In their DDN article, Drs. Kelly and DePalma defend the current system and essentially argue that we need more of the same, only with harder tests and requirements. They defend the key principles guiding the current system: 1) purpose of the current system is to transmit an established curriculum, 2) the merit of schools and teachers can be determined via the results of objective tests, and 3) to improve schools means to improve the scores on these objective tests. My point is that an education founded on such principles ignores many of the aims for education that traditionally a democratic nation has agreed is important to pursue and that reform leading to higher test scores ignores the fact that our current system is built on principles that in the big picture are inadequate. Rather than reforming schools, we need to transform them.
To reform, means to be more efficient in accomplishing the aims of the system. But if the aim of the system is wrong, then reform is not the answer. The problem is, regardless of how much the test scores improve, public education will still be failing to accomplish what it needs to accomplish. To transform, means to create a new system that will be focused on accomplishing a purpose very different from the old system.
The difference between “reforming” and “transforming” is a powerful insight. To plan for the future — Public Education In 2030 is the book I keep talking about writing— would require a compelling vision of what is possible. In my previous article, I took a stab at defining the principles of a new system, but in this short speech I didn’t develop these principles but instead simply tried to show a way of thinking that will encourage discussion about what new directions public education should be considering.
This is a collection of photos that I started taking in late August and continued to take, off and on, until now. A dahlia is an inspiring flower — a lot of work, but offering a big pay-off in its stunning, enchanting, mesmerizing and astonishing beauty. And this was a great year to grow them — lots of rain and not too hot. In my little backyard I had more plants than ever — about 100 plants — most growing about six feet tall and full of blooms.
This region’s first frost date is October 10, but, last year, the frost didn’t come until almost the end of October. So, I’m hoping this year will be the same, and I’ll have another week or so, to make a few more bouquets for friends and neighbors. Then in November, I will lift up the roots, pack them in peat moss and store in a borrowed basement for the winter. My goal this year is to find a better way to label and organize the roots — grouping those of the same type together. Some varieties I have six to eight plants of, and so, next spring I should have an abundance of new starts of these plants to share.
The accompanying music is Fantaisie Impromtu by Frederic Chopin — performed by Claudio Arrau — the theme of which became, “I’m always chasing rainbows.”
When Ohio’s new A-F school grading system is implemented in 2015, most schools will get a lower grade than what they get in the current system. Area educational leaders Kevin Kelly and Frank DePalma defend the new system, and in a DDN article give this explanation: “Ohio has raised its standards in bold and important ways for our children. … The lower grades are an inescapable part of the process of asking our schools, teachers and children to aim higher.”
The new system, according to Kelly and DePalma, will have a big pay-off. “Going forward,” they promise, “a high school diploma will mean a graduate can succeed in college without first taking remedial classes, or is ready to join the workforce with the necessary entry-level skills.”
The public has a right to be skeptical. Ohio’s new system is incorporates the principles of the No Child Left Behind federal law and the results of NCLB have been disappointing. In 2002, remember, promoters promised that, by 2014, NCLB would bring all children— regardless of ability or background — to “proficiency” in core knowledge and skills. As it is, 82% of schools have failed to meet their goal of Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP). The NCLB strategy of demanding more, giving low grades and rewarding and punishing didn’t work and Kelly and DePalma give no explanation why they are confident the NCLB strategy will work as part of Ohio’s new system.
The more important observation to be made, however, is that Ohio’s new A-F system fails to correct Ohio’s foundational deficiencies. Even if test scores go up, Ohio’s system of public education will still be woefully inadequate. We now have a system that at its foundation is thoroughly corrupted with the erroneous assumptions that guided NCLB: 1) The purpose of pubic education can be accomplished via the transmission of a standard curriculum, 2) The merit of schools and teachers can be determined by the results of objective tests of this curriculum, 3) To aim higher means to seek to improve test scores.
The important goals that traditionally inspired the creation of public schools have largely been forgotten. Public education has always sought to build a bridge to a better future when human progress and culture exceeds what we experience in the present. It is our youth who will live in that future and who must be equipped with the qualities of wisdom and leadership worthy of the challenge. Our present system of public education is inadequate to the task and tinkering, duct taping, won’t work — guided by NCLB principles, public education is headed in the wrong direction.
Public education must be rebuilt on foundational principles such as these: 1) The purpose of our system of public education is accomplished by nurturing and empowering the yearning for learning and the desire to live purposefully found in every individual 2) The merit of schools and teachers is demonstrated in preparedness of the citizens they develop to live freely and to contribute fully to the success of their representative democracy 3) To aim higher means to seek to help each citizen to more fully develop his or her potential to be a thoughtful, effective and productive citizen.
If a system of public education would forget about raising test scores and instead would allocate its energy and resources to align with such principles, it’s a fascinating question what an educational program might look like and what indicators of accountability might be used to monitor such a program. As the motivation of students and teachers would soar, test scores, I bet, would soar as well.
