In Support of Public Education

I’m usually not a very political person because as a social studies teacher, I wanted students to form their own opinions and not parrot mine.  As an educator for the past 31 years, I focused my efforts on what I felt was good for children and our schools. As I watch the Nebraska Legislature debate legislation that would allow charter schools, I felt it was important to speak on this topic.

I’m reminded of Diane Ravitch’s remarks at a recent conference. Dr. Ravitch is an education historian who has worked in both the George H. W. Bush and Bill Clinton administrations. Dr. Ravitch previously advocated for the privatization of public education through various choice programs, including charter schools; she now admits she was wrong.  The very ideas Dr. Ravitch once promoted in her role as assistant secretary of education, she denounces today as so flawed that they could ultimately lead to the demise of public education as we know it.

Her ideas resonate with me because it is my belief that our country’s successful democratic culture is built on the very concept of educating every student and developing an informed citizenry. These ideas are now in danger, due to the wishes of some to privatize public education.

I admit that public education created some of its own challenges by not providing focused professional development and by not implementing strong national standards to help all students succeed. No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top legislation, however well-intentioned, set up schools for failure, especially those with the most disadvantaged students. We should not create an educational culture of rewards/punishments based on a test. Instead, we must create an educational culture based on rigorous liberal arts programs that develop the critical thinking skills of all, not some students. Only then can we provide a strong academic foundation for our future innovators and entrepreneurs. Our conversations must focus on the whole child, including academics, but also on developing ethical students with strong character traits.

In my 31 years as a teacher, the education field has experienced continual reform.  I was in graduate school when A Nation at Risk appeared in 1983.  At that point, our profession began a generation of reform to fix our public education system, which has led us to our current situation. As Dr. Ravitch observed, A Nation at Risk made sound recommendations that were appropriate at the time.  Those recommendations were focused on the teaching and learning of students and staff.  The report did not promote privatization or heavy-handed accountability structures that exist today.

In my opinion, A Nation at Risk did not go far enough to redesign our educational system. However, it offered solid recommendations that focused on stronger academic and behavioral expectations, increased graduation requirements, more time for students to master the curriculum, and better training for teachers. Given some of the same freedoms afforded charter or choice schools, I believe that our public schools can design institutions that work for all students.  We have great employees and supportive communities throughout our nation ready to design schools that develop persistent, independent learners.  Why not encourage and allow our public schools to innovate and try new practices without fear of penalty?

With that said, I am not aware of any specific reform effort that will solve our challenges easily.  I only know that through collaboration, communication, creative problem solving, and really hard work, we can begin to implement our vision for children who attend our schools. We need to think deeply about the future of schooling in America if we are to meet the needs of every learner.

As your Superintendent, I recognize that our success is directly due to the unwavering support of our Board of Education, our community, and the many outstanding employees, including support staff, who serve our students every day. Thank you for your continued commitment to the Westside Community Schools.