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



Some education leaders do not work directly in schools, but rather within the realm of education reform. They may work in think tanks, nonprofit organizations, public policy centers, or other outlets. These reformers tend to fall into three groups that I very broadly generalize here. First, many education reformers fall within a camp that currently supports accountability and changes in how public schools are administered. These people tend to hold significant sway at the state or federal level by virtue of their organization’s clout, connections to elected officials, social status, financing, or for other reasons. They make up noted organizations including Democrats for Education Reform, the Achievement Alliance, and the Education Equality Project. Second, a smaller group of reformers, often with less social and political influence, are working against some of these very initiatives, in many cases at a local, grassroots level (in my community, one example is the Cincinnati Educational Justice Coalition), though some are nationwide (such as the Save Our Schools March and Call to Action). They question the heavy reliance on testing and the narrowing of educational purposes to test achievement or economic ends; they also criticize moves toward Education Management Organization (EMO) charter schools and privatization. Finally, a third group, consisting mostly of education professors with some limited social and political clout, are primarily focused on determining the most effective approaches to teaching and running schools, though some noted professors (including Diane Ravitch and Deborah Meier) have taken to political work largely critical of reformers in the first group.

Across these groups, education reform leaders already demonstrate some level of responsibility insofar as they recognize the value of schools and are working in their domain to support or improve them. However, some, especially those in the first camp who endorse EMOs or neoliberal principles of reform, fall short of appreciating the publicness of public schools in the visions of school form and function that they put forth, suggesting that they may not be fulfilling their role responsibility to upholding schools as an important institution of democracy. Given their conflicting views, these three camps should not only recognize their shared fate and work together to explore their differences, which may produce a wider array of potential solutions, but also be willing to build bridges across their differences to engage in the collective work of supporting schools together.

To fulfill responsibilities to public schools well, reformers must start by looking backward and downward. While we have defined responsibility as future-oriented, making wise and informed choices for schools requires a thorough understanding of their past, including previous reform efforts and their connections to local communities. Education reformers in the first group have a tendency to be focused on power players, such as large funders (entrepreneurs like Bill Gates or big foundations) or state or federal officials. While these people can be valuable in achieving educational change, it is important that all education reformers learn about and interact with reform efforts of local parents and citizens so that their actions are more thoroughly public and inclusive of the needs and interests of everyone impacted by schools and their decisions. As Katz and Rose show, if they fail to do so, “the result is an ahis- torical hubris that, at the least, prevents one from learning from past mistakes and, worse, alienates (and sometimes quashes) local groups who also have an interest in gaining a better education for their children.”39 Reform efforts must be grounded in a working knowledge of past efforts and an understanding of contemporary community issues.

Another reason for learning about the past and learning from present citizens concerned with schools is to learn more about the goals that have been held for education, especially as they have varied across time and location. Too often education reformers falling into the large first group have assumed fixed and decided goals in schools, namely, raising test scores, narrowing the achievement gap, and achieving individual and national economic advantage. To more genuinely fulfill responsibilities to the public element of schools, education reformers should be open to learning about and adapting to the goals and will of the publics, which may in some cases be aligned with those goals, and in others be markedly different. They need to acquire a “robust vision of public education” built on a “much richer sense of teaching and learning”40 To do so entails inviting local people and teachers into conversations and actions, welcoming their views, listening to them carefully, asking for clarification and elaboration, and truly incorporating the ideas put forth into their future reform efforts. The Kettering Foundation has found that some citizens don’t get involved because they don’t believe they have the resources to do so or doubt that their contributions will be valued. Taking their ideas seriously and providing resources to empower citizens can be an important role for school reformers.41 This could be one domain in which reformers in the third camp can employ their educational research to inform and support the efforts of citizens. Educational reformers, as leaders in the changing educational landscape, should work to generate commitment around collective will for improved schools that will sustain individuals and publics through ongoing deliberation and action.

Significantly, reformers also often possess or have access to an important knowledge base: research on innovative practices in education, sometimes arising from the foundations, think tanks, or universities with which they are affiliated. This is especially the case for the third group of education professors, many of whom devote their careers to researching the best approaches to educational policy and practice, but who too often don’t go far enough in widely disseminating their findings in impactful ways. This group is largely effective at sharing its concerns with likeminded colleagues, but struggles to convey its criticisms of current education agendas or to showcase alternatives in ways that have a significant impact on schools or education policies. They should share information in multiple directions, distributing and explaining this research to individuals and publics inside and outside academia in order to help educate them about viable choices and pathways for improved schooling.

Professors like me who study philosophy of education, educational politics, or education policy can lend our expertise by explaining the connections between democracy and public schools for citizens and policymakers, and articulating these links in ways that provoke or support informed action to sustain them. We can use our refined skills of language and rhetoric to name struggles and shared consequences in ways that generate interest, commitment, and action. And, using our skills of normative critique, we professors can analyze education reform movements and policies, offering ethical guidelines for interpreting school situations, employing education research, and analyzing the impact of reform efforts. Notably, instead of confining our work to academic journals and conferences, as many are expected to do by our universities, these efforts should extend into efforts that are richly public. To do so, they must be widely shared and presented in ways that are accessible and understandable by citizens. This means using nonspecialized language or jargon and publishing or presenting in outlets such as letters to the editor, local television news or community programs, grassroots education rallies, and the like. Universities should be pressured to see the value in such public work and engagement, thereby rewarding it in hiring and promotion decisions.

Again, as was the case for school administrators, it is important that education reformers also see participants in these education conversations and actions as citizens, not merely as customers or consumers. A citizen’s voice bears more political power and may express much more than economic actions such as enrolling or removing a child from a public or private school. One constituency that reformers might learn from, however, is overtly economic in nature: business leaders. Bringing businesses to the table may help provide resources and power that can aid in acting on behalf of public schools. However, business leaders may endorse the problematic elements of corporatization and privatization of public schools I described earlier for multiple reasons, ranging from money-making enterprises to a genuine belief that business approaches will result in improved education for children, just as they have brought successes in other domains. While these views are largely aligned with popular trends in education right now, given the threats they pose to publicness and democracy that I outlined earlier, it would behoove education reformers to bring a questioning and critical spirit to these corporate views, probing their potential impact on the democratic health of our nation or local communities. Getting businesses on board is important and worthwhile, but reformers should simultaneously work against some of the potential problems of popular corporate suggestions. They should responsibly direct conversations downward toward children and outward toward citizens, thereby humanizing the discussion. They might also propose alternative ways for business leaders to be involved that better preserve public voice and priority. In each of the examples, education reformers should fulfill their responsibilities through social action aimed at collectively supporting students and democratic values.

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