As it is, we are quickly approaching the time when the current system of public education will be indefensible. We need to rebuild public education from the ground up, using foundational principles very different than the principles that guide public education today. Rather than tinkering with and duct taping the current system, educational leaders should be putting resources into making the big break-throughs that will transform public education. We need to encourage each other to be inspired by the words of Robert Kennedy — “There are those that look at things the way they are, and ask why? I dream of things that never were, and ask why not?”
Ohio is phasing in a new A-F school grading system. When it is implemented, most schools and districts will receive a lower grade than what their evaluation in the current system would indicate. Now, 52% of Ohio schools are deemed “Excellent” or “Excellent with Distinction,” but in the new system only a few schools will be deemed worthy of a grade of “A”. Most schools will have a grade of “C” or less.
The point of the new system is to “raise the bar” with a tougher curriculum and harder tests and in so doing push students and schools to greater success. Here is what area educational leaders, Kevin Kelly and Frank DePalma, recently wrote in aDDN opinion article: “Ohio has raised its standards in bold and important ways for our children. When demands increase, it always takes time to adjust. The lower grades are an inescapable part of the process of asking our schools, teachers and children to aim higher.”
Yes, I agree that public education must be guided by higher aims and bolder purposes. But, really, the thought that the aims of public education can be distilled into objective tests of discrete academic curriculum is mind boggling. What is easily measurable has become most important to school evaluations and those elements of education that through the ages have always been considered most important — though difficult or impossible to measure — are being largely ignored.
The theory supporting this new grading system is that the merit of a school can be determined by analyzing the educational progress of its students — as measured in objective tests. The educational program itself — the use of school time and resources, the ethos of the school, the attitude of teachers and students toward the love of learning, the degree to which the school promotes a culture of thoughtfulness, empathy, respect, and the degree that its students and teachers practice good citizenship — according to this theory, should be simply ignored.
The philosophy of education that supports this new grading system is that the purpose of education is to transmit a a defined curriculum. It sees children as deficient — lacking in knowledge — and it sees the purpose of the school to correct that deficiency and to fill up the heads of kids with curriculum and other stuff, like “thinking skills.” This point of view asserts that objective tests can reliably assess how much knowledge the student has accumulated — the more the better — and when he or she has accumulated a sufficient quantity of this measurable knowledge, the student then is considered “educated.”
Flowing from this philosophy is the notion that a great teacher is anyone who can raise test scores and a great school is any organization that succeeds in getting most of its students to get acceptable test scores.
This guiding philosophy would have us believe that a child isolated at home or in an institution with a computer as his or her teacher has the same chance for a good education as a child within a loving school community and with a teacher who is his or her mentor. If the child makes acceptable scores, then his or her educational experience, by definition, was a success. This philosophy would have us believe that a school could be operated with a ruthless oppression worthy of North Korea — homogenizing children into non-thinking test taking automatons, brainwashing children into the acceptance of arbitrary authoritarianism and systematically crushing any independent thought by teachers or students — and, if the school’s test scores met the state’s criteria, the school could be deemed an “A+” school.
What is happening to public education seems so bizarre that anyone who thinks in terms of conspiracies has to wonder if the unstated, but underlying, aim of building a school evaluation system based on such a goofy and dangerous philosophy is, in fact, to destroy our system of public education and to replace it with something more business friendly. When we have diminished our understanding of what the purpose of public education actually is, then public schools can be given to the profiteers who will know how produce good test scores by using low-cost computers and by degrading the role of teachers to the status of low-paid blue collar workers.
We had a ten+ year experiment testing the philosophy that the way to make public education successful for students and communities is to center the whole system around transmitting a standardized curriculum and establishing accountability via the relentless giving of objective tests. The idea behind this experiment is that, if public policy is established that demands good test scores from schools and, if there are enough rewards and punishments, then, somehow, from this will emerge a good education. The results are in. It is clear that this approach to improving public education hasn’t worked and there is no reason to suppose giving harder tests and lower grades will make the results much better. While demanding more and grading harder may raise more students and schools to a level of minimum accomplishment, it seems clear that gearing up more and more pressure will not result in the explosion of quality that public education actually needs.
The problem is, the flawed and dangerous philosophy behind this experiment is so dominant it cannot be replaced unless a sufficiently compelling point of view and an inspiring model of public education takes its place. Communities must find a way to exert local control and must give a lot more thought into what makes a good school. Educators must create new school models that will show how the role of teachers can be elevated to a new level of professionalism. Through a vitalization of their local democracy, communities should work to define and implement a philosophy of education that will inspire students and teachers to do the hard work needed to achieve educational excellence.
Dayton businessman, Russ Gottesman, this morning announced that he is seeking to be the Democratic Party’s candidate to represent Ohio’s 10th Congressional District. The event was held at the Patterson Homestead on Brown Street.
Gottesman’s message is that as an entrepreneur who at an early age started his own successful company, he understands how to bring jobs to the community. He said, “Jobs — it is what it is all about.”
It appears that Gottesman is about 35 years old — I can’t find his age. He is married with one child and has another child that will soon be born. This is his first attempt to gain elected office.
