A Final Thought

In Defense of Public Education

I’ve been concerned, and writing about the many ways public education has been under attack for several years, noting the drive, for example, for charter schools that would divert public funding into private pockets.

No Child Left Behind sounds good, but it was just a slogan. The program, which threatened to leave many children behind, was imposed on public schools and contained penalties and set-up standards that would be most harmful to the neediest schools. To many of us, its purpose seemed to be to prove that public schools do not work, not to help them get better.

The Common Core certainly seems logical — who could be against the concept of everyone taking the same basic courses wherever they were in the United States — but in many states and districts, the Common Core meant dumbing down what was already being done and eliminating many studies that lifted children and education out of the mundane. And, of course, it came with tests — standardized tests that would take more and more school time and label children and teachers as failures.

STEM is another slogan that seems logical — America needs more people who are engaged with and understand science, technology, engineering and mathematics — but it also needs creative people who work in the arts, who are physically able, who can write clearly, sensibly and creatively and, most of all, can think. Science, technology and the arts should not be incompatible, but once again, the forces driving STEM, few of them educators, take no prisoners. If there are to be high scores on those standardized tests, there is no time to waste on art, music and even physical education, and these subjects are disappearing from too many schools.

The closing of schools in the name of efficiency is another manifestation of applying commercial market solutions to public school needs. Everything we know in education points to the value of smaller learning environments, to individual attention, especially in the day when the typical “mom at home” pattern seldom applies, to the importance, particularly at the elementary school level, of local neighborhood schools where parents can be involved.

The drive to close small schools and to combine small school districts may be more efficient, it can save money, but it can also harm education. If improving the educational opportunity is the goal, closing schools is not the action of choice. But that’s the way the politicians who propose school closings frame it. Closing neighborhood schools, of course, tends to drive more parents to seek charter schools and move more children and money away from the public ones. It becomes a vicious circle.

Three years ago, I wrote in a column, “It’s time for the education associations representing teachers, administrators, parents and school boards to band together, stop the petty fighting among themselves and go public with a demand that they, not the politicians, be asked to fix education in America before the politicians damage it any further. “ I suggested that Dr. Diane Ravitch, having returned to being an educator after a brief fling as a political pawn, might lead a call on organizations like the American Association of School Administrators, the American Federation of Teachers, the National Education Association, The National PTA and others to band together and to begin to defend public education against politically and financially motivated attacks.

It’s finally beginning to happen. The associations, with a few exceptions, have not taken leadership but teachers have been refusing to give standardized tests in Seattle and elsewhere. Administrators in New York’s outstanding districts have been challenging the governor on The Race to the Top and his demand for teacher “accountability” based on tests. Voucher and “choice” proposals are having difficulty making it through even the most conservative legislatures as teachers and parents rally against them. Community activists have joined together with parents and teachers (and students) to oppose the closing of schools, particularly those serving their neighborhoods. Even on the basis of test scores, charter schools consistently fail to prove their worth.

And, as hoped, Dr. Ravitch has emerged as a leader, writing about and supporting the discontent among teachers over the emphasis on standardized tests and their misuse to evaluate teachers and schools. She is far from alone. Individual school superintendents and school boards have spoken out, as have professors of education from Stanford in California to Harvard in Massachusetts and in most colleges in between. But as individuals, they have limited reach and limited power when cast against the political establishment. It is time, long past time, for the education associations to step up and take a unified stand. 

Paul Abramson is education industry analyst for SP&M and president of Stanton Leggett & Associates, an educational facilities consulting firm based in Mamaroneck, N.Y. He was named CEPFI’s 2008 “Planner of the Year.” He can be reached at [email protected]

This article originally appeared in the School Planning & Management June 2013 issue of Spaces4Learning.

About the Author

Paul Abramson is education industry analyst for SP&M and president of Stanton Leggett & Associates, an educational facilities consulting firm based in Mamaroneck, N.Y. He was named CEPFI’s 2008 "Planner of the Year."