Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

American Public Education: The Relevance of Choice

Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

American Public Education: The Relevance of Choice

Article excerpt

AMERICAN public education, like Gaul and so many other things, can be divided into three parts, even if only roughly and approximately. The first part consists of the schools of rural, small-town, small-city, and suburban America. These sectors constitute by far the greater part of the U. S., and it is in this broad belt of America that we find the people who give high marks to their schools on the whole, much to the dismay of researchers who know that the schools and the children can do better. In these areas, for the most part, school districts are small; school bureaucracies are modest; it is possible for parents to have a direct relationship with teachers, principals, other school officials, and superintendents; school board members may be known to many parents; and, perhaps most important, a substantial homogeneity prevails - in race, culture, language, and values.

If we ask what is right about American education, it is in these broad reaches of small-town and small-city America that we can say that much is right - that the original vision of the common school prevails - and that what is wrong is that the social life in schools often dominates academic objectives. It is this America that would be distraught, as happened in Texas, if school reformers decreed that minimal academic objectives would have to be reached before a student would be allowed to play on the football team.

The second great division of American public education is made up of the schools of the inner cities of our large and medium-sized metropolitan areas, in which the majority of students tend to be black or Hispanic, even if the cities do not have majorities of these minorities. Here the number of students from single-parent families, from poor families, and from families with problems is large. As is necessary in large school systems containing scores of thousands of students, school bureaucracies are large. The major obstacles to reaching high levels of acadernic achievement stem less from the competition of social life than from the drain of social problems that affect children from poor and troubled homes - the threat of violence, the presence of drugs and all the other ailments so familiar from accounts of inner-city schools. It is these schools that we generally see portrayed in television specials and that make the news about American public education.

The third part of American public education consists of the schools that are situated in sections of our large central cities in which social problems are not concentrated - the urban areas occupied by the stable working class, the lower-middle class, and the middle class. For these groups, the chief threat in public education in recent years has been the possibility that their children will be bused to inner-city schools and that they will be barred from their neighborhood schools in order to promote racial integration. And their chief response has been to move off to the suburbs, where they will be protected from these threats.

For both kinds of urban schools, the question of values education is a steady problem. What does one do about street language in the schools, street dress in the schools, and the frequent challenging of teachers and other authorities? How does one teach about AIDS and homosexuality, in what grades and with what specificity, and what is one to do about condoms? And parents of students in both kinds of city schools find themselves to be just some of many constituents of a large and distant bureaucracy, which frustrates them as often as any large public bureaucracy does.

In the absence of a sufficient sense of urgency, I fear that not much can be done to change the pattern of public education in those broad stretches of the U.S. in which there is general satisfaction. National commissions tell us that we are not doing well compared to other nations. Businesspeople are not happy with the skills and work attitudes of high school graduates. …

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