as a unifying factor across society.
Sadly, today, public education is too often a source of controversy and division, with an excessive focus on test scores—and finger pointing as to who is responsible for poor performance on them.
Perhaps the problem is that we are miring our schools in political stalemate, bureaucracy, and litigation. We have lost touch with the need to ensure that our young people are being prepared for the new realities all around us. Effectively addressing these new realities is a far greater imperative than many presently perceive.
Indeed, some important changes are going on in our public schools and this should be encouraged. The recent rise of charter schools and the re-emergence of tax voucher proposals to expand school choice are evidence of continuing pressures to improve educational performance.
Recent adoption of the Common Core by most states has achieved mixed results through a higher degree of standardization in teaching and testing content. In most places, this has led to incremental improvements but few major breakthroughs, especially in lower and middle income communities. This, in turn, has led to growing calls for less regulated and more varied approaches.
The notion, however, that further privatizing and decentralizing school policy and practice is a better long-range plan for American culture is deeply misguided. The idea of each state having its own educational approach and standards seems appealing on its face: “Let a thousand flowers bloom” say those who oppose stronger national standards for public schools.
But in today’s context of globalization and rapid technological transformation—forces that should be compelling us to harmonize as a nation—the absence of a more unified, strategic and egalitarian education approach actually works in the opposite direction. Indeed, it is working against us.
Given the changes that are reshaping our society, we must make the process of education more relevant to the real life needs of our evolving democracy and economy. This is the only way to ensure that more of our nation’s people are able to participate and succeed in the future.
With a rapidly diversifying population of young Americans who are confronting immense social, geopolitical and scientific change, it is vital that we quickly invoke education reforms that help these young people to better prepare for the future ahead and also more fully to comprehend and embrace their civic responsibilities.
The real change that needs to happen is not so much about test scores or system restructuring, though both are vitally important. Rather, it is about promoting learning and democracy in a much more meaningful and actionable way.
Today’s public education system in America needs to do a far better job of educating all learners to participate in a society where separating fact from fiction and real news from fake news is increasingly essential.
For our society to be successful and healthy, we must create a kind of education that is more discerning, unifying and valuable for our nation as a whole. Expanding students’ critical thinking skills is vital in this connection. So too is developing their ability to work and communicate across racial, gender, class and ideological differences to achieve shared goals.
By participating in community leadership development efforts, public art projects, neighborhood clean-up and beautification efforts, and other forms of local volunteerism and public problem solving, young people can be afforded constructive opportunities to learn and work together, whatever their differences in race, class or political disposition. Such learning and action are essential to the American future.
Supporting youth civic education programs like those ranging from the icivics digital learning platform and Generation Citizen to the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Teaching Tolerance curriculum and the California YMCA’s Youth & Government Model Legislature and Court Programs, is the best way to move in that direction.
These programs teach history, critical thinking skills, and an appreciation for the kind of consensus building and compromise that our democratic culture ultimately depends on. But far too little of this sort of teaching and learning is happening in our schools.
To ensure that this changes, we would favor a combination of approaches, including some required civic engagement and/or volunteerism by local school youth, with credit-earning incentives for interested students to do more through elective courses beyond the required minimum. Colleges and universities in turn should be encouraged to see this type of civic education as an important part of the admissions process.
Along with the military, public education is one of the few remaining places in our society where people of diverse backgrounds still share space and common aims in a sustained way. Our education system should become more intentional in the ways we encourage our young people to participate responsibly and collaboratively in American democracy. If we fail to act in this direction, our way of life as a free and open society will be greatly diminished. We can and must do better as a nation.
Henry A. J. Ramos is author of the forthcoming book Democracy & The Next American Economy: Where Prosperity Meets Justice, to be published in early 2019 by the University of Houston-based Arte Público Press. Eric C. Abrams is Chief Inclusion Officer at the Stanford University Graduate School of Education.
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