Public Education for the Common Good | Sojourners

Public Education for the Common Good

Occupy DOE says public education is central to teaching children about the common good. Photo courtesy Apollofoto/shutterstock

America is at a crossroads: We live in a society that promotes working for our own ends, but if we are to survive and flourish it is time to start sacrificing for the common good by working together.

In early April, advocates for public education traveled to Washington D.C. for Occupy the Department of Education (Occupy the DOE). Students, parents, educators, and community members came together to protest the current system that is designed to segregate our society, while demanding a public education system that devotes itself to the common good through sacrifice of self for the love of the whole.

In Education and the Common Good: A Moral Philosophy of the Curriculum, Philip Phenix outlines two types of democracy: the democracy of desire and the democracy of worth.  He describes the first, desire, as the “highest good”, characterized by independence and autonomy. “Human beings are regarded as continually in pursuit of happiness,” he writes, “and the goal of this democracy is to help people as far as possible get what they want.”

The second type, democracy of worth, Phenix states, “[C]enters around devotion or loyalty to the good, the right, the true, the excellent. Devotion is different from desire. It is primarily other-regarding rather than self-interested. It invites sacrifice and loyalty instead of conferring gratification.” 

Public schools, and the communities they serve, have opportunities to work together out of sacrifice and love.  They are places that cannot serve the self, as their ultimate duty is to prepare all citizens for a democracy of worth: community members devote themselves to providing all children the chance to reach their optimal potential. Children are allowed to use their strengths and talents towards the common good. Democracy of worth should be the goal for these schools, where our focus is on a love for all.   

Unfortunately, our public education system is currently following the democracy of desire model, in which the pursuit of individual self is over riding the devotion to the good.  With the Department of Education’s introduction of the competitive “Race to the Top” grant, schools are now encouraged to act like the free market, promoting competition as the vehicle to “better serve students’ needs and priorities.”  I don’t want my own children to have to compete with their peers for a quality education.  That’s not what learning is about.  Learning is about working together to understand concepts, each other, and about finding our place to help each other. “Race to the Top” forces states to implement policies in which students, parents, and teachers compete with each other for school funding that focuses on collecting data instead of nurturing a learning environment that supports the common good.

Instead of working from within to reform the system, parents are now encouraged to choose a range of options “better” than public school: charter, online schooling, and now vouchers to a private school of choice. But the data on these choices are not showing any improvement in learning — and if anything, are dividing communities around the false idea that a test score determines the quality of learning happening in a child’s classroom. 

I grew up in a community with only one choice — public school — and while not perfect, it was the hub of the community.  Children walked to school together and participated in the same activities.  Parents spent time together supporting the school through classroom parties, fundraisers and extracurricular events.  Often, the community struggled in determining the best path for its children, but this struggle created a stronger sense of belonging and sacrifice for the communal good.

In the community I now live in, some children attend the neighborhood school and others attend charters. Some are homeschooled, while others take classes online.  Conversations are hard to start and sustain at the local park or soccer game as our common focus is lost.  “Love the performance your son gave at the last music concert. …Did you see the picture of the principal’s new daughter in the newsletter? …I attended the PTIO meeting and am not happy with all of the programs being implemented to increase test scores.”  When the conversations get tough, it’s easier to leave — which helps no one. What are we teaching our younger generation when we fragment the idea of community by our own self-involved decisions?

Another issue is the pervasiveness of test-based ratings. Not only are teachers being forced to teach to a test to raise the school’s rating and attract the best students and funding, but the teachers’ own worth is based on these test scores.  In Colorado, where I live, 50 percent of a teacher’s evaluation will be based on a test score, and students are assessed frequently to determine how they would do on the test.  The result is that learning hinges on this high-stakes test. In place of hands-on, meaningful inquiry, teachers are forced to follow scripts.

And who is impacted the most by all this?  Our children. No longer are they encouraged to play, explore and develop the underlying concepts necessary to their learning foundation. Instead of maximizing the potential of all, we’re minimizing the learning for many.

The Battle for Our Public Schools rally that took place at the Department of Education in April showed the nation what it will take to heal our communities and our schools. We shared our stories of a broken system and our visions on how to fix them.  Our vision involved the love and worth of the whole child, which involves working with the diversity within communities to improve the lives of all within the community, reclaiming the education profession and honoring those that have dedicated their lives to inspiring the learning in others, and implementing best practices in the place of corporate practice. Our vision involves a democracy where all are of worth.

We are in the midst of a revolution that is about creating a democracy of value in which the central focus is love. The task is daunting, but when all of us come together and sacrifice part of ourselves for the common good, there is hope not just for my young children but for all children.

As Manuel Barrera, Associate Professor of Urban Education at Metropolitan State University, says, “Given freedom, people will always opt for excellence and that believing in revolutionary change requires us to be guided by love.”

Our public school system is in need of a revolution that is guided by love.  Our children and future generation deserve our devotion to the notion that public education is a common good for all.

Stefanie Fuhr has been in the classroom for close to twenty years. She has a Masters in Elementary Education, and is a member of the National Writing Project and an advocate for public education. She and her husband currently live in Colorado, where she is staying home to raise three children. Read more from Stefanie at her blog, tutucker