Tuesday, July 01, 2008

Schools: a choice between two futures

Over half of the schools in California schools are currently at a crisis point. Schools can continue as they are. A segment of society will be well-educated, another segment will continue to fail. The economic crisis for working people and people of color will continue to grow (Mishel, Bernstein, Allegretto, 2007). Alternatively, schools can be transformed into places where education is a rich, compelling, and affirming process that prepares all young people to make thoughtful contributions to their community in economic and civic terms. Strategies for this transformation are found in my book, Choosing Democracy.
The possibility for change exists and gives those of us dedicated to democratic schools hope. Current proposals promoted by conservative institutes such as school choice and using public monies to fund private education (Chubb & Moe, 1989) will not lead to democratic reform. Rather than continue these privileges, a reform movement must build on democratic ideals of progress and equality of opportunity. These traditional values can triumph over the hostility and violence produced by racism, sexism, and class bias presently accepted as “normal” and natural in our schools.
The growth of the African American, Asian, and Latino middle class—a direct result of the Civil Rights Movement’s use of political power to reduce discrimination based on race—provides powerful evidence that racism can be combated through education and public policy. Frederick Douglass spoke to this issue in 1849 when he wrote the following:
The whole history of the progress of human liberty shows that all concessions yet made to her august claims have been born of earnest struggle. The conflict has been exciting, agitating, all absorbing, and for the time being putting all other tumults to silence. It must do this or it does nothing. If there is no struggle there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom, and yet depreciate agitation, are men who want crops without plowing up the ground. They want rain without thunder and lightning. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters. This struggle may be a moral one; or it may be a physically one; or it may be both moral and physical; but it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without demand. It never did and it never will. (Douglass, 1849/1991, p. vii)

We need to invest in our schools, provide equal educational opportunities in these schools, and recruit a well prepared teaching force that begins to reflect the student populations in these schools. We must insist on equal opportunity to learn- no compromise. When we do these things, we will begin to protect the freedom to learn for our children and our grandchildren, and to build a more just and democratic society.
Teacher advocates for democratic multicultural education challenge those social forces acting to preserve the present inequalities and injustices in our schools. We consider schools as sites for the struggle for or against more democracy in our society.
The struggle for education improvement and education equality is a struggle for or against democratic participation. The struggle for multicultural education, based in democratic theory, is an important part of the general struggle against race, class, and gender oppression.
Schools serving urban and impoverished populations need fundamental change. These schools do not open the doors to economic opportunity. They usually do not promote equality. Instead, they recycle inequality. The high school drop out rates alone demonstrate that urban schools prepare less than 50 percent of their students for entrance into the economy and society. A democratic agenda for school reform includes insisting on fair taxation and adequate funding for all children. Political leaders in most states have not yet decided to address the real issues of school reform. We cannot build a safe, just, and prosperous society while we leave so many young people behind.
The conservative/ media emphasis on accountability is a distortion. We know which schools need improvement, and we know how to improve them. Teachers can pursue democratic opportunity with instruction in multicultural education, critical thinking, cooperative learning, improved reading and language skills, and empowerment. Teachers and parents together face a political choice. Shall we continue to call for high standards without providing the necessary resources for all schools to have a reasonable chance to attain such standards? Shall we continue to punish schools and their staffs for low test scores, even when we know that the tests are poor instruments for measuring learning and that their construction guarantees the failure of many students? Is increased competition and privatization the answer for schools when it has not been the answer in other sectors of our society, particularly for low income and diverse people?
The problem is to provide the resources, including well prepared teachers with adequate support, needed to make the current schools successful. We face a choice between providing high-quality schools only for the middle and upper classes, and underfunded, understaffed schools for the poor. Or, we can also choose to work together to improve schools that are presently failing.
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