Gottesman started Commuter Advertising — a business which provides audio advertising on city busses and returns part of the advertising revenue to the bus companies. So far, city transportation companies have gained over $1 million through his business.
Republican Mike Turner currently represents Ohio’s 10th District and has been elected to that position six times. The 10th District includes all of Montgomery and Greene Counties and until the 2010 reapportionment, when Ohio lost two congressional seats, this region was designated as Ohio’s 3rd District. After reapportionment, the Dayton region became the 10th District and now it is considered one of the more competitive districts in the state. In the 2012 election, however, Turner won almost 60% of the vote, while the Democratic candidate, Sharen Neuhardt, received 37% and a Libertarian candidate received 3%.
Regardless that Gottesman’s literature promises “a campaign of ideas,” at this launch of his campaign, I failed to hear anything other than the usual boilerplate that any challenger might be expected to include — jobs, reaching across the isle, innovation, inclusiveness, building bridges, new voice, new leadership, etc.
After the speech, as I was eating one of the campaign’s pastry treats, one of Gottesman’s campaign workers asked what I thought about the speech. I told him that regardless that Gottesman projects a good spirit and a confident attitude, to me, Gottesman’s promise about creating jobs is simply unbelievable. I said, in fact, I couldn’t imagine anyone will be much impressed with his promise of creating jobs and that if he persists on making jobs his main message, he will be wasting a lot of effort that could be put to better use. I said, to my ear, Gottesman’s speech advanced a point of view that might be called “Republican Lite” — and that Gottesman failed to say anything that would make anyone think that he has any empathy or compassion for the plight of ordinary citizens. The speech, for my taste, was much too business-like and lacked heart. I explained to the campaign worker that, in my view, Gottesman’s speech failed to communicate passion and conviction and that I didn’t hear Gottesman say anything that would motivate the Democratic base to do the hard work that will be needed if he, or any Democrat, is to have any hope for victory. I said, if he is to have a chance, he needs to find the words that will communicate emotions that were missing in this initial effort.
Impressive today was the setting and overall organization of the event. About 50 people were in attendance. It appears that Gottesman has already put together an experienced team, and that, evidently, he has money to spend. Also impressive was the turn-out of much of the Montgomery County Democratic Party establishment. In each of the previous campaigns against Turner, this is the first time, in my memory, there has been such an early launch with a lot of the party establishment in attendance. Endorsed Democratic candidate for the Mayor of Dayton, Nan Whaley, introduced Gottesman and on the stage showing their support was Mark Owens, chair of the party, along with County Treasurer, Caroline Rice; County Commissioner, Dan Foley; County Recorder, Willis Blackshear; and State Representative, Fred Strahorn.
I’m wondering if this support by party leaders signals that there will be a push by the Montgomery County Democratic Party establishment to officially endorse Mr. Gottesman for the nomination — a push, as in the mayoral race and Ohio House races, to discourage unchosen Democrats from participating in the Democratic Primary.
Notably absent from this gathering was the Democratic candidate for Dayton mayor, A. J. Wagner — the candidate that failed to get the MCDP endorsement — and also absent were Wagner supporters, County Commissioners, Debbie Lieberman and Judy Dodge.
Our monthly meeting of the South of Dayton Democratic Club is this evening at 6:00 at the Wright Library in Oakwood. On the agenda is indicated time for a brief discussion of some of the ideas in my book, Public Education 2030. I sent this e-mail to the club members.
Dear Friends, I see our agenda for this evening includes the opportunity to briefly discuss some of the ideas in my book, Public Education 2030. (You can get a PDF here).
One essay (p. 30) reports on Ted Strickland’s forums on the future of Ohio’s system of public education. In these forums, Strickland challenged his listeners to imagine what a new system might look like. He challenged his listeners to imagine: “We are an artist looking at a blank slate and asking what is the best thing we can create here.”
In my career in teaching math at West Carrollton High School, I became convinced that public education is in need of starting again with a blank slate. I was charged with transmitting a curriculum that I knew was irrelevant to what many of my students needed. I saw how the potential of students and teachers was wasted and how even top students were unmotivated to accomplish much of quality. I became convinced that if public education should have a strong future, it needed big changes.
Strickland’s effort to get forum participants to brainstorm a new system sounded like a great idea — but the discussion went nowhere. Participants wanted to defend their personal stake in the present system — a school nurse wanted to know how nurses would be impacted, an art teacher wanted to emphasize the importance of art in the curriculum, a math teacher suggested that there should be more math requirements, and on and on.
Strickland’s effort in these forums was doomed to fail because starting with a blank slate and thinking anew is not easy and most everyone in attendance at the forums had a stake in the present system.
In the essay, “In Education, Let’s Stop Trying To Improve A Horse and Buggy System,” (p. 24), I suggest that asking someone to imagine a new system of public education would be like asking someone in the 1800‘s to envision the automobile. Most buggy makers if given the chance would have opposed transforming the horse and buggy system, but, I write,
“Eventually some buggy makers came to grips with the reality that their future was in the personal transportation business, not the buggy business. Similarly, school boards must begin to come to grips with the reality that the future must center on authentic education, not on schooling. There are many special interests dedicated to advancing the empire of schooling that now exists, but once the public sees a system of authentic education, the current system of schooling will become obsolete. The task for educational leadership is to envision a quality system of education that will inspire voters to move from the horse and buggy age and invest in the system of the future.”
