“Above all things I hope the education of the common people will be attended to, convinced that on their good sense we may rely with the most security for the preservation of a due degree of liberty.” – Thomas Jefferson
For our first 200 years, the paramount purpose for building and sustaining universal public education was to nurture democracy. Written into state constitutions, education was to consolidate a stew of different languages, religious affiliations, ethnic groups and levels of fortune into a working commonwealth. As Massachusetts’ constitutional framers wrote, “Wisdom, and knowledge, as well as virtue, diffused generally among the body of the people, [is] necessary for the preservation of their rights and liberties. …”
In the 19th century, Horace Mann, father of the common schools movement, said, “Education, then, beyond all other devices of human origin, is the great equalizer of the conditions of men – the balance-wheel of the social machinery.”
Through the 20th century, the popular view was that universal education would produce an equal and democratic society. Pulitzer Prize historian Lawrence Cremin and economist John Kenneth Galbraith viewed the G.I. Bill’s educational entitlements as the key building blocks of the strongest democracy and economic power in world history. As a result, higher education became democratized and millions were lifted into the middle class. The nation was at the zenith of world influence and democratic parity.
But our social progress is checkered. Residential segregation and unequal opportunities still blight our society, economy and schools. Unfortunately, rather than addressing politically unpopular root causes, it was far more convenient to demand that schools solve these problems.
The shift in educational purposes
No serious effort was made to assure equal opportunities, for example. Thus, the achievement gap was finessed by blaming the victim. Instead of advancing democracy, our neediest schools were underfunded. The new purpose, test-based reform, appealed to conservatives because it sounded tough and punitive; to liberals because it illuminated the plainly visible problems; and it was cheap – the costs were passed on to the schools.
Having high test scores was falsely linked to national economic performance. In hyperbolic overdrive, the 1983 Nation at Risk report thundered, “the educational foundations of our society are presently being eroded by a rising tide of mediocrity that threatens our very future as a Nation and a people.” After 35 years of this same Chicken Little jeremiad, the nation is still the premier economy of the world, leads the world in patents, registers record high stock prices, and is second in international manufacturing. (For the nation as a whole, the independent Bureau of Labor Statistics demonstrates that we do not have a math and science shortage).
By declaring schools “failures,” public monies were increasingly diverted to private corporations. Yet, after a half-century of trials, there is no body of evidence that shows privatized schools are better or less expensive. Large-scale voucher programs actually show substantial score declines. The plain fact is that privatization, even at its best, does not have sufficient power to close the achievement gap – but it segregates. It imperils the unity of schools and society. This proposed solution works against the very democratic and equity principles for which public systems were formed.
The genius of American civilization
As a nation, our genius is in when we work with common and united purpose. We came together and defined nationhood with the common schools movement. We recovered and rebuilt our society and our economy with the New Deal and the G.I. Bill. Education became universal and we protected the poor and those with special needs with considerable success.
Regrettably, we are still dealing with echoes of our great civil war, economic segregation is greater than what we saw in the Gilded Age, environmental catastrophes threaten entire species, economic uncertainty unsteadies many, health care is still unresolved, and our federal government’s lack of stability has reached crisis levels. We are torn by a new racism, bigotry and selfishness.
If our purpose is a democratic and equitable society, test scores take us off-purpose. They distract our attention. Rather, our success is measured by how well we enhance health in our society, manifest civic virtues, behave as a society, and dedicate ourselves to the common good. Jefferson reminds us, “If the children are untaught, their ignorance and vices will in future life cost us much dearer in their consequences than it would have done in their correction by a good education.”
The great balance wheel turns slowly. We must select leaders who embrace higher purposes and in John Dewey’s words, choose people who will expand our heritage of values, make the world more solid and secure, and more generously share it with those that come after us.
William J. Mathis is vice-chair of the Vermont Board of Education and is the managing director of the National Education Policy Center. The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect the views of any group with which he is affiliated.