Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Free to School

You would normally expect liberals to support public policies embraced by countries like Germany, France, Sweden, England, Belgium, Australia, Canada, and the Netherlands. However, when it comes to public education they're adamant in their belief that the current American model actually is the best and only option.

In the January edition of First Things, Charles L. Glenn explained how misplaced this notion in an article called Disestablishing Our Secular Schools:

Most Americans are products of the public school’s 140-year near-monopoly on education, and have an understandable residual loyalty to our current educational settlement; many believe, as advocates of the “myth of the common school” have been arguing since Horace Mann, that only the public school can form citizens. But low test scores and concern over the moral vacuousness of both curriculum and school life dominated by peer culture have shaken faith in the public system. Parents are seeking alternatives, not only in private schools but in charter schools (legally “public” but functionally private), homeschooling, and cyberschools. Even those parents who do not want religion taught in the schools their children attend usually see no problem with other children attending schools whose religious character is preferred by their parents.

We have reason to hope that America may achieve a degree of pluralism in its schools, but important changes are needed. American public education should be disestablished and demythologized, liberated to provide a true education and not simply instruction, to be as concerned about the character of its students as it is about their academic accomplishments. Government should play a significant role, setting standards for essential outcomes on which there is a societal consensus and ensuring that family circumstances never prevent a child from receiving an adequate education, but public education should be no more synonymous with government-operated schools than public health is with government-operated hospitals. Parents should be free to choose the school their children attend without financial penalty.

This is only possible if we give up the fruitless effort to make public education “neutral,” as though anything so intimately associated with the shaping of human beings could ever avoid choices among alternative views of human flourishing. The sort of lowest common denominator schooling into which public schools have been forced, the “defensive teaching” in which their teachers engage to avoid controversy, can never provide a rich educational environment. Indeed, the false belief in neutrality has fostered an idea of teachers as a kind of secular clergy.

Educational reform and professionalization of teachers requires viewing them as no different from members of any other profession, under the discipline of commonly understood norms of ethical and effective practice, and with a responsibility to the client. This client is not simply the student (as John Dewey maintained) but also the family.