As public schools were reopening around the country in September, The New York Times devoted an entire Sunday “Opinion” section to ask “What Is School For?” Twelve writers provided answers, including “Everyone,” “Economic Mobility,” “Making Citizens,” “Learning to Read,” and “Wasting Time.” In the lead essay NPR’s Anya Kamenetz argued that while public schools are for everyone, they are also in serious trouble; declining enrollments, teacher shortages, right-wing attacks, more voucher programs that siphon funds away from public schools, and funding cuts are among the problems she delineates.
But what about the future? Can public education be saved? If so, how and by whom? Because The Times did not address those questions, let me suggest that, if public schools are going to survive and prosper, they must emulate public libraries.
Not long ago public libraries, not schools, were the endangered species: no one was reading books because video and video games were taking over. Funding for libraries was shrinking, and they were opening late, closing early, and staying shut one or two days a week.
What happened? Contrary to popular myth, it wasn’t just ‘Harry Potter.’ No, the library community woke up and realized that they had to market themselves. Librarians added DVD’s to their collections, made their public spaces hospitable, created events for different groups, and reached out to their various communities.
Their strategies worked, in most places anyway. Over the last two decades, public libraries have made themselves ‘must go’ places for millions of Americans, young and old. Today, two-thirds of us carry library cards, and half of us visit the library at least once a year. If you’re like me, you ‘visit’ your local library on-line, click some buttons to borrow books, then go to the building itself when the library reaches out to say that your book is ready. Nothing could be easier or more appealing.
A 2013 survey revealed just how much we care about libraries: “Some 90% of Americans ages 16 and older said that the closing of their local public library would have an impact on their community, with 63% saying it would have a “major” impact. Asked about the personal impact of a public library closing, two-thirds (67%) of Americans said it would affect them and their families, including 29% who said it would have a major impact.”
For years the fundamental difference between public schools and public libraries was that nobody had to go to the library, while school attendance was mandatory. Schools were a monopoly and had little or no reason to change–or even question–what they were doing.
However, a lot of people were unhappy with public schools, but those seeking alternatives to traditional schooling were generally rebuffed by local School Boards and other political entities, which were seemingly more concerned about test scores, graduation rates, and cutting budgets than about the individual needs of students. But just saying ‘no’ to demands for change didn’t work, and parents today have choices, including public charter schools, on-line schooling, vouchers, and homeschooling. That is, today many children do not have to go to their local public school.
And both during and after COVID, many parents have been voting with their feet, as The Times and others have pointed out. “Public school enrollment remains down for a second consecutive year, at 49.5 million in fall 2021 compared to 49.4 million in fall 2020, according to preliminary federal counts from the U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics. Comparatively, pre-pandemic enrollment was at 50.8 million students in fall 2019.”
Defenders of public education often respond by attacking voucher programs, online schooling, and charter schools–often with good reason. However, this defensive strategy, even when supported by strong evidence of embezzlement, inefficiency, and low achievement, will not be enough to bring back dissatisfied parents. Nor will negativity build support among the general public, the 75% of households who do not have school age children.
To survive and prosper, more public schools must do what public libraries did: 1) sell themselves to parents and the general public and 2) get better.
Displaying student work on school walls is not enough. Instead, students should be working in public and with the public. Here are a few possibilities:
- Teams of 7th and 8th graders interview local merchants about their businesses and then post the stories, with photos, on the school website.
- Groups of 3rd and 4th graders go to local nursing homes to read to, and chat with, residents. Post the student reports, with photos, on the web.
- Invest in an outdoor air quality monitor (less than $300) so that teams of 5th and 6th graders can monitor the local air quality several times each day. Link with other middle schools around the state so students can compare and contrast air quality. Invite local experts to Zoom with students to answer questions. The reports should be posted regularly on the school website.
- 10th and 11th graders ask local residents–especially those without school age children–to recite well-known lines like Hamlet’s “To be, or not to be” soliloquy. Then students should edit the videos so that each resident has one or two lines. Next, post the resulting montages.
What is likely to happen is a groundswell of public enthusiasm: “Did you know what kids are doing these days?” and “Don’t you wish you could be a kid again?” and “Did you see me on the web? Reciting Shakespeare!”
Activities like the above are game-changers for children as well, but schools must do even more. Today’s kids swim in the internet’s sea of information, and so schools must help them learn to distinguish truth and facts from fiction and misinformation….while encouraging them to choose facts and truths.
Because the purpose of school is to Help Grow American Citizens, it’s worth unpacking that phrase. “Help” conveys an essential point: schooling is a cooperative endeavor with parents and educators working in the best interests of children.
Because schooling is a movie, not a snapshot, “Grow” suggests that School Boards should actively discourage high-stakes testing. Those exams reveal how students did on that test on that particular day–and perhaps not much more. Those tests (asking “How Smart Are You?”) are supported by those who want to sort and classify children. However, parents and competent teachers recognize that every child has talent and therefore ask a different question, “How Is This Child Smart?”
What does it mean to be “American” today? Is it flag-waving, flag-burning, or somewhere in the middle? That’s an important, if difficult, conversation to have.
The final word of the phrase, “Citizen,” also cries out for public conversation. Just what do we want all children to be able to do when they grow up? If we want adults to work well with others, then students ought to be working together in school on projects and other ‘cooperative learning’ endeavors. If we want adults to be comfortable speaking in public, then children ought to be doing that in school. If we want adults to be able to make sound decisions, then students ought to be deeply involved in determining their course of study.
Schools that change along these lines will be offering parents more choices for their children, and enrollment will climb. Responsive schools will survive the attacks by forces that do not want Americans to think for themselves. Conversely, public schools that fail to adapt will continue to wither, depriving millions of children the education they are entitled to.