Free public education was established in the United States to aid the development of citizens who are literate, knowledgeable, and equipped with the skills necessary for participation in a democratic society.
In striving toward this goal, American schools and colleges have become the envy of the world. We have made education attainable for all, at any age, from any walk of life.
But something is wrong. Many Americans are not pleased with public education. In addressing their concerns, we must rediscover the meaning of the word “public” in public education: Reforming education requires the commitment of students, parents, and communities as well as teachers.
The list of complaints is long.
Some critics correctly point out, for example, that our students do not test as well in subjects like mathematics, science, and geography as their counterparts in other parts of the world. But the test takers in other countries are often hand-picked, overtutored, and school-phobic. We don’t test in the United States in order to exclude; America wouldn’t be America if we did.
If schools intensified their efforts at test preparation, would American parents be willing to send children to be tutored for two to three hours a day, for four to five years, at private expense? When their children returned from such lessons, would parents be willing to supervise several hours of homework every night? That is what most Japanese and many European parents do. Do we want to imitate the Japanese and Europeans or reclaim our own system?
And are American students willing to assume this kind of academic load? Would they give up their minimum-wage jobs--the silent killer of high-quality education?
The truth is that our children are spending more time working, playing, listening to music, and aimlessly wandering the shopping malls than studying, reading, thinking, or pursuing cultural interests. I am afraid we can’t blame the public schools for that.
Another common complaint focuses on the fact that some young people never learn to read. This is indeed one of the saddest phenomena in a civilized society. But since our schools teach most students to read, let us be fair about attributing blame for those who don’t learn.
Experts say that experiences in the first five years of life have a profound effect on a child’s ability to learn. The mind is like a computer: It produces only what it has been programmed to produce. A nonverbal, abusive environment does not help a child store information needed to decode language. But reading is a simple task for a youngster who grows up with verbal stimulation.
A certain percentage of our students drop out of school, the critics point out. Some of these young people have plans, work hard, become worthy citizens, and, in some instances, return to education. There is no need to worry about them.
The others--those we term “at risk"--the country cannot afford to neglect. By “at-risk” children, I do not mean only poor, minority, urban youngsters. Another category includes a growing number of middle-class students--average and promising but falling fast in achievement because they choose work before education, pursuing short-term material goals instead of building a strong foundation for academic or vocational competence. If we allow this trend to continue, our educational system is destined to remain mediocre. In Japan and Europe, student labor is unheard of.
Some say that the young lack basic values. While the charge is true for a few, the majority of our young people are solid citizens--sensitive, giving, believing, and ready to defend their country. We should make our judgments on the basis not of the small number who break the rules but of the millions who obey them. And let us remember that values are instilled at home by parents, the first and most important of teachers.
Critics cite drug problems in the schools. In fact, there is a drug problem in American society, and the schools reflect that society. They are trying to keep drugs off their campuses--but how could the schools fare any better with drugs when all the might of the United States, the defender of the free world, cannot stop drugs from penetrating the nation’s streets and choking its capital city?
As has been frequently noted, the number of teenage pregnancies is increasing. The statistics are alarming, and they guarantee the continuation of an underclass--and of misery for many--for years to come. But the schools cannot take the blame for this development. Governing bodies must stop short of expecting that jack-of-all-trades, the public-school teacher, to fix this problem.
Education about reproduction certainly has a place in our schools, but it should be conducted by medical professionals and no one else. As for the values of moral decency, respect for life, appreciation for the awesome responsibilities of parenthood--these must be inculcated at home.
And to the contention of some critics that the nation’s teachers are not good enough, I would answer that they are the best educated, most dedicated, hardest working, and least honored in the world.
Are our teachers competent? Are they worthy of their charge? I say that they are--in similar percentages as American doctors, lawyers, pharmacists, and other professionals.
We must remember, too, that when a teacher fails, the responsibility must be shared by the teacher, the institution from which he was graduated, the school board that hired him, and the school system that retained him without providing support for success or a passport out of the profession. Likewise, when a student fails to learn, the responsibility must be accepted by the student, the teacher, and the parents.
As a society, we tend to forget that “public” education means education open to all, concerning all, funded by all. It does not mean that recipients are free of responsibility, or that parents can relinquish their duties, or that students will learn and excel simply by showing up at the door of the schoolhouse.
The education of the young requires good teachers, willing students, supportive parents, committed governing bodies, and a citizenry that understands that education in a democracy is society’s backbone, the great equalizer, the guarantor of freedom.
And no restructuring of American education will succeed until teachers are set free to teach--free from clerical duties, from issuing forms, from collecting money, from all the bureaucratic slavery that threatens to consume their time and spirit.
Empowered, well prepared, constantly learning teachers who are paid and treated as professionals, and receptive, ambitious students with supportive and informed families are the vital elements for excellence in education.
A version of this article appeared in the October 11, 1989 edition of Education Week as Commitment of ‘Public’ Vital for Education