Reimagining Public Education

by Eric J. Weiner

In the wake of the pandemic, many people sense an opportunity to reimagine and rewrite public education so that it aligns with their particular political agendas. Progressives sense an opportunity to reassert the critical capacities of a democratic education. From the religious right, there is an attempt to blur the lines between secular and religious goals and needs. Neoliberals sense an opportunity to further privatize public education and align learning to the needs of capital. Democratic socialists sense an opportunity to recreate a system that can equitably distribute opportunity across race, class and gender. Technologists see the potential to create a techno-utopia of learning that is no longer constrained by terrestrial notions of time and space. Neoconservatives want to reclaim public education as the engine of white nationalism and free-market capitalism through the curricular standardization of “core” knowledge. What they all can agree on is the essential political nature of public education; it has always been a mirror that reflects the best and worst impulses of our nation. If you want to get a sense of a nation’s health, just look at its public education system. From the good and the bad to the downright ugly, our schools have always represented who we have been, who we are, and who we hope to be.

As the pandemic continues to rip back the curtain on economic and political inequality in the United States, it also has highlighted the nation’s failure to provide meaningful and equitable educational opportunities to all of our school-age children. With this in mind, I’ve provided a very brief and admittedly incomplete blueprint that might help at a foundational level guide all of those people–some more qualified than others–who are now sensing an opportunity to reimagine public education.

First, it’s important to remember that there is a fundamental difference between education and schooling. Education refers to a system of teaching and learning that supports the development of freethinkers whereas schooling refers to a system of training that supports the development of docile minds and bodies. Schooling’s foundation is made from a combination of disciplinary practices, curricular standardization, and basic academic skills whereas education’s foundation is built from the stuff of critical thought, imagination, curiosity, contextualized academic skills, research, and inquiry. Pavlovian in form and function, schooling denies the individual her human right to speak, embody history, and develop agency while promising credentials that will result in economic mobility and political stability. As Stanley Aronowitz (2008) correctly states in Against Schooling, “Schooling is surely a source of training both by its disciplinary regimen and its credentialing system. They teach conformity to the social, cultural, and occupational hierarchy. They are not constituted to support independent thought let alone encourage independence of thought and action.” In school, children are literally schooled to think, act, use language, and formulate their private desires so that they are consistent with a system of manufactured needs. The content of schooling is a form of historicism because its relationship to the past is always a negation, while its relationship to the future is mediated by the sheer force of magical thinking; schooling assumes a future based on its connection to a manufactured past.

This is why schools are trapped in a representation of a past just as they announce themselves as essential in the preparation of future workers and citizens. In this pronouncement, the ideology of schooling is laid bare; its primary function is the reproduction of what was and what is, and not in the production of what should or could be. Like a light at the end of the proverbial tunnel that instead of signaling hope blinds our children to the possibility of a future that is better than the present and past, schooling denies them their human right to be educated in a way that prepares them for a future that no one can see or possibly know but nevertheless demands a population ready and willing to adapt to changing institutional arrangements and paradigmatic shifts in knowledge and power. Please remember that the essential job of educators is not to school the children, but to critically educate them so that they have the tools—academic, social, political, cultural—to remake a world that is more humane and sustainable.

Second, we must think critically about the concept of student voice. Gayatri Spivak posed the question, “Can the subaltern speak?” At the risk of oversimplifying the context out of which her question arose and her subsequent answer to her own question, the simple answer is “Yes, of course the subaltern can speak.” But speaking and being heard, or more accurately, having the discursive structures in place that might support the chorus of voices that contribute to the formation of the subaltern is something quite different. In the context of critical education, her question about the subaltern can be reframed as a question about students. Can students speak? Should they speak? When should they speak? How should they speak? What discursive conditions should we create in our schools that can support the chorus of diverse student voices that are demanding to be heard? As it stands, some students can speak while others are more like Shakespeare’s character Caliban from The Tempest who angrily says to Miranda, “You taught me language, and my profit on ’t/Is I know how to curse. The red plague rid you/For learning me your language!”

