The break between the end of one school year and the start of another is a good time to reflect on the purpose and promise of public schools. The first publicly supported school was opened in 1635 with the purpose of preparing an informed citizenry, developing a productive workforce, and providing for upward social mobility.
These are still the purposes of public schools, some 387 years later. Our national vision is for all students to be given the opportunities and preparation necessary to become engaged and productive citizens.
Public schools and teachers are often maligned for their students’ lack of achievement, especially when compared to international norms. Yet the standards by which we “measure” what young people know differ among nations.
In addition, international comparisons do not consider childhood poverty and housing discrimination, two serious problems in the U.S. There is too little discussion of these and other contributors to student achievement or lack thereof; there is too little discussion of the circumstances and public policies that are necessary for student learning
We have problems with schooling, to be sure.
But the problems to be solved are neither simple nor easy to address. These problems include not only racial discrimination in housing. They also include issues such as parental support, adequate nutrition, a good night’s sleep, broadband access, and a quiet place to study. These factors all affect students’ readiness to learn.
Public schools must take all students without screening, even if neither they
nor the schools are “ready.” Unlike hospitals that must go on divert when they
lack adequately prepared staff and facilities, schools never go on divert. This is true even
if they must use three levels of metal detection to screen those entering the building or if
the textbooks are decades old.
We not only need teachers who are prepared, but also, we must be able to screen
those applying for school posts and to remove those who are not performing. The
current system often moves them aside and continues them on the payroll, thus limiting
the use of resources for those better prepared to help students learn.
preparing to become teachers should serve in an apprenticeship or internship. Such preparation is common in other professions. Instead, teachers can enter the profession with limited practice and mentoring.
In addition, many schools have inadequate facilities and supplies. On several occasions, I served as “Principal for a Day” in New York City and Newark, New Jersey, schools. In one high school in the Bronx, the nearly 100- year-old school building had nine doors, but the City provided only seven guards.
The fire department did not allow any door to be locked, and the union contract required that every guard have a break. Consequently, the principal had to turn three teacher lines into guard positions. In addition, the textbooks were a decade old and the principal had to use her own money for paper supplies and Metro cards so that parents could meet with her about their children.
In many places, it seems that the principal is known as and thinks of himself or herself as the building principal, instead of the principal-teacher. Think of the difference those words communicate when the goal of school is to enhance teaching and learning. School boards should encourage the latter title instead of the former.
We know that it takes money to have excellence in schools because we have
examples. Think of Garden City where the high school spends over $26,000.00 per student compared to about $20,000. in nearby Hempstead, a nearly 30% difference.
In Garden City, nearly 65% of the money is spent on instruction while in Hempstead the proportion is 56%., further exacerbating the difference in learning opportunities. In Garden City, 90% of students participate in AP classes while in Hempstead the participation rate is 25%.
In Garden City, few students are eligible for free lunch while the rate in Hempstead is 44.5%. These statistics from the New York State School District Transparency Reports reflect not only the degree of opportunity available in each community but also the level of public support available to the schools.
When critics discuss the cost of schools, they often do not compare funds dedicated to instruction at the different sites.
Instead, they compare the total spent in one place with the total spent in another, without regard to whether the money is spent on instruction or guards. Shouldn’t students have equal opportunities wherever they go to school?
Unfortunately, we hear more often about reducing taxes than about supporting public schools like those in Hempstead. Instead, we hear about philanthropic contributions from individuals and corporations to support charter schools and vouchers instead of support for neighborhood schools. These examples indicate that, although funding is needed, the public is either unwilling or unable to pay for schooling through taxation.
We have lost sight of the central purpose of public schools: to prepare students for citizenship and careers through instruction and experiences. Instead, we load many other functions on our schools, such as social work, meals, physical and psychological health assistance, transportation, and policing.
Solutions such as charter schools, a favorite of some advocates for reform who oppose teacher unions, are interesting models, but valuable as public policy only if the lessons learned can be applied more generally.
Charter schools can select their students and limit their enrollment; they are freed from many of the rules and regulations which limit flexibility in neighborhood schools; and they can decide who is principal and who can teach. When will these apparent ingredients for success be available at all schools and students?
We need systemic change by considering lessons learned. We know what works. We can see it in Garden City, Great Neck, Rockville Centre, and at other suburban as well as some urban schools. It takes money, it takes local leadership with authority, it takes well-prepared and committed teachers, and it takes a strong mission with local governance and accountability. All students deserve such schools.
Robert A. Scott, President Emeritus, Adelphi University and author, How University Boards Work, Johns Hopkins Press, 2018; Eric Hoffer Awardee, 2019