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.
The Saturday Evening Post