Any redesign of our public schools should place the concept of student voice at the center of the pedagogical equation. From the earliest grades onward, student voices need to be a driving and contributing force in the teaching and learning relationship. If you don’t already know the work being done in Philosophy for Children (P4C), Culturally Responsive Teaching, or Critical Pedagogy then you should take a look. Each provides a framework for equitably implementing student voice into the educational experience. An education that silences students’ voices in and out of the classroom are ignoring students’ experiences and knowledge, denying their cultural literacies, and missing an opportunity to teach students how to think critically about those knowledges and literacies.

Students speak all the time but our pre-pandemic schools too often dismissed these voices as unimportant, disruptive, or beyond the scope of the standardized curriculum. What the pandemic reveals about education and the future is that we must focus our educational energies on developing critical thinkers and creative problem-solvers. Through critical inquiry and dialogue, we harness the literacies and knowledges of the students in an effort to create discursively supportive educational formations that will prepare students for a future that might look very different than the present. By ignoring students’ voices, schools deny their humanity, make them the objects of learning, and reduce their role in learning to a passive recipient of knowledge, what Paulo Freire called the “banking model” of education. When rethinking our public education system, the banking model should be replaced at the pedagogical level with a dialogical, inquiry-based model of learning and teaching. Our students deserve it and the future, as we now know, requires it.

Third, please remember that standardization and standards are two very different things. Everyone wants there to be high standards for teachers and students. As Ken Robinson asks incredulously, “Who would ever want lower standards?” Standardizing access to high quality teachers, state-of-the-art technology, creative/critical pedagogies, educational spaces that are light, clean, and welcoming should be at the center of the discussion. From the poorest rural and urban districts to the wealthiest enclaves, we should standardize access, curate opportunity, and create culturally meaningful learning experiences that are specific to the needs of each child. Currently it is true that the quality of public education varies dramatically across economic/racial contexts. On the liberal side of the standardization argument, there was an attempt to create equity through standardization. If all students could be guaranteed the same kind of education then the inequities in schools would be mitigated by the force of standardization. On the conservative side of the standardization argument, there was the need to standardize learning to reinforce a common culture through the delivery of a standardized curriculum. If all students had to learn the same core knowledge and skills then the deficits of culture, knowledge, and literacy that they imagined troubled student performance could be mitigated. In rethinking public education in a post-pandemic world, standardization will remain a tricky concept to negotiate in a way that doesn’t distort and diminish its best impulses while amplifying its worst.

The standardization of high standards requires ironically perhaps high levels of autonomy at the local school and classroom contexts yet not to the point where curricular and pedagogical decisions become relative. When curriculum slips into cultural, epistemological and/or historical relativism, maintaining high standards of learning becomes impossible across local contexts. We have exceptional minds working in every academic and non-academic discipline. From the arts to the sciences, there is an exceptionally high standard of knowledge and research within these academic disciplines that should be the guiding force behind the standardization of any content in schools. This does not mean there are not intellectual disagreements within these disciplinary spaces. Just because there are disagreements and the development of competing ideas within these disciplinary structures does not mean that all knowledge is relative or that knowledge is always perverted by power and ideology. It simply means that high standards of thought and research will always produce disagreements and critical intellectual energy. Standardization cannot be a lever for erasing these tensions in an effort to deliver content that appears to represent a consensus. When this happens, ideology and power have indeed perverted knowledge. There are important contradictions and tensions within every academic discipline and these should be highlighted within any movement to standardize curriculum. In short, the standardization of high standards requires the development of curriculum that connects at both the local, national, and international registers of knowledge and research. Ideologies that don’t meet this high standard can always be taught in the home or in private school, but they have no place in our public education system.

