Posts Tagged 'public education'

3 primary threats to public education

We are not in an education crisis. We are in a crisis of poverty that is being exacerbated by the school accountability movement and the testing industry. At best, this movement has been misguided. At worst, it is an intentional set up to bring about the demise of the public education system – mandatory testing designed to produce poor results which leads to greater investment made in test preparation programs provided by the same companies who produce the tests, coupled with a related push for privatization of the educational system. All touted as a means to save us from this false crisis. Politics, not education, got us into this mess, and it is politics that must get us out of it. —Kristina L. Taylor

A robust system of public education is essential for a thriving democracy and a growing economy.

Historically, Americans have invested in public institutions.

Nikole Hannah-Jones describes that history in a piece titled, “Have We Lost Sight of the Promise of Public Schools?”:

“Early on, it was this investment in public institutions that set America apart from other countries. Public hospitals ensured that even the indigent received good medical care — health problems for some could turn into epidemics for us all. Public parks gave access to the great outdoors not just to the wealthy who could retreat to their country estates but to the masses in the nation’s cities. Every state invested in public universities. Public schools became widespread in the 1800s, not to provide an advantage for particular individuals but with the understanding that shuffling the wealthy and working class together (though not black Americans and other racial minorities) would create a common sense of citizenship and national identity, that it would tie together the fates of the haves and the have-nots and that doing so benefited the nation. A sense of the public good was a unifying force because it meant that the rich and the poor, the powerful and the meek, shared the spoils — as well as the burdens — of this messy democracy….”

Public schools today are being profoundly affected by strong social and political forces that those invested in the future of this country cannot ignore.

Those forces are part of a larger anti-public institution agenda that has been gaining momentum for several decades.

Public education as we know it has, in my view, three primary threats:

1. Radical capitalists who believe that maximum profit should be extracted from every revenue source, including those provided by taxpayers to support the public good.  A primary strategy to divert funds intended for public education is to denigrate and create distrust regarding teachers, teacher unions, and, most of all, public education in general.

2. Poverty and low-quality healthcare that has a particularly profound affect in impoverished neighborhoods and communities on the ability of young people to learn and on their overall well-being. (You can read more about the effects of poverty on children here and here.)

3. The possibility that unrelenting attacks on teachers and the consequences of high-stakes testing and other “reforms” will demoralize teachers and create a sense of resignation about the chances for meaningful improvement. That, in turn, would provide a further opportunity for radical capitalists to exert their will over public education.

Nonetheless, Hannah-Jones continues to place her faith in public schools:

“If there is hope for a renewal of our belief in public institutions and a common good, it may reside in the public schools. Nine of 10 children attend one, a rate of participation that few, if any, other public bodies can claim, and schools, as segregated as many are, remain one of the few institutions where Americans of different classes and races mix. The vast multiracial, socioeconomically diverse defense of public schools that DeVos set off may show that we have not yet given up on the ideals of the public — and on ourselves.”   

Although public education has been an important force for the common good over many generations of students, there is no guarantee that it will continue to play its historic role in American life.

It remains to be seen if the public good provided by public education is sufficiently resilient to withstand these threats as they are intensified over the next several years.

What would you add to or subtract from my list?

Cultivating resilience…

re·sil·ience\ri-ˈzil-yən(t)s\ noun: the ability to become strong, healthy, or successful after misfortune or disruptive change 

Since the inception of this blog in 2010 I have written more than 300 posts that have focused on ideas and practices related to teaching, school leadership, teamwork, professional learning, and cultures of continuous improvement.

While these topics remain important, I have basically said what I have to say about them, at least for the time being.

Recently, I have been been thinking about whether American values and this country’s political and civic institutions, including public education as we know it, are sufficiently robust to effectively respond to the unprecedented and unpredictable challenges they are likely to endure in coming years.

That led me to reflect on people and institutions that encounter adversity but are somehow strengthened through their experiences, emerging from them with newfound capacities and resourcefulness.

Such resilience can be found in people of all ages and walks of life and in organizations that serve many different purposes.

For the foreseeable future I will use this blog to seek a better understanding of individual and collective resilience and the ways in which it can be cultivated and applied in our personal and professional lives and in civic engagement.

As always, I look forward to your comments….


When educators neglect “politics,” they do so at their own peril


Each week this summer I’m introducing a blog theme that connects popular and important posts from recent years. Each theme offers a number of perspectives on a perennial challenge of school leadership.

This week focuses on policy issues that face public education and, therefore, school leadership.

Successful school leadership requires simultaneously paying attention to the micro—the urgent and immediate—and the macro—the policy and legislative environment that often profoundly influences their day-to-day work and the well being of students.