In the last thirty years there have been many efforts to reform schools — but what is needed is an effort to transform them.
Reformation starts by focusing on the component parts of the system — curriculum, class size, teacher training, teacher evaluation, school evaluation, etc. — and seeks to make improvement in those component
Transformation starts by focusing on the purpose of the system—and taking a big picture view of looking at the system as a whole, seeks to create a system design where all the resources of the system work to accomplish the purpose of the system.
The mission statements of schools commonly state these aims:
Each child will acquire the tools and experience needed to develop his or her potential, and,
Each child will gain the knowledge, habits, temperament, and character that will empower him or her to be an effective citizen
The problem is, such mission statements have little impact on what actually happens in schools. Kettering is spending over $13,000 per child per year. Wouldn’t it be great if the resources of the system were focused on accomplishing these high sounding aims? As it is, the actual mission of every district and every school is to get a high score in the state system of school evaluation.
The way forward is via transformation, not reformation. The place where transformation could have the biggest chance for success is within communities where schools already are deemed “excellent” — the south of Dayton suburbs of our club members. Pumping more money and more effort into the present system can only be a short-term strategy. It cannot be a long term solution. In terms of public education policy, we are moving in the wrong direction and unless there is thoughtful intervention, the long term prospect for public education actually accomplishing its stated aims is not good.
One principle that most Democrats hold dear is the importance of sustaining and strengthening our system of public education. In terms of public education, we must be forward thinking, we must be the party of ideas. We need to be much bolder in our advocacy, much bolder in our building of community consensus about this important topic.
There is much to talk about and I look forward to our discussion. Sincerely, Mike Bock
The first step to solving a problem is to understand the problem — to understand the nature of the problem. If we seek to solve the problem of how to improve public education, then we must first identify the problem to be solved. Pickering says there are two categories of problems — some problems are “tame” and others are “wicked.” Pickering says school reformers make a big mistake by classifying the problem of how to improve schools as a tame problem — when, in fact, it is a wicked problem.
Pickering explains, “Education has been transformed into a wicked problem. We’ve moved from the relatively tame problem of preparing people for machine-like factory work and advancing the ‘melting pot’ theory to a wicked one in which we desire a much more nuanced and purposeful end: helping children unfold their full potential. As Horst and Rittel pointed out, wicked problems are of the social domain. Since education and learning are part of the social domain tame solutions provided by classical systems are doomed to failure.”
Pickering holds that the order of magnitude of the change we need in education is a paradigm change. He says reformers accept the current Industrial Age paradigm of schooling and focus on what can be produced and measured: “test scores, graduation and attendance rates, time-on-task, teacher compensation and evaluation schemes, school report cards, etc.”
When education is seen as a tame problem, Pickering says, “solutions become sound-bytes of the obvious: bad or underpaid teachers, lack of competitions, low standards, complacency, poor curriculum, poor instructional practice. They are framed as beautifully simple, seductive, independent, tame problems to be solved. It makes sense to seek improvement via upgrading in the curriculum, raising standards for teacher certification, etc.”
Pickering says that schools, in the current paradigm, are seen as places of production. But what is needed is a transformation to a new paradigm that will see schools as places of learning. He says, “If we are faced with a tame problem, like how to squeeze another 3% out of an existing system, then reform works just fine. But if we need to realize order-of-magnitude sorts of change, then we are faced with a wicked problem requiring transformation.”
Pickering quotes Peter Block, “Transformation occurs only through choice.” He says,
Unlike reform, transformation cannot be coerced, mandated, sold, bartered, bribed, negotiated, or threatened into existence. Choice is a useless and foreign tool to the classical system construct that loves order, standardization, scalability, and predictability. If transformation is achievable only through choice then perhaps the best answer to transforming our schools lies in our communities.
Transformation means engaging the community, where choice is not simply an empty word or mantra for a narrow agenda but holds restorative power. Wicked problems are dissolved and the creation of an alternative future are only achieved through social processes, not through industrial-age hierarchies and traditional power brokers. Where large bureaucratic institutions move slowly and take only presumed “safe” routes to change, strong social networks have the ability to rapidly prototype new designs for new outcomes. (Conklin, 2010)
Transformation, then, cannot happen but with and through community. Only in community can deeper questions be answered. It is in the community’s answers to the questions: “how do we want to raise our children?” and “what is the ultimate goal of education?” that hold within them the power of transformation. It is the community’s answers that craft a holistic, integrated, interdependent design for learning and the unfolding of their children’s potential and which gives them the power and choice to execute on it.
Unfortunately, our communities have slowly and steadily abdicated their power and authority to the classical system designed to make things efficient through the creation of sameness and predictability. We are now faced with a dual problem – how to help communities both reclaim their efficacy and primacy and to understand and apply socio- cultural systems thinking and practice. Communities must first quit abdicating their power to outside others, “experts,” and distant institutions and then go about the work of creating the future they want.
