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June 1, 2004
Vol. 46
No. 4

Exploring the Purpose of Public Education

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      As schools struggle with achievement gaps, they should consider how educating students for democracy can help, author and educator Carl Glickman advised. "The idea of engagement and the idea of achievement are tightly linked," he said during a panel discussion. "Democracy itself is an educational experience—a breathtaking experience."
      ASCD Executive Director Gene Carter, who led the discussion on the purpose of public education, said, "We need to demand a democratic vision for our schools—and especially for our young people as they inherit their rightful place as participating citizens." Carter then asked panelists to explore what is holding educators back from engaging students more.
      To become contributing citizens, students need to explore issues that have relevance outside school, said Glickman, editor of the recent book Letters to the Next President: What We Can Do About the Real Crisis in Public Education. "If the kids don't see relevance, don't see application, then they don't understand what this stuff does in terms of their future life." Glickman holds an endowed chair in school improvement at Southwest Texas State University in San Marcos.
      eu200406 panel discussion
      Carl Glickman, Martha Bruckner, Frederick Hess, and Gene Carter discuss ways to educate future citizens.
      As we educate students about democracy and responsibility, we want them to respect the legal rights of fellow citizens, said Frederick Hess, director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, D.C. But he noted that teaching respect is traditionally extended to teaching tolerance. "I have no problem with tolerance as a goal," he said, but certain communities "think tolerating gay marriage is inconsistent with their views" and may object to some aspects of a tolerance-focused curriculum.
      Certainly, we can agree that "there are clear strictures that all citizens need to abide by," but we don't necessarily need a uniform definition of a well-raised child, said Hess, who is executive editor of Education Next and author of the book Revolution at the Margins: The Impact of Competition on Urban School Systems. If we try to define a single attitude for kids, then that "invites the majority to try to tyrannize the minority," he said.
      Martha Bruckner, ASCD President for 2004–05, said, "I have a fear of suggesting that we don't want to teach tolerance, because I'm trying to figure out how in the world the United States is going to get out of Iraq without having an awful lot of people kill each other. If we don't teach tolerance, if we don't teach that it's okay to think differently," she asked, how can we hope for a better world?
      Bruckner also expressed concern about whether students will participate in democracy, if they don't even care about their own learning. Bruckner, associate superintendent for Millard Public Schools in Nebraska, recently taught a class of sophomore English students who were reluctant to read and do basic studying. And yet, she noted, they really need practice listening, speaking, and writing as they prepare for future roles in society.
      Part of the problem is that as schools emphasize testing and standards, they aren't holding higher-achieving students accountable for much more than the minimum, Bruckner said. If we don't stretch students, she argued, then they might not become the leaders we want them to be.
      When asked about the teacher's role in creating productive citizens, Glickman said: "I don't think the school can produce productive citizens. I think the school can educate those citizens to have a choice of how they're going to live their lives."
      During the last five decades of social change, we have asked teachers to shoulder more and more—a wider range of activities, Hess said. "Schools should not be regarded as miracle-grow laboratories," he said. "Churches cater to the spirit. Hospitals cater to the body; they provide care. Schools provide learning; that's what they're there for. When we try to start growing them into all-purpose institutions, we ask more than we should ask of educators."
      Glickman called on more people to speak out for change. In fact, he said, the education of our children should be of concern to everybody—whether you have a child or not—because it provides value to society as a whole.

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