Tag Archives: public schools

It Isn’t Whether–It’s How

Extremists on the Right constantly complain that religion has been banished from public school classrooms. This, of course, is inaccurate: what the Establishment Clause prohibits is proselytizing–imposing religious beliefs or observances on the “captive audience” that is the public school classroom.

The courts have been careful to distinguish between official endorsement or sponsorship of religion, which is unconstitutional, and instruction about religion, which is not only constitutional, but entirely appropriate. (Try teaching history, or art history, without reference to the immense influence of religious beliefs.)

One of the problems caused by low levels of civic and constitutional knowledge is that some schools have become skittish, avoiding even the appropriate study of religion for fear of lawsuits, while at the other end of the spectrum, schools have simply ignored the line between proper and improper instruction.

But some schools have gotten it right. Modesto, California is one of them.

The course’s inclusive curriculum ensures that it meets constitutional standards. It’s obvious from the design of the course and from emerging evidence that it succeeds in providing a thorough and objective education in world religions. For that reason, it’s a useful example of how religion ought to be taught in schools, if it’s going to be taught at all. And it’s sharply distinct from the Religious Right’s various attempts to insert sectarianism in public classrooms.

Modesto’s course and curricular proposals stand in sharp contrast to the Bible class designed by Hobby Lobby’s owners that has been proposed for use in Mustang, Okla., public schools. Steve Green, the corporation’s current president, called the class “the fourth leg of my personal ministry” and stated that it’s intended to complement his planned Bible museum in Washington, D.C. Legal objections from groups like Americans United have put the class on hold for now, but it could still be implemented in Mustang’s high schools.

If the goal is to have kids know about religion, there are perfectly legal ways to do that. The problems arise when your goal is really to impose your particular beliefs on others.

 

How Dumb Is Rick Santorum?

People for the American Way have posted a recent radio interview with former U.S. Senator and all-star culture warrior Rick Santorum.

During the discussion, Santorum said that Christians have allowed their faith to be removed from the public square and need to start fighting back, arguing that removing the Bible from public school classrooms is not neutrality but rather the promotion of the secular worldview. He suggested that conservative Christians should respond by “calling secularism a religion because if we did, then we could ban that too.”

Claiming that the absence of religion is itself a religion, Santorum said that Christians must reassert themselves and insist that Christianity “should be taught in the schools” instead of worrying about offending people.

Leaving aside the massive constitutional ignorance Santorum (once again) displays,  I’m intrigued. How do you ban the absence of something?

Earth to Santorum: “secular” means “not religious.” It doesn’t mean “anti-religious.” An experiment in science class is secular; the study of the periodical table of elements is secular. English grammar is secular. History–even when it includes study of the influence of religious beliefs and movements–is secular.

Stuff that isn’t religious is secular. It’s a descriptive term, not an ideology.

The removal of religious doctrine from the public sector (government)(which is not at all the same thing as its removal from the public square, where religious expression is protected by the Free Exercise Clause) is simply a recognition that in a free society, the government doesn’t get to impose or endorse a set of preferred religious beliefs. The transmittal of religious doctrine is the prerogative of families and religious institutions.

There are a lot of culture warriors who really do understand the First Amendment, but choose to pander to the sizable number of Americans who don’t. I don’t think Santorum is one of those. I think he’s a true believer.

And not a very good thinker.

In fact, his diagnosis of secularism reminds me a lot of his diagnosis of Terri Schavo. He sees things that aren’t there.

 

 

Testing….1,2,3…Testing

I’ve been watching school reform efforts for several years now, and I’m depressed.

Most of the organizations that have formed to improve our public schools are populated by wonderful, well-meaning people, and most of the men and women who have chosen to teach in those schools are caring, dedicated professionals. So you’d think they would all be talking to each other and working together to identify and eliminate the barriers to better schools.

Instead, they seem to be at war with each other.

Now, I understand that focusing on common goals has been made more difficult by  the “take no prisoners” attitudes of ideologues like the departed-but-certainly-not-missed Tony Bennett, whose arrogance and autocratic tactics created a backlash of resentment among the teachers he regularly and unfairly bashed. (It shouldn’t surprise us when people who’ve been told they are overpaid and underperforming nitwits are unenthusiastic about collaborating with those who leveled the accusations.) But Bennett and his equally tone-deaf boss are gone, and the folks on the front lines–the teachers–need to help the real reformers understand what they need.

I haven’t been a high school teacher for nearly 50 years; neither do I have mastery of the reform literature. I’m just an interested observer who believes that public education is an immensely important public good, so you should take the following observations with the appropriate amount of salt.

Reformers are absolutely right to want teacher accountability. But teachers are absolutely right that high-stakes testing is not accountability.

Testing to figure out what kids know is a time-honored necessity; testing as a way to evaluate teacher performance is deeply problematic. For one thing, poor people move so frequently that turnover in many inner-city schools exceeds 100% during the school year, and the kids being tested at the end of the year aren’t the same kids who were tested at the beginning. Tests in such classrooms are meaningless.

Even in more stable environments, the current testing regime does significant damage–to students, who are being taught that there is always a “right” answer, and to teachers who are forced to focus their efforts on the subjects being tested and neglect other, equally important lessons. Furthermore, years of research demonstrate that more affluent kids test better for lots of reasons unrelated to the quality of classroom performance. If teachers are going to be evaluated and paid based upon test results, a lot of good teachers are going to leave the poorer schools that need them most and head for precincts where the students are better off and easier to teach.  (And yes, I know the theory is that we are testing for improvement, not absolute knowledge, but that theory is too often just that–theoretical.)

