“Because Democracy” Ain’t Enough Of An Argument

An opinion piece originally run in the April 8 Ithaca Times.
School teachers are overpaid! Governor Cuomo is a scumbag! Stop attacking our kids! Let the teachers teach! We have got to stop graduating idiots!
Do I have everybody’s attention now? And if so, have any of these bold statements convinced you of a new belief over how public education should be?
While talking with and listening to many public educators in the course of writing last week’s
cover story (“Fight Still On,” April 1), there were some very fair points made by administrative types that Cuomo’s tactic of withholding school funding numbers till the budget was agreed on wreaks havoc on local schools’ planning. Albany politicking making life no fun for New Yorkers is an old story, and the order of operations that applies to the school funding formula is an obvious symptom of dysfunctional governance. That sort of mess is the newsman’s job to report and interpret until his readers’ eyes droop shut of statistic and acronym fatigue.
Headline­worthy quotes, though, do not come from administrators patiently explaining the effects
of the GEA on their district. They come from a place of real anger at Cuomo’s education agenda – believed by many to be driven by Wall Street hedge fund billionaires that want to privatize schools nationwide – and what one hears from the incensed at rallies and the like is a lot of “stops.” Stop cutting our funding. Stop balancing the budget at the expense of our kids. Stop requiring all these standardized tests that take away our teaching time. Stop funding privately­-run charter schools at the expense of public schools. Leave us alone!
The “leave us alone to teach, we know the kids better, just fund us!” argument hasn’t changed much in at least the past 15 years or so this observer has read the news. It needs updating, because if the crisis is as dire as the public school advocates say, they have some powerful opponents who have already claimed plenty of rhetorical high ground.
Those who argue, with Cuomo, that teachers need to be held to a higher, more measurable standard have some deeply ingrained public beliefs on their side: In short, that education can be measured in results, and so a completed college degree should lead in a straight line to worldly success. If society agrees that the aims of education are to turn out students who go to the best colleges [measured by U.S. News rankings]; then go on to get the best jobs [measured by salary]; and then contribute the most to society [measured by charitable giving] then test, test, and test some more.
The student should be prepared for the hardships of the Global Marketplace, which has ever-
increasing requirements for the “hard” intellectual, STEM skills. Can you build a bridge? asks the Marketplace. Can you code a program that lets teenagers send each other inappropriate photos? Will you provide value to our shareholders? This is the apparent aim of New York City’s Success Academies, if one believes the April 6 report in the New York Times on those schools’ philosophy: Test a lot; everyone sit up straight all the time; somewhat regular peeing-­of­-pants during tests.
Starting with “we do not encourage pants­wetting” might be a good start for public schools advocates to refresh their rhetoric, if creating a class of technical adepts who can beat the Commies to Uranus or best the Chinese in smartphone design is not granted as the only social good. To shape society’s beliefs about what education should be, though, without a reliance on “stops” and “nots,” will require first some reflection on the part of educators. Why do we need public education? [Hint: The answer is not “because democracy,” go deeper]. Then, convince me of your answer.