A New Public Education
Two centuries ago, while serving in the Massachusetts legislature, Horace Mann invented universal mandatory public education to answer two fundamental questions about democracy:
How do we prepare tomorrow’s citizens and leaders for their essential roles in our shared public life?
What can we do to offset the inequities and imbalance of wealth, social standing, and opportunity within our citizenry when the vitality of our democracy depends on all of us being in this together?
It is not difficult to make the case that Horace Mann’s vision for public education and for our democracy remains today, as it was then, a noble aspiration.
More recently, educational reformer Theodore Sizer, building on Mann’s vision, wrote, spoke and taught of the need to have schools and school systems better model the democratic ideals and institutions they were established to empower. And he advocated for schools that didn’t just teach about democracy but that were democratic, with students, teachers and administrators in collaboration, with a shared goal and with shared responsibility and accountability. He also advanced an inquiry-based approach to teaching, with the focus on learning, and with both teachers and students grappling with essential questions, much as leaders and citizens in a democracy are challenged to do.
It is not difficult to make the case that Ted Sizer’s vision too remains a noble aspiration.
I followed Horace Mann into the legislature nearly two centuries later, serving as a State Representative from 1994 to 2019 and walking with reverence and a tip of my hat by Mann’s statue on the State House lawn. He and I share the same birthday, as well as the passion for democracy and the role of public education in sustaining it. In my early days in the legislature, I had the privilege to work with Ted Sizer for three years as we taught and led a public conversation together. Our course and project, “A New Public Education,” gave its title to this essay and to the inquiry, with our students and with educators from across the Commonwealth, into the question “If Horace Mann were alive today, inventing education anew and for our day, what would it look like? That question animates me today as it did then and as I wonder about whether the COVID-induced need to rethink teaching and learning gives us a chance not just to mimic or restore business as usual, but to do so much more.
I wonder what would it take to re-engage with the questions and vision that Mann and Sizer so eloquently advanced? What would a school, a school system, our Commonwealth look like if we were to realize their dreams? What would it take just to move in that direction? Is this the moment, with schools closed and struggling to simultaneously serve students today even while imagining a different school for the fall and beyond, to consider reinventing public education?
If Mann were inventing public education today, would it still be rooted in an agricultural calendar as our systems were and are? Would standardized teaching and testing prevail? Would school funding based on zip code survive review? (It is worth remembering that, in Mann’s day, the “public” for public education was the sons of white landowners. Who would accept this, or the funding associated with it, today?)
What can we learn from the OECD’s (Organization for Economic and Cooperation and Development) annual PISA (Program for International Student Assessment) comparison of school systems around the globe? For the past twenty years, U.S. schools have been ranked far below those of many other countries and certainly below virtually all of the countries we tend to compare ourselves to and look to as sources of employees and trade.
The PISA study makes clear that the only factor that allows students to excel is the quality of the teaching they experience. None of the things that have occupied education politics in this country – class size, standardized testing, charter schools, etc. – move the needle of student achievement. Only great teaching matters. High-performing school systems employ teachers who move into teaching after graduating near the top of their graduating class, and have a career ladder with a focus on continuing learning and growth, mentorship, and relatively high salaries (by comparison to other professionals in their respective countries). In the U.S., we have none of the above, and more than half of the teachers who enter the workforce every year have left the profession by the five-year mark.
Unless we’re satisfied with schooling today, we’d better begin to imagine a new approach to teaching and learning. And unless we’re willing (and foolish) enough to accept today’s politics and political environment and the gross social divides that threaten both our democracy and our economy, we’d better find the courage and company for this difficult and critical conversation.
So we’re left with two essential questions. What should a new public education for the Commonwealth look like? And who will join me to think about all this?