Reclaiming the Conversation on Education

On May 4, 2013 I attended a conference, Reclaiming the Conversation on Education, at Barnard College - Columbia University in New York City. The opening panelists included Susan Ohanian, author of Why Is Corporate America Bashing Our Public Schools?, Barbara Bowen, professor of English at Queens College and President of the City University's faculty union, the Professional Staff Congress, Carol Burris, Principal of South Shore High School in Rockville Centre and the 2013 New York State Principal of the Year, parent activist Zakiyah Ansari representing the Coalition for Educational Justice, and Barbara Madeloni, the former director of secondary education at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, whose teacher education students led a protest against new national standards for student teachers to be administered by Pearson Education.

The problem at meetings such as this one is that they tend to be "anti" meetings that do not present a clear alternative agenda defining what participants believe is the role public education should play in a democratic society. As Zakiyah Ansari pointed out, the opposition to public education seems to have cornered the market on all the good slogans and sound bites. They demand accountability, high standards, and that schools prepare all students for college and 21st century jobs. The big problem is that it is never clear how these things will be achieved except by giving private companies lots of money.

On the anti-side, participants generally agreed that the looting of public education by private corporations is not reform; high-stakes testing and test prep are not teaching and learning; and education is a human right, not an entitlement.

But educators need to do more. This is my attempt to "reclaim the conversation on education" and define what schools and education should be in a democratic society. I base it on an article written by American philosopher John Dewey written for a magazine called School Journal and originally published in 1897.

John Dewey was one of the most important thinkers about education in United States history. He called his list of basic beliefs his "pedagogic creed." His educational philosophy, which he called progressive education, was concerned with the need to educate people for life in a democratic society. Key concepts for Dewey were experience, freedom, community, and "habits of mind."

According to Dewey, students learn from the full range of their experiences in school, not just the specific thing they are studying in class. They learn from what they are studying, how they are studying, who they are studying with, and how they are treated. In racially segregated or academically tracked classes, students learn that some people are better than others. In test prep academies, they learn that some people possess knowledge and others passively receive it. Through online programs they learn to crave instant stimulation and avoid deep thought and puzzling through a problem while working with others. When administrators have total control over classrooms and teachers are required to follow scripted curriculum, students learn to accept authoritarianism.

For Dewey, the exercise of freedom in democratic societies depends on education. He identified freedom with "power to frame purposes" or achieve individual and social goals. This kind of freedom requires a probing, critical, disciplined habit of mind. It includes intelligence, judgment, and self-control--qualities students may never acquire in classrooms where they are subject to external controls and are forced to remain silent.

In progressive schools that use a Deweyan approach, students engage in long-term thematic group projects where they learn to collectively solve problems. Classrooms become democratic communities where "things gain meaning by being used in a shared experience or joint action." Dewey also believed that democratic movements for human liberation were necessary to achieve a fair distribution of political power and an "equitable system of human liberties."

Some of the teachers and pre-service teachers that I work with are concerned that a Deweyan approach to education offers students too much freedom and that children and adolescents need more structured classrooms and curriculum, especially if they come from families and live in communities where structure may be missing. Both Dewey and I respond that we are not proposing unstructured classrooms and unstructured learning. We are arguing for a different type of structure, a structured environment that systematically prepares students to live, learn, and work independently and with others as part of democratic communities and societies.

Dewey offered educators and the American public some pretty good slogans that I tried to re-work for the 21st century.

Education is a process of living, not a preparation for future living.
Education is the fundamental method of social progress and reform.
The community's duty to education is its paramount moral duty.
Education that does not build on real life experiences tends to cramp and to deaden.
Examinations are of use only so far as they test the child's fitness for social life and reveal the place in which he or she can be of most service and where he or she can receive the most help.
Education must be conceived as a continuing reconstruction of experience; that the process and the goal of education are one and the same thing.
The teacher is engaged, not simply in the training of individuals, but in the formation of the proper social life. Teachers must realize the dignity of their calling.

I think Dewey was telling us that our primary responsibility as educators is to help prepare human beings to be citizens in a democratic society. The process and the goal of education are one and the same thing. Citizens need to be literate, they need to be critical thinkers, they need to be respectful of others, they need to be activists, and they need to be compassionate human beings, as well as being able to earn a living and support their families.

Drawing on Dewey, these are my suggestions for positive slogans.

Educate for democracy, educate for equality, educate for human dignity, and educate active citizens.

I used to tell my high school students, "You do not have to know this for the test. You need to know this for life."

In my next few posts I hope to continue to "reclaim the conversation" on education discussing debates over the National Common Core Standards, the evaluation of teachers and student teachers, and a possible agenda for teachers and their unions. In New York State, the teachers union is organizing a rally in the state capital of Albany for June 8 to generate support for public education funding and to oppose high-stakes testing.