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Home arrow Education arrow American public education and the responsibility of its citizens : supporting democracy in the age of accountability


Contributions of this Book

As a political philosopher of education, I aim to clarify key ideas and values in schooling and develop them into principles that can guide not only educational practice, but also citizen participation in schools and citizen evaluation of schools. In this book, I try to elucidate the concepts of accountability, democracy, responsibility, and political legitimacy as well as their relations to each other, in hopes of shedding light on current struggles in our schools and pointing us toward ways we can improve them. I am a volunteer instructor in K-12 public schools, a participant in my local school’s deliberative body, a teacher educator, a member of education-related civil organizations, and a parent of a public school student who uses a school choice program. I have also traversed the social and political spectrum that has contributed a wide array of ideas to education reform, having been raised in a deeply Republican community of white Christian farmers and coming to identify as a Democrat later in my adult life living in a more racially diverse urban context. I belong to many different constituencies relative to education and politics; I hope to speak to and across them.

I use the tools and approaches that most overtly speak to other philosophers of education, political theorists, and scholars of education, as I engage in longstanding and newly developing debates about the purposes of education relative to democracy and fundamental concepts like political legitimacy and accountability. These groups comprise my primary audience, and the content and approach of the book reflect this. This is, in part, because I believe that philosophical accounts are currently underrepresented and perhaps undervalued within educational policy and reform discussions. Moreover, insofar as neoliberalism drives us toward actions of choice and consumption aimed at personal satisfaction, the importance of careful and critical theoretical examination of education and its reform are either rushed past or devalued. I hope for this book to contribute to a more informed and sustained analysis of larger philosophical issues underlying ongoing debates in education and fleeting suggestions for reform. That said, I aim not to offer an esoteric philosophical account, but rather an engaging book that employs meaningful philosophy palatable for lay readers. When my contributions do turn more philosophically challenging, I hope the reader will bear with me so that together we can come to think about school issues in new and deeper ways. I also aim to present these more academic, and sometimes challenging ideas using language that is accessible to a secondary audience of teachers, school leaders, and education reformers, and I ground my discussion of those ideas in actual changes occurring in our schools, from new forms of school management to new options in school choice.

Finally, I join the efforts of the emerging field of Civic Studies as I tackle social problems using philosophy and social science to address a larger audience concerned with civic renewal. As I do this, I intend to speak to the public, including the citizens and policymakers who, I argue, should act on behalf of public schools and democracy. In the spirit of Civic Studies, I emphasize the agency of these citizens as they co-create their worlds via schools.22

As I make the case that schools are an essential institution of democracy that warrant public support, I offer an account and a call for the future that is based on the language of hope and transformation. Language is important. How we talk about public schools and democracy—the content of what we say as well as the ways in which we speak and the processes we use to reach our conclusions—has a far-reaching impact on the opinions and practices of citizens, policy makers, teachers, and children. Recently, we’ve witnessed substantial derogatory talk about schools, where the terms “public," “government," “public good," and “public schools" are uttered with a negative connotation and sometimes outright disdain.23 Such disparaging claims are particularly worrisome “given that our public schools define what constitutes ‘public’ for most Americans," insofar as they are the first and most sustained point of contact with a public institution that most citizens have.24 Hence, pejorative claims about schools may extend to larger views of public life, public institutions, public goods, and government, and vice versa.

In an era of government scandals, sluggish bureaucracy, and ugly partisan politics, citizens have increasingly become disillusioned with the idea of government and have lost faith in public institutions, questioning whether they can be effective or efficient. Some champions of neoliberalism and privatization have recognized citizen frustrations with government and have linked those frustrations to schools by shifting from calling them “public schools," which once carried positive connotations for many citizens, to “government schools,” which conveys a sense of bureaucratic hierarchy and failure.25 They are then able to convincingly juxtapose these labels with images of the free market and efficiency to entice citizens to shift our support from “government schools” to private ones, or at least to acquiesce to criticisms of public institutions.26 While these changing labels and the alternative visions of smoothly functioning and responsive schools can be quite persuasive and rightfully attractive to many of us, such derogatory talk breeds cynicism and forecloses possibilities for improvement. Even within schools, we sometimes hear such negative talk, including by some principals who see the government as a source of regulations requiring time-consuming paperwork and the public as a source of distracting complaints.

