Diane Ravitch, Horace Mann, and the PDK Poll

Diane Ravitch is irked. The new Phi Delta Kappa (PDK) poll shows that that most Americans believe that the purpose of public education is to prepare students for college (45%) and for careers (25%).  She snarks,
Just to be clear, the reason that public schools were first established and treated as a community responsibility was to prepare good citizens to sustain our society into the future. There are many subdivisions under the goal of preparing to be good citizens, which would include the academic skills needed to read, write, think critically, be informed about issues in science and history, and be in good health. Somehow, the central purpose has been lowered in status. When people lose sight of the central purpose of education, then they fall prey to bogus claims about choice, charters, and vouchers, about which sector can do a better job of teaching academic skills or career skills. We have public schools as a public responsibility to teach young people to become active and informed citizens. All the rest follows.
Dr. Ravitch seems to be yearning for the good old days of the 19th century when education reformer Horace Mann (1796–1859) visited Prussia and came back inspired by their “common schools.” Forever after Mann, who became Massachusetts' Secretary of Education in 1837,  ardently believed that all children, regardless of circumstance, should have access to non-sectarian public schooling and that the bulk of instruction should be civic duty and character education.

Thus, Dr. Ravitch's mission for public education meshes perfectly with the admirable Mann. But he lived two hundred years ago.  Twenty-first century parents, as the PDK poll shows, care less about civic virtue and more about college and career-readiness. In fact, only 26% of parents agree with her articulation of American schools' central purpose. And then she gets her knickers in a twist because she doesn't like the wording of the question about public charter schools. I’m sure some of the other results didn’t help.


Times change. Schools change with them, at least if the system works effectively and  Horace Mann, as an school reformer, would agree. In fact, we should all remember one of his pearls of wisdom: “If you wish to write well, study the life about you, life in the public streets.”  Dr. Ravitch, take his advice and study well. The life of the public streets has spoken.

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