Since the advent of the common school movement early in our nation’s history, free, universal, high-quality public education has been revered as a pillar of democratic society and essential to its economic and cultural growth. We have experienced, personally, the power of education to change and improve our own lives.
Schools rarely initiate or lead social change; they reflect it. The change that has occurred over the past four decades demonstrates that Americans have forgotten what our nation’s architects intended when they instituted free, universal public education. Without people noticing, many in our society have instead embraced privatization of resources, facilities, institutions, and responsibilities that properly belong to public governance. The common good has been eviscerated as a foundational principle of our democracy. Public schools have suffered greatly because of this shift away from the common good, and the nation is poorer for it. Universal, adequately funded public schools – not charters or vouchered private schools – remain our best hope for a democratic society that reflects the strengths of our diverse population, that can serve the needs of all people, and that can provide the skills necessary, not just to survive, but to thrive in the twenty-first century.
Education for many children and families, however, has become increasingly precarious. American education, already eroded by privatization, faces new threats such as global pandemics, school board meeting disruptions, concerted attacks by anti-public school, charter and voucher advocates, and legislative restrictions on classroom content, books, and even conversations.
We have before us an opportunity to reconceptualize public education and change the narrative. Will Americans be able to save our public education system? Or perhaps a better question is: Can we rebuild a public education system capable of saving our country?
We believe a unique opportunity exists to reverse recent cycles of so-called reform that treated public education as a commodity in a marketplace. We believe that manufacturing and market competition, along with their metrics, are the wrong metaphors to apply to public education. The challenge and hope for public education is that its outputs are embodied in human beings—complex and diverse living organisms—who respond in idiosyncratic and unanticipated ways.
Our vision for public education has three broadly defined components: first,
that public education is viewed as a system becoming more thoughtful, purposeful, and direct in its adaptations to society’s changes; second, that public education is a system focused on using and developing strengths, especially the strengths of students as individuals and as members of society rather than identifying weaknesses or deficits that are largely societal; and finally, the learning experiences including curriculum must fit the needs and characteristics of a diverse and talent-rich student population.
For at least the last twenty years, public education has been reacting to conditions imposed from outside the system: legislative mandates, well-funded private initiatives, false media narratives of failure. These negative external forces, changes, and challenges continue to accelerate.
To fulfill its role as a primary agent of societal change, public education needs to be understood as a dynamic, adaptive system comprised of identities, relationships, and information. Public education systems are distinguished from purely biological systems by their human intellect, ethos, and a consciousness capable of forming a shared vision and a common purpose. Public education is a human system with identities, relationships, and shared information that have social, intellectual, and moral dimensions. When a system intentionally builds strong identities and relationships and essential, empowering information within the system, it is positioned to contribute to the common good.
Public education will contribute to the common good only if the responses it makes to such changing conditions are purposeful. An adaptive system that is intentionally focused on strengths already existing within the system is the most direct and attainable path to positive and productive outcomes. This is true particularly for the strengths of the humans—students and educators—operating within the system. A public school system that identifies and acknowledges strengths is especially important for today’s students, who mirror the increasing diversity in our country. Fortifying the learning capabilities of these diverse learners is critical to their developing identities. Standardized testing often focuses on the most superficial learning capabilities and marginalizes some students by labeling them as “deficient.” Such narrow conceptions of learning rarely produce the best learning outcomes for individuals or for the system as a whole.
Public school learning experiences must address the diversity, expansiveness, and potential of its student population. This includes a curriculum that is imaginative, uncensored, inclusive, multi-layered, interest-based, and constantly evolving. If the shared vision and common purpose for public education is that every citizen possesses fully developed talents that contribute to the common good, then such a curriculum, combined with adaptive, strength-based teaching and learning, is essential to achieving this vision.
Adaptation is the key to survival for any complex system. As a complex system, public education must take advantage of its ability to adapt while keeping the humanity of students as the primary focus. Public education will adapt, or it will perish. Schooling can no longer be managed like an industry. Public education has an opportunity to cast off recent onerous reforms (high stakes testing, unfunded mandates, privatization, charters, vouchers, etc.) that produced many damaging consequences, both intended and unintended, with little improvement in learning.
Among other negative outcomes, public education has these so-called reforms to thank for increased racial and economic inequality, resegregation, and widened achievement gaps. In reclaiming its human identity while recognizing the adaptive properties it shares with biological systems, public education must work through the rapid innovation cycles similar to those in the medical and research communities in their search to make the world safe from future pandemics. The freedom to adapt is key to visionary public education that works toward the common purpose of sustaining humanity.
We offer a set of fourteen fundamental principles as our vision for redefining public education. We hope that decision makers—students, parents, teachers, boards of education, legislators, administrators—will use these principles in developing policies and practices before it’s too late.