A revealing scale by which to judge goals and speeches that lately I’ve been applying is what might be called the North Korean Standard (NKS)— as in:
Could this proposal for school reform be made by the Educational Ministry of North Korea?
Could this pronouncement about citizenship be made by a mayor of North Korea?
Yes, the leaders of North Korea want their students to be competitive in math and science and beat the pants off the kids in other nations — And Arne Duncan wants the same. The leaders of North Korea want their citizens to work together effectively and to give service and to show patriotism, and, to vote also — And President Obama wants the same.
At the recent graduation ceremony at Ohio State, President Obama focused most his speech on “citizenship.” His message seemed to be — go forth and practice good citizenship.
Obama said, “Choose a cause you care about in your life and fight like heck to make it happen. There is a word for this. It’s citizenship.”
He said when disaster strikes — a hurricane, a bomb explosion — people pitch in and help, and that’s citizenship.
Obama said that citizenship involves responsibilities “to ourselves, to one another, and to future generations.” He quoted George W. Bush as saying, as a 2002 Ohio State Commencement, “America needs more than taxpayers, spectators, and occasional voters. America needs full-time citizens.” He seemed to equate citizenship with patriotism and quoted Adlai Stevenson definition of patriotism – not as “short, frenzied outbursts of emotion, but the tranquil and steady dedication of a lifetime.”
These pronouncements align with the NKS, but at first glance it might look like President Obama veered from the NKS when he spoke about democracy and self-government.
Your democracy does not function without your active participation
America is not about what can be done for us. It’s about what can be done by us, together, through the hard and frustrating but absolutely necessary work of self-government.
Only you can ultimately break that cycle. Only you can make sure the democracy you inherit is as good as we know it can be. But it requires your dedicated, informed, and engaged citizenship. This citizenship is a harder, higher road to take. But it leads to a better place.
But words by themselves mean little. The NKS is not about what terms are used, but about how terms are used to lull listeners into the comfort of group think. I always liked the quote of Lewis Carroll, Through The Looking Glass:
”I don’t know what you mean by ‘glory,’ ” Alice said. Humpty Dumpty smiled contemptuously. “Of course you don’t—till I tell you. I meant ‘there’s a nice knock-down argument for you!’ ”
“But ‘glory’ doesn’t mean ‘a nice knock-down argument’,” Alice objected.
“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.” ”The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”
“The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master—that’s all.”
President Obama did veer from the NKS offered a sense of humility: “I don’t pretend to have all the answers. And I’m not going to offer some grand theory – not when it’s a beautiful day and you’ve got some celebrating to do. I’m not going to get partisan, either, because that’s not what citizenship is about.”
But, then, it is all about rhetoric and meeting or exceeding the audience’s expectations and a little humility might be good for an American mix. It would be interesting to know how the Ohio State professors of rhetoric in the audience may have evaluated it on its message and its impact. On the North Korean Standard, it seemed to do pretty well. The speech is copied below:
President Obama Speech at Ohio State
Thank you Dr. Gee, the Board of Trustees, Congresswoman Beatty, Mayor Coleman, and all of you who make up The Ohio State University for allowing me the honor of joining you today. Congratulations, Class of 2013! And congratulations to all the parents, family, friends and faculty here in the Horseshoe – this is your day as well. Just be careful with the turf. I know Coach Meyer has big plans for fall.
Thank you, Dr. Gee, for that eloquent introduction, although I will not be singing today. And yes, it is true that I did speak at that certain university up north a few years ago. But, to be fair, you did let President Ford speak here once – and he played football for Michigan!
In my defense, this is my fifth visit to campus in the past year or so. One time, I stopped at Sloopy’s to grab some lunch. Many of you were still eating breakfast. At 11:30. On a Tuesday. So I’ll offer my first piece of advice early: enjoy it while you still can. Soon, you won’t get to do that. And once you have kids, it gets even earlier.
Class of 2013, your path to this moment has wound you through years of breathtaking change. You were born as freedom forced its way through a wall in Berlin, and tore down an Iron Curtain across Europe. You were educated in an era of instant information that put the world’s accumulated knowledge at your fingertips. And you came of age as terror touched our shores; an historic recession spread across the nation; and a new generation signed up to go to war.
You have been tested and tempered by events that your parents and I never imagined we’d see when we sat where you sit. And yet, despite all this, or more likely because of it, yours has become a generation possessed with that most American of ideas – that people who love their country can change it. For all the turmoil; for all the times you have been let down, or frustrated at the hand you’ve been dealt; what I have seen from your generation are perennial and quintessentially American values. Altruism. Empathy. Tolerance. Community. And a deep sense of service that makes me optimistic for our future.
Consider that today, 50 ROTC cadets in your graduating class will become commissioned officers in the Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marines. 130 of your fellow graduates have already served – some in combat, some on multiple deployments. Of the 98 veterans earning bachelor’s degrees today, 20 are graduating with honors. And at least one kept serving his fellow veterans when he came home by starting up a campus organization called Vets4Vets. As your Commander-in-Chief, I could not be prouder of all of you.
