Public Education's Deeper Purpose

Alexis de Tocqueville's powerful observation in "Democracy in America," was that the foundation for American democracy and our common community is "...self-interest properly understood." He observed that the genius of the young nation was its ability to view self-interest with that of a larger community that "...summoned the best within them by appealing to selfishness." Public education is the bedrock for our democracy and where opportunity is borne from a commitment to social justice.

Peter W. Cookson, Jr., is this week's guest writer. In his essay, he argues that public education is where hearts and minds are forged, and where a shared future of a common American community is framed. The challenge the American community faces once again at the beginning of the school year is based on the promise of America - that all children, all of its citizens, are capable of high levels of achievement and must come to be treated as future members and leaders of our national community. - Eric Cooper

Peter W. Cookson Jr.
Guest blogger

Each year we learn what Americans think about public education when Phi Delta Kappa International and Gallup release their findings of the public's attitudes toward the public schools. The 2014 results have just been released. It seems most Americans are not getting with the program as written in Washington, D.C.

Over half of the respondents say local school boards should have the greatest influence in deciding what is taught in public schools. Sixty percent oppose the Common Core State Standards. Most Americans don't believe standardized tests help teachers know what to teach. Seventy percent of Americans don't remember reading or hearing about the PISA test scores in December 2013. In other words, top-down reform is having a hard time reaching the grass roots.

There are several ways to read these results. One way is to argue that if Americans knew more about the policy innovations coming out of the nation's capital, they would see the wisdom of more standardization and testing. Another is to acknowledge that the experts know best and we shouldn't be too upset if the folks beyond the Beltway just "don't get it."

I have a different interpretation. These results tell us most Americans really do understand the purpose of public education at a deeper level than any single policy can capture. Americans know that public education is meant to unite us, enlighten us, and provide a culture commons where our differences become a source of strength and not conflict.

The Founding Fathers were convinced the arc of justice begins at the school house door. Here is Thomas Jefferson writing to his good friend John Tyler in 1810: "I have in mind two great measures at heart, without which no republic can maintain itself in strength: 1.That of a general education. To enable every man to judge for himself what will secure or endanger freedom. 2. To divide every county into hundred, of such size that all children of each will be within reach of a central school in it."

Equal access to quality education is inscribed in our national, social and moral DNA. The PDK/Gallup poll numbers tell us that Americans know public education is the heartbeat of democracy.

Today, we are country at war with itself. Our deep wounds are open for all to see in Ferguson, Missouri. Instead of a people united, we are a people divided. The Pew Research Center's latest research indicates that less than 20 percent of Americans trust the federal government to do what is right. Public opinion polls show repeatedly that only 25 percent of Americans are satisfied with the direction of the country.

These wounds are not metaphorical, they are real. We see them all around us. We see them on the streets of Ferguson. There is only one institution capable of healing these wounds - public education. What the people in Ferguson and in thousands of communities across America are asking for is simple fairness. Equality of educational opportunity is the fundamental principle that gives fairness real meaning.

A fresh vision of school improvement draws on the Founder's original commitments and adds to them an inclusive multi-racial vision that draws strength and inspiration from the grass roots. Here are some basic ideas of where to start:

  1. Begin with the people who live with the problems
  2. Listen to what the community needs
  3. Include all the stakeholders
  4. Find low-cost, local solutions that can be managed by local people
  5. The power of common interest to create a culture of constant improvement
  6. Link communities together in a constructive national conversation
  7. Design equity into all aspects of school improvement
  8. Protect our national commons as we would the flag

Martin Luther King Jr. once said that we are caught in an inescapable web of mutuality; this simple truth is even truer today than it was 50 years ago. We need to return to his generous and positive vision.

Peter W. Cookson Jr. teaches sociology at Georgetown University and is Principal Researcher at American Institutes for Research. He is a prolific award-winning writer and serves on the board of directors of the National Urban Alliance (NUA) for Effective Education.

Eric J. Cooper is the founder and president of NUA, a nonprofit professional development organization that provides student-focused professional development, advocacy and organizational guidance to accelerate student achievement. He can be reached at