A Democracy Needs Diverse Good Schools, Not One-Size-Fits-All

[A good education] “teaches you how to ask a question… it is knowing what you don’t know….”

“Ideally, one should know who Shakespeare was and why Shakespeare was important to us…. At the same time, one should know who Toni Morrison is and why her voice and take on America is important to us.”

“An educated high school grad must read, compute, persevere, organize, and problem-solve well enough not just to attend college, but to graduate from college.”

[A good education should instill] “a love of lifelong learning.”

New York City educators responding to a journalist’s question about what makes a good education, 2001: Randal C. Archbold, “What Makes a Good Education?” New York Times, January 14, 2001, p.27

No surprise that views of what makes a good education differ. Such opinions about what makes an education good have differed for millennia among religious leaders, Greek philosophers, and those rebels in the 13 colonies who founded the democratic experiment in America.

Yet in the past quarter-century, one narrow version of a good education—now thoroughly identified with a good schooling–has become the orthodox view among policymakers, civic and business leaders, parents, and students themselves. That version says a good education is one where a school—note that schooling and education become one when expressed by some of the above New York City educators—meets state curriculum standards, has satisfactory test scores, and moves all students successfully to the next level of schooling.

Paradoxically, this constricted but familiar definition of a good education has occurred amid an explosion of options available to parents looking for good schools. In fact, there is more differentiation among public schools in 2010 than ever before with magnets, charters, homeschooling, cyber-schools, and online learning available. Yet the larger view of education—learning from life experiences, involvement in the world and reflection even to the point of unlearning lessons from the dozen or more years of formal schooling—has become compressed and distilled into a narrow definition of a good school.

When one looks at the hundreds of small high schools, charters, and magnets created in the past 15 years particularly in urban districts, nearly all these diverse options concentrate on college preparation, meeting state standards, insuring that their students pass required tests, and getting their graduates into higher education.

Why is it narrow to get everyone into college?

First, everyone does not go to college (62 percent do). Second, the majority of high school graduates who enter college, don’t finish (54 percent do). Third, most jobs do not require a bachelor’s degree (between 25-35 percent do)

There are other reasons.

Historically, there have been many versions of good schools in the U.S. Among one-room schoolhouses in rural America, for example, some were outstanding examples of multi-age children and youth learning from one another, fully engaged in the worlds of farming and village commerce led by savvy teachers who were part of the close-knit communities.

Or consider those schools established to become miniature democracies where education “is a process of living and not a preparation for future living” such as John Dewey’s Lab School at the University of Chicago in the mid-1890s or the Sudbury Valley School in the late-1960s.

Or consider those schools dedicated to serve and improve their immigrant communities such as New York City principal Leonard Covello who ran Benjamin Franklin High School in the 1930s and 1940s.

Or take those small high urban schools such as El Puente Academy for Peace and Justice in Brooklyn, New York, founded in 1982, that focuses on youth and community development.

Both historically and currently, there have been diverse versions of good schools that educate children and youth toward different ends than the present orthodox view. I raise this point because serious and compelling pressures from the business community, civic leaders, and state and federal policymakers on public schools to conform (through financial incentives mixed with strong penalties) to a one-size-fits-all good school has been on the reform agenda for years. This group-think mind-set, amplified frequently in the media with facts about life-time earnings of college graduates, reinforces the argument that public schools serve the economy. And that economy has to grow through skilled and knowledgeable graduates entering the labor market. This rigid mind-set excludes alternatives to the orthodoxy of college prep schools.

Such group-think among very smart people forget that democratic governments require many different types of good schools.When all students, including those who have no interest–much less desire–to sit in classrooms for four more years, prepare for college to better serve an economy and gain a higher rung on the ladder of financial success–diversity in good schools loses out. Schools are, and have been, vital institutions that sustain democratic ideas, thinking, and action. They need more than one version of a good school.

2 Comments

Filed under Reforming schools

2 responses to “A Democracy Needs Diverse Good Schools, Not One-Size-Fits-All

  1. What we need is to show kids the forest in regard to history. If Carl Sagan can tell the history of the universe in a short chapter, we should do that same for things like European and US History. Instead we make kids slog through a whole year waiting for the dramatic ending that never comes. It turns what could be great stories into a snooze. Once you have the big picture, kids can hang information related to things like great authors, painters, musicians, generals, etc. according to their passion.

  2. Steve Davis

    Americans are more educated now than ever. Our economy has proven to be vulnerable to cyclical market forces even as Americans’ educational attainment has trended upwards over time, shattering the illusion that educational attainment is the driving force of the economy. Simply increasing the number of college graduates (or improving their skill sets) will not necessarily lead to economic gains. Furthermore the “orthodoxy of college prep schools” has created a huge market in for-profit schools, educational textbooks, technology, test-prep, etc. This Ponzi scheme isn’t limited to academia; for-profit trade schools are also using our students as ATM’s. Perhaps the business of America is no longer business; maybe it’s education. Meanwhile hundred of thousands of college-educated individuals have already or will soon be the victims of reductions in forces. Does this mean that I have to take down my “Education Pays” poster?

    In today’s economy, business leaders presumably have their pick from the cream of the American academic crop. Even graduates from prestigious universities are having a tough time finding their first corporate job. Still the drum beat sounds on with the mantra that graduates lack necessary skills and even worse; they have a sense of entitlement. Imagine those misguided youth thinking that their degree(s) entitle them to do something beyond making copies, running errands and cooking the books for their boss.

    I don’t really know what the value of a degree is anymore. The value of a bachelor’s degree hasn’t depreciated because of a glut of graduates (highly skilled or under skilled), but rather from a dearth of professional job prospects. Do you need a degree to work in the service industry?

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