Teaching Opinion

Public Rhetoric, Public Responsibility, and The Public Schools

By Ellen Condliffe Lagemann — May 14, 2007 8 min read
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There are vital relationships between public rhetoric and public policy in a democratic society, and I fear that current public rhetoric about public education does not serve us well.

Consider three recent reports: “Rising Above the Gathering Storm,” “America’s Perfect Storm: Three Forces Changing Our Nation’s Future,” and “Tough Choices or Tough Times: The Report of the New Commission on the Skills of the American Workforce.” They are very different reports, in sponsorship, authorship, and focus. All advance findings and policy suggestions worth considering. What matters here, however, is that all are dire in tone and substance.

Each report argues that our nation is in peril because our educational institutions are failing to prepare workers who can compete with workers in other nations. With logics derived primarily from economics, they insist that we are even more in danger today than we were in 1983, when another alarming report, A Nation at Risk, appeared. Despite nearly 25 years of sustained efforts at improvement, according to these documents, the public schools have failed both the children and the nation they are meant to serve.

—Patti Raine


Is that true? The frighteningly poor performance of U.S. youngsters in international comparisons of educational achievement is well-known. So are statistics demonstrating that an alarming number of young people leave school ill-equipped to enter college or the labor market. It is no secret that our high school completion rates remain much too low, or that our incarceration rates—especially for young, male African-Americans—are alarmingly high.

So, are reports like these telling us the truth? I think not, despite the evidence I have alluded to. I think the true story is not that our schools have failed us. It is rather that we, as a society, have failed our schools.

We have failed our schools because we have asked them to do impossible things. In urban areas throughout the United States, and in some rural areas as well, we have asked schools to educate children who come to school bearing all the problems this country would prefer to ignore. Some children come to school not knowing where they will sleep that night, because they are homeless. Some come to school from homes without responsible adults able to care for them. Many come to school through streets that are dirty and dangerous. We may offer children living in situations like these some milk and cereal when they arrive at school, but after that we expect their teachers to find ways to hold their attention sufficiently so that they can learn.

I am not talking about children who have well-educated, involved parents and lots of preschool educational experiences at home. They come to school “ready to learn.” We could choose to ensure that all children came to school in that state. But we do not provide decent health care, housing, and public safety for a significant percentage of those who attend our most challenged public schools. It is hardly surprising, then, that some youngsters do not thrive in school. Society has failed to provide the minimal public services that public schools need in order to serve all children well.

Let me be very clear. I do not think the failure of our society to provide the wherewithal that can ensure that all children come to school ready to learn should justify school failure. Not at all. I am also painfully aware that by pointing to the social failures that surround our schools, I can be misunderstood as excusing low expectations, poor teaching, or incompetent school leadership. My point is simply that schools exist in a social context that has a powerful effect on what adults can accomplish with and for children.

There are several reasons why current rhetoric emphasizes school failure without giving equal emphasis to the social failures that often surround the public schools. Policy reports are generally styled for the media. They are designed to win headlines because headlines can bring influence. They tell us starkly that we are in peril, even if a more nuanced reading of the evidence would suggest that, if we are in peril, it is owing to the social choices we have made, and not merely because public schools are failing to accomplish all that they should.

Schools exist in a social context, and that context has a powerful effect on what adults can accomplish with and for children.

I am skeptical of much current policy rhetoric for a second reason. Most education policy reports today reflect logics and ways of thinking that are derived from economics. The implicit model for school success is likely to be a simple, linear model that focuses on costs and benefits. If you spend X dollars, and teachers have Y hours of training, you should get Z outputs. But education does not work that way. Anyone who has taught or observed classrooms closely realizes that. To analyze education accurately, we need more-complicated models of causation than social scientists have yet been able to invent. Lacking models that are sufficiently nuanced and complex, policy reports, of necessity, rely upon the best models currently available. And today, those tend to come from economics.

Economics has become central to education policy analysis for historical reasons. In recent years, the study of human capital has drawn some of the best minds in the discipline. They have been able to work with numerical precision because the inventors of econometrics married economics and mathematics. And these days mathematical precision seems the key to policy relevance—as shown also by the marriage of mathematics and psychology that has given us psychometrics. Beginning in the Kennedy administration, the Council of Economic Advisers also assumed a primary role in advising the federal government. Over the years, as the federal advisory bureaucracy has grown, economists have come to fill more and more important offices. Beginning with Head Start in the early 1960s, economic logics have therefore come to serve as a primary ingredient in the justification and evaluation of most, if not all, education policies.

Lest you accuse me of not being fair to the so-called dismal science, I should hasten to add that I am aware that others of the social sciences also influence education policy. I should also note that I believe that economics illuminates some problems that are crucial to policy analysis in education. For example, the economist James J. Heckman, a distinguished University of Chicago Nobelist, has provided incisive cost estimates of the investments necessary to achieve greater equity in education. (“Beyond Pre-K,” March 21, 2007.) And one could cite other, similarly significant investigations. That notwithstanding, I would still venture that our heavy reliance on economic models and logics has skewed our attention toward the outcomes of education, too narrowly defined, and away from the processes of education.

What might happen if we paid less attention to outcomes, as measured by test scores, and more attention to how children learn, which is one of the most important processes of education? This could force us to attend more sensibly to schooling within the social and cultural contexts in which it occurs. Studying the processes of education could make us think more about relationships between education in families and neighborhoods, on the one hand, and in schools, on the other. Studying the ways in which children learn could help us focus on cultural differences between and among the children who sit in the same classroom, and on how those cultural differences might be used to empower learning rather than to stand in its way.

Our heavy reliance on economic models and logics has skewed our attention toward the outcomes of education, too narrowly defined, and away from the processes of education.

I do not want to venture too far into “what-might-be, if-only-we-did-this-or-that.” I would rather reiterate that I believe that education policy has not been well served by an overemphasis on outcomes and too little attention to the processes of education. This overemphasis on outcomes has led us to slight all that we must provide children and families, if schools are reasonably to be expected to ensure that all children stay in school and learn to their fullest potential. Because rhetoric both reflects and shapes reality, our rhetoric has led to a sorry imbalance between what we ask schools to accomplish and the support we provide them in fulfilling our demands.

It is sad to say, but the imbalance between what we expect of public schools and offer them by way of support is not different from what we have asked the U.S. military to do in Iraq and what most of us have done to ensure the military’s success—however one would define “success.” We seem more inclined these days to delegate responsibility to others than to assume it ourselves. Outside contractors are playing increasing roles in both our military and educational pursuits, and in a truly democratic society neither function should be contracted out.

What, then, is to be done? We must find ways to stir more profound debate concerning what is and is not public in a society like ours, and what should and should not be private. What do we, as a society, owe to all children? What should we allow families to do for their children without intrusion from the state? What should individuals be able to have, by way of educational and cultural opportunities that will not be equally available to all people?

I do not have a quick, easy solution to the alienation that has led us to accept the delegation of our own public responsibilities to other people. But I am convinced that a first step toward a solution may lie in recognizing that we have misdiagnosed the problem. To repeat: If public schools are failing, it is not their failure, but our own. If we can acknowledge that, perhaps then we can muster the social imagination and will needed to reorient public rhetoric, reinvigorate public responsibility, and renew public commitments to public education.

A version of this article appeared in the May 16, 2007 edition of Education Week as Public Rhetoric, Public Responsibility, And the Public Schools


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