Consider, too, that graduates of this university serve their country through the Peace Corps, and educate our children through established programs like Teach for America and startups like Blue Engine, often earning little pay for making the biggest impact. Some of you have already launched startup companies of your own. And I suspect that those of you who pursue more education, or climb the corporate ladder, or enter the arts or sciences or journalism, will still choose a cause you care about in your life and fight like heck to make it happen.
There is a word for this. It’s citizenship. We don’t always talk about this idea much these days, let alone celebrate it. Sometimes, we see it as a virtue from another time – one that’s slipping from a society that celebrates individual ambition; a society awash in instant technology that empowers us to leverage our skills and talents like never before, but just as easily allows us to retreat from the world. And the result is that we sometimes forget the larger bonds we share, as one American family.
But it’s out there, all the time, every day – especially when we need it most. Just look at the past year. When a hurricane struck our mightiest city, and a factory exploded in small-town Texas. When bombs went off in Boston, and when a malevolent spree of gunfire visited a movie theater, a temple, an Ohio high school, a first-grade classroom in Connecticut. In the aftermath of darkest tragedy, we have seen the American spirit at its brightest. We’ve seen the petty divisions of color, class, and creed replaced by a united urge to help. We’ve seen courage and compassion, a sense of civic duty, and a recognition that we are not a collection of strangers; we are bound to one another by a set of ideals, and laws, and commitments, and a deep devotion to this country we love.
That’s what citizenship is. It’s the idea at the heart of our founding – that as Americans, we are blessed with God-given and inalienable rights, but with those rights come responsibilities – to ourselves, to one another, and to future generations.
But if we’re being honest, as you’ve studied and worked and served to become good citizens, the institutions that give structure to our society have, at times, betrayed your trust.
In the run-up to the financial crisis, too many on Wall Street forgot that their obligations don’t end with their shareholders. In entertainment and in the media, ratings and shock value often trumped news and storytelling. And in Washington – well, this is a joyous occasion, so let me put this charitably: I think it’s fair to say our democracy isn’t working as well as we know it can. It could do better. And those of us fortunate enough to serve in these institutions owe it to you to do better, every single day.
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how we might keep this idea alive at a national level – not just on Election Day, or in times of tragedy, but on all the days in between. Of course, I spend most of my time these days in Washington, a place that sorely needs it. But I think of what your generation’s traits – compassion and energy, a sense of selflessness and a boundless digital fluency – might mean for a democracy that must adapt more quickly to keep up with the speed of technological, demographic, and wrenching economic change.
I think about how we might perpetuate this notion of citizenship in a way that another politician from my home state, Adlai Stevenson, once described patriotism – not as “short, frenzied outbursts of emotion, but the tranquil and steady dedication of a lifetime.”
I don’t pretend to have all the answers. And I’m not going to offer some grand theory – not when it’s a beautiful day and you’ve got some celebrating to do. I’m not going to get partisan, either, because that’s not what citizenship is about.
In fact, I am asking the same thing of you that President Bush did when he spoke at this commencement in 2002: “America needs more than taxpayers, spectators, and occasional voters,” he said. “America needs full-time citizens.”
And as graduates from a university whose motto is “Education for Citizenship,” that’s what your country expects of you. So briefly, I will ask you for two things: to participate, and to persevere.
After all, your democracy does not function without your active participation. At a bare minimum, that means voting, eagerly and often. It means knowing who’s been elected to make decisions on your behalf, what they believe in, and whether or not they deliver. If they don’t represent you the way you want, or conduct themselves the way you expect – if they put special interests above your own – you’ve got to let them know that’s not okay. And if they let you down, there’s a built-in day in November where you can really let them know that’s not okay.
You don’t have to run for office yourself. But I hope many of you do, at all levels, because our democracy needs you. I promise you, it’ll give you a tough skin. I know a little bit about this. Like President Wilson once said: “if you want to make enemies, try to change something.”
And that’s precisely what the founders left us: the power to adapt to changing times. They left us the keys to a system of self-government – the tool to do big and important things together that we could not possibly do alone. To stretch railroads and electricity and a highway system across a sprawling continent. To educate our people with a system of public schools and land grant colleges, including Ohio State. To care for the sick and the vulnerable, and provide a basic level of protection from falling into abject poverty in the wealthiest nation on Earth. To conquer fascism and disease; to visit the Moon and Mars; to gradually secure our God-given rights for all our citizens, regardless of who they are, what they look like, or who they love.
We, the people, chose to do these things together. Because we know this country cannot accomplish great things if we pursue nothing greater than our own individual ambition.
Still, you’ll hear voices that incessantly warn of government as nothing more than some separate, sinister entity that’s the root of all our problems, even as they do their best to gum up the works; or that tyranny always lurks just around the corner. You should reject these voices. Because what they suggest is that our brave, creative, unique experiment in self-rule is just a sham with which we can’t be trusted.
