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Ongoing Conversations about Education

By Kerri Provost

May 14, 2012

Mike Rose has said that “we are in the middle of an extraordinary social experiment: the attempt to provide education for all members of a vast pluralistic democracy.” It is an understatement to say that Americans have varied interests; counter to popular opinion, these interests cannot neatly be divided into two camps. There is no simple pro/con divide, which is why the perennial debates over how to reform education are so contentious. And, if we are to talk about reforming education, we need to have an understanding of what we hope to get out of this public institution.

According to Charles A. Goodrich, “as early as 1647, Massachusetts required by law that every township which had fifty householders should have a schoolhouse and employ a teacher, and that such as had one thousand freeholders should have a grammar school.” The purpose? Religious and moral indoctrination.

Horace Mann, a 19th century reformer, promoted the idea of universal public education. At the same time, he viewed moral training — creating a docile work force — as one of the roles of education. In 1998, Jon Spayde pointed out that “for our policyheads, education equals something called ‘training for competitiveness.’” With the continued push for “back to basics” education – known as Core Knowledge – some have shown a lack of faith in the ability or need for children of certain backgrounds to do more than spit back facts. What need have they of critical thinking in the line of manual work predetermined for them?

Reformer John Dewey espoused the contrasting belief that school was not only a place to acquire knowledge; it was also where social change could occur. He promoted experiential learning — learning by doing. Though some k-12 schools manage to hold onto this, it is more likely to see service learning and hands-on learning unapologetically happening in higher education, where not all students are subjected to standardized tests.

That’s the good and the bad. Here is the ugly.

Throughout history, schools were used as tools to assimilate immigrants and Native Americans into the dominant culture. Literacy was reserved for a certain race, class, and sex for years. Separate and unequal was the norm for too long; some would argue that students still experience the detrimental effects of racial and economic segregation. Today, people scratch their heads about why children are not being read to in certain homes, blaming uncaring, uninvolved parents; illiteracy and low-literacy on part of the parents rarely comes up in conversation as the reason why children are receiving little help with homework. Talking about the rate of adult illiteracy in America would mean acknowledging that we have a problem; it’s often easier to simply claim that parents of children in “failing schools” are uninterested.

Many see standardized testing as a way to ensure that all students’ needs are being met, a way to check that education is delivered equally regardless of socioeconomic standing; however, at least one of the major standardized tests has dubious origins. The creator of the SAT was a proponent of the eugenics movement. It is believed that this kind of testing was meant as research to support the belief that certain types of individuals were unable to learn as well as other types. Some do not believe we have stepped much beyond using these types of tests as a way to reinforce privilege.

In Hartford, there are three upcoming opportunities for regular folks — not just those deemed to be experts — to take part in discussions about education.

For a month, several small groups met weekly at the Hartford Public Library, having conversations about adult education, an area that has received remarkably little attention for all the debates about learning over the past few years. Participants looked into existing resources and barriers to adults receiving services. The groups will share highlights of their conversations (”Creating a Vibrant Hartford: Adult Learning as a Pathway to Change”) and develop an action plan at 6pm on May 15th. Refreshments will be available in the Hartford Public Library (500 Main Street) at 5:30pm.

Achieve Hartford! and The Hartford will be sponsoring a forum at Classical Magnet School (85 Woodland Street) on May 22nd. The topic: “A Conversation Beyond the Books: Family and Community Roles in Preparing Children for College and Careers.” This is slated to go from 5-7pm.

The final piece of this educational hat trick is the May 31st Community Conversation on Education about the purpose(s) of education. Is the goal of public education to turn our youth into little worker bees? Is it to show them how to participate in civic life? Is education for the sake of education enough? Something else? Though this event is intended to foster frank, open conversation, it is meant to lead to action. The Community Conversation on Education will take place in the theater at the Learning Corridor (359 Washington Street) from 5:30-8:30pm. A light dinner will be served; childcare will be provided free of charge. They request an rsvp: (860) 525-3449 or info@hartofhartford.org

Are there any other education conversations happening in Hartford in upcoming weeks that did not make this list?

Reprinted with permission of Kerri Provost, author of the blog RealHartford. To view other stories on this topic, search RealHartford at http://www.realhartford.org/.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
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