Travels without Charley

By Jennings, John F. | Phi Delta Kappan, September 1996 | Go to article overview
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Travels without Charley

Jennings, John F., Phi Delta Kappan

In his year of traveling the nation, Mr. Jennings identified four causes of the public's skeptical attitude toward public education. He discusses those causes here and the actions we must take to deal with each of them.

John Steinbeck decided in midlife that he needed to reacquaint himself with his country, so he got into a camper with his dog, Charley, and spent many months traveling throughout the United States. Steinbeck said that as a writer he needed to hear the accents of people in various parts of the country in order to help him write better.

Last year I shared Steinbeck's sentiment. I had spent many years dealing with schooling and the issues in education, but I felt a need to hear people talk about education in all parts of the country in order to understand better how our schools are faring.

In December 1994 I completed one part of my life - better than a quarter-century working with the Congress on education issues - and began a new phase by establishing the Center on National Education Policy, a small education "think tank" in Washington, D.C. I had some idea of what I would do through this new institute, but I did not know exactly which problems to address. So, following Steinbeck's example, last year I accepted just about any and all invitations and traveled throughout the country - but without a Charley.

During 1995 I visited about one-half of the states and logged some 80,000 miles. During these visits I talked about education with thousands of parents, teachers, students, principals, state legislators, governors' aides, and other citizens. I came back impressed with the thoughtfulness of people's views. Whether in Portland, Oregon, or Savannah, Georgia, I observed that people will listen to the news and hear the debate about issues, but generally they do not rush to judgment. Most people take a very commonsensical approach to education issues. They are willing to listen to a variety of opinions and to try to weigh all the evidence.

But I also came to some troubling conclusions after this year of traveling. People do not always have the basic information they need to form sound opinions about education. Facts that I knew as a matter of course from my experiences in the debates in Washington came as news to many people. And the negativism I heard everywhere surprised me. Traditionally, Americans are known as an optimistic, can-do people. But we seem to have lost some of that spunk and to be wondering if things are out of control and beyond repair.

Wherever I went, I heard constant criticism of the public schools from government and business leaders and from the major news media. Governors, state legislators, business leaders, and the press continually harped on the faults of public education. In many states, efforts are under way to encourage parents to abandon public schools. As a result of these attacks, I saw teachers and administrators turning inward, becoming discouraged, and not engaging in the debate with the public about what the schools should do and how they should go about doing it.

So I was not surprised when, late in the year, I read Assignment Incomplete, a report from the Public Agenda Foundation, an organization that uses polling and focus groups to identify the public's attitudes on issues of national concern. Since that report touches on what I heard and saw regarding public perceptions of the schools, I will repeat the main findings. I do not necessarily agree with all these conclusions, but the general tenor is consistent with what I observed during 1995.

American support for public education is fragile and porous. Although many people voice initial approval of their own local public schools, this support disintegrates at the slightest probing. People think private schools do better than public schools in the areas that are most important to them - safety, order, standards, and smaller classes. Moreover, if they could afford to, the majority of public school parents would send their children to private schools.

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