A challenge to public schools

Tuesday, July 13, 2004

By George Wood

I received a call from a friend who was fortunate enough to be at the Jet Propulsion Lab in Pasadena, Calif., when the Cassini-Huygens satellite began sending the first photos of Saturn's rings. It was, he said, witnessing America at its greatest.

He's right. Seven years ago, after years of research, teams of scientists watched the liftoff of Cassini-Huygens, a project they have worked on ever since.

They have coordinated the efforts of three different space agencies, 17 nations and more than 250 scientists.

The team performed numerous engineering wonders, including boosting the satellite's speed by using the gravity of other planets four times during the flight.

Now, for the next four years, they will receive and analyze data sent from Cassini -- data about a planet so large it has hurricanes the size of Earth and a moon (Titan) with its own atmosphere.

It is a fascinating story, a story of what will be over 15 years of sustained effort by a team brought together and financed by our government to do what no one imagined possible a mere two decades ago.

The Cassini project demonstrates the great things we can do if we put our minds, will and money to it. And it challenges us to demonstrate similar greatness when it comes to some issues a lot closer to home than Saturn -- a challenge to greatness that could begin with our public school system.

Americans should be proud of our commitment to public education. First among nations to create a system of free, public schools in every community, America has led the world in access to education.

Much of this has been difficult. We have had to struggle in the courts to make sure every child regardless of race, ethnicity, gender or handicapping condition has a place in our classrooms.

But in the end we have overcome our own prejudices to open the schoolhouse door to every child.

But access is not enough. Greatness should be our goal, with every child attending a school that fulfills the promise of public schooling:

The promise that we, as a nation, will fund and provide schools which prepare every young person for a life of citizenship.

Schools that challenge young people to use their minds well, to think for themselves and to learn how to learn.

Schools that are safe, that care for every child and that are connected to the community.

Schools that help us realize the American dream of all citizens as being created equal and sharing in the task of democracy.

We have these schools today, and we should be proud of them. What we do not have are schools like these for every child, and of that we should be ashamed. To allow such schools to exist is to shy away from the greatness that is America.

So, taking from the Cassini project, how could we launch a campaign for strong public schools for a strong democracy?

First, let's learn, as I am sure the scientists involved in the Cassini endeavor have, what not to do from past experience.

Let us not commit to only a short-term effort, with funds fluctuating each year based on which party holds power.

Let us not limit our thinking to the paltry 2.9 percent of the federal budget that currently goes to education.

And let us not allow a belief that "one size fits all" to narrow our thinking so that the work turns into a debate between proponents of various teaching styles.

Having not learned the lessons of our past has led us to where we are now with one more new federal mandate (this time called No Child Left Behind) to raise test scores with little attention to the work and support it would take to meet this goal.

Instead, as with scientists reviewing previous missions, let's take what we have learned from over three decades of school improvement and put it to work in every school.

We know that smaller classes and schools better connect with students.

We know that good teachers are the backbone of any good school.

We know the more parents support and are involved in the school, the better children do.

We know that standardized tests are not the best measure of what students learn.

We know that change in any school takes time.

And we know that for children to be ready to learn they must have support outside of school including adequate nutrition, health care and housing.

We should challenge ourselves to be great when it comes to our public schools.

A Cassini-like project that brings together every agency concerned with children, that pulls together the best minds (including classroom practitioners) in education and that commits to the long process it will take to make every school great is doable.

It is only a question of our political will.

We can do it in the solar system. Why not in the school system?

George Wood is principal of Federal Hocking High School in Stewart, Ohio, and director of the Forum for Democracy and Education. He can be reached at george.wood@earthlink.net.

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