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Guest Column: Our democracy and our schools
By Wayne Spitzer
At a recent neighborhood meeting, Rockford Public School District 205 Superintendent Dr. LaVonne Sheffield stated the purpose of public schools is to provide students with the skills to obtain good jobs. To be fair, our superintendent’s belief is not much different from almost every other superintendent in our nation.
Given the state of our economy and the plight of many families, few people in today’s society would argue with our superintendent’s goal. Yet, I would ask, “Should the acquisition of job skills be the primary purpose of any public school system?”
Consider the following:
→ The United States ranks at the bottom in the percentage of its citizens who vote when compared to all other industrialized nations.
→ Two-thirds of the best, formally educated American youth remain uninvolved in civic life
→ In any given year, the majority of adult Americans do not attend or participate in a single neighborhood, community or state meeting to help solve local or state issues.
→ Sixty-four percent of youth between the ages of 18 and 25 do not believe it is very important to keep informed about national and international issues.
→ Newspaper after newspaper shuts down because of a lack of readers.
→ Churches and volunteer organizations struggle to enlist volunteers.
Thomas Jefferson said the purpose of pubic schools is to raise up educated citizens who could become active participants in this thing we call “democracy.” A democracy is a place where people come together to solve problems and improve the lives of all citizens through their active participation in the affairs of our nation and of our communities. Jefferson believed citizens in a democracy must take responsible actions to assure justice for all and have compassion for the plight of their neighbor.
That is not happening. We have become a very materialistic society. Our focus has been diverted to an individual goal of attaining good jobs and more of the “good life.” We have lost Jefferson’s focus on what a democracy needs to continue as a democracy.
School purposes have gathered little interest from the average citizen. Yet, schools are the only place where formal training for citizenship can take place. Schools are the place where citizens can purposefully gain the skills, attitudes and values necessary for active participation in our democracy. But this can happen only if the school is guided by that overriding Jeffersonian purpose.
What is at stake in recommitting to Jefferson’s purpose is our nation “of the people, by the people, and for the people”—our democracy.
I know schools cannot sustain this democracy alone. Schools must have the full participation of parents and all adults, not just in the schools, but also as active participants in our civic life in our cities, states and nation. Children learn best from seeing models of what is a “good” citizen and how a responsible citizen should act.
Every responsible citizen needs to look at his or her own behavior and at what is happening in our schools. You can go back up to the previous bullets to examine yourself. To start examining the schools, you start by looking at the school’s stated purpose, which more often than not comes from the mouth of the superintendent.
A school’s purpose drives the curriculum and everything that happens in the schools. Our superintendent’s purpose of giving the students skills to obtain jobs drives her to accomplish that purpose through the imposition of new curriculum and to find means to determine if that objective has been achieved. This is why the superintendent believes in data-driven results, with a heavy emphasis on reading, writing and math. Because you can “prove” whether you are fulfilling your purpose.
No one would argue with the need for our students to have reading, writing and math skills. But if the public schools exist primarily to teach these skills, you can do that much more economically through the use of computers and individualized skill programming…(and you can hear the plans for introducing more computerized instruction).
This focus on data, by our public schools and our charter schools, happens because the overall stated primary purpose is so narrow in scope.
Unless parents and adults begin to question what is happening in our schools, in our community and our nation, we will continue to accept whatever a superintendent and school board decide. Parents must become involved in not just “supporting” what comes down from school administration, but taking a critical look at the effects of such a limited purpose for our schools.
Consider the following. When you have a superintendent bent on reforming the schools using a narrow sense of purpose:
→ Teachers and principals are not active participants in formulating a curriculum for their schools.
→ Parents and children are not active participants in formulating a curriculum for their schools.
→ Teachers and principals are being handed a narrow curriculum they must follow without being able to make adjustments for individual needs.
→ One-size-fits-all, inflexible, prepackaged approaches serve only to stifle creativity and innovation (in teachers, staff and students).
→ Resulting in the best and brightest teachers and staff leaving such a stifling school system or leaving education entirely
→ Resulting in the remaining teachers and staff doing only what they are told to do…unwilling to risk certain punishment if they take risks.
→ Schools that flounder because of a history of autocratic superintendents tend to have lost the staff with the skills to work together that could provide leadership for school improvement from within (renewal) in a cooperative manner.
→ Schools that flounder tend to hire another autocratic superintendent who embarks on another set of reforms to bring the school up to “standards” (See the recent history of Rockford Schools) and the cycle continues with each new superintendent promising to make changes that last…and they do last only until the next “expert.”
→ Children, teachers and principals are all operating under threats of punishment for non-compliance to what is being handed down.
→ Punishment and reward systems stifle individual creativity (thinking), and achievement.
→ Children see no models of teamwork where parents, teachers, students and every administrator work together to solve problems and make meaningful decisions.
→ Children tend to be less motivated to learn in schools that allow little room for meeting individual needs or interests, and allow no opportunities for meaningful decision-making.
→ When parents have had no real input in the formation of goals or curriculum, their involvement becomes less and less.
Some make the argument that the business world uses the same top-down, narrow approach. Not true. Take a look at the only car company that did not take government money in the recent bailout—Ford Motor Company.
Ford views grassroots leadership as the best vehicle for creating a nimbler business. “We want people at all levels who will take risks, who are prepared to coach and to counsel, and who can make decisions,” says David Murphy, 54, vice president of human resources for Ford. “We can’t afford to wait for decisions to come down from the top. If we did, the consumer would be pissed off about having to wait so long —and would be gone before those decisions even got made.”
