Education Reformers Should Look Back to Move Forward
Beginning with the publication of A Nation at Risk in 1983, public education in the United States has been steadily attacked and diminished. In a 2008 article, Richard Rothstein points out the damage that has been done in its wake:
The diagnosis of the National Commission on Excellence in Education was flawed in three respects: First, it wrongly concluded that student achievement was declining. Second, it placed the blame on schools for national economic problems over which schools have relatively little influence. Third, it ignored the responsibility of the nation’s other social and economic institutions for learning.
Long before the Gates Foundation or Advance Illinois - long before the charter school movement, No Child Left Behind, or Race to the Top – Horace Mann (1796 –1859) presented himself as America’s original education reformer. Mann proposed core principles that the country embraced: 1) that education should be universal (access for all children regardless of their means), 2) non-sectarian (not associated with a particular religion, faction or party), 3) free (financed through taxation rather than fees that some citizens could not afford), and 4) designed to foster not only academic goals, but social efficiency, civic virtue, and character. It is important to understand that before Horace Mann, education in the United States was none of these things.
Mann saw education as the means to social and economic advancement – a fundamental promise to every American:
other devices of human origin, is a great equalizer of conditions of men --the
balance wheel of the social machinery...It does better than to disarm the poor
of their hostility toward the rich; it prevents being poor.
So while it is appropriate to demand that our schools and public institutions continually improve, we might consider evaluating the direction of education in our state and country through the lens of Mann’s founding principles, lest we spend another 30 years chasing “fixes” for problems that are misdiagnosed, misunderstood and, in many cases, politically motivated.