Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Public education is being redefined

[This column by Brandon Dutcher appeared April 3 in The Oklahoman.]

On March 15 in Oklahoma City, the past met the future.

Carrying signs that read "Stop the War on Workers," "Collective Bargaining: Backbone of the Middle Class," and "Don't Dismantle Public Education," hundreds of Oklahoma schoolteachers rallied at the state Capitol. They expressed concern over school spending, pension reforms, and legislation making it easier to fire bad teachers.

In many ways it was a scene right out of 1990, or even 1960. For many of these educators, "public education" still means, essentially, a government monopoly wherein kids are bureaucratically assigned based on geography. After all, isn't that the way we've always done it?

Indeed Arne Duncan, President Obama's secretary of education, recently lamented that "our K-12 system largely still adheres to the century-old, industrial-age factory model of education."

But that's the wrong model for the information age. And the one Oklahoman who understands this better than anyone also made news on March 15. That's the day state Superintendent Janet Barresi unveiled a forward-looking education agenda, a "road map for long-term transformation."

Like Duncan, who urges "a fundamental rethinking of the structure and delivery of education in the United States," Barresi says "we must rethink our entire approach to education in the 21st century and buck the status quo."

Why? Well, unlike one state senator from Little Dixie who believes "our public schools are doing a great job in educating our students," Barresi understands "we face a crisis in education in our state."

"Our children don't have time for antiquated approaches," she says.

That's why she's promoting ideas like greater accountability, an end to social promotion, a transparent A-through-F grading system for schools, and more school choice (including tuition tax credits, which, incidentally, cleared the state Senate the next day).

Moreover, she says, "We have only scratched the surface of the potential for digital learning to fundamentally alter education." Visit and you'll see why some public school fifth-grade classes are doing math this way. Experience great teachers like historian J. Rufus Fears on DVD. Explore the Stanford and MIT courses available online for free. In 2011 why would any parents—from Little Dixie to the Panhandle—settle for anything less than a world-class education for their children?

No, ralliers, public education is not being "dismantled." It is, however, being redefined.

Put simply, "public education" means "educating the public." Pennsylvania state Sen. Anthony H. Williams, a liberal black Democrat, puts it this way: "An innovative and productive public education system can include homeschooling, parochial schools, private schools, cyber schools, public charter schools and, yes, traditional public schools."

Williams has no patience for folks who seem "more concerned with propping up a system than educating children. They cling to the antiquated belief that existing public school systems have the right of first refusal when it comes to educating our children." They don't.

So remember March 15, 2011. And to those educators and policymakers stuck in the past: Beware the march of ideas.

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