Progressives everywhere are in agreement that Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos is no friend of public education. Her agenda is straightforward: 1) educational vouchers that can be ‘cashed in’ at any school, including religious ones; 2) for-profit charter schools, including on-line ones; and 3) minimal oversight by government. She is pushing this agenda despite overwhelming evidence that vouchers have failed, that the public does not want vouchers, and that the for-profit education world is full of crooks and charlatans.
However, it’s not enough for progressives to simply be against DeVos’s radical agenda. They must stand strongly and clearly FOR an agenda that makes sense…and not just to parents but also–most importantly–to the general public.
Because, while most parents, year after year, give their children’s schools a grade of either A or B, according to the Phi Delta Kappan poll, parents are a small fraction of the voting population. Progressives need to connect positively with those without a direct connection to public education, the group I call ‘the outsiders.’
You see, the problem with the truism “It Takes a Village to Raise a Child” is that most villagers have no direct connection to children or to the schools they go to. Only about 25 percent of homes have school age children, and in some communities that number drops into the teens. Even if you include households with grandparents, the percentage probably won’t reach 40.
And it is the people in those households with no strong connection to public education who hold the future of public schools in their hands. They vote on school budgets, and so their opinions of schools, teachers and students matter. Not only do older folks vote in greater numbers than young voters, but the gap is increasing. According to the Census Bureau, “the turnout rate among 18-to 24-year olds fell to 41.2 percent in 2012 from 48.5 percent in 2008. The turnout rates of adults ages 65 and older rose—to 71.9 percent in 2012 from 70.3 percent in 2008.”
For these reasons, educators and those connected to schools must develop and adopt strategies to win the support of those without a direct connection to schools. It’s not enough for good things to be happening in schools; ‘the outsiders’ need to be supportive, and the best way to make that happen is to get them involved in the good things that are happening.
I am afraid that many educators will have trouble taking this step because they have grown accustomed to a system that says, in effect, “Leave the children and the money at the schoolhouse door, and leave the rest to us.” That approach won’t work any more, if it ever did. The ‘outside world,’ meaning ordinary taxpayers and the business community, may also have trouble adjusting, because they’ve grown accustomed to being kept at arm’s length.
But that’s what has to change…and determined educators can do this by meeting ‘the outsiders’ where they are and involving them in the ‘curriculum’ of a modern world. Here are a few ways, taken from my forthcoming book, Addicted to Reform: A 12-Step Program to Rescue Public Education.
*Students can create a photo gallery of the residents of their apartment building or their street and then post portraits on the web for all to see and talk about.
*Art students can sketch portraits of business storefronts, or workers and bosses, also to be posted on the web.
*The school’s jazz quintet can perform at community centers with the jazz trio from another school in a neighboring county — simultaneously on Skype — which is no problem as long as the schools are within 750 or so miles of each other, roughly the speed of sound (any farther can create a sound lag).
*A video team can interview adults in a senior citizen center or an apartment building around a chosen theme (best job, favorite trip, et cetera), to be edited into a short video for the web. Producing short biographies of ordinary citizens will teach all sorts of valuable skills like clear writing, teamwork and meeting deadlines.
*Music and drama students can rehearse and then present their productions at retirement homes and senior centers — but with a twist: involve some of the adults in the process (a small part in the play, a role in selecting the music, and so on).
Here’s a real world example from Milpitas, California, courtesy of the San Jose Mercury News:
“Students at John Sinnott Elementary School have been putting what they’ve learned in the classroom to good use over the last few months as they worked to design and build a tiny home on campus with the help of parents and local businesses.
Wearing hard hats and with staple guns in hand, Sinnott students were joined by parents, teachers and San Jose-based Blach Construction’s contractors, carpenters and engineers during a barn raising on April 1.
The tiny home, a 200-square-foot residence located at 2025 Yellowstone Ave., is deemed to be Project Based Learning, or PBL, in action, in which students gain knowledge and skills by working for an extended period of time to investigate and respond to a question, problem or challenge.”
Let’s hope that once the kids have finished installing the solar panels and other finishing touches, they invite lots of ‘outsiders’ to the ribbon-cutting ceremony on May 19th!
Careful readers will have noticed some commonalities among these activities: Many are (so-called) extra-curricular, and all of them are group projects. All of them involve work outside the school building and direct connections to the group I have called ‘the outsiders.’
After all, the best messengers for strong public education are students engaged in the productive activity of project-based learning. ‘Outsiders’ will be drawn into the tent and will, over time, become supporters of public education.
However, if public school boards and administrators stick with the ‘test and punish’ agenda of the Bush and Obama administrations, then public education doesn’t stand much of a chance, and Secretary DeVos’s radical agenda is likely to prevail.
Sticking with the status quo plays into DeVos’s hands, and protest marches, editorials, walkouts and other forms of ‘cursing the darkness’ will not slow her down.
Put it this way: Only when ‘outsiders’ become convinced that what’s happening in our public schools is not just test-prep and rote learning pushed on sullen teenagers by demoralized instructors, only then will Betsy DeVos and her militant Christian army of ideologues and profiteers lose this war.
(PS: My book will be published by The New Press in August. Please consider asking your independent book seller to order copies. The electronic version, which includes videos from my 41-year career, will be available on Amazon.)