In Defense of Public Education

March 5, 2004, midnight | 20 years, 2 months ago

By Marc Grossman
Social Studies

This is the first article in the new Silver Chips Online section "Teacher Talk", which features the opinions of staff members at Blair.

This is talk straight from the teachers, unfiltered by Silver Chips Online.

In a lecture before an audience skeptical of new and less rigid educational practices a renowned progressive educator named Dean Hollis Caswell of Teacher's College at Columbia University delivered a speech in which he claimed that:

"There has always been a tendency in America to blame the schools for conditions people do not like."

The year was not 2004, but 1952 and like today, public schools were being attacked for not enforcing stricter discipline, high academic standards and in general, not sufficiently educating the masses. Caswell offered a voice of progress amidst a society that demanded that public education "get back to the basics." Caswell defended progressive learning methods that encouraged analysis, instead of repetition and memorization and supported discipline delivered with care, rather than punishment. Caswell understood then what many have forgotten today: "when the nation has a cold, public schools sneeze." Caswell understood that public schools "contributed greatly to national unity and acceptance among diverse groups" and thought they would prevail as long as public funds were used to support public schools, religion was not injected into them and students from all backgrounds continued to attend them.

What happened between 1952 and now? Why are public schools under more attack than at any time during the past century? What can we at Blair do to counter the stream of public school skeptics?

Home Town Paper Takes Aim

Indicative of the scrutiny public schools face, the February 11th edition of the Montgomery County Gazette in an editorial entitled "Well-Intentioned, But Misguided" claimed that Montgomery County Schools bribed students with community service credits to attend a rally in support of the full funding of the Thorton Commission proposal. The paper proclaimed its support of the Commission's proposal to provide an additional $1.3 billion in funding to the schools most in need or with high populations of ESOL and Special Education students, but then attacked the schools for manipulating and politicizing students. The Washington Post joined the chorus with an editorial "Pupils as Political Props" a few days later. A week later Secretary of Education Rod Paige jokingly referred to the National Education Association as a "terrorist" organization before a room full of state governors.

Yet, the Gazette like so many other media outlets could not find the space to editorialize about the necessity to fund the Thorton Commission or how to improve schools without providing additional funding, other than to cut teachers' salaries and benefits. Instead, it chose to drive a wedge between voters and the schools by hatching a story about the abusive and manipulative mentality of the public school system. The Gazette mentioned nothing about the fact that students could attend an anti-tax rally and get the same community service learning hours for public advocacy established by the state board of education or that students might be acting in their best interest by attending such a rally. Instead, the Gazette and the Post attempted to demonize Montgomery County Public Schools in particular and public schools in general.

The rally was held to assure that Governor Erhlich does not cut $45 million originally designated to large school districts like Prince George and Montgomery counties who house large numbers of ESOL students in need of smaller classrooms and more individualized attention. Ehrlich promised during his campaign to fully fund the Thorton Commission's plan. Now he claims that unless Maryland's General Assembly approves his plan to legalize slot machines, he will not fund the Thorton plan. How did gambling evolve from an underworld activity to being as wholesome as taking the family to Disney World? Never mind that studies associate legalized gambling with higher crime rates, drug addiction, and the higher rates of poverty that surfaced around areas where casinos were legalized.

An Emerging Pattern

The Post's and the Gazette's decision to drive a wedge between voters and the schools that serve them is only the latest attempt to blame schools for society's shortcomings. The passing of the No Child Left Behind Act in 2001 formalized the beginning of a culture of school accountability as defined by models created by business leaders and corporations bent on creating greater productivity in the pursuit of larger profits. In principle, No Child Left Behind was designed as a way to evaluate school performance. Schools are assessed by the percentage of students who pass state designed tests in English and math. Students are grouped into 37 different categories that are determined by different variables such as race, income and ability. A passing score is also set by the state. For instance, in South Carolina only 17.4% of students were required to pass the tests in order for the school to be labeled passing, while in Colorado 70% must pass. If one of those 37 groups fails to meet the state standard for more than 2 years standing without making an improvement, the entire school is labeled a failure.