Fourth, I believe this is a perfect time to reassert the value of a democratic education. Schooling has been reduced to job training and university preparation. We have lost sight of public education’s essential relationship to sustaining a functioning democracy. As John Dewey argued for the entirety of his life, schooling should function democratically so that children can learn what it means to live a democratic life. Democracy is not something that should only be taught in a text book, but should be lived out in the experience of everyday life. Students, teachers, administrators, parents and other stakeholders should be able to be active participants in all aspects of education. Students in particular have the most to gain and lose from a new model of democratic learning. By participating in the development of curriculum and pedagogy, students learn what it is to be held accountable to their ideas, work collaboratively to discover solutions to difficult problems, think through the responsibility of leadership in a democracy, and understand the importance of compromise within heterogeneous groups. Let’s start to create just as many “brave spaces” as we do “safe spaces” in our schools so that our students can learn what it means to be courageous in the face of opposition and diversity.

Fifth, as we struggle to imagine new ways to educate our children, we should not forget some older approaches to critical learning that have proven effective in making the learning process empowering and transformative. Sometimes called “project-based” or “problem-posing,” the idea is basically the same in that teaching and learning, across disciplines, are grounded in real-world issues. The walls of the school are seen as porous, as teachers actively invite the complexity of lived experience–theirs and the students–into the school and classroom. Students and teachers also move outside of the school in an effort to immerse themselves in the issues that they want to investigate. These kinds of projects are often multi-disciplinary, collaborative, and extend over the course of several weeks. They help students develop traditional academic skills while also giving them opportunities to do research, write-up the results of the research, and design plans for future studies in relation to the knowledge they helped to discover and/or create through their research. This approach to education is proven to enhance students’ academic skills, critical thinking, and creative problem-solving abilities, all things we desperately need in a post-pandemic world.

Sixth, when rethinking public education, we should invest in aesthetic education. From Maxine Greene and Ken Robinson to Gayatri Spivak, there is no lack of reasoned and rigorous arguments advancing theories and variant practices of aesthetic education in our current times. These ideas should only be amplified in the aftermath of the pandemic. An aesthetic education rests on the foundation, in Greene’s terms, of “releasing the imagination” to discover our unique human relationship to each other, the earth, and all of the affective dimensions of lived experience. Aesthetic education reasserts the importance of creativity to the level of literacy, as Ken Robinson has said. Creativity and the arts are made of the stuff of the real and the imagined. Through aesthetic education students learn how to sense and see the possibilities in all forms of creative production; it is a direct challenge to the hegemony of instrumental education in that it helps children nurture and sustain their natural capacity for creativity and imagination.

Seventh, it should go without saying that any redesign of public education must address economic inequity, racial segregation, and gender disparities particularly in the maths and sciences. These are core issues and should not be relegated to the margins of these deliberations. Public education needs to serve the public, which means everyone and not just the wealthy and white. Infrastructure is a real concern in terms of brick and mortar schools as well as digital platforms. The pandemic has laid waste to the fantasy that these things don’t matter. Strong and free wi-fi, up-to-date hardware and software, and teachers who know how to not only use it, but teach with it are fundamental bars that have not been met. The savage inequalities that Jonathan Kozol spoke about so many decades ago have only become more apparent during the pandemic. Not only in terms of deaths but in terms of educational experience. Students from wealthy districts or in private schools have fared much better than their poorer counterparts. No reimagining of public education will be worth much if these structural and infrastructural issues aren’t addressed. Free, universal wi-fi and technology must be made available to every school-age child. Schools should be designed as fluid, creative work spaces that can be curated to meet the educational needs of students depending upon what it is they are working on. The spaces should support democratic and aesthetic education. Currently, many of our neediest children attend school in places that look and feel more like prisons while wealthier districts build schools that resemble updated versions of corporate America. It would be a fabulous start if we could design our public schools more like Google designed their office space in Manhattan. Creativity, collaboration, work flow, and innovation are built into the architecture of the space. This is a good model to emulate for the design of all our public schools because it supports critical learning and creative problem-solving.

