By Victoria Jordan
In 1776, when Thomas Jefferson first proposed public education, he claimed: “a general diffusion of knowledge is essential to a free society.” A movement towards a free society that includes popular suffrage and compulsory education for all of its inhabitants required a civil war, constitutional amendments, U.S. Supreme Court decisions and the work of multiple educational reformers such as Horace Mann, Catherine Beecher, Booker T. Washington and John Dewey — just to name a few. Creating a system for free quality public education accessible by all U.S. inhabitants has taken over 244 years to advance and continues to this day.
In 2020, sixty-six years after the Brown vs. Board of Education ruling, schools throughout America are still not providing equal education, mostly due to economic factors in poor communities. Education reforms over the past two decades in public education have made strides in bridging racial, socioeconomic and gender gaps; even so, there is often a lack of support for public education. An appreciation for the continued work to improve performance and opportunity for all students can be gleaned from surveying some of the latest reforms endorsed by public educators.
- Brain Research: Advances in brain research have increased our understanding of how people learn and require teaching methods that go beyond mere memorization and bookwork. Teachers engage students in hands-on, inquiry activities, teamwork, Socratic discussions, creative problem-solving and other methods to activate and build multiple brain pathways. Public education involves constant, on-going professional development to keep teachers abreast of best practices.
- State and National Standards: In years past, teachers could decide what they thought students should learn, and just teach their favorite topics. This led to unequal education throughout the local districts, but also throughout the country. With the creation of State and National Education Standards by committees of teachers, content professionals in the community and parents, there are agreed upon topics and skills in every subject at every grade level. Teachers engage in required professional development to ensure they have the knowledge and skills to teach the Standards in much the same way that doctors take courses to keep up their license. Public school teachers are licensed professionals who must be designated as “highly qualified” in order to teach their subjects.
- Technology Implementation: Today’s students are “digital natives.” They have grown up with computerized devices like cell phones, video games and smartwatches. Studies show that digital natives’ brains are more actively engaged while scrolling through a webpage than when reading printed text. Technology has created a fundamental change in the way young people communicate, socialize, create and learn. The Internet has reshaped the way we search for information as well as the way we think. Teachers must help students learn to distinguish reliable facts from opinion and bias in our digital age. Teachers must become fluent with information technology, new software and apps in order to effectively engage students in today’s classroom and help them become productive participants in tomorrow’s workforce.
- Increased Rigor: In the past, rigor was defined as the amount of content a student could absorb. These days, information is being generated faster than books can be printed. In today’s classroom, rigor is engaging students in higher-order thinking to deepen their level of conceptual understanding. Where previous curricula would have students know facts and understand concepts, today’s teachers must teach students how to analyze information and apply the knowledge to novel situations. Students must evaluate information and formulate arguments, design and conduct investigations and create products using the information. Public school teachers are trained in methods to help students engage in higher-order thinking.
- Inclusion: ALL students are guaranteed a quality education in the United States, regardless of ability, race, gender, socioeconomic status or religion. In today’s public school, every student is expected to reach their full potential and students are given opportunities that did not exist a decade ago. A student in a wheelchair must be given access to a science lab where they can reach the microscope. A student with Down’s syndrome must be fully included in the school community. A student with a high aptitude in math must have the chance to achieve beyond the regular requirements. Public school teachers help develop individual education plans for a variety of students while making sure that every student succeeds. Sometimes this means making sure a student who came to school hungry has food in their belly so they can learn. Other times it means teachers must learn about other cultures and beliefs so they find ways to include a student or family of a different race or religion in a lesson or unit. By including all students and not separating students into “elite” schools, every student in a public school learns how to live and work beside people in the community with whom they may not normally associate, thus improving understanding of peoples’ pluralistic differences and bringing us together as a society.
One of the cornerstones of our democracy is a free and public education for all students. A literate, thinking, problem-solving populace has sent people into space, created cures for cancer, designed sustainable agriculture and created a remarkable economy. Closing the achievement gap so that every student, regardless of zip code, has access to the American dream is one of the primary purposes of public education. The education reforms that highly qualified, licensed public school teachers have implemented over the past two decades infuse education with cutting edge knowledge about how to nurture student creativity and problem-solving. Most importantly and ideally, public education promotes communication skills and experiences for students to participate positively in a diverse, pluralistic and inclusive democracy.
Hopefully, schools will reopen soon and our students will once again benefit from the in-person teaching of highly qualified professionals!
Vicky Jordan is a retired science teacher in Wellington. A winner of the 2016 National Science Teachers Association Distinguished Teacher, at CSU she serves in the role of Education and Outreach Center Teacher-In-Residence.