Tuesday, December 20, 2016
Over at the Law and Religion Forum, my colleague, Mark Movsesian, has an interview with Ashley Berner, professor and deputy director of the Institute for Education Policy at Johns Hopkins School of Education, concerning her new book, Pluralism and American Education: No One Way to School. Here's a bit from the conversation:
L&R Forum: You argue for “educational pluralism,” which you say is a “middle path” between state-sponsored uniformity and a libertarian, privatized model. Could you explain what you mean? How would educational pluralism work in practice?
Berner: Educational pluralism asks us to de-couple funding schools and operating schools. Thus in the Netherlands, only 30% of students attend state-funded, state-operated schools, while the rest attend schools that are funded and regulated by the state but operated by non-state institutions. Educational pluralism also requires regulatory guardrails that apply to all schools, thus ensuring some level of coherence across (for instance) content and assessments and sometimes admissions.
That’s why I think of it as a middle path: education is a public good (hence state-mandated requirements) that may be provided by a variety of civic organizations (religious or otherwise).
L&R Forum: Most Americans think that uniform public education is necessary to promote good citizenship. Yet civic knowledge among public school students is appallingly low. Why the mismatch between theory and practice? What benefits would educational pluralism offer in this respect?
Berner: Citizenship formation includes specific knowledge (How does the government work?), specific skills (How do I write my Congressperson?), attachment and participation (Why is this country/state/city worth participating in?), and tolerance (How can we respectfully disagree?). Cultivating the above requires a robust academic program and the possibility of classroom debate. Yet many of our schools – public and private – undervalue the content and skills required to engage in the democratic process. Do schools insist that all students know the basic tenets of the Constitution? Or understand the separation of powers? Or can name the capital of every state? What about actually learning a foreign language and knowing world geography inside out? Our public schools don’t even come close, and plenty of non-public schools undervalue rigorous content.
A second reason may be that many schools struggle to articulate the why’s for students, a point that James Davison Hunter’s book, The Death of Character (2000) drives home. Citizenship requires duty to something greater than oneself. In schools with strong normative cultures, the “greater than” is simply more readily available than it in a supposedly neutral school. Scott Seider’s Character Compass (2012) takes us inside three Boston charter schools whose core commitments draw upon Aristotelian, Pacific Rim, and performance ethics, each of which shapes their respective traditions and rituals.
Educational pluralism simply foregrounds the role that values and commitments play in school culture. The structure of educational pluralism does not solve the problem of citizenship formation by itself. It does, however, create space for schools that are organized around explicit normative claims. And in general, non-public schools provide richer academic content than do district schools. Put these two factors together, and the odds are that pluralizing the school system will yield better civic outcomes.