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How Can We Fix Our Broken Schools? A Historical Perspective

Published: September 11, 2011

In the September/October issue of The Saturday Evening Post, we asked Diane Ravitch, former U.S. assistant secretary of education, to give us her perspective on why so many of our public schools are failing. (Read article.) In her analysis, she explains why putting so much emphasis on standardized testing—as our current reforms do—will not make an impact on true academic achievement. She looks at the development of public education in America and expresses concern that current federal programs set impossible goals that threaten to close schools and fire teachers if legislative mandates are not achieved. Ravitch points out that the education reform efforts of the past decade have ignored the fact that the cause of low academics in America is poverty not “bad” teachers.

Historically, there has always been a link between education and the reduction of poverty. Free public schools in America were created to alleviate poverty by giving every child the opportunity to receive an education. So the question is, does education lower poverty or does poverty lower education?

In Colonial days, education was considered essential for the public well-being and it was not subject to individual or family prerogatives. Although only wealthy children had the privilege of going to school, all parents, including the poor, were required to educate their children to be God-fearing and “serviceable in their generation.”

If parents neglected their duty, the community had the right to intervene. For example, Massachusetts passed a Poor Law in 1735 that states: “That where persons bring up their children in such gross ignorance that they do not know, or are not able to distinguish the alphabet of twenty-four letters, at the age of six years, in such case the overseers of the poor are hereby empowered and directed to put or bind out in good families such children, for a decent and Christian education…unless the children are judged incapable, through some inevitable infirmity.”

You read that correctly. If families were so irresponsible as to fail to educate their children, the community would take those kids away and do the job for them!

By 1840 the heavy influx of immigrants and expanding territories changed the social hierarchy as communities became fragmented. The shift brought social instability along with great fear that the country would fall apart because of vice and crime. There was concern that children who were not educated properly would be tempted by drunks, gamblers, criminals, and prostitutes. Families who did not educate their children became a national threat. The citizens mobilized to create free “common schools” for all children. They also built orphanages and other childcare institutions to house and educate little scoundrels who were orphaned, abandoned, or whose families were deemed unfit or too poor to educate them properly.

No matter what their income, families are the most important educators for their children. And children who do not receive adequate education at home are at risk.

On a micro-level, education reform must start with the family. If a child enters first grade unable to say the alphabet or count to 10, who is responsible?

Ensuring quality education should require standards and accountability for parents, too. If the family is unable to provide proper support there should be some type of aid or intervention to ensure that the child is not left behind.

On a broader scale, our public schools should be improved, not destroyed. Many of our schools are failing for reasons that have little to do with education and a lot to do with larger socioeconomic issues such as high concentrations of poverty, unemployment, gangs, drugs, violence, and, in many families, the belief that education will not make a difference. We need to fight these conditions and change those beliefs.

Ensuring quality education requires a collective effort that includes schools, parents, students, churches, charities, community leaders, employers, and the government. But the government can’t do it alone with top-down mandates. We’re all part of this. The goal must not be to vilify America’s teachers, but rather to help communities, parents, and children reach their potential and appreciate the vital importance of a good education.

Joan SerVaas
The Saturday Evening Post

More on education in America:

Online Testing Doesn’t Work
When it comes to exams, this high schooler wants to stick with good old-fashioned pencil and paper. Read more >>

American Schools in Crisis
A leading educator argues that current reforms are short sighted, wrong headed—and bound to fail. Read more >>

Teaching to the Test Gets an ‘F’
A conversation with Sir Ken Robinson, a leading thinker in the field of education and human potential. Read more >>

The Problem with Testing
Your child is more than a score. Here’s what one parent and researcher learned about the standardized assessments administered to students, teachers, and schools.
Read more >>

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  • John M. Eger

    Diane is truly on of the most knowledgeable and caring education experts we have, and what she says all makes sense. Let me add to the urgency.

    As Diane wrote, the world has undergone dramatic changes because of the pervasive spread of the Internet, the marriage of computers and telecommunications, and the shift to a global economy. We are up against the wall. What we do in the next few years to remake our civilization, our political, social and economic institutions, and importantly our schools will determine whether we succeed or survive or atrophy and die…with cities becoming ghost towns on the global information highway.

    Now more than ever business and industry are dependent on an economic system, which favors creativity and innovation. Thus, at the heart of this effort is recognition of the vital role that art and culture play in enhancing economic development, and ultimately, defining a creative community: one that exploits the vital link between art, culture and commerce, and in the process consciously invests the human and financial resources necessary to prepare its citizens to meet the challenges of the rapidly evolving post-industrial, knowledge-based economy and society.

    In order for the creative community to nurture the new workforce with the higher order thinking skills a creative and innovative workplace demands, it is important to reinvent our systems of education.

    Dana Gioia, former chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, said it best, “If the U.S. is to compete effectively with the rest of the world in the new global marketplace, we need a (school) system that grounds all students in pleasure, beauty and wonder.”

    After a decade of studying the human brain, according to the Dana Foundation, a neuroscience research center at John Hopkins University, we know the arts enhance math and science comprehension. We know that where art-infused education is used to redesign the curriculum, one that is truly integrated, collaborative and interactive, students’ attendance dramatically improves, as does performance.

    Today we know so much more about the brain and how people learn. While neuroscientists do not usually characterize functions between one hemisphere and the other, it is a fact that the left or right hemispheres of the brain dominate certain functions.

    The Presidents Art and Humanities Committee, after studying this issue for 18 months called for retraining all teachers in art integration techniques and putting arts integration-teaching through the arts-into the schools. This does not cost a lot of money and we do to new.

  • Stephen Lafer

    We have a lot to discuss, for instance, the ability of good numbers of parents to do what is necessary to help their children learn from the schools their children attend. The people are not intellectually deficient but many are unschooled, and they are unschooled, many of them, because the schools showed them little respect by insisting that they adapt to certain norms that were not the norms of their neighborhoods or families, and not because those family, neighborhood norms were inferior to those sanctioned by the schools. Consider the mainstream culture and its competitive nature! Some reject this out of love and empathy for their fellows and are unwilling to do what is needed to “beat” the other guy. And some really do find comfort in the norms of communities that are not school norms, for instance, unquestioning obedience to those who do not have to prove the legitimacy of their authority. This is but one bit of the puzzle and there is a long conversation needed that will address the realities few with to address, amongst the reality that some reject the schools’ demand that they become someone other than themselves in order to “succeed.”