Our country’s politics are getting even more reactionary and mean-spirited than many of us would have thought possible a decade ago. There are strong voices demanding not only that we cut away the safety net for the vulnerable, but also that on all fronts – from health and social services to environmental regulation – we roll back governmental protections to what they were a century ago.
I find myself looking back with nostalgia to things I wrote just a few years ago; as bad as things were then, they seem full of promise in comparison to today.
In my last post, I reprinted some material from 2008. If you’ll indulge me again, I’d like to reprint a longer section from a new preface I wrote in 2006 for Possible Lives: The Promise of Public Education in America. Our times are darker, but I still think – hope – that there’s something resonant here, something that still calls forth what we can become. Even now.
High-stakes accountability and its accompanying programs of testing has a dramatic effect on schooling, but there is something else that also deeply affects public school life, felt everyday, particularly in less affluent areas: the growing economic inequality in our country.
“Income inequality [in the United States] is growing,” notes a special report in The Economist, “to levels not seen since the Guilded Age, around the 1880s.” On a number of measures—from wages, to benefits, to wealth accumulation, to economic mobility—many Americans have stagnated, and those in the working class have suffered significant declines. This state of affairs is tightly linked to the systematic erosion of the social safety net since the Reagan presidency, directly threatening the ability of tens of millions of Americans to live with any sense of security and stability.
Considering the number of children in public schools, urban and rural, who come from poor backgrounds, such inequality can have an impact on their housing, healthcare, dynamics of family life, safety of neighborhoods—all of which, in turn, can affect engagement with school and academic achievement. Schools are distinctly sensitive to their surroundings, as is evident throughout the communities we’ll visit; what goes on outside the classroom pulses quickly within.
This economic inequality has another damaging effect on public education, and we currently have no social policy to remedy it. There are wide gaps in school funding in poor versus affluent neighborhoods—sometimes by a factor of 2 or 3 to 1—so we get schools, a number of them, that are both underfunded and populated by poor children. Poverty becomes concentrated not only in neighborhoods but in schools as well. And because skin color and social class are intertwined in our country, this often means racial as well as economic segregation.
Though there are attempts to create schools that house or are affiliated with health and social services, none of the current major programs of school reform—from charter schools and small schools to high-stakes accountability systems—addresses this harsh economic reality in any comprehensive way.
Some school critics and reformers downplay, even dismiss, the potential negative effects of poverty on achievement, insisting that there be “no excuses” on the part of school people for less-than-standard performance. I appreciate that stance. As many teachers in this book demonstrate … children’s cognitive potential is influenced by much more than their income level. But it is likewise naïve or duplicitous to dismiss the devastating effects of poverty on a child’s life in school. We will witness teachers repeatedly in Possible Lives responding to the effects of poverty: through their own resources of time and money, through their social networks, and through their involvement in local activism and community development. Their efforts do matter. And, yes, there are a number of cases of poor children who achieve mightily. But their stories are never simple, are fraught with pain and complication. And their individual excellence does not dispel the net effect of poverty. Consider how untreated problems with vision or with hearing—just these two maladies alone—can derail early academic mastery. The rhetoric of “no excuses”—though it has a legitimate point to make—can deflect our attention from the plain, brutal reality of so many young people’s lives.
It seems hard for us as a culture to perceive simultaneously the physical and psychological devastation wrought by poverty and the cognitive potential that continues to burn within. We tend to either lighten the effects of economic disruption with self-help platitudes or we see only blight and generalize it to intellectual capacity. In an earlier book, I appealed for a binocular vision when regarding poor kids in school, a vision that affords both damage and promise and—we return to the power of hope here—that enables one to nurture the possible against odds. One of the young Calexico teachers says it crisply. “The problems are not going to stop me from teaching.”
It is mind-boggling to think of all that we Americans demand from our public schools, an astounding range of expectations. There is, of course, the expectation that the schools will foster intellectual, social, and civic development. And, over the last century, as historian David Tyack demonstrates, the public as well as school administrators and reformers have turned to the public school, especially the high school, to address the many needs of young people that may once have been met by families, churches, employers, and volunteer groups: from hygiene to job preparation. We also resort to the public schools to solve the broad social and economic problems that we cannot or will not adequately address by other means. One of the purposes of school desegregation, for example, was to disrupt residential patterns resulting from racism, demographic shifts, and housing policy. And we continue to look to our schools to address the effects of deindustrialization, immigration, and chronic poverty.
Finally, public education holds a central role in the American ideology of success. The public school, write policy analysts Jennifer Hochschild and Nathan Scovronick, “is essential both to create the democratic structure of which Americans are so proud and to provide the tools for the success that Americans seek so desperately.” Public education, they argue, is an ideological substitute for the European-style welfare state in providing the means for social stability and economic well-being. The school becomes the primary enabling mechanism of capitalism and the primary buffer against its excesses. This is quite a different purpose from our grander vision of public education as the core civic institution that, along with economic capability, fosters intelligence, character, and citizenship—America in the making.
