MAKING THE GRADE: The genius of the public schools

By Daily News • Last Updated 12:09 pm on Wednesday, May 08, 2013

Making the Grade | Janet Ralph

As we continue to debate the best ways to make education effective in the 21st century, I think it is important to review the history of our public schools.

As early as 1647, the Massachusetts Bay Colony recognized the need for schools. It required that all towns and villages of 50 or more citizens hire a teacher to teach the children to read and write. Since that time, leaders in our country have affirmed the importance of education and when communities were formed, one of the first acts was to establish a school.

In a report on school choice in 1992, The Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching summarized it well. “Let us acknowledge, then, that the public schools, with all their failings, are still one of America’s most remarkable achievements. Without question, the success of every student must be the central concern of education.

The genius of our public schools system is that the goal has been that every child would have ready access to a quality school.  Choice has no meaning if a desirable school is not within reach. But it is as equally important to remember that public schools are not only about empowering the individual. They are about building community. Education is not only about academics, it is about teaching people to govern themselves.

We are so focused right now on standardized testing, about assuring every child is on the same page on the same day, that I feel we often miss the bigger picture. Academics are certainly important. Training individuals to fill employment needs is important. But successful people need more. That is why I have always believed that extra curricular activities are not extra. The arts, athletics, student government and clubs teach young people how to work together, how to accept responsibility and how to lead.

If you missed the story about bullying and the efforts of our students to learn how to be kind to one another in a recent issue of the Daily News, you really should look it up. When our student representatives to the Board of Education give their monthly reports, I am always impressed by the caliber of the activities of the student body. They are learning and having fun but they are doing so much more. They tackle real issues like bullying, drinking and driving and raising funds for legitimate causes. In short, they learn how to function as a community. These young people will be an asset wherever they are and their contributions will go far beyond their employment.

An awareness of a shared citizenship can make a unified society. And no institution has done more to transmit this tradition than the public schools.

Today this very valued institution is in jeopardy.  Those who would destroy local schools and rely too heavily on isolating students with virtual schools may create an individualism that could destroy our freedom. We need to take time to reflect on the purpose and the history of the public schools. We must be honest about the need for adequate resources and quality teachers.

Change is inevitable and often necessary. But change merely to distort the vision of the public schools is dangerous. Make your voice heard by becoming informed about proposals and their intent. More than ever, we must reaffirm public education. We can accept nothing less than the intent of making every public school a source of national strength in pursuit of excellence for all.

Janet Ralph is president of the Greenville Public Schools Board of Education.

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