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Event recap: Whither American Education?

Tuesday, April 3rd, 2012

Missed Friday’s “Whither American Education?” conference at American University? Here are some highlights from the event:

In the first panel discussion, John Agresto (President Emeritus, St. John’s College), Meira Levinson (Harvard University), and G. Borden Flanagan (American University) discussed the goals of education. While Agresto and Flanagan championed the importance of a university-level liberal education (in Agresto’s words, “knowing the [liberal arts] may not be of use, but is is of value“), Levinson focused more on the K-12 world. Arguing that the current future-oriented framing of educational goals (one learns math and science so one can get a job) neglects the crucial civic mission of schools, Levinson urged educators to view students as contributors to society now instead of simply “adults-in-waiting.”

The second panel transitioned from looking at the goals of education to examining its means. Chester Finn (Fordham Institute), Andy Rotherham (Bellwether Education), and William Galston (Brookings Institution) generally agreed that education reform is needed, especially in the area of instruction and teacher quality. The K-12 education system is not set up in a way that attracts or retains the best and brightest college graduates to be teachers. Further, there is a lack of clarity in the education community on what the goals of K-12 schooling should be. As Rotherham pointed out, “Good schools prepare students for life, and they teach them how to be good citizens. It is much more than college and career ready–it’s life and citizenship ready.”

The final panel saw reports from the front lines, with Richard Barth (KIPP charter schools), Paul Hill (Center on Reinventing Public Education), and Bob Nardo (Tennessee Achievement School District). Two civics-related themes emerged from the discussion: schools are part of their surrounding communities, and schools form communities within themselves. Both Hill and Nardo pointed to the tension between education reformers and the school communities they are trying to help: parents still rally behind failing schools because they feel reformers are coming in and doing things to their schools rather than working with them to improve schools. Barth said that part of the success of KIPP charter schools was in working with communities and gaining parental support.

The panel also discussed schools’ role in teaching good citizenship. Nardo questioned whether the kind of character education championed by many charter schools and which avoids making “value judgments” went beyond an appeal to “win friends and influence people” and promoted the formation of specific civic attachments. (See here AEI’s Rick Hess on the limits of transactional citizenship.) Hill agreed, but argued that there exists a correlation between informed and healthy civic dispositions and basic academic skills such that, even absent specific programs in civic education, schools, by simply educating, were still performing part of their civic mission.

In their January report “Strengthening the Civic Mission of Charter Schools,” Robin Lake and Cheryl Miller examine many of these same themes by looking at a number of charter schools, including KIPP, YES Prep, Cesar Chavez, UNO, BASIS Schools, High Tech High, National Heritage Academies, and Democracy Prep, among others. Check out that report here, and take a look at the papers from our own education conference last October, Civics 2.0: Citizenship Education for a New Generation, here.