Ford Motor Company, like other top companies, has found that true teamwork, where even the lowest worker has a voice in improving what takes place in the company, winds up with products that are highly valued by customers. Look at the results and see that Ford cars and trucks are now valued as much as, or more than, many of its foreign competitors.
A democracy, just like Ford Motor Company, requires citizens who can make decisions, work well with others, and are able to take risks with the sole aim of improving life for all.
Our children are the consumers, the customers. Where do we involve them in shaping the curriculum? Where do our children learn how to make wise decisions for the good of all, if not in school? Where do our children learn how to work with others in a cooperative manner, if not in school? Where do our children learn how to get along with people of different races, ethnic and religious backgrounds, if not in school? Where do our children see democracy in action in their classrooms and in their schools?
They see none of the above when you impose “lock step” curriculums from top management that take away the ability of teachers and principals to do more than just raise test scores.
The best companies empower their employees to make decisions to improve what happens in their everyday work environment. Teachers need a superintendent who does the same for every teacher and every principal. That is not what we have in our school district.
Back in the 1970s, we had superintendents who were “reformers” and “change agents,” much like our current superintendent. These reformers made many good changes, just like our superintendent. However, they were all “top-down” forced changes. Schools are often the most dictatorial, un-democratic institutions you can experience. And when such autocratic superintendents left or retired, the schools reverted back to their old ways, doing what they always did in isolation. When will we learn?
The only lasting changes in any organization are those that start from the “ground up,” changes that are brought about by teachers and administrators who work together to meet a common, agreed upon purpose. When a staff works together to accomplish a common purpose they have helped to construct, their act of working together develops and nurtures the very kind of leaders that will see to it that there is a continuation of that same process.
When a school district sees its purpose to develop the skills, values and attitudes necessary to support a democracy, they will encourage the practice of democracy from top to bottom, from the superintendent to the children.
How will the curriculum be different in such schools? The schools will still have reading, writing and math. The arts, music, literature, social studies, science and physical education will be seen as vital to an educated citizen.
So, the subject matter will be pretty much the same, but the teachers will bring to the subject matter the need to question, to analyze, to see the connections between the subject matter and living in a democracy. Teachers will create “curriculum” with their unique groups of students. Purpose drives the curriculum.
You would see students spending more time analyzing stories, historical events and current events. You will see students dealing with issues that affect them in their classroom, in their school, their neighborhood, their city and their nation. Students will continually be asking how these issues have affected our democracy, its people and other people in the world.
Purposeful teaching of communication and problem-solving skills will become an integral part of the “curriculum.”
You would see periods of free play (recesses) where students are allowed to devise their own games and settle their own problems. (Always under the watchful eye of adults.) And, when students cannot peacefully solve their own problems, the adults step in and offer their skills to teach a way of peacefully resolving problems. This is where the best learning of how to work out disagreements can occur, a critical skill for our changing world.
You cannot “hand down” a total pre-packaged curriculum that creates capable citizens. Teachers and principals must be encouraged to be creative in meeting the stated purpose, along with the needs of the children in their classes and their schools. To do so, staffs must be willing to engage in teamwork and participate in any needed training to meet the overall purpose. They must be willing to be active participants in a democratic school.
Superintendents and administrators, in such schools, would be there to support the efforts of the teachers and provide the necessary skills and tools for the teachers to thrive. Do that and watch the student data improve.
Superintendent Sheffield is not the problem. She is doing what she was hired to do, or at least doing what the school board and our community allow her to do.
The reason our public schools have strayed from that Jeffersonian purpose is that our teachers, our school administrators, our citizens, our elected school boards, and our elected local, state and national leaders have not thought long and hard about the real purpose of public schools.
No one has stood up and said: “It is not enough to have citizens who can read, write and do math, and do well on tests. There must be a more important overriding purpose for public education that guides all that we do in our schools…and that is to raise up citizens capable of participating in this thing we call ‘democracy.’”
What can you do? You can start by being more involved in community and school organizations, by helping get out the vote on our local elections, by keeping informed and discussing local issues at the dinner table and with friends.
You can contact the members of our local school board. At the end of this column is a list of the current Rockford Board of Education members. Let them know what you think should be the purpose of our schools. Participate in this thing called “democracy.”
Rockford resident Wayne Spitzer is an educational consultant and instructor at National-Louis University. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit http://wspitzer.com.
Rockford Board of Education members
Sub District A—Lisa Jackson, Operations Committee member, 2007 Arthur Ave., Rockford, IL 61101; (815) 375-0175; email@example.com
Sub District B—Jeanne Westholder, secretary of the board, Operations Committee member and Parent Council representative, 1123 North Ave., Rockford, IL 61103-6123; (815) 963-9654; firstname.lastname@example.org
Sub District C—Alice Saudargas, Education Committee member, 1412 Halsted Road, Rockford, IL 61103; (815) 877-4243; email@example.com
Sub District D—Jude Makulec, Education Committee member, 4913 Birch Ave., Rockford, IL 61114; (815) 633-6818; firstname.lastname@example.org
Sub District E—Robert Evans, Education Committee chairman, 602 Coolidge Place, Rockford, IL 61107; call (815) 226-4175 or fax (815) 394-5171; email@example.com
Sub District F—Harmon Mitchell, vice president of the board and Operations Committee chairman, 2514 Mandrake Drive, Rockford, IL 61108; (815) 399-0710; firstname.lastname@example.org
Sub District G—David Kelley, president of the board, 3456 Dallas Road, Rockford, IL 61109; (815) 874-6345; email@example.com
From the July 28-Aug 3, 2010 issue