David Kirp does have a point, a good one, that “it’s impossible to improve education by doing an end run around inherently complicated and messy human relationships,” that is, around what we call public schooling, whether the “end run” be a particular innovation such as the invisible hand of the market or the transformative power of technology, or anyone of a number of others that have been tried over the years. Also he’s correct when he says that “the essence of a good education is bringing together talented teachers, engaged students, and a challenging curriculum.”
But he ends up where he should have begun, which is how to do this, how to bring together the talented teachers, engaged students and a challenging curriculum. Does he really believe that this same essence of a good education is not in the minds and the intentions of the reformers? Kirp too easily puts down the business, charter, and voucher reform models, too flippantly says they have failed, that the Gates and other monies thrown at them were thrown away.
But why does he seem to assume that all these (even if unsuccessful) efforts were not also very much trying to bring the elements of a good education together, by different means, that’s all?
But it’s really not so much that our reform efforts have failed, although they have. It’s more important that the schools themselves have failed to fulfill the original promise of Horace Mann, before, after, or even while undergoing seemingly endless reforms.
What was that promise? Mann argued that the common, or free, universal, non-sectarian and public school was the best means of achieving the moral and socioeconomic uplift of all Americans, of creating the virtuous republican citizenry needed to sustain American political institutions, of producing the educated workforce required to expand the American economy, and with all that the disciplined generation necessary to forestall the social disorders so common in American cities, in his time before the Civil War, but still no less prevalent in our own time today. [from Horace Mann and the Creation of the Common School]
Does anyone doubt that our schools during their nearly 200 year history have totally failed to accomplish these goals? The obvious failure explains the endless reform movements. But rather than putting down the reform movements as David Kirp does in his Times op ed piece shouldn’t we question both the original structure of the common school, that in most regards is the same today as in the 1830s and 40s when it began in Massachusetts —that is, the single monolithic school building as the place of education, the compulsory attendance requirement, the classroom of students of the same age and therefore possessing much the same level of knowledge or ignorance, the single classroom teacher, and all the rest.
And shouldn’t we no less question Horace Mann’s goals for the schools, clearly set too high and probably impossible to achieve in a lifetime let alone the 12 or few more school years?
Although there have been many who have questioned both the goals and structure of the public schools, there has been only one significant attempt to undo them, the so-called free school movement of the 1960s and 70s, led by A. S, Neil, Paul Goodman, and John Holt among others. But the Free School model remained an outlier, and was never adopted by the educational establishment. The free schools that did survive never become a real alternative to the public schools.
Instead free schools were replaced by homeschooling, this also the brain child of John Holt, and that which today is very much alive and the only real and complete alternative to the public school, affecting probably many more children, nearly 2 million at last count, than the reforms that David Kirp mentions. The homeschooling movement, with no common structure, and no goals other than to allow and then help the individual child to follow and develop his own interests and talents, ought to be the model for, if not the essence of all schooling.