Over the last few weeks there have been a number of stories in the news that remind me of how central education is to the life of our country. In fact, you can put me in the camp that believes we wouldn’t have the country we have without a strong public school system. It has been the driver of our democracy. But democracies are fragile things, and like orchids, they have to be cared for or they will wither and die. So too are public schools.
The first news item that reminded me of education’s responsibilities was, in fact, an education story. It involved the conviction of 11 educators in Atlanta who had cheated on the accountability tests. The story centered on the fact that they had profited from their cheating, and that was considered fraud and public corruption. In fact, their convictions were for racketeering, something you might expect more from the Mafia than from a group of educators.
Bigger than the conviction of these teachers was the conviction of the current system of school reform they represented. It is quite simple: Perverse incentives create perverse outcomes. When so much emphasis is placed upon something so limited and rewards and punishments are built around it, of course some people are going to cheat. That does not justify the act of cheating, but instead indicts a broader system that rewards cheating. These 11 educators got caught, but how many more out there took shortcuts to create better results? The superintendent who was in charge during this period was a friend of mine. She passed away right around the time of the convictions. She had been accused as well, but was not brought to trial. I have no way of knowing if she was directly involved. I would like to think not. However, she and every school leader and politician who trumpets test scores as the be-all and end-all of education are complicit. Cheating is the unintended consequence of creating a system that claims everything that counts can be counted. Albert Einstein reminded us years ago that that is not true. He also reminded us that not everything that can be counted counts. Education, and life for that matter, is a journey, not a race. Our children are the ones really being cheated here, as we send them the wrong messages about what’s important and allow them to lose opportunities to do things that aren’t on the tests.
Another big news story of late was the passage of a “religious freedom” bill in the Indiana legislature that seemed to allow discrimination against gays, among others. Several other states were considering similar legislation. The legislators’ justification was that they were merely creating a situation where religious freedom was being supported. There are a number of issues brought up here, but I would like to focus on just one. In a democracy such as ours, there is a lot of emphasis on personal freedom and liberty: It is a core value of our nation. When someone suggests tighter gun restrictions, the Second Amendment is trotted out and an infringement of liberty is loudly proclaimed. But there are limits to your liberty. Your liberties stop at my doorstep. As Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes famously said,
The right to swing my fist ends where the other man’s nose begins.
Certainly it is true that liberty was a founding core value of our democracy, but so is the concept of “justice for all.” In fact, in the pledge of allegiance these two things are tied together. It was clearly the intent of the founding fathers that liberty was to be balanced with the rights of all. That is why the Indiana law is such a great study of the perils of trying to tilt the scales of justice in one direction. As has been said by others, the power of public education is that it does not merely serve the public, it creates the public. Our task as educators is to spend a lot of time, thought, and effort helping our children understand the need for the balance of rights and responsibilities in our society.
The third story is the California drought, which seems to be headed toward epic proportions. The potential for an economic and environmental calamity is huge. Yet, this spring we will be treated to a Hollywood movie about a seismic disaster created by an earthquake on the San Andreas Fault. It is a reminder that our culture does spectacle much better than thoughtfulness. It is hard to make a blockbuster about the gradual withering away of a lifestyle. It is also a reminder that as long as people deny the impact of climate change, we are going to continue to be at its mercy. Life is a movie, not a snapshot. To truly understand change, you have to look at it over time and then act. The chairman of the Senate committee on the environment took the opportunity presented by a Washington, D.C., snowstorm to bring a snowball into the Senate to prove global warming was a hoax. He was using a moment to try to debunk decades of environmental decline-a snapshot rather than a movie. Our responsibility as educators is to see to it that our students are more thoughtful than some of our Senators. They need to be taught to look at facts objectively and to see trends as they are forming and playing out.
In the case of California, people are starting to raise awareness that the impact of a water shortage does not fall evenly on all citizens. Those who have much seem to be less impacted than those who have less. Once again, here is an example of the need for justice for all.
Children need to be taught that fairness, whether it is the distribution of a scarce commodity or the distribution of equality under the law, is fundamental in our democracy. And they have to be taught this not as test preparation, but as life preparation. That is the real role of education.