If Public Schools are Dying, Ailing, or Thriving; So, Too, is America

The undemocratic federal and corporate control over public schools has become nothing short of fascist. The attempt to malign and eliminate public schools is a vile treasonous act that will destroy our democracy quicker and in a more sustained way than any terrorist group. Moreover, our complacency within the public schools that brought about all this reactionary behavior has been just as destructive. Americans’ highest priority as a nation must be to democratically create schools that are truly committed to an education that results in independent, enlightened, critical, caring, self-aware, self-actualizing individuals who will be active participants in our democracy.

I have been so heartened by the grassroots activism of parents and educators across the country to preserve and protect public schools. I get goose bumps as I read the hundreds of blogs so intelligently and vehemently exposing the false assumptions and bad data espoused by supporters of standardized testing and corporate influence in our schools. I am moved to tears every time I hear of a teacher walk-out or a student walk-out, standing up for our precious children and our fragile democracy. With all this determination and courage, we may just win this. But make no mistake, if we win, our work will have just begun.

Despite rhetoric to the contrary, the recent standardized testing insanity has not caused radical changes in our schools. Radical change is what I imagine may have occurred in places like a Deb Meier school or a Ted Sizer school. What a sacrilege. But for the most part, what the “reform” movement has done is simply locked the shackles we already had imposed on ourselves. But by locking those shackles, “reformers” have raised the ire of two groups of educators whose voices are finally being heard.

First, there are the educators, good teachers, who basically follow the factory model and do what is expected of them, so the shackles don’t chafe them when they teach. But they are conscientious, caring, effective, and pure in their motives. They love the kids, and they care about the students above anything else. When the shackles were locked, though, they realized how important even small deviations from the norm really were, to them and to their students, whether it was the field trips or the circle time or the plays or the projects. And as though those kids were their very own children, this group of teachers, one by one, saw the damage that was being done, and their wrath would not be appeased, and hopefully they won’t allow their voices to be silenced.

The second group of educators who have been forced to join this fight to preserve public school are the thousands of subversive civilly disobedient educators, who choose to walk to the beat of the drum that leads their students toward the true aims of education. And throughout their march, they rarely were praised, often were reprimanded, and they never fit in. Somehow, they stay as true as they can to the noblest aims of education- to self-actualize, to become caring people, independent thinkers, and democratic citizens. They try to follow the research and evidence based practices written in scholarly journals and presented at conferences and their master’s courses. They reflect on and try to follow the great educators like Nel Noddings, John Dewey, Jane Roland Martin, Deb Meier, Ted Sizer, Herbert Kohl, Jonathan Kozol, and so many others. They teach with grace as though the shackles aren’t tearing their flesh and weighing them down, as though they aren’t being shunned by administrators and colleagues. But to these unsung heroes, it is still worth it because they are reaching kids, making an impact, and following their principles as best they can while remaining in the system. But, again, just like the first group, when the shackles were locked, they became trapped like caged animals, with no room to follow principles and keep their jobs. This group can no longer be silent, either. If we do achieve a critical mass among educators, it will be because of these two minority groups.

As Howard Zinn has taught us over and over again, it is not the Constitution that protects our rights or our democracy. We, the people, breathe life into our democracy. We, the people, have to be willing to fight, tooth and nail, for every lofty ideal that this country stands for. If we don’t, our democracy will be overtaken. Our rights will be taken away. The single greatest way we can protect our democracy and our rights is to care for our public education system. The heart and soul of our democracy is our public education system. We should sacrifice everything to preserve and improve it. With that much power, comes just as much responsibility. And we should be held accountable for the fruits of our labor.

American public education can be credited for the protests against Eric Garner’s death and the outcry against the use of systematic torture in Afghanistan. We can also be blamed for perpetuating institutional racism and torture. Public schools are responsible for the minds that create our society. It’s that simple. Not for the ridiculous test scores- how absurd and short-sighted, not to mention self-serving and oppressive! But public schools are responsible for the generational changes for the better and for the worse in this democratic society.

When this battle is won due to the heroic voices and activism of educators and parents across this nation, we must remain vigilant in that activist stance when we return to the classroom unbridled by standardized testing. We can create schools that can take credit for the elimination of institutional racism, that can take credit for the highest voting participation in the world, for being the human rights champions of the world, not just in word but in deed. We can create those schools. And I would welcome being evaluated on that kind of criteria.

It is time to reclaim the true purpose of education, re-commit to our public education system, and re-vitalize it to fulfill its wondrous potential. We owe that to our children and the generations to come. We all need to remain conscious of how heavily the survival of our nation’s fundamental principles rely on the sacred institution of the American public school system.

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