Rebuilding public education is essential to saving America

America’s public education system depends on American values and is, by far, our most important national infrastructure. Like our transportation system, it is in serious need of repair.

Public education in America replaced a traditional system of educating children that relied entirely on family, church, community and apprenticeship. It always has been highly decentralized, with local governments and institutions responsible for school funding and control.

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The federal government did not get involved in public education in a big way until the civil rights movement sparked concerns about educational equity. Simultaneously, technological competition with the Soviet Union caused us to worry that they were getting ahead of us in science and mathematics.

Impressive progress of all sorts in Asian and European countries added to education-related worries beyond just science and math.  As a more connected and economically competitive world emerged, educational excellence joined educational equity as rallying cries for reform.

School boards and local governments, philanthropists and the federal government all responded with reform initiatives. Despite their efforts, our worries about America’s public schools persist and remain well justified.

Today, teachers and their unions are under attack, accused of being barriers to improvement and accountability. Their defenders counter that poor student performance is rooted in poverty, family and societal breakdown and that teachers and their unions are scapegoats. They also point to our tradition of locally funding schools and assert that this approach all but assures poor and  disadvantaged communities will have poor, disadvantaged schools.

Charter schools, vouchers and parental choice in what public school a child attends are necessary, advocates say, to compel our reform-resistant school system to change. Opponents believe these initiatives promote privatization and private-sector profits while undermining broadly available quality public education.

Reforms that emphasize students’ performance on standardized tests as the way to evaluate schools and teachers have been controversial. These “standards-based reforms” accompanied by a system of rewards and punishments for teachers and schools have educators concerned. Many feel they narrow educational content, encourage teaching to the test, and see little evidence they produce higher levels of educational excellence.   

Complex, highly decentralized human systems such as public education, with many different stakeholders, are extraordinarily difficult to change from the top down. The federal government simply is not capable of leading a public education reformation. Its attempts at standards-based reforms, No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top, are case studies in federal limitations.

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Our schools must be reformed from the bottom up and within. City, county and state school boards are trying. Driven by parents and teachers, they must do a great deal more and need help.  Each state’s public universities should be assigned the mission of joining the effort. By formally partnering with their school boards, providing educational expertise, collecting data and offering analysis, they can add more local capability to reform and improvement efforts.

They should work together in regional and national university consortia to further a system-wide understanding and collaborative systemic problem-solving. They can bring heightened local and national attention to our progress toward equity and excellence by providing periodic assessments to the public, educational and political leaders that answer questions such as these:

  • If we hire well-educated, highly motivated teachers, offer them good pay, benefits, status, professional education and training, we have the foundation for student and teacher success. Good school conditions, competent administrative leadership and management, appropriate teacher professional development, fair evaluations, accountability and parental involvement complete the path to success. Where do we have these foundations and where are they lacking? What’s necessary to get them?
  • Poverty, family and societal breakdown are overwhelming some of our teachers and schools. Rebuilding broken communities must accompany efforts to rebuild their schools. Collocating expanded social services and support such as preventative health care, child care, prenatal care, parental and pre-kindergarten education with our neediest schools can make them a center of community activity. It can make them a stimulus for rebuilding community. Are we repairing struggling communities as we repair their schools? If not, what’s the alternative?
  • A 21st-century American system of public education must provide quality pre-school, primary, secondary, vocational and university educational opportunity. Where communities are failing it has to be accompanied by private and government-resourced social services that can rebuild communities along with schools. Public education should offer to retrain people whose jobs are lost to technology or competition. It can and must encourage and support the choice of adult lifelong learning. Is it doing all this? If not, what needs to change?

Our public universities, school boards, teachers and parents are our best chance at reforming and reinventing America’s public education system. They need a lot of human and physical resources, unprecedented public support and untiring public engagement. It will not be easy. We have no recent experience with making this kind of effort on behalf of our communities. It requires us all to join and work, really work together in ways that run counter to current societal trends. Growing class divisions and isolation, hyper-individualism and aversion to sacrificing in the short term to invest for the future are national behaviors that stand in our way.

What is it worth? Public education is an enabler of human potential, tilting the playing field of advantage away from wealth and privilege. It underwrites the value we place on human dignity, the importance of every single life and our belief that all are created equal. It is an investment in national hopefulness and a commitment to being fair and generous to one another.

John Adams once said, when writing about public education: “No expense for this purpose would be thought extravagant.”

The idea that is America depends on educated citizens. It depends on their holding values of fairness, generosity and hopefulness. Are you willing to be extravagant in rebuilding and reinventing our system of public education? Are you willing to do what is necessary to save our idea?

John J. Grossenbacher retired in 2003 as U.S. Navy vice admiral and commander of the U.S. Naval Submarine Forces, following a 33-year naval career. He directed the U.S. Department of Energy’s Idaho National Laboratory for 10 years, overseeing scientific and engineering research in nuclear and other energy resources, the environment and homeland security.