We have never been a people who place all our faith in government to solve our problems, nor do we want it to. But we don’t think the government is the source of all our problems, either. Because we understand that this democracy is ours. As citizens, we understand that America is not about what can be done for us. It’s about what can be done by us, together, through the hard and frustrating but absolutely necessary work of self-government.
The founders trusted us with this awesome authority. We should trust ourselves with it, too. Because when we don’t, when we turn away and get discouraged and abdicate that authority, we grant our silent consent to someone who’ll gladly claim it. That’s how we end up with lobbyists who set the agenda; policies detached from what middle-class families face every day; the well-connected who publicly demand that Washington stay out of their business – then whisper in its ear for special treatment that you don’t get.
That’s how a small minority of lawmakers get cover to defeat something the vast majority of their constituents want. That’s how our political system gets consumed by small things when we are a people called to do great things – rebuild a middle class, reverse the rise of inequality, repair a deteriorating climate that threatens everything we plan to leave for our kids and grandkids.
Only you can ultimately break that cycle. Only you can make sure the democracy you inherit is as good as we know it can be. But it requires your dedicated, informed, and engaged citizenship. This citizenship is a harder, higher road to take. But it leads to a better place. It is how we built this country – together. It is the question President Kennedy posed to the nation at his inauguration; the dream that Dr. King invoked. It does not promise easy success or immediate progress. But it has led to success, and it has led to progress.
That brings me to the second thing I ask of you – I ask you to persevere.
Whether you start a business or run for office or devote yourself to alleviating poverty or hunger, remember that nothing worth doing happens overnight. A British inventor named Dyson went through more than 5,000 prototypes before getting that first really fancy vacuum cleaner just right. We remember Michael Jordan’s six championships, not his nearly 15,000 missed shots. As for me, I lost my first race for Congress, and look at me now – I’m an honorary graduate of The Ohio State University!
The point is, in your life, you will fail. You will stumble, and you will fall. But that will make you better. You’ll get it right the next time. And that’s not only true for your personal pursuits, but for the broader causes you believe in as well. But don’t give up. Don’t lose heart, or grow cynical. The cynics may be the loudest voices – but they accomplish the least. It’s the silent disruptors – those who do the long, hard, committed work of change – that gradually push this country in the right direction, and make the most lasting difference.
Still, whenever you feel that creeping cynicism; whenever you hear those voices say you can’t make that difference; whenever somebody tells you to set your sights lower – the trajectory of America should give you hope. What young generations have done before you should give you hope. It was young folks like you who marched and mobilized and stood up and sat-in to secure women’s rights, and voting rights, and workers’ rights, and gay rights, often against incredible odds, often over the course of years, sometimes over the tranquil and steady dedication of a lifetime. Even if their rights were already secured, they fought to secure those rights and opportunities for others. What they did should give you hope.
And where we’re going should give you hope. Because while things are still hard for a lot of people, you have every reason to believe that your future is bright. You are graduating into an economy and a job market that are steadily healing. The once-dying American auto industry is on pace for its strongest performance in 20 years – something that means everything to many communities in Ohio and across the Midwest. Huge strides in domestic energy, driven in part by research at universities like this one, have us on track to secure our own energy future. And incredible advances in information and technology spurred largely by the risk-takers of your generation have the potential to change the way we do almost everything.
Still, if there is one certainty about the decade ahead, it’s that things will be uncertain. Change will be a constant, just as it has been throughout our history. And we still face many important challenges. Some will require technological breakthroughs or new policy insights. But more than anything, what we will need is political will, to harness the ingenuity of your generation, and encourage and inspire the hard work of dedicated citizens.
To repair the middle class; to give more families a fair shake; to reject a country in which only a lucky few prosper because it’s antithetical to our ideals and our democracy – that takes the dogged determination of citizens.
To educate more children at a younger age; to reform our high schools for a new time; to give more young people the chance to earn the kind of education you did at Ohio State and make it more affordable so they don’t leave with a mountain of debt – that takes the care and concern of citizens.
To build better roads and airports and faster internet; to advance the kind of basic research and technology that has always kept America ahead of everyone else – that takes the grit and fortitude of citizens.
To confront the threat of climate change before it’s too late – that requires the idealism and initiative of citizens.
To protect more of our kids from the horrors of gun violence – that requires the unwavering passion and untiring resolve of citizens.
Fifty years ago, President Kennedy told the class of 1963 that “our problems are man-made – therefore, they can be solved by man. And man can be as big as he wants.”
We are blessed to live in the greatest nation on Earth. But we can always be greater. We can always aspire to something more. That doesn’t depend on who you elect to office. It depends on you, as citizens, how big you want to be, and how badly you want it.
Look at all America has accomplished. Look at how big we’ve been.
I dare you to do better. I dare you to be better.
From what I have seen of your generation, I have no doubt you will. I wish you courage, and compassion, and all the strength you need for that tranquil and steady dedication of a lifetime.
Thank you, God bless you, and God bless the United States of America.
