In one characteristically gruesome Greek myth, the enchantress Medea tricks King Pelias’ daughters into killing, dismembering, and boiling him, on a promise that she will add a spell to the stew that will return the aged ruler to his youth.
Unfortunately, their actions lead to nothing but a bloody mess and a dead parent whose condition would make Jack the Ripper sick to his stomach.
It is a tale of good intentions that result in patricide, and it serves as a graphic reminder of the power of trickery on those who are both desperate and motivated.
Today, I have to wonder if the pinpricks, paper-cuts, gashes, and unabashed goring being endured by the public education model in America isn’t reminiscent of poor Pelias’ fate. We are being attacked by the products of our own system – by our offspring. Are we so easily vulnerable to fallacious arguments and wishful thinking because we failed to educate on critical inquiry, examination of evidence, and did not teach how to ask questions instead of memorizing talking points?
Perhaps our system has been so busy teaching children to answer questions, that those same children became adults who never learned how to ask them - the types of questions that seem obvious when the very concept of public education is being assaulted using unsound reason, ideology that trumps reality, and poorly reasoned research and analysis. Questions such as:
- School choice sounds wonderful, so more school choice must be even better. But, what evidence is there to support this belief? What’s happening in areas where unfettered school choice is already the norm?
- What are the potential pitfalls of dismantling traditional public education? If we break it, what do we own?
- Just who are the people behind charters and private schools? What are their motivations? Is it likely that they are all well-intentioned or all not well-intentioned? Competent or not competent? How do we decide?
- Which policy makers actually have experience in the classroom, or in educational leadership roles? Who is driving the policy agendas at state capitols around the country? What is their interest?
- How can we actually make meaning of the achievement data from the highest performing public, private, and charter schools? What do they have in common?
- Does correlation equal causality? Is the fact that a high performing charter school does well a result of its “charterness,” or could there be other variables at play?
- How can a politician who implies large portions of the public are lazy, unmotivated, and dependent on government, suggest that we now provide those same people with a debit card for their children’s education? Is this a contradiction in position, or can it be explained? Can we know without asking?
- What variables exist in a charter school that might influence, for better or worse, academic performance?
- If a portion of the students whose parents are most invested in learning flee a neighborhood public school, what remains? Or, more importantly, who remains? What is the plan for those students? For that school?
And, most importantly…
- Controlling for variables such as socio-economics, family education, parent involvement and neighborhood context, is there clear and consistent evidence that charter schools inherently outperform their public peers?
Why isn’t the public asking questions such as these? Why does it accept the attack on the traditional model without demanding more information? I believe a portion of the answer is because we designed an education system that taught students to regurgitate states and capitals, practice their cursive, and memorize the periodic table of elements. This prepared them well to recall and regurgitate talking points, instead of asking questions and critically analyzing responses.
Ask them the capital of Arizona and they might answer “Phoenix,” as well as capitalize and spell it correctly. But, they likely won’t be able to explain why they should or shouldn’t support policies being advanced in that same city.
I have no interest in demonizing the intentions of any faction engaged in the conversation around our education models. I believe there is a place at the table for all of these viewpoints, and that they should be held up to scrutiny, vetted, and presented to the public, proverbial warts and all. And yes, they all have warts, including the public model.
I might also add that I am not anti-charter, anti-choice, nor anti-private. However, I am vehemently opposed to the dismantling of public education to create a kind of fantastical “Choicetopia, ” that somehow solves the puzzles of poverty and language gaps, and stops just short of ending world hunger and toppling ISIS. Although it’s a safe and trendy answer on the tongues of politicians from both sides of the aisle, there simply is not clear evidence to suggest this is the holy grail. And, all the talking points in the world should not divert our attention from the fact this evidence does not exist. There are wonderful experiments in learning environments happening in public, private, and charter environments – but a unifying model has not surfaced as the consistent and reliable solution.
Whatever emerges from such a debate should provide us the confidence that results from a significant vetting process. We should know that we didn’t flail for a solution to our deepest challenges, but that our response and investment was based on the best evidence we had available.
In short, that we did due diligence.
Public education’s future rests in the hands of its own offspring. And, I’m not sure I’m feeling comfortable with the parallel to Pelia, Medea, and his unwitting daughters.
Daughters who ended up with blood on their hands and regret in their hearts.