Within these pages, I intend to revive and reconstruct notions of democracy, the public, the public good, and public schools, all the while recognizing the recent shifts in our understanding of those concepts and avoiding a naive or sentimental return to earlier notions, yet holding out ideals that might guide our new understandings. Even as schools are changing and even as our public becomes larger and more diverse, I carve out a renewed space for and image of public schools. And, as the culture of cynicism and doubt regarding public schools becomes more pervasive, I aim to provide a critically hopeful vision of schools that will increase citizen drive and confidence to participate in them or support them.

To begin, this means using a language of possibility to combat popular vocabularies of attack, failure, and abandonment. It also means using language that is understandable by many and open to the participation of many. It’s important that the language be accessible so that citizens can have greater influence over the goals of education and the vocabulary used to discuss them. If citizens do not understand the terms of public education or democratic life, then those terms become meaningless and fail to engage or excite us. To generate citizen support, we must name aspects of education in ways that are not only understandable, but also discuss them in ways that showcase opportunities for us to impact issues or assuage problems.

Furthermore, the language I use in this book is that of “our,” “us,” and “we”—a community of concerned citizens. Cynicism regarding public schools and democratic life functions as a distancing maneuver, separating us from each other and from our public institutions. Rejecting such cynicism, I turn instead to community and commitment, thereby shortening those distances.27 I aim to help people see themselves as part of a public, a collective that bridges differences and brings people together in pursuit of shared goods related to democracy and education.

As sociologist Craig Calhoun explains, “If we are to produce a dynamic discourse about the conditions of collective life in our large-scale society, we need not just a language of community that celebrates our commonalities but a language of public life that starts with recognition of deep differences among us and builds faith in meaningful communication across lines of difference"28 Our commonalities and our differences raise related issues of politics insofar as they portray power, recognition, distribution, and equality. Acknowledging and bridging those differences is best done through thoughtful deliberation in conversations that, in this context, broadly cover the goals and approaches of good education in a democracy while keeping the discussion tied to real schools and people so as to avoid sweeping claims of failure or reductive conclusions based on numerical test data. Such conversations reframe matters of public schooling as matters of the public trust and do so through overtly political conversations that move past negative connotations of government or the limiting economic terms of the market that have recently been in vogue. I intend to provide tools and a vision to spur and buttress those dialogues with a notion of hope that can sustain us through the challenges presented by our shifting educational climate and the powerful influences of individualism and consumerism.

Moreover, I highlight the importance of “we” for emphasizing collective responsibility as citizens, as opposed to more individualist calls to responsibility. I use the term to generate a sense of “us,” working together to reconstruct schools and their democratic roles. While at times you may not recognize your particular group or experience reflected in the “we” I describe, I’m trying to use the term to prompt and support action, which may require better integrating your varied experiences into the narrative we collectively tell of public schools and their future. I invite you to join in that effort.

Such work will be difficult given polarization and distrust across groups today, but I aim to showcase education as a shared point of concern that crosses many demographic borders and that can bring us together in shared political work that builds trust in each other and in democracy. I hope that you can welcome that spirit of talking to and about each other as a “we,” where our differences and boundaries are not to be ignored or downplayed, but where our efforts are directed toward shared work and benefits together.

Throughout the book, however, I try to avoid an “us” versus “them” approach, which would only serve to deepen existing crevices between education constituencies. That approach might also involve an engagement with one “them” in particular—neoliberals—that would likely not only be unfair or inaccurate, but also jeopardize an environment where even ideologically opposed groups can work together around shared concerns for democracy. That said, I do think it is important to be forthright in critically analyzing the impact of neoliberalism on public education, while still recognizing that in the American context today, most of us do adhere to neoliberal principles to varying degrees and with differing levels of awareness. So while at times I may distinguish neoliberals to highlight their particularly negative impact on public education, I want to recognize that their key principles are never divorced from the “us” I describe. I also want to acknowledge the extent to which neoliberalism does offer benefits to individuals and society—aspects we can celebrate even as we participate in a critique of neoliberalism together. For those who are well informed about neoliberal views and fervently support them, I hope that you will remain open to the criticism offered here and to seeing yourself within the alternative vision of a public working together to secure our mutual well-being in ways that challenge or work outside of the neoliberal agenda.

My depiction of public schools and democracy is not meant to be closed or definitive in this book. Rather, I intend for the notions I put forward to be part of an ongoing conversation that attends to the views of others, while also critiquing them, extending them, and challenging them. I aim to put forward new ideas and synthesize those of others. At times I offer provocative views or understandings of aspects of democracy that differ from those operating in the mainstream to generate new and potentially better ways of thinking and living together. I offer fodder for others to consider and supplement, recognizing, in the spirit of democracy, that as I call for public deliberation and action, their conceptions may differ from the visions I put forward here.

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