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America’s schools are at a turning point. Our children are being over-tested, our teachers are physically exhausted and emotionally demoralized, and our tax dollars are being diverted to replace our public schools with a privately managed, free-market system of education.
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Superintendents leading the work of the Ohio Public School Advocacy Network met recently to discuss the policy implications of their core beliefs about public education and the role of our public schools. One of those core beliefs is that a quality educational experience should address the social, emotional, and intellectual development and well-being of all students. The good news is that this mindset seems to be gaining support from a growing number of state-level policymakers who realize that high stakes student testing, alone, doesn’t address what it takes to provide a well-balanced public education. With this said, I have a concern I’d like to share. Our teachers and students are currently overburdened by an education accountability system that includes way too much student testing and other state mandates. My concern is that, if our local educational leaders and our communities fail to get out front in helping to define how to incorporate a quality educational experience into our accountability system, the long history of education reform will repeat itself and another layer of state mandates will be piled on top of the ones already in place.
Our public schools are in trouble. Not only have our teachers and students been overwhelmed by three decades of sweeping education reforms, but the long-standing relationship between the public and its public schools is hanging by a thread. Cleaning Up the Mess from Sacred Cows: A Strategy to Take Back Our Public Schools exposes the root of the problem as misguided conventional wisdom which, until now, has been immune from criticism. Charlie Irish, who helped me write the book, and I have just learned from our publisher that it will be available January 15, 2019.
With the graying of America, the percentage of households with children who attend the public schools is shrinking. This is a major concern for many public school supporters because, according to conventional wisdom, a high percentage of senior citizens don’t support their public schools. This conventional wisdom, however, is misleading. Based upon dozens of community surveys that I’ve conducted over the past 25 years in Ohio, 55% of seniors and 60% of school parents say they support nearly all school tax issues.
Kathleen Knight Abowitz teaches in the Educational Leadership Department at Miami University. She also is helping to lead a grassroots movement to help Ohio’s citizens take back their public schools. In her book, Publics for Public Schools: Legitimacy, Democracy, and Leadership, she explains why deliberation is so important when encountering many of the problems currently facing our public schools:
“Citizens’ powers to shape their local schools’ vision and policies are mostly limited to participating in local school board elections or, more indirectly, one-way communications with their local/state/national legislative representatives. School boards will hear from a few more motivated or vocal citizens at compulsory open forum times at school board meetings, but the random and irregular nature of citizens’ comments in such forums means that board members cannot rely (in terms of quantity or quality) on such irregular input for decision making. Yet on a consistent basis, school boards and administrations encounter wicked problems that are perfectly suited for citizens, in deliberation, to exercise a more substantive voice in school decision making (Abowitz, 2013).”
By the 1990’s, Lancaster, Pennsylvania, was a city in rapid decline. Then, community leaders took charge. In an op-ed article in the New York Times that chronicles the dramatic turnaround in Lancaster, Pulitzer Prize winner Thomas L. Friedman opens with the following observation: “Last week I wrote about why political parties across the industrial world are fracturing from the top down. Today I’m writing about the political units that are working. On this Fourth of July, if you want to be an optimist about America, stand on your head. The country looks so much better from the bottom up.” Chronicling Lancaster’s success story, Friedman explains that volunteer community activists stepped up, checked their partisan political beliefs at the door and focused on fixing the problems plaguing their city. Lancaster’s story should serve as inspiration for the leaders of Ohio’s grassroots movement to help the public take back its public schools.
One of the founding principles of our democratic republic is that we elect other people to speak on our behalf. Throughout most of our lives, it has been drilled into our heads that this is how our system of representative government works. As a result, many citizens believe their patriotic responsibility begins and ends in the voting booth. Even though keeping citizens on the sidelines, other than on election day, may be compatible with the way our democracy is supposed to work, it is a serious threat to the future of our public schools which need the full support of an engaged, knowledgeable and empowered public in order to take them back.
According to J. Renee Gordon, Chief Executive Officer of E Squared, between 2009 and 2014 there has been a 39% decline in the number of students going into education at colleges and universities across the country. In addition, depending upon the rate at which those who are eligible to retire go ahead and retire, she is projecting a shortage of between 650,000 and 1.5 million classroom teachers within the next five years. E Squared provides staff recruitment support for our nation’s schools.
Four years ago this coming November, a statewide initiative led by Ohio’s school superintendents to give their citizens a stronger voice in shaping education policy was born. Today, the Ohio Public School Advocacy Network includes 140 school districts. Early next year, local residents from 20 Ohio school districts will take an important step in turning this superintendent-led initiative into a grassroots movement led by Ohio’s citizens. In January, they will begin building community-based discussion groups in their districts to learn about and deliberate on education policy issues and concerns impacting their local public schools. This initial pilot effort, in turn, will serve as the foundation for creating a statewide network of community-based discussion groups.
Included in the initial draft of a new book that my long-time friend and colleague, Charlie Irish, and I are writing, is an entire chapter devoted to the power of deliberation. In this chapter of Cleaning Up the Mess from Sacred Cows: A Strategy to Save Our Public Schools, we share a powerful quote from an essay for the Kettering Foundation in which Scott London writes that the objective of deliberative dialogue is not so much to talk together but to think together: “Deliberative dialogue differs from other forms of public discourse — such as debate, negotiation, brainstorming, and consensus-building — because the objective is not so much to talk together as to think together, not so much to reach a conclusion as to discover where a conclusion might lie. Thinking together involves listening deeply to other points of view, exploring new ideas and perspectives, searching for points of agreement, and bringing unexamined assumptions into the open.”
Over the past 25 years, I’ve turned to the work of the Kettering Foundation in Dayton, Ohio, to help me better understand some of the most important challenges facing our public schools. One of Kettering’s research questions continues to be: Is there a public for the public schools? While I don’t pretend to have all of the answers to this pivotal question, I have a theory that I’d like to share. Since most citizens only have a vague idea of the education taking place today in our public schools, it is no wonder that there’s such a wide gap between what our public schools are actually doing and what much of the public thinks they are doing. As a result, most of our public schools and the communities they serve are like two ships passing in the night. To help close this gap, the public needs to hear directly from our teachers about how they are trying to address the educational needs of our children and the barriers that are getting in their way. To learn how some of our educational leaders are taking steps to strengthen the connection between the public and… Continue reading