The colossal and contradictory expectations we currently have for the public school combined with widening economic inequality leads quickly to an untenable situation. We are in desperate need of a broad national conversation about the purpose of public education combined with a probing assessment of our economic and political priorities.
This is a far cry from the typical discussions about schooling that we do have: discussions of test scores and the rhetoric of economic competitiveness that surrounds them. The testing orientation—and other bureaucratically-based school reforms—tries to address inequality technically, structurally, when it is, finally, a social and economic problem—and, as a recent report from the United Church of Christ concludes, a deeply moral problem as well. We hear much talk about equity, about the achievement gap, about increasing effort and expectations, but it is primarily technical and organizational talk, thin on ethical reflection and public meaning.
One of the fundamental issues that frames the events of Possible Lives is the commitment to public institutions and the public sector as an arena of social responsibility. There have been times in our history when the notion of the public has been invested with great agency and imagination. Such is not the case now. An entire generation has come of age amidst disillusionment with public institutions and public life, disillusionment born of high-profile government scandal and institutional inefficiency but moreso from a skillful advocacy by conservative policy makers and pundits of the broad virtues of free markets and individual enterprise.
Clearly, there are domains of public life that benefit from market forces, and individual enterprise is a powerful force for both personal advancement and public benefit. Furthermore, the very notion of “public” is a fluid one, changes historically, exists in varied relation to the private sector and, on occasion, fuses with it in creative ways. Finally, as I’ve been suggesting, we must not simply accept our public institutions as they are, but be vigilantly engaged with them. One way to read Possible Lives is as a critique—though one built on hope—of a central American public institution, the public school.
Our reigning orthodoxy on the public sphere is much less nuanced. We have instead a celebration of the market and private initiative as cure-all to our social and civic obligations. This orthodoxy downplays, often dismisses, the many ways that markets need to be modified to protect common people and the common good against market excesses—for markets are relentlessly opportunistic and dollar-driven. “The market is governed by a pricing system,” writes economic activist Edgar S. Cahn, “that devalues precisely those activities most critically needed in communities: caring, learning, worshipping, associating, socializing, and helping.”
The orthodoxy operates with a good dose of social amnesia, erasing the history of horrible market failure and of private greed that led to curbs on markets and the creation of robust public institutions and protections. The free market believers’ infatuation slides quickly to blithe arrogance about all things public. A guy is being interviewed on National Public Radio. “The post office,” he says, “is the worst-run business in America.” This was within the same week as the opening of the trial of Enron’s Jeffrey Skilling and Kenneth Lay, within recent memory of Tyco, Worldcom, Arthur Andersen, and New York Attorney General Elliot Spitzer’s indicted rogue’s gallery. [Note: This was written before the financial crisis of 2008, a much more devastating example.]
This easy dismissiveness of the public also has its ugly side, characterizing anything public as inferior… or worse. I quote a talk-show host in the upcoming introduction who labels children in the Los Angeles School District as “garbage”, and tellingly, sadly, the kids I met during my travels on several occasions said they knew that people thought of them as “debris”.
We have to do better than this, have to develop a revitalized language of public life.
One tangible resource for me evolved from the journey through America’s public school classrooms. Out of the thousands of events of classroom life that I witnessed—out of the details of the work done there—a language began to develop about what’s possible in America’s public sphere. This sense of the possible, the specific words for it, came when a child learned to take another child seriously, to think something through together, to learn about perspective and the range of human experience and talent. It came when, over time, a child arrived at an understanding of number or acquired skill at rendering an idea in written language. It came when a group of students jammed around a lab table trying to figure out why a predicted reaction fizzled. When a local affair or regional dialect or familiar tall tale became a creative resource for visual art or spoken word. When a developing athlete planted the pole squarely in the box and vaulted skyward. When a student said that his teacher “coaxes our thinking along.” When a teacher thinking back on it all muses on the power of “watching your students at such an important time in their lives encounter the world.” It is in all such moments—moments in public school classrooms—that something of immense promise for the nation is being confirmed.
There is, of course, nothing inherently public or private about such activities. They occur daily in private schools, in church organizations, in back yards. But there is something compelling, I think, about raising one’s gaze outward, beyond the immediate window or fence to the science lesson out at the forest’s edge or the novel crammed into the hip pocket on the city bus.
The public school gives rise to these moments in a common space, supports them, commits to them as a public good, affirms the capacity of all of us, contributes to what a post-Revolutionary War writer called the “general diffusion of knowledge” across the republic. Such a mass public endeavor creates a citizenry. As our notion of the public shrinks, the full meaning of public education, the cognitive and social luxuriance of it, fades. Achievement is still possible, but loses its civic heart.