By Deep Sran
Are America’s schools failing or succeeding? To answer this question, we first have to decide what is the most important thing schools do. Usually, we evaluate schools using standardized test scores, including tests that are state-level (SOL), national (NAEP), international (TIMSS), or for college admissions (SAT or ACT). But this only makes sense if the most important thing schools do is to produce high scores in English and math. Similarly, while preparing students for college or for employment are important goals, neither is the most important.
When thinking about what is most important, we need to move beyond a short-term view of educational outcomes—beyond test scores, college admissions, and filling jobs in STEM fields. The state does not provide a free education to every student just so they get good scores on math and English tests, or so they get into Virginia Tech. We provide free schools so students can be effective citizens; quoting Thomas Jefferson, “An educated citizenry is a vital requisite for our survival as a free people.”
When Horace Mann first championed publicly funded “Common Schools” for all students in the middle of the 19th century, he did so by arguing that republics cannot survive without educating students to be citizens. He noted that, “Education is our only political safety.” As explained by Michael J. Steudeman, “Mann concluded that the system of education and the survival of the American republic were utterly fused. Unless America could find political leaders who would work ‘at all times and in all places, for the culture and edification of the whole people,’ the very survival of the American republic would be at risk.” I believe we have forgotten the connection between schools and the republic, and now focus on far less important educational goals.
Public schools exist to educate citizens; it is the most important thing they do. So I propose we judge American schools by looking at our democratic elections, institutions, and engagement. When judging schools, we should ask: Are our political candidates the best among us? Are political campaigns civil, honest, and deep, in that they are about substantive issues and not about sound bites and cheap shots? Are citizens engaged as voters, are they testifying in public hearings, are they discussing politics with their neighbors, and do they seek to influence policy decisions; or do citizens simply complain about what happens without actually getting involved? Do voters hold incumbents accountable for policies that are not in the public interest? The quality of our public conversations about policy and the role of government, the quality of our candidates and institutions, and the extent to which Americans engage as citizens, are, in effect, “tests” of how well Americans schools are fulfilling their primary purpose.
Based on what we have seen in the past year, American schools are failing these tests. Voters make political decisions based on conspiracy theories and “fake news.” Both major party candidates for president were widely disliked and distrusted, even in their own parties. Our president regularly embraced mistruths during the campaign and after his election (e.g., about winning the popular vote, President Obama’s birth certificate, or global warming being a Chinese deception to undermine U.S. manufacturing). Only 55 percent of voting-age adults voted in 2016, and even fewer vote in non-presidential election years. Congress has an approval rating below 20 percent. These are appalling “scores” for the world’s great democracy, and all of this has happened even though 9 out of 10 American citizens 25 or older have completed a high school diploma or a GED certificate, and a vast majority have spent at least 13 years of their lives in school (with almost 13,000 hours in a classroom). By comparison, George Washington spent 5 or fewer years in school, and his formal education ended by the age of 15. Benjamin Franklin also spent less than 5 years in school. Alexander Hamilton was tutored for a few years before arriving in the Colonies as a teenager, and probably spent about the same amount of time in school as Washington and Franklin. Abraham Lincoln spent the equivalent of only about one year in school. If these Framers (our school mascot) could learn civic skills and responsibilities in just a few years in school, or on their own without school, we certainly have enough time today to teach for citizenship in primary and secondary schools.
We must go beyond talking about school choice, test scores, STEM courses, AP and dual-enrollment options, and college admissions, and must recommit to the core, civic purpose of schools. We need to do this for the sake of our republic. What exactly teaching for citizenship would entail is the subject for a separate piece, but, at a minimum, it requires an open and constructive conversation at school about current social, economic, and political questions, so students are equipped to deal with such issues as voters. Do we want students dealing with difficult questions in a collaborative educational environment, or do we want students to find their direction from resources on the world wide web? If you don’t do the former, students will do the latter, and their knowledge, reasoning, and participation as citizens will be diminished.
In conclusion, we must put civic education back at the top of our national and state-level educational priorities, with the goal of ensuring that citizens are prepared and disposed to wield the power the Constitution gives them to decide the course and conduct of politics in America.
[Deep Sran, founder of Loudoun School for the Gifted in Ashburn, has been on a mission to improve formal education for two decades. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.]