POLITICS OF EDUCATION ASSOCIATION YEARBOOK, 1996, 21-28
James G. Ward
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
The current debates over public education in the USA are replete with paradoxes. There is a cacophony of opinion and contradictory statements about the condition of the US public school. For example, while some commentators argue that the US public schools are utter failures in preparing students to meet the needs of an information-based, global economy, others document how public schools may be doing a better job than ever (Berliner and Biddle 1995, Bracey 1996). Also, we hear that schools are working hard to teach to the needs and values of a pluralistic, multicultural society, yet simultaneously we hear that the schools are neglecting fundamental US values (Bennett 1992, Capper 1993, Chavkin 1993, Ravitch 1995). Elsewhere the paradoxical assertion is made that while teachers feel powerless to alter the ways schools operate, school administrators and school board members feel hamstrung by union contracts. Political pressures from the community hamper school administrators, yet many citizens feel that public schools are operated by school professionals for their own personal benefit (Kerchner and Mitchell 1988, Kerchner and Koppich 1993). Finally, persons of colour and the poor believe that public schools are neglecting their children's needs, killing their aspirations, while the affluent believe that schools have deteriorated beyond hope because they cater to problems of the least prepared (Berliner and Biddle 1995). How can we hope to reconcile these paradoxes?
A clue rests within competing purposes for education. Aristotle, among others, taught us that discussions about education are always contentious because an individual's view of the proper purposes and goals of education are highly dependent upon his/her conception of what constitutes the 'good life' (Everson 1988: Book vii). The resolution of this question concerning the constitution of the good life is the solution to identifying the purposes of education and depends on political philosophy. As I will explore below, Lowi (1995) provides us with some insight on various perspectives on this dilemma.
People hold different views of the relative success or failure of the public schools because they attribute bases for legitimacy of schools, if we use legitimacy to mean a fundamental view that an institution is working properly (Ward 1987). Whether an institution is working appropriately is both an empirical and a normative question.
One example of tensions surrounding legitimacy is the frequent call to return to the 'family values' of what have been termed the 'good old days', often situated in the 1950s. One critic of this view points out that the prevalent value structure of the 1950s openly and actively discriminated against African Americans and other minori
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