Monday, August 17, 2009

Back to School and the Health Care Debate

This week for the 18th time I’ll be out front of Federal Hocking High School welcoming students back to a new school year. If I ever needed a motivator for starting a school year the recent noisy, uncivil, and often unruly public debates about health care have me anxious to get back to school.

I don’t have a television, so I have missed much of the squawk-box invective around health care reform. But it has been hard to avoid the pictures of red-faced citizens screaming at elected officials or one another and congresspersons hung in effigy. Even more outrageous have been the signs claiming that health care reform proponents are Nazis or the oft-repeated lie that reform legislation includes some sort of ‘death panel’.

The most fundamental purpose of public education is to prepare our children to take their place as citizens in our democracy. We cannot determine whether or not they will go to college or what job they will hold. But we do know that every one of them will leave our school as fully enfranchised citizens of our democracy. Clearly our inability to hold civil debate about an issue as important as the health of our nation illustrates the need for public schools to make sure they act upon this most important of all missions.

Unfortunately, much of the public policy debate about public education leaves out any consideration of the higher order skills democratic life requires. Focusing solely on holding schools accountable for improving standardized test scores, state and federal policies have even worked to push out practices that focus on critical thinking, research, debate, and public speaking skills. I have to wonder if the screaming town hall participants, the name-calling radio and television personalities, and those that deliberately spread falsehoods in the name of democratic debate on health care did well on those tests but missed something else in school.

While we at FH do not always get it right, we try to make sure that inculcating the habits of mind and heart that make democratic life possible is at the center of our school. Our students have a voice in decisions from the hiring of teachers to what we serve in the cafeteria; coursework focuses on higher order thinking skills; our literacy initiative is not about test scores but about the reading and writing skills needed to make your voice heard; and in dozens of ways, big and small, our students share with the staff the management and welfare of our school. These are practices we share with other schools through networks like the Coalition of Essential Schools, The Five Freedoms Project, and the League of Democratic Schools.

While none of us in any of these schools doubts the effectiveness and importance of what we do around education for a democratic citizenry, we also know that when it comes to school accountability measures we will not be given any credit for this effort. All that matters in this hyper-testing environment are the standardized test scores…scores that may yield interesting comparisons, but are apparently not yielding thoughtful citizens.


  1. Thank you for this back-to-basics reminder about education. We get caught up in the standards/assessment craze and forget the value and deeper purpose for education. You are absolutely right. Keep your thoughts coming.

  2. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.