Since the advent of the common school movement early in our nation’s history, free, universal, high-quality public education has been espoused 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.
Education for many children and families, however, has become increasingly precarious. American education, already eroded by privatization, faces new threats: global pandemics, unraveling government agencies, and entire economic sectors shuttered.
We believe a unique opportunity exists to reverse recent cycles of 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.
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?
Our vision for public education is twofold: one, that public education as a system becomes more adaptive; and two, that it focuses on developing the strengths of individual students, rather than identifying through a testing regime weaknesses that are largely societal.
We are a highly adaptable species. Ultimately, human adaptability beats the properties of any virus. Adaptation – change that addresses a need, a problem, or a challenge – is what defines learning. We do not often think of learning this way, but adaptation is learning that leads to physical changes in the human brain. When learning/adaptation occurs anywhere, whether in classrooms or medical research laboratories, environments are less like factories producing uniform products and more like ecological systems that respond, sometimes unpredictably, to changing conditions.
Public education needs to take advantage of its abilities to adapt while keeping its human qualities as a primary focus. Unlike biological ecosystems, public education is a human system with identities, relationships, and shared information that have social, intellectual, and moral dimensions. 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. Recent events have underscored a fundamental and global common purpose: the quality and viability of our individual and collective existence.
Instead of a system focused on what students do not know – a deficit model – we should look to students’ strengths to guide learning. Rather than trying to fix students’ deficiencies, we should look to their strengths, from which they can build basic skills while engaging with curriculum that will increase motivation, creativity, and habits of mind that enhance analytic and critical thinking capabilities.
We must adapt to the new world in which we find ourselves or public education will perish. Schooling can no longer be “managed” like an industry. We have an opportunity to cast off the recent onerous reforms 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 can work through the same rapid innovation cycles that the medical and research communities are going through in their search to make the world safe from
future pandemics. The freedom to adapt is the 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.