Here’s a heretical thought: before we engage in programs to assess accountability, let’s see if we can achieve agreement on what we mean by “education” and “quality instruction.” In other words, let’s be sure we know what instructors are supposed to be accountable for.

Too many of the self-styled “reformers” (not all, but too many) equate education with job training and quality instruction with (easy to test) rote learning.  For that matter, too many teachers agree with those definitions.

The people who genuinely want to improve public education–and there are a lot of them in both reform organizations and classrooms–  start by tackling the hard questions: what do kids really, really need to know in order to function in 21st Century America? What skills are essential? What are the barriers to imparting that information and those skills?  What additional resources do poorer kids need?  How much money does it take to provide a  good education, and how much does ignorance cost us?

Here’s how you can separate out the genuine education reformers from the ideologues and shills: real reformers understand the importance of public education’s civic mission. Because they understand the constitutive function of the public schools–because they understand that education is more than just another consumer good–they want to fix public education by working with teachers and parents and policymakers to make our public school systems work.

The genuine reformers aren’t the ones insisting that we  privatize or abandon those schools.

 

 

 

Education Reform Basics

Democrats for Education Reform is an important organization in our state. It’s composed of people–mostly, but not exclusively, Democrats–who want to approach education issues from the standpoint of what is best for children, and without the usual political constraints. (“Political constraints” in this context means automatic obeisance to the teachers’ unions. The organization is not anti-Union, but neither do its members feel obliged to agree with the union on every issue, as Democrats have traditionally done.)

Last night, my husband and I attended an event sponsored by DFER. There were at least a hundred people in attendance, and it was an interesting and diverse crowd: teachers from both traditional public schools and charters, business people, legislators and ordinary citizens concerned with the problems of public education. The speaker was was Stephen Brill, and he was “interviewed” by Matt Tully, the Star columnist who has written movingly about Manual High School and the issues facing educators in our poorer precincts.

Brill has recently written a book (who hasn’t??) about what’s wrong with public education. He is not an educator; he describes himself as a reporter. He made a lot of money establishing Court TV and several magazines; he was self-possessed to the point of smugness, and he made sure the audience knew he teaches a seminar at Yale.

Brill made a number of points that most observers would agree with, and he showed real skill in evading questions for which he clearly had no answers. (Case in point: he forcefully defended testing students as a method of evaluating teacher effectiveness. When I asked him how that should work in inner-city classrooms that experience student turnover in excess of 100% during the school year–classrooms in which the students being tested at the end of the year are not the same children who were tested at the beginning of the school year–he didn’t answer the question; instead, he launched into an extended and mostly irrelevant defense of “doing something” even if that something wasn’t perfect.)

The format was question and answer, and there was a lot of earnest discussion about the importance of good teachers (duh!), the pros and cons of charter schools, and the role of teachers’ unions. But the truly important question was asked at the very end of the program. It was a simple enough inquiry by a woman who identified herself as a longtime proponent of education reform: “how do you define a good education?”

It caught Brill flat-footed. And therein lies the real problem.

Pretty much everyone agrees that the education system is broken. (To his credit, Brill agreed that most suburban schools are no better than the schools serving urban areas–students simply tend to come from homes that have prepared them better.) Pretty much everyone wants to improve public education–I don’t know anyone who’s celebrating the status quo. But all the arguments about how to improve schools, all the fancy talk about measurement and testing and excellence, tends to ignore the central question: what do we mean by education? What should students know when they graduate? What skills should they have? Why? How does education differ from job training? How does education for citizenship differ from education as a consumer good?

The Chamber of Commerce wants schools to produce an “educated workforce.” Parents want schools to provide “marketable skills.” Policy wonks talk about global competitiveness. Our Governor seems fixated on credentialing–turning out students who’ve earned a piece of paper in the least possible amount of time. Some old fogies (me, for example) believe an education requires acquainting students with great literature, with science, with history, with at least a minimal understanding of their government, and–above all–the ability to think logically and critically.

It’s an unresolved–and largely unasked–question, and it’s the elephant in the room. Because if we don’t agree about what an education is, how on earth will we know whether we are providing it?

 

The Center Will Not Hold

I attended a conference on Media Reform last weekend, and came back pretty depressed. Although there were several thousand people in attendance who were determined to save journalism–not necessarily newspapers, or broadcast news, but the essential watchdog function that led our Founders to give Constitutional status to the press–it’s abundantly clear that right now, no one has a clue how to provide the public with the news democratic societies require.

In place of widely-read, credible news media serving the general public, we have “niche news” tailored to our personal prejudices and politics. Thanks to consolidation and corporate ownership focused on the bottom line to the exclusion of journalism’s social mission, we have more “human interest” and “self-help” stories and less real news; more “opinion” and less fact-checking. That we have ever-more dysfunctional government is not a coincidence.

In fact, America seems to be actively dismantling the institutions that create unum from our pluribus: those places in our society that knit individuals into a public.

I’ve written here often about our diminished constitutional literacy, and the likely consequences of that in a diverse country that depends for its very identity upon a common understanding of our form of government.

Add to that constitutional illiteracy the utterly ferocious attacks on public education we are experiencing. Whatever the defects in our public schools, they are and have been the institution that–as Benjamin Barber eloquently put it–is constitutive of a public. When we privatize education, we treat it as if it is a consumer good–skills we are “buying” so that our children can compete economically. But public education should be more than that; it should respect our diverse private identities while providing a common social umbrella.

When we no longer know our common history or political structure, when we no longer meet each other in public schools, when each of us gets our news from different sources operating out of different political and social realities, what will Americans have in common? What will make us a public?