Schools are also labeled failures if they do not improve their annual scores on these state tests in order to meet their Annual Yearly Progress standards. When a school is labeled a failure, students may transfer to a different school in the same jurisdiction and the home school will be penalized with federal funding cuts. In some states over 50 percent of public schools have been labeled failures under the No Child Left Behind standard. In Montgomery County 25% of public schools did not meet their Annual Yearly Progress standard last year. Despite the federal government placing more money into its relatively paltry funding of education, states and counties have been left to deal with steep budget deficits created in part by the Bush tax cuts and additional war time spending. As a result, counties and states have been left to fill the budget wholes created by reduced federal funding. State and local government provide 93% of total school funding nationwide and as a result of reduced federal spending will have even less money to work with in order to assure that their schools pass the No Child Left Behind standard.

Good Intentions or an Attempt to Discredit Public Schools?

Ironically, private schools do not have to abide by the No Child Left Behind standards. They are left free to create and implement their own curriculums, and accept and reject students pretty much at will. Yet, many private schools receive state subsidies in the form of transportation and technology. Because private schools until recently could not accept federal funding they do not need to adhere by the same rules. In essence, there is no way to compare private and public schools on a fair basis. Yet, the federal government has indicated that it is willing to subsidize poor students to attend a private school. Recently, Congress voted to grant 1,700 students in D.C. vouchers worth $7,500 to attend the school of their choice within their budget- most likely parochial schools because non-sectarian private schools in the D.C. area generally cost between $15,000 and $20,000 a year.

Despite no fair basis by which to compare public and private schools, parents continue to pull their children from public schools. According to J.H. Snider of the New America Foundation, parents with means have spoken with their feet; while public school enrollment has increased by 17% over the past decade private school enrollment has increased by 36%. In Montgomery County, the numbers are even more disproportionate.

Yet private schools rarely get publicly harpooned by the media and politicians probably because there is not much data to evaluate them. Even if there were more data, the whole picture would not be conveyed because private schools aren't required to educate the entire spectrum of students. They thrive on the principles of exclusivity and always allow themselves the option to expel unruly or undesirable students from their institutions.

Public Schools Work

In the face of all these challenges public schools do work. Take Blair for example, half of the Intel finalists and national merit scholars in the entire (private and public schools included) state of Maryland attend Blair. Our students succeed academically and also interact with people of all different backgrounds. We teach students who understand the challenges and benefits of multiculturalism as well as the effects and opportunities of a more interdependent world in an authentic way that is intimately connected to a local community. We offer every club and sport under the sun and if it doesn't exist students can create one that does. Our teachers are often better trained and more fairly paid than our counterparts in private schools. Finally, we offer our community a source of pride that the media rarely conveys beyond its sports coverage. This does not mean that we don't have any room to improve. Of course we do, but given the barriers placed on us by the government and media, we manage to perform quite nicely. And yes, public schools are still free and inclusive.

The Challenge

Do not take our public school for granted. As teachers, students and administrators we must understand the challenges that face our community and cannot shy away from addressing those challenges or attempt to sweep them under the rug. We are in competition with public and private schools alike across the country. We are constantly challenged to fight for appropriate funding levels that will allow our school to succeed. We will continue to be judged based on infrequent violent incidents in public schools and test score results by the media and policy makers.

The fate of public education is being seriously challenged by policy makers who believe in the merits of free-market competition, even if those values undermines the very American virtues of opportunity, inclusion and equality that public schools represent. We as students, teachers and administrators at Blair must realize that we are in this contest together. We must strive to work more efficiently, study harder and learn more. If we do, our Blair graduation certificates will have that much more meaning in our own eyes and the eyes of the outside world. If we do not, it will be our younger siblings and children who won't receive the experiences associated with a "free and public" education.

So do your best of the Maryland State Assessment test, get involved, join a club, seek out academic support, help a friend you know could try harder, thank a teacher, administrator or fellow student, be proud to attend Blair and be serious about success.

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