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Building a Progressive Agenda for Public Schools

'Teachers and educational leaders need to link their own interests in the improvement of teaching and learning to a broad-based movement for social, political, and economic justice, and work together for the democratic renewal of public life and public education in America.' (Photo: Pixabay/Public Domain)

If public schools are to realize their democratizing potential, progressive activists must organize and act on an agenda that counters the neo-liberal view of education that currently dominates. We want to believe that public schools serve us, the public, “We, the people.” We want to believe that schools strengthen our democracy, our ability to meaningfully participate in the decision-making processes that impact our communities and our lives. Educational resources need to be directed towards increasing people’s awareness of the relevant facts about their lives, and to increase people’s abilities to act upon these facts in their own true interests. For the past twenty years significant efforts have been made to establish a statist view of schools that treats teachers as mere appendages to the machinery of the state and seeks to hold them accountable to serving the interests of state and corporate power. Linked as it is to the interests of private wealth, this view defines children’s value in life as human resources and future consumers. In order to combat this movement, progressive media outlets must begin doing more to alert the public to the disastrous consequences it holds for our schools, our children, and our democracy.

Progressives everywhere must begin doing more to demand that our institutions of public education foster critical citizenship skills to advance a more viable and vibrant democratic society. They must push for schools to become organized around preparing young people for active, democratic citizenship through engagement with real-world issues, problem-solving, and critical thinking, and through active participation in civic and political processes. Informed citizenship in a broad-based, grassroots democracy must be based on principles of cooperation with others, non-violent conflict resolution, dialogue, inquiry and rational debate, environmental activism, and the preservation and expansion of human rights. These skills, capacities, and dispositions need to be taught and practiced in our nation’s schools.

"In the end, whether the savage inequalities of neoliberalism—which define current social and national relations as well as approaches to school reform— will be overcome depends on how people organize, respond, learn, and teach in schools."

Progressives must also push harder to ensure that all schools are funded equally and fully, eliminating the dependence on private corporate funds and on the property tax, which creates a two-tiered educational system by distributing educational monies inequitably. Promoting greater equality in educational opportunity must also include demands for universal pre-k and tuition-free higher education for all qualified students in state universities. The past two decades have witnessed the increasing involvement of corporations in education in terms of supplementing public spending in exchange for school-based marketing (including advertising space in schools and textbooks, junk fast food and vending machines, and commercial-laden “free” TV). We believe that students should not be thought of as a potential market or as consumers, but as future citizens. We must work for the elimination of advertising in schools and curricula and of the marketing of unhealthy products on school grounds.

As described above, the current system uses “carrots and sticks” to coerce compliance with an alienating system of schooling aimed at inducing conformity among teachers and students through high stakes testing. This system alienates teachers from their work by stripping it of all creative endeavor and reduces it to following scripted lesson plans. We believe that teaching is a matter of the heart, that place where intellect meets up with emotion and spirit in constant dialogue with the world around us. Advancing a more democratic vision of education requires us to work toward the elimination of high stakes standardized tests, and the institution of more fair, equitable, and meaningful systems of accountability and assessment of both students and schools.


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The current system also alienates students by stripping learning from its engagement with the world in all of its complexity. It reduces learning to test preparation as part of a larger rat race where students are situated within a larger economic competition for dwindling numbers of jobs. We believe that excellence needs to be defined in terms of teachers’ abilities to inspire children to engage the world, for it is through such critical engagement that true learning (as opposed to rote memorization) actually occurs. Students living in the 21st century are going to have to deal with a host of problems created by their predecessors: global warming and other ecological disasters, global conflicts, human rights abuses, loss of civil liberties, etc. The curriculum needs to address what students need to know and be able to do in the 21st century to tackle these problems– and it needs to be relevant to students’ current interests and concerns.

Progressives must also work diligently to enlist broader and deeper levels of public support for teachers. Teachers matter. Teaching is a public act that bears directly on our collective future. A broader movement in support of democratic and egalitarian reforms in education must include a commitment to ensure that teachers begin receiving salaries commensurate with other professions. At the same time, we must restore and expand teachers’ control, in collaboration with students and communities, over decision-making about issues of curriculum and instruction in the classroom – no more scripted teaching, no more mandated outcomes, no more “teacher-proof” curricula. Local control of education rests at the heart of democracy; state and nationally mandated curriculum and assessment are a prescription for totalitarianism.

Children of immigrants make up approximately 20 percent of the children in the United States, bringing linguistic and cultural differences to many classrooms. Added to this are 2.4 million children who speak a language other than English at home. Those of us struggling to defend the public’s welfare in public schools need the support of the wider progressive movement to ensure that the learning needs of English language learners are met through caring, multicultural, multi-lingual education. Citizens in a pluralistic democracy, after all, need to value difference and interact with people of differing abilities, orientations, ethnicities, cultures, and dispositions. Our nation as a whole needs to discard outmoded notions of a hypothetical norm, and either describe ALL students as different, or none of them. All classrooms should be inclusive, meeting the needs of all students, together, in a way that is just, caring, challenging, and meaningful.

Because they do not increase the market value of children, arts programs have never been funded at sufficient levels. Under pressure to increase student achievement rates (test scores), school districts in many areas of the country have eliminated art and music classes from their curricula to give students more time to spend preparing for standardized tests. Progressive elements in our society have always supported these programs. We must, however, do more in order to reverse these economically-driven assaults on the arts in schools, hopefully expanding students’ opportunities to learn and excel in the fine and performing arts, physical education and sports, and extra-curricular clubs and activities, in order to develop the skills of interaction and responsibility necessary for participation in a robust civil society.

In the end, whether the savage inequalities of neoliberalism—which define current social and national relations as well as approaches to school reform— will be overcome depends on how people organize, respond, learn, and teach in schools. With the help of the progressive press and other media outlets, those engaged in the larger struggle for social, political, and environmental justice can, and must, renew their commitment to educational justice and a democratic vision to guide the functioning of our nation’s schools. Concurrently, teachers and educational leaders need to link their own interests in the improvement of teaching and learning to a broad-based movement for social, political, and economic justice, and work together for the democratic renewal of public life and public education in America. Collectively, we must make these commitments and act upon them soon, while public control still exists over the public schools. That control will not last unless we do.

Educators for Defending Public Schools

Wayne Ross (University of British Columbia), David Gabbard (East Carolina University), Kathleen Kesson (Long Island University), Sandra Mathison (University of British Columbia), and Kevin D. Vinson (University of Arizona) are co-editors of the new book series Defending Public Schools (published by Praeger).

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