No man is an island, and nor are our public schools. Since the establishment of our nation’s first public school in 1839 by Horace Mann, “The Father of American Education,” American education has been viewed as the promising vehicle for social change and democracy. When Horace Mann left his law practice to be Secretary to the Massachusetts Board of Education, he brought with him the belief that education through common schools would be the “great equalizer” of all social issues that exist; that schools should be available and equal to all American children as their civil and human birth-right.
If such importance and promise lie in this single institution, why, then, has it been left alone to be a sole vessel fighting to stay afloat in a storm of inadequate funding, insufficient resources, and high-stakes testing, to name a few? Leaving schools to fend for themselves has been harmful to education, and to our country’s progress as a democratic nation. Our nation’s federal government must have seen the kink in the road, because they choose, to lend a hand…by reauthorizing legislation of test-driven school reform. This, I fear, has only enforced the view of education synonymously with schooling, and nothing else. Education is now narrowly viewed to consist of an isolated building occupied by children who are being drilled to learn an exclusive set of skills. The tendency to view education as simply literacy and math skills causes us to ignore all other possibilities and educative institutions. By placing all the pressure on schools, the rest of society is relieved from educative and social responsibilities.
Schools cannot educate in isolation. If schools are to be the center of social movement and progress, then they need to be treated as such. If our children are to be the future contributors and leaders of society, then they need to have that modeled for them by the very source. Crunching numbers and writing 3-point thesis essays will not help an individual grow into a creative, innovative, embracing member of society. We cannot limit our children’s growth and potential to scantrons number two pencils.
What our children need are communities built to surround and embrace them; communities of involvement and engagement in their lives. Little Sammie is not “Sammie with the strong breaststroke,” to the swim coach; or “Sammie, the math whiz,” to the teacher; or “Sammie, mom’s favorite little helper,” but Sammie is all these things to all who are involved in Sammie’s life. Parents, teachers, relatives, and coaches, all adults in contact with the child need to be in partnership and communication to support the growth and development for the education of the child.
When high-stakes testing, scores, and nationalized curriculum are the focus of federal spending, less attention is placed on the root of the very issue: building a supportive and thriving community. The public needs to be informed and encouraged to fulfill their civil and social responsibility in the future of our country. Attention needs to be placed on educating the parents and the community about their role and abilities to contribute to their children’s education. Public support is needed to allow parents to have a place in their children’s lives.
19th Century education reformer Myles Horton compared planting a garden to democratic education:
Someone criticized Highlander workshops, saying, ‘All you do is sit there and tell stories.’ Well, if he’d seen me in the spring planting my garden, he would’ve said: ‘That guy doesn’t know how to grow vegetables. I don’t see any vegetables’…Well he was doing the same thing about observing the workshop. It was the seeds getting ready to start, and he thought that was the whole process…if you don’t have some vision of what ought to be or what they can become, then you have no way of contributing anything to the process.”
May our seeds of educational reform grow in dramatic ways? Looking back on the history of education, waves of education reform have been short-lived. Not many individuals or solo-sailing schools can withstand public and federal criticism. We must inform and rally community members to stand firm for each other and to support one another for the long-haul of education reform. Indeed, it certainly does take a whole village.
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