The DeHavilland Blog

Monday, January 09, 2006

Is there a public for public schools?

I’ve just gotten about halfway through a fascinating book by David Mathews, President of the Kettering Foundation and Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare in the Ford Administration (back in the days before Education became its own department). This book, “Is there a public for public schools?” (definitely worth buying - click here to order it from the foundation), examines an issue mostly overlooked in the education reform debate: what is the role of the community in education?

He provides some needed history on the growth of our schools, discussing how schools were originally run by communities who effectively owned the schools – NOT “felt ownership”, but actually had a powerful voice in schools. This ownership meant that schools were truly community enterprises – even those who didn’t have children in schools played an active role in determining what was taught and also in implementing instruction.

Schools began to break apart from their communities in the closing decades of the 19th century, when “scientific management” methods began to spread. This trend towards specialization meant that community members began to feel unqualified to run their schools, and instead felt the need to bring in education administrators trained in scientific techniques. Unfortunately, as communities began to delegate responsibility for decisions about their schools, two things happened: first, communities became less engaged; and second, this new class of education administrators followed the course of any scientific profession. They began to develop their own thinking, their own jargon, etc. – their own community, in effect – and discouraged input from those (ie, the communities) that didn’t know as much as them.

This trend snowballed of course, and Mathews describes today’s environment as one where the public pays lip service to its commitment to schools, when in reality they feel disengaged and unwelcome, and would prefer not to have their children subjected to a system they feel is not only unresponsive but manifestly unsafe and ineffective. He sees education today as driven by battles between special interests groups, and the lack of interest and involvement by communities means that any top-down reforms enacted by these warring factions will not succeed.

He doesn’t see any of this as malicious: nobody is out to destroy our kids. In fact, all parties are trying to do what they believe is right for education. But in the end, it's clear that the community has been effectively shut out of education, except for specific opportunities dictated by the schools (primarily when funds and manpower are needed – certainly not in areas with substantive input), and when you deprive someone of input, they don't feel any connection or obligation to resulting output.

He highlights the disparity in thinking between schools and communities with the results of a 1992 survey which state that nearly 60% of Americans thought that parents and other members of the community should have more say in allocating funds and deciding the curriculum, compared with only 15% of administrators and 26% of teachers who felt this way. Later in the book he goes on to say:

Efforts to involve citizens, though well intentioned and sincere, sometimes
unwittingly treat the public as a means to ends that educators have in mind. In
talking to people about public participation, I realized that some see this as a
technique whose effectiveness is judged by how well it helps schools reach their
objectives. The public schools really are the public’s schools, and the public’s
involvement is not by sufferance of the educational authorities. Citizens belong
in the schools’ hallways because they are their hallways. If they are given the
impression that they are welcome to participate only if they can do something
that educators think worthwhile, this puts the cart before the horse (i.e.,
treats citizens as means) and disconnects the public from the

The public is not a means to the ends
of educators, and people know it. They react adversely to many of the techniques
used to involve them; though educators intend to empower, people feel
manipulated. For example, the common practice of having the community discuss
its needs, on the assumption that this will make people feel “involved” – while
consultants and staff members develop curricular reforms based on long-held
professional preferences – gives people the sense that educators are
experimenting with their children and not listening to what they are saying.
Researchers say practices like this have created a “legacy of

More on this as I make it further through the book – but already I’m thrilled to find someone talking about an incredibly important, and too often overlooked, component of education reform. It helps me consider the failure of many reform initiatives in a new light, and also better understand one of the pillars of the success of some new school models (such as the Big Picture Schools which require parents to co-apply, in effect, with their students, and utilizes community engagement, such as internships, as a fundamental component of the learning process).

I hope this book has a happy ending…


  • wow - I've just come across this book - & the article, "The lack of a public for public schools" by David Mathews in Jun 1997 Phi Delta Kappan.

    I'm going to read your other post now.

    By Blogger Catherine Johnson, at 3:00 PM  

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