Public Education's Forgotten Excellence

As I get older, often I find myself mentioning a great movie or actor, a book, or an important event from the past, while getting a quizzical look on the young face that I am trying to share my passionate memories with. While I am old enough to realize that nothing lasts, I also realize that in the relay race that is life, education must function as the bridge between the past and the future where what one generation has valued can be presented to the next generation for their scrutiny, possible approval, and as a point of reference in determining where they want to go.

In the Professor Stanley Fish's New York Times blog today entitled A Classic Education: Back to the Future, Professor Fish reminisces about Classical High School in Providence, Rhode Island where he went over 55 years ago. The academic rigor he describes from that time seems much further removed than its actual 55 years, when juxtaposed with an LAUSD of today which doesn't see this level of academic excellence as even a possible goal in anything but rhetoric. Much like LAUSD of today, Classical High was "A student body made up of the children of immigrants or first generation Americans; many, like [Professor Fish], the first in their families to finish high school with nearly a 100 percent college attendance rate." While it was a different time and the children of those immigrants came to America with different values, at the base of there success seemed to be a rigor of endeavor and intellectual curiosity and idealism that we have regrettably allowed to disappear at LAUSD where slogans have so long ago replaced substance that most are no longer aware that it is missing.

In listening to the 3 different perspectives Professor Fish talks about of Leigh A. Bortins' "The Core: Teaching Your Child the Foundations of Classical Education," Martha C. Nussbaum's "Not for Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities"Diane Ravitch's "The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice are Undermining Education," I realized just how much as a society we miss what Bortins describes "as a continuing conversation that humankind has been engaged in for centuries." How much of the trouble that we presently find ourselves in from Afghanistan to the Gulf of Mexico comes from our public schools no longer functioning as a clearinghouse for the "collective wisdom of the ages" used to prepare the next generation for the problems of the present and the future.

The rich curriculum of math, science, language, history, economics and literature that Bortins describes as "the ideas that make us human" cannot presently exist in LAUSD because the rigor necessary to achieve their mastery is no longer a stated goal that offers real consequences for their non-attempt or achievement. When Bortins describes "grammar as the study of the formal structure of anything," what she hints at is an inquisitive mind that no longer has a place in an LAUSD where no good act good act goes unpunished and not making waves gets you a 6 figure salary with perks. My wife went to German school in Rome where she was raised. Students in her school only attended class 4 hours a day, but when they were in school, they worked and achieved much better academic results than their fellow students in regular Italian schools. The annual assessments that a school like Classical High in Rhode Island or the Deutsche Schule in Rome took were not the goal of education as they have become at LAUSD, but rather a foregone conclusion of success based on the rigor required from students, teachers, and administrators throughout the year who were too busy working to attend the endless meetings discussing ethereal goals that at LAUSD never seem to be achieved.

While LAUSD's failure as an educational entity can be witnessed by the much touted API scores, Martha Nussbaum suggests a much better test as to whether a culture of education has taken root: Do students "see themselves as members of a heterogeneous nation...and a still more heterogeneous world," which view comes from a rigorous and in depth education which has become sorely lacking in our schools. When Nussbaum "talks about a narrower and narrower view of education," one almost hears the vacuous edspeak platitudes that have come to replace substance so thoroughly in LAUSD that the actual mechanisms of how we educate- or more specifically- how we educate students from whom rigor has never been required are not even part of the conversation. In this stunted view of public education, nothing is "flexible, open and creative."

And finally there is Professor Diane Ravitch whose critique of what we are doing is the most damning because she is no longer an apologist for the failed choice in lieu of substance public education system that still is allowed to stifle real public education reform. One can only hope that if Ravitch who was such an ardent support of presently failed public education can turn around than maybe others will be moved from long failed public education policies that are insuring the decline of American society.

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