It may be time to finally pronounce the common school dead. A poll released Monday by PDK, an educator association, reveals an America that is divided on the purpose of education and remedies for improving schools.

A plurality of Americans believe schools should “prepare students academically” (45%), while the rest of those polled believe schools should “prepare students to be good citizens” (26%), or “prepare students for work” (25%).

On the question of how to handle “failing schools,” results are lopsided. Respondents favor keeping poorly performing schools open (84%) over closing them (14%). Replacing the staff in these schools wins over keeping the same staff (62% to 32% respectively). Those polled are evenly split on whether students in lackluster schools should be sent to another existing school (48%) or to a new one (47%).

Should we focus on smaller classes? 52 percent say yes, while 40 percent call for larger classes.

Should we raise teacher salaries or hire more teachers? Americans are split again. 50 percent support the former, 40 percent support the latter.

On the most polarizing topic, standardized testing, 43 percent of public school parents supporting “opting out” of these tests (which is higher than the national totals of 37%). But, 55 percent of public school parents oppose opting out. Nationally, 59 percent oppose it.

One-Best-System vs. School Choice

Some of the difference of opinion is sharp with even splits creating two camps, while others, like the question on education’s purpose, create multiple camps.

If we were a split-the-difference type of society where losers in opinion polling would simply accept their loses and join the majority camp we could call these questions settled and move on. But education is intrinsically personal, methods of education are eternally contentious, and, for many parents, the winning position can be seen as an alarming threat to their children.

I see student learning as the primary focus of schooling. Preparing students for work they find meaningful is a goal, and preparing them to be “good citizens” is a dubious concept that sounds good in theory but is problematic if not defined to my liking. You can disagree. In fact, you should if it doesn’t work for your children. It won’t be a problem if we shift focus from building one system that serves too many masters rather than building multiple systems to serve diverse needs.

The idea of a “common school” designed to serve every child in a community, funded through a common fund from all stakeholders in a region, and held to universal concepts of state education, is a precious sentiment tested and weathered by an American population that has diversified and become more complex over time. Education advocates who appreciate the old idea of education say we can all be served equally and equitably by one-best-system, if only we fund it at high levels and trust the people who control it.

I doubt that will ever be true.

It seems more likely to me that reformers, traditionalists, and apologists will forever argue about how one system can serve all. I also think the natural inclination of free people is toward liberty, and that means they will always attempt to surpass the limits and boundaries set forth for them by others. Believers in traditional education will always be faced with fierce opposition from those who feel personally stunted by its insufficiency. Proponents of new math will fight those who want old math. There will be reading instruction battles, and problems with curriculum adoption.

Reform will face tradition, and abolition will face stasis.

Wouldn’t it make more sense to make school choice – an attempt to serve the greatest number of interests – the basis of any system of education? Isn’t it more logical that choice serves more people than forcing diverse people into a one-size-fits-none system?

As strongly as I feel about my positions, I’m sure those who disagree with me feel equally strongly about other positions. We can fight it out endlessly and attempt to use policy levers to build a consensus-based system that too often splits the baby, but that seems like the blueprint for a system of schooling that will be constantly at war with itself.

In the end, polls like PDK’s only tell me public education will never be stable until it gives the people what they want: choice.

Chris Stewart is the Chief Executive Officer of Education Post, a media project of the Results in Education Foundation. He is a lifelong activist and 20-year supporter of nonprofit and education-related causes. Stewart has served as the director of outreach and external affairs for Education Post, the executive director of the African American Leadership Forum (AALF), and an elected member of the Minneapolis Public Schools Board of Education.


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