Special Report
Education Opinion

From a Public Education to an Education in Public

By Thomas Hatch — January 14, 1998 10 min read

One elementary school had been asked to explain the work it had been doing as part of the Massachusetts Schools Network, a collaboration of 10 different schools, Harvard Project Zero, and the Massachusetts Department of Education. In response, teachers and students from the school came to the board meeting equipped with portfolios full of the writing, research projects, artwork, science investigations, and other material they had collected during the year. When it came time for them to speak, the students, with portfolios under their arms, all piled out of their seats, filed past the podium, spread out around the conference table, and crowded around the board members. Just tall enough to look the seated adults in the eye, these 2nd and 3rd graders eagerly opened up their folders, pulled out a select group of papers, and regaled the board with tales of what they were doing in school.

For many of these board members, it was something of a new experience. As they turned from child to child, a few looked amused, some surprised. A couple just seemed stunned. They did not know what to make of these children or their work. Were the pieces they were being shown exemplary, or did the quality leave something to be desired? How did the pieces compare with the work of students of similar ages from other schools and districts? Did they show that the students were tackling issues of substance or spending too much time on irrelevant pursuits?

How many of us would have responded any differently? How many of us, in the same situation, could do much more than say, “I see,” or “That’s wonderful!”? Few of us have much of an opportunity to discuss children’s work; nor would many of us know what to say if we did. We could note the neatness, check the spelling, or count the number of questions a child got right or wrong. But what questions would we ask to find out if the children really understood the material, to challenge their conclusions, or to encourage them to pursue their chosen topics even further? In fact, few people have much chance to sit down with others--whether they are parents, administrators, teachers, or students--and talk in depth about the quality and qualities of student work. The work that students do is not what we talk about when we talk about school.

When we talk about school, we talk about budget figures, tax rates, and test scores. We talk about graduation outcomes, the requirements of college, and the demands of employers. We talk about school governance, school choice, charter schools, and reconstituting schools. We talk about standardized tests, Advanced Placement tests, national tests; tests for students and tests for teachers. Assessments, authentic assessments, alternative assessments, and needs assessments. In all of these discussions, we are engaged in education. We are engaged in establishing common goals or coming up with standards; in making decisions about programs and initiatives, or simply in sharing perspectives on the state of schools today.

In recent years, numerous reports, surveys, and initiatives have pointed out how crucial such public engagement in education can be. Yet at the same time, because we spend relatively little time looking at or discussing the work that children do in school, we have lost opportunities to be engaged in the substance of teaching and learning. That is relegated to cramped classrooms behind closed doors. We only catch a glimpse of it when we look at our children’s homework or venture in for a parent conference, open house, or holiday celebration. Teaching and learning are stealth activities that very few can see, even when those activities are going on all around us.

Teaching and learning are stealth activities that very few can see, even when those activities are going on around us.

With so little time to look carefully at what students are doing in schools or to discuss it with others, many people have not had a chance to develop fully the capacities to observe, analyze, reflect on, and support children’s learning. For all our talk about the importance of literacy, we do not know how to read children’s work. Like abstract paintings, we hang it on our walls and refrigerators, but we do not spend much time trying to determine what it can tell us about what or how our children learn.

But we could. There are many opportunities within the current education system when parents, other community members, school staff members, and students could be involved in extended discussions about what children actually do in school. Such discussions can support the development of better and broader understandings of teaching and learning. These understandings in turn can provide a powerful foundation for engagement in a broad range of educational activities and discussions and yield new and valuable insights and initiatives for improving schools.

Three different initiatives provide examples of existing opportunities where those inside and outside of schools can become involved in meaningful discussions of teaching and learning. In the Massachusetts Schools Network, for example, the typical parent-teacher conferences and open houses have been replaced. Instead of sitting down to listen to the teacher extol the virtues or condemn the vices of their children, parents and teachers are now joined by the students, who are responsible for sharing a portfolio of their work and describing what it shows about their learning. Beyond the usual open house, parents and other members of the community have the chance to participate in schoolwide celebrations of children’s work. More than mere decorations on the walls, the work is made public, so that all members of the community can see and talk about what students at every grade level are (and are not) learning.

In such schools, effective teaching can be seen, deficiencies identified, and communities rallied to take the actions and provide the support that can lead to meaningful change. And all those involved--like the students who attended that school board meeting--can begin to develop their capacities to describe, analyze, and critique the work that goes on in school.

