ChalkBoard Education: The Preservation of a Democratic Society
by Benny L. Gooden, Ed.D
Is the American system of public education a relic of the past, which is destined to be replaced by other options to yield a superior result - not only for individual students but for our nation?
This question is definitely worthy of our consideration and debate. However, after having observed the changes in American society and the needs of U.S. children over the past three decades, the answer appears clear to me. From my perspective as a teacher, administrator, parent, and citizen, the correct choice lies in improving our nation's public schools in order to preserve our democratic society.
In less than two centuries, our system of public education has responded very well to this country's need for universal schooling. Today the high school completion rate for U.S. students has never been higher, while our schools continue to place high expectations on our students as the demands for higher skills in the workplace continue to rise. Respected education researchers Berliner, Bittle, Bracy, and others document a higher level of academic attainment - for a higher percentage of the population - than at any other time in our history.
Public schools have opened the doors of opportunity for all students, regardless of race, native language, religion, or socioeconomic status. The phenomenal success of technology, improved living standards, and global leadership in this country did not occur by accident, but rather as the result of universal access to inclusive public schools.
One of the greatest assets of public schools continues to be the relationships that result from learning in an increasingly diverse and challenging environment. An analysis of current demographic trends reveals a greater need for children and adults to live and work in harmony with different cultures, which our public school system supports. Educational programs that foster elitism or segregation will only lead to divisiveness and conflict in the school setting and beyond.
Must our schools change to meet new challenges? Definitely! The skills of the past generation of learners are not adequate for our present or future learners. As a nation, we cannot accept any percentage of our children being unschooled. ALL children must acquire the academic skills needed for lifelong learning. They must also develop social skills, work ethic, and responsibility to the community that denotes productive citizenship. Families, churches, public and private agencies, and schools all share the responsibility to foster the development of these characteristics in each succeeding generation.
As educators and parents we must continue to support the concept of 'common schools,' which serve all children regardless of race, ability, gender, religion, national origin, or economic level. Inclusiveness, as opposed to exclusiveness, makes for high expectations and increased achievement for all children.
The survival of our democratic society depends on developing the qualities of academic excellence, personal industry, social competence, and responsibility to the community in all children. Allowing schooling, acculturation, character, and citizenship development to occur by chance is a path to anarchy. A system of public education designed to provide equality of opportunity represents the success of the past and the hope of the future. Our children deserve no less. We cannot fail them - or our nation.
Benny L. Gooden, Ed.D, is superintendent of schools for Fort Smith Public Schools, Fort Smith, Arkansas. He is the 1999 National PTA Phoebe Apperson Hearst Outstanding Educator of the Year. Reprinted with permission from National PTA, Our Children, August/September 1999