What is it that we mean when we talk about public education? I know what I mean, but I wonder sometimes if I am thinking of the same things as others do.
I ask this of myself as the idea of “public education” seems stuck somewhere between different perspectives. As General George Patton once said, “Its all good tank country.” – but is it? What do we really want from a common education system? Some people seem really clear, employers for example. They want young people with essential skills in communications, a range of people skills, literacy, numeracy, problem solving skills and a host of other things. These are the skills that most people would call “job ready” skills.
However, is it really the job of schools to make students “job ready”? Should it be up to the schools to do that? I would suggest that the students would say no, that parents would say yes, teachers would say maybe, but probably not, pollies would say definitely and employers would be happy to no longer pay employees to learn on the job.
Should schools be wasting their time on making students “job ready”? I suspect if they concentrated on making students “adult ready”, or “citizen ready”, that would be a far better outcome for students than trying to make them “job ready”. Why would I suggest this? Simple – the world has changed, the systems are changing, and everyone is under pressure to “perform”. But, perform to what end? For whom? How much education do we need to consume cheap imports?
The Right is thoroughly perplexed at trying to find the “bottom-line” for public education and seriously beside themselves as they cannot recognize it. There are a lot of dollars going in, but where is the profit? To consider a social profitability seems to be completely beyond their horizon. This is why the conservatives always try things like “Merit pay” or “incentive pay” and do not understand why these things do not work. Social profit cannot be counted, so it is meaningless to them.
Yet, is that not what public education is really about? We are informing future citizens more than anything else, and that does not appear to sit well for many on the Right. Why?
Alfie Kohn, a US education observer and commentator, pointed out that a wide survey of employees in California rated pay as being 16th in their list of reasons for employment. Yet their managers listed money as the main concern of their subordinates.
So what does the perceptions of learning and public education have to do with merit pay or money in general? In my simplistic view of the world, the connections are obvious, yet this may not be clear to others and I may not be explaining it adequately.
There is a strong collective aspect to education. It is certainly a community thing, in many towns and villages across the world, the local school is a focal point of the community. While it may no longer play that role in Australian cities, it certainly does in country towns, in my home state at least.
Education, public or private, simply does not respond well to usual business practice. That, I think is the difference. That I think is the reason why usual business rules fail in public education. A Good Ol’ Boy from South Carolina, a Republican, a Reagan voter, a conservative, once said to me that there was no room in education for personal ambition. Since personal ambition is at the very heart of Right dogma, is it any wonder that usual business practice fails? I suggest this is why the Right do not get that common education is just not going to respond in the way they think it will to usual business stimulants.
Still they will try, and I suspect that until we start educating future citizens, public education will remain a “failure”.