I many of the state of Texas’ Alliance Schools--schools that are supported by a collaboration between community organizations associated with the Industrial Areas Foundation and the Texas Education Agency--parents and teachers work side by side to organize and run after-school programs and other initiatives. This is not simply sitting in meetings or sponsoring events to raise money for activities led by others. The parents and community members actually help design and lead educational activities. As a result, many who ordinarily would never make it past the schoolhouse door get to see children’s work every day and to wrestle regularly with questions of what children are and are not learning.

Within such efforts, discussions of goals and standards are grounded in the shared educational experiences of many people in the community. People have a chance to see the challenges facing students and teachers and to identify problems and policies that need to be changed. In turn, students and teachers have a chance to see parents and community members who are committed to helping make changes that can make a difference in their lives.

Such meaningful engagement in educational activities can provide a basis for building a broad constituency that can have a powerful effect in shaping policy and practice. To give just one example, growing out of the success of these after-school programs in Austin, Texas, and the recognition of their value, school and community members of the Alliance Schools helped organize a campaign that was instrumental in garnering funding for over a hundred after-school programs in San Antonio.

Meanwhile, in Gulfport, Miss., and the California towns of Lincoln and Western Placer, debates over the construction of new schools have been similarly transformed. Instead of devoting most of their time to arguments over the amount of funding available, the size of the new buildings, or their placement, community members, with school staff members and students, have been engaged in investigating the educational activities and opportunities in their communities.

Supported by a process designed by architect Steven Bingler and his colleagues, teams representing a cross-section of the community spread out and visit classrooms, talk to students, and look at students’ work. They hold broad, far-ranging discussions about the goals and missions of schooling. But they also work together in discovering what their students are actually doing in schools, and in learning how the resources in their neighborhoods could be leveraged to support the kinds of educational activities they seek.

As a result, the members of these communities have built partnerships with local businesses for new job-training programs and proposed turning local parks, museums, farms, and factories into places where students can learn. By helping broaden people’s understandings of how teaching and learning take place, they have come up with building plans that reflect the educational hopes and dreams of the community, and that could save millions of dollars in construction costs.

For all our talk about the importance of literacy, we do not know how to read children’s work.

There are a host of other opportunities within the current system to look at students’ work, to reflect on their activities, and to gain a deeper understanding of the process of teaching and learning. For example, some colleges still interview prospective students. How much more informative could such interviews be if students were asked to bring a portfolio of their work that showed how their interests and abilities had developed over the previous four years? While portfolios have often been criticized because they are not as reliable as standardized tests, a semi-structured discussion of student work might well be more informative and reliable than a free-ranging interview. Such a discussion might give admissions personnel much better insights into what candidates have learned and how the schools the candidates have attended supported or constrained their development. Such an interview could be carried out without taking up any additional time or placing an extra burden on the admissions process. More than a challenge to individual students, such an initiative would send a message to students, teachers, and parents around the country that what students do in school--and not just their grades and test scores--matters.

These examples are not meant to suggest that other kinds of public-engagement efforts are unimportant or that test scores and other measures of student performance should not be used at all. Nor are they the only instances in which real attention to students’ work and activities takes place. Schools in other parts of the country, for example, have been holding parent-student-teacher conferences for years. These examples are given simply to point out that engaging the public in discussions of educational issues, in developing standards or missions for schooling, or in making decisions about schools is not necessarily the same thing as engaging the public in the substance of teaching and learning. Further, becoming involved in teaching and learning--by looking at student work, leading educational activities, or investigating the educational activities taking place inside and outside of schools--can provide a deeper understanding of the successes and challenges of schooling and provide a foundation for deeper public engagement in a host of educational issues.

Opportunities to engage a wide range of people in the substance of teaching and learning abound. We don’t have to hold more meetings; we don’t have to form new groups. But we do have to change our minds. We have to decide that we care as much about the work children do in school as we do about the grades they bring home or the test scores published in the newspaper. We have to decide that a public education is not just an education in which the public is engaged. It is an education that goes on in public, where everyone can see, participate in, and contribute.

Such involvement in the substance of teaching and learning can increase the chances that we have something meaningful to say when we talk about schools.

A version of this article appeared in the January 08, 1998 edition of Education Week as From a Public Education to an Education in Public