The great divide in American public attitudes is most evident during Presidential election years, and this year is no different. Republicans and Democrats seem to be living in two different countries when it comes to their views on how much the government should be involved in people’s lives, the role of religion, support for social issues such as marriage equality, reproductive rights, voting laws, immigration and, of course, the bathroom.
Now this divide is becoming more evident in education. More specifically, the latest PDK Poll of the Public’s Attitudes Toward the Public Schools shows that Americans cannot agree on the purpose public schools should serve in our republic. Less than half, 48%, said that the purpose should be to prepare students academically, 25% said schools should prepare students to work, and 26% said that the main purpose should be to promote citizenship. As a teacher, I’m sure that the public schools can do all three, but they really should be doing one thing very well, and my preference is with the plurality of the public that came down on the side of academic skills and knowledge.
This divide, though, says a great deal about our country. We seem to have convinced ourselves that it is necessary to go to college to get a job. Any job. The educational establishment has bought into that attitude and many public schools have eliminated non-academic courses and programs or shifted them to the nearest vocational, technology or career-ready establishment. Are we doing our students a favor by focusing on getting them into colleges? I would say no. Continued academic study is not for everyone, but we seem to be asking every student to follow one path. So while I agree that the main purpose of schools should be academics, we do need to focus on each child’s needs and get them on the road to a career or interest that plays to their strengths. Finances, poverty and whether a child’s family members went to college all have something to do with their success in higher education, but it doesn’t mean that all young adults can succeed in college, and we are wrong to push them there when the evidence is against their interests.
As for citizenship, that is also a key component of our education system, but it shouldn’t be the main focus. We can certainly do better: the arguments I see in the media that revolve around the Constitution or what it means to be an American are sometimes based on a shocking level of ignorance of our basic ideals. I cannot count how many times I have been in discussions with adults and listened as they confused the Declaration of Independence with the Constitution or were ignorant of the Gettysburg Address or how we elect a president or how a bill becomes law. I am not talking about opinions, but rather, about the basic facts. Clearly we need to focus more on the basics of citizenship and what it means to uphold basic American values. Of course, we seem to disagree about what those values are and how to exercise them. See Kaepernick, Colin.
Where do teachers fit in to this? We need to advocate for high-quality curricula and continue to educate the public about the over-reliance on standardized tests. At a time when many states are cutting back on PARCC and other tests, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie was handed a victory by the State Board of Education when it resolved to make standardized tests count for 30% of a teacher’s yearly evaluation. This will only make things worse for districts and teachers as they now must spend more time on testing and preparing students for tests in order to keep their jobs. It’s no wonder that we’ve seen stories like this.
We have highly effective teachers in this country who need the public’s support, and have earned it by influencing the lives of generations of children. And we need to attract more qualified people to the profession to ensure that the United States continues to lead the world in innovation, creative thinking and the freedom to think, explore and exercise one’s rights. The school year has already begun in most parts of the country and Labor Day marks the end of summer for the remainder of public school teachers. I am proud to be an educator and I have been lucky to work with some of the greatest teachers working today from all over the country. We have one of the most important paid jobs in the country and we need to continue to do it with professionalism, passion and persistence.
I wish all teachers a great year for them and their students.