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Finding Common Ground

A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. He can be found at www.petermdewitt.com. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

What Does Public Education Mean to You?

By Peter DeWitt — February 04, 2013 5 min read
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“The primary purpose of education is to cultivate a better society, not merely reflect the current one.” Todd Whitaker

Public education means many things to many different people. Some people believe it is a place where students receive an important foundation for learning and others strongly feel it is an institution that needs to change. Besides those two opinions, there many that sit in-between. In the past few years, the public school system has changed in numerous ways and many educators are concerned it has not changed for the better. We have been inundated with RTTT, more accountability, APPR, Common Core State Standards and high stakes testing.

However, there have also been exciting changes as well. More educators are diving into project-based learning and infusing technology into their regular teaching practices. They have flipped their classrooms and administrators have flipped their faculty meetings and parent communication. Many educators have embraced social media such as Twitter and they have built their PLN’s. All of this has been done in an effort to increase student engagement in the classroom.

One of the most important things we can do is continue to put education at the forefront of our conversations and debates. Students, teachers, parents and administrators need to be at the table where these discussions occur, and need to have a voice along with policymakers and politicians who seem to be speaking the loudest.

What Does Public Education Mean?
Everyone has their own idea of what public education means and even with all of those monumental changes, there should be a core belief that we can make public education great. In an effort to keep the public school education dialogue going, I had the opportunity to ask some experts what public education means to them.

Eric Sheninger - “To me public education is the honorable duty of schools to provide all students with the knowledge, tools, and skills to succeed in a globally-connected world. It relies on subject-certified teachers who provide students with opportunities to apply what they have learned to demonstrate conceptual mastery. Public education is the catalytic force essential to economic prosperity and sustaining a country known for innovative thinking and entrepreneurs.”

Andy Hargreaves & Dennis Shirley (The Global Fourth Way) “Public education is a process and also a goal: education for the public good of everyone’s children, not just one’s own. Public education should bring children together with diverse members of the community, so they are not just learning ABOUT the public or FOR the public but also WITH the broader future public. Public education calls for a curriculum that raises people’s awareness of and their commitment to what their role is in a civic democracy as active and engaged citizens. Right now, public education is too segregated, too bureaucratic, and sacrificed too easily to private interests.”

Howard Gardner - “The word to pause on is ‘public’. For me it has two quite different connotations: l) education is considered a public good and, as such, is funded primarily by the government through taxes or other sources of income; 2) it is an education that equips one to be an informed, thoughtful, and involved member of the communities to which one belongs. On education per se, I cannot improve on the Arnoldian notion that education should expose young minds to the best that has been thought and written, in the hope that they can contribute to knowledge in the future. I write this on the day after the governor of North Carolina dismissed the value of a liberal arts education. He should be publicly shamed.”

Carol Ann Tomlinson - “I see public education in the U.S. as a manifestation of our belief in the power of learning to open avenues for all our citizens to achieve what we call “the American Dream.” In that way, public schools represent the ideal of equity of access to quality education for all our young people. The promise is too often unfulfilled and our implementation of the promise too often falls short of what we know to be best practice. Nonetheless, the durability of the promise and our on-going pursuit of the ideal represents a kind of hope--a possibility of who we might become, as educators, students, and a nation.”

Tom Whitby (#edchat Founder) - “I believe we need public education as a barrier to stave off those who would subvert our democracy and culture. In a technology-driven society that is subject to a twenty-four hour barrage of Ideology and demagoguery the only protection any country has is an educated citizenry. Public education guarantees access to education that under the best conditions teaches children the skill of learning and the ability to critically think. Seemingly these same skills may be lacking in those who are in a position to support educators today.”

Todd Whitaker - “The primary purpose of education is to cultivate a better society, not merely reflect the current one.”

Nancy Carlsson-Paige - “Whenever I think of public education, it is intertwined with the idea of democracy. The idea that all people deserve an equal right to a high quality education seems like the cornerstone of a democratic society. When our youth do receive excellent, quality public education, they learn to think critically, respect differences, and express their own ideas with cogency and confidence. And that leads to the continual re-creation of a thriving, democratic society; to an informed, engaged citizenry. We have never achieved this goal as a society, and we are farther away from it than we’ve been at certain times in our history, but this is the ideal that I dream about and hope will someday become a reality.”

Our lives have changed and we all can agree that society has changed as well. I agree with Nancy Carlsson-Paige that every child deserves the right to a high quality education but we know that many marginalized groups are not receiving the education they deserve. The question is how do we get there?

What does public education mean to you?

To hear what a quality inclusive education means to Peter, please watch this Teach.com video.

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The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.