Eighth, teachers are simply not paid enough to do what they do. If their value was underestimated before the pandemic, I assume those that have been trying to home-school their own kids during the pandemic will now agree how hard the job actually is. Pre-K through 12th grade demands levels of expertise and patience that many before the pandemic took for granted. From being categorized as glorified babysitters to failed professionals who couldn’t “do” so they teach, teachers have never gotten the respect or compensation they deserve. This must change. Our educators should be paid the same as doctors or engineers. They care for our children, teach them well, and provide an essential public service to our democracy and economy. Many teachers work an additional job to just pay their mortgage or rent. Many have to buy supplies for their students. If our public education system is to support a new design of critical and creative learning, we must be willing to pay our teachers what they have always deserved.

Ninth, over the past few decades, the focus on basic reading skills has resulted in typically high levels of phonemic awareness and basic comprehension skills and extremely low levels in the kinds of literacy skills that the post-pandemic world will demand. The reading “wars” are often characterized as “whole language” versus “phonics,” but the reality is that both of these orientations to literacy fail to address the most important goal of any literacy education worth the name; that is, teaching students to learn how to “critically read to learn.” The focus across the ideological spectrum has been, by contrast, to teach students how to read. This has created a population unable and unwilling to learn new ideas, concepts, and skills through a process of “critical literacy.” Critical literacy, at the methodological level, teaches students about the “whole” and the parts of language, but does so in the context of authentic texts–non-fiction and fiction–and with a focus on interpretation as opposed to basic comprehension. By providing students the strategies to understand how texts come to mean what they do–how language is used to construct, explain, and obfuscate reality–they are then able to learn through reading. In a post-pandemic world, critical literacy will have to become the new standard if we hope to be able to avoid the catastrophic response to the virus that has been at the heart of the administration’s response to Covid-19. Teaching students how to be critically literate will make them less susceptible to propaganda and mis-information, while allowing them to read across ideological contexts in a critical manner. From scientific reports to geo-political and financial issues, in order for the population to avoid another muddled response to the next pandemic or another catastrophic event, they must be critically literate. Continuing to teach students how to read as we’ve been doing for the last few decades will be inadequate in the post-pandemic world and will hurt our ability to function as a free society, grow economically in a way that is fair and humane, and address the issues of public health and climate change in a way that is grounded in science and philosophy.

Lastly, redesigning public education for a post-pandemic world demands more than trying to figure out the logistics of delivering content or questioning which learning software is the most effective. This approach to rethinking public education is an error that begins with with the analysis of the problem. Beyond questions of “method” or “platform,” reconceptualizing public education must get to the heart of the matter: Public education can no longer be developed along instrumental lines. This is not to say that practical skills–from math, sciences and technology to arts and literature–should not be part and parcel of an educational experience. But learning these skills and knowledges should not be conceptualized as the project of public education. Rather, the project of public education should center around the history of knowledge and ideas across a variety of interrelated disciplines. It sounds fairly basic and straightforward and I think it should be. But over the past several decades, public education has primarily served as a socializing and/or indoctrinating system less intent on teaching academic skills or disciplinary content and more concerned with behavior, conformity, and, especially in higher education, job training. As people from across the political, financial, tech, and educational sectors rush into the project of redesigning public education for a post-pandemic world, I hope they will be able to see beyond their own educational experiences to imagine a system in which learning new knowledge and experimenting with new ideas becomes the axis upon which all other curricular and pedagogical questions turn. In order for this to happen, I hope they look for advice beyond the usual suspects. Artists, musicians, and young people, as well as people who come from the ranks of the poor, working class, LGBTQ communities, people with disabilities, etc., might have some really good ideas about how to develop a public education system that serves all students equitably and with an eye toward a future that looks and feels quite different from our present and past.

These are just some of the things I think matter most when reconceptualizing public education. The list is far from exhaustive. But it might be a good place to start.