Saturday, September 27, 2014

Parochialism with Public Schools

I've mentioned before that I like Catherine Rampell's writing, haven't I? She has a brief item on Washington Post's website today that caught my eye. I'm intrigued at the observation on how Americans rally around their school despite misgivings on public education much the same way Americans think their particular member of Congress isn't part of the problem. I also note how one's public school is a fluid concept: if one has children in a public school, that public school becomes their school. One's public school can be the school they remember from their youth. Regardless, we tend to defend what we know or think we know.

There's an angle on objectivity that we cannot overlook here. I think it's possible for people to overlook the negatives of their school, to romanticize their school and experiences at it. To an extent, I think we give our own schools a bit of a pass.

A more important observation I would offer, though, is that we tend to defend what we understand and know. In the past two decades, public schools have become harder to know. We've responded to safety concerns in the era of Columbine and other mass shootings by turning schools into fortresses. Members of the community are largely unwelcome. Parents, except for those who heavily invest themselves in PTOs or parent councils, are deterred by redundant security measures and locked doors. Entering a public school during the student day can bring up obstacles that remind one of scenes from a Tom Clancy movie where one has to pass through checkpoint after checkpoint as one descends the inner layers of White House security. With the exception of theater performances and varsity sporting events, schools are institutionally inhospitable.

The security culture that now defines much of public education means that we work behind brick walls rather than glass doors. A tradeoff for the sense of security is that what we do is harder for the public to know, and what the public doesn't know they have a hard time defending. What can the public really see aside from test scores, teacher salaries, and the "payment due" on their property tax bills? Perhaps public education in general needs to figure out a way to showcase more of what we do K-12 across all disciplines the way wise theater directors offer "golden tickets" to senior citizens and the way sports stadiums invite the community to watch children at play (and work). People cannot defend what they don't know.

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