Because the first category is typically more pressing and because leaders by talent and inclination find more satisfaction in the daily responsibilities of teaching and learning, it is easy to neglect  broader political context of public education.

I encourage you to scroll through articles in this thread to find those that match your interests.

In addition, I encourage you to take a closer look at these essays:

“What the best and wisest parent wants…”

“The storyline used by those who seek to destroy public education”

“A strong rationale for public education”


What the best and wisest parent wants…

Dennis Sparks

What the best and wisest parent wants for his own child, that must be what the community wants for all its children. – John Dewey

The quality of a child’s education ought not be determined by his or her ZIP Code. Nor by the luck of the draw regarding which teacher he or she has been given in a given year.

That’s why it is essential that:

• schools be designed so that all students and all staff members are successful,

all teachers experience various types of informal and formal professional learning each day as part of their work,

all teachers are part of high-functioning teams that continuously improve teaching and learning for the benefit of all students,

every member of the school community feels engaged and supported in his or her unique role,

• the success of reform efforts be judged based on whether they have a positive effect on all students, not just those who are easiest to educate or have the most engaged parents (school privatization programs that leave public schools with fewer resources to educate this nation’s most-challenged students do not meet that criterion).

Taken together, these assertions are the rationale for a strong, comprehensive, and accountable system of public education sustained by dedicated and skillful career educators.

What did I miss?


The two worlds of school leadership

Dennis Sparks

William Glasser’s  book Reality Therapy was an invaluable resource to me in the early 1970s as I sought to help “disaffected” youth be more successful and responsible in life and school. (I had helped found and co-directed a public alternative high school.)

Glasser taught me what went on within and between people mattered and that people of all ages could learn how to be more effective (in this case, both me and my students).

Another book from the 1970s, Kenneth Wooden’s Weeping in the Playtime of Others described the pernicious effects of the juvenile justice system on young people who were incarcerated for status offenses – that is offenses for which adults would not be deprived of their freedom, like running away from home.

Wooden revealed to me the powerful and often invisible influence of the broader system on individuals.

Because of Glasser my work over many years has been focused on creating learning environments for young people and adults that enable success and on developing face-to-face relationships in classrooms and schools that empower both young people and adults.

Because of Wooden I am interested in how the systems that surround schools affect learning and the quality of life within them.

Because my goal is to help school leaders become more skillful in creating school communities that continuously improve teaching, learning, and relationships for the benefit of all students, I want:

To support principals and teachers in doing their very best for the students who are now in our schools.

To interrupt in any way I can the destructive downward spiral of public education by those who will benefit from its demise.

As a result, some of these essays provide practical ideas and processes through which teaching, learning, and relationships can be strengthened. (My most popular post of this type was one on teamwork.)

Others essays are intended to reveal the powerful forces external to schools that seek to undermine public education and to inspire school leaders to act individually and collectively to counter these forces. (The most popular post here was one on the narrative used to destroy public education.)

Taken together Glasser and Wooden taught me that creating great schools for students and teachers requires leadership that addresses both the schoolhouse and the statehouse, a lesson that’s as relevant four decades later as it was in the 1970s.

A strong rationale for public education

Dennis Sparks

As a firm believer in the value of a strong system of public education staffed by well-prepared and supported career teachers, I think it is essential that school leaders be able to clearly articulate a rationale for public education, particularly during a time when it is under serious threat from powerful and well-financed interests.

Diane Ravitch has done a superb job of describing why public education is important and the threat posed to it by privatization. She writes:

“There are many reasons to object to privatization.

“One is that there is no evidence that privately managed firms that operate public services provide more efficient or less costly service. Another is that privately managed firms, when operating for profit, extract public dollars for investors that taxpayers intended for children, for educational programs that directly benefit children, for reduced class sizes, —and not to enrich shareholders. Privately managed nonprofits often pay salaries that would be unacceptable in the public sector. Privately managed firms tend to exclude the costliest clients to minimize their own costs, thus leaving the hardest cases for the less well funded public sector agency. And last, to destroy public education, which is so inextricably linked to our notions of democracy and citizenship would be an assault on the commonweal. Let us not forget that public education has been the instrument of the great social movements for more than the past half century–desegregation, gender equality, disability rights, and the assimilation of immigrants. Once it is gone, it is gone, and that would be a crime against ourselves.”

Readers comment on my recent post regarding the destruction of public education

Dennis Sparks

In a recent blog post I described the basic elements of what I believe is an insidious, carefully-constructed narrative that threatens to destroy public education in this country.

Yesterday Diane Ravitch mentioned my essay in her influential blog, and I thought you might enjoy perusing the varied and lively conversation among readers that ensued.

I encourage you to add your comments regarding my original essay on this critically important subject and to join the comment threads that follow it.



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