David Tyack and Larry Cuban’s book Tinkering toward Utopia: A Century of Public School Reform is one of my favorite books. They chronicle how Americans have viewed public education as a means to building a better society. From one-room schoolhouses in the 1800s to the influx of immigrants in the early 1900s to the response to Sputnik in the 1950s, Americans have shaped the purpose of public education. Americans – not just one person. Not a foundation.
When did we, as a society, give up our responsibility to determine the purpose of public education? I can remember back in 1985 when the Illinois State Board of Education (ISBE) went hat-in-hand to the Illinois legislature (again) for a bigger budget and the response was, “If you want more money, you’re going to have to show us that you’re worth it.” State-wide student testing began shortly thereafter. The purpose of education then became, “Earn your keep by showing me how good your schools and teachers are” which was not a societal need but an economic one. Building a better society using public education doesn’t exist in the American consciousness today – and as we know, nature abhors a vacuum.
So if we are unwilling to fill the vacuum of societal purpose for public education, who will? Bill and Melinda Gates along with Warren Buffett. They said “College Ready” is American’s societal need and they have defined for public education how to meet that need:
- Create a standardized “American” curriculum
- Provide professional development to teachers to ensure they teach to that standard curriculum correctly
- Evaluate teachers to see if they are teaching the standard curriculum correctly, and if they don’t, remove them from the classroom
- Use technology to implement the standard curriculum
America didn’t set this agenda. Recognizing this, the Gates Foundation hedged their bet that American public schools might not want to accomplish their agenda so they support charter schools and alternative schools to demonstrate how it should be done. They pour money into national professional organizations and to the Council of Chief State Officers to get the Foundation’s agenda done.
“College Ready” is America’s need? Those kids in Naperville and Winnetka were born “College Ready”. What a frickin’ joke to the kids in Chicago who are just hoping to survive long enough to make it to the safety of their school tomorrow.
Why did we allow them to control the conversation about the educational needs of America? How did it come about that the Gates Foundation is telling us, the education professionals, how to do our business? The sad part is, we let them do this to us because we wouldn’t do it ourselves. We, as a profession, have been reluctant to get involved in politics, to write the newspapers about what schools need, to stand up and tell someone outside of the teacher’s lounge what our kids need. Until we, as a profession, are willing to tell everybody what America’s kids need, the billionaires and their foundations will fill the void.
Next time: Vision 2020 tries to fill the void