I’ve shortened and summarized twenty-five of my previous posts on education so that most will fit on one page. I’ve added an “Introduction”, a “Message from the Author” and a “Conclusion” and I’ve grouped the posts into six sections: 1) The Singularity Approaches 2) Reforming Public Education 3) Building A Better System 4) The Aim of the System 5) Great Teachers and the Profession of Teaching 6) Good Character, the Key to Success 6) The Importance of Civic Education.
My goal in putting this publication together is twofold:
To make the case that a redesign of the system of public education is needed and
To invite readers to enter into brainstorming conversations about the future of public education.
The book is a total of only 60 pages and contains live links to all of the articles/books that I reference. You may download a PDF of the book here . It’s an easy read on my iPad and I’m sure it will work on other reading devices as well. I am going to have a few copies printed at Lulu.com — the great online publisher that three years ago printed my first collection of web-posts Why You Are Not Entitled To Your Opinion.
The introduction to the book — posted below — indicates that soon I will be starting a new web-site, OhioTownHall, but this site is not yet ready to be launched. I’m anticipating that this new site will be ready to go in a short time and when it is ready to go live online, I will announce it here on DaytonOS.
The essays in this book originally were written as web-posts. They show the point of view of a retired public school teacher who very much wants public education to succeed and who appreciates the hard work of the many talented teachers, administrators and board members in the present system. The message of this book, however, is that public education is in need of a major overhaul. The system of public education is poorly designed; its goals of public education are too narrow; and as it is, even the highest rated schools are accomplishing way too little.
Most schools post nice sounding goals about developing student potential and forming solid citizens, but, the fact is, schools do not expend their resources on accomplishing these admirable aims. Because of the No Child Left Behind law, schools obsess over government school evaluations and focus their efforts on accomplishing just one goal — producing acceptable test scores. The narrow aim of raising test scores has become the controlling mission of public schools and, to accomplish this mission, school time is precisely controlled, curriculum carefully aligned, and the definition of “good teaching” narrowly defined.
Schools are stuck in the business of schooling — transmitting curriculum, grading, preparing for tests — but to fulfill the wonderful goals posted on their websites, schools would need to be in the business of education. It is a great thought that schools should help each child achieve his or her potential, but a school designed to accomplish this goal would need to be built on a solid theory of motivation and on an enriched understanding of human nature now largely absent in today’s schools. A school focused on helping students fulfill their potential would need to empower and free both teachers and students in ways that seem unthinkable in the present system.
I’ve entitled this book Public Education 2030, The Singularity Approaches because the big point I hope this book will communicate is that we need to be forward looking. We need to do the hard work of building a new system capable of sustaining our democracy; we need to build a system equipped with the capacity to successfully meet the challenges of the future. The term “singularity” is taken from the writings of futurist Ray Kurzweil, an acknowledged genius with over 17 honorary degrees, who predicts that a coming revolution in technology will create a world for today’s children astonishingly different from the world of their parents and grandparents. To thrive in the transformed world in which they will live, children will need a transformative education that will lift them to a full development of their humanity. The qualities of thoughtfulness, leadership, creativity, and character that seem exceptional today will need to be commonplace tomorrow.
This book points to these conclusions:
The aim of public education must be the advancement of the common good, which means — 1) Each child will acquire the tools and experience needed to develop his or her potential, and 2) Each child will gain the knowledge, habits, temperament, and character that will empower him or her to be an effective citizen.
The system of public education must be restructured so that all the resources available to the system will be focused on accomplishing the aim of the system.
The transformation needed in public education will require a vitalization of local democracy resulting in communities regaining local control of their schools.
This book does not attempt to show what a transformed system of public education might look like. The goal of this book is twofold: 1) To make the case that a redesign of the system of public education is needed and 2) To invite readers to enter into brainstorming conversations about the future of public education. I hope these essays will be helpful in promoting thoughtful dialogue. I am posting this book on a new web-site — OhioTownHall.com. — where ideas for restructuring eventually also will be posted. You are invited to join me there.
Last fall, at the end of the bulb planting season, I bought a ton of spring bulbs for 50% off and on several chilly November days, I planted them at the front of Centerville Methodist Church. I planted the bulbs in honor of my brother-in-law, Jim Dunaway and at the four year anniversary of his passing, April 20, they were blooming gloriously. I’m glad they turned out so beautifully and that the members of the church are very happy with their appearance. Last week when I had help from a friend I took these pictures and made a slide show video. I used an organ rendition of Bach’s “Jesu Joy Of Man’s Desiring” as the accompaniment. I posted the video on you-tube along with this description:
My brother-in-law, Jim Dunaway, passed away on April 20, 2009, at age 72 — a great loss to our family and to the many who knew him as their pastor and friend. Jim served over 50 years in the Methodist ministry, and after his official retirement he served as an assistant minister at Centerville Methodist Church. The spring bulbs making these wonderful flowers were planted in honor of Jim, in appreciation of the optimism, love and joy he shared with everyone who knew him. Late in the afternoon, on April 21, 2013, there was slight breeze ending a beautiful day and these little flowers were clapping their hands.