The Spirit of Public Education

A Sermon by Barbara Wells, co-minister
Paint Branch UU Church--October 7, 2001

An article in The Washington Post this week showed two little girls and a teddy bear listening to a story at a public school in the District of Columbia. The name of that school was Horace Mann Elementary.

There are probably more public schools named for Horace Mann than any other figure in our nation’s history, with the likely exception of George Washington. This honor is well deserved, for Horace Mann was the founder of public schools in America. Not everyone realizes that this important person in our nation’s history was a Unitarian. Born in the early part of the 19th century, Mann became a Unitarian in his young adulthood. Through the mentoring of one of the greatest Unitarians of the 19th century, William Ellery Channing, Horace Mann developed a theology that recognized the possibility for goodness that existed in all people.

His Unitarian beliefs convinced Horace Mann of the importance of education for all children. In the mid 19th century, public education as we know it did not exist. Most children were educated, if at all, by churches or by private academies for which their parents paid dearly. Many children were growing up in poorhouses or tenements or shacks with no schooling at all. Mann was a true democrat, and he believed that if all children were educated they would make better citizens. Through the support of the Massachusetts legislature, he helped to create schools that were supported by the taxes of its citizenry.

This radical idea was to spread so that ultimately it became the norm in all the states across the land. By the end of the 19th century, public education was an integral part of the American landscape. Of course education looked different in those days than it does today, but over the generations and with a democratic vision which expanded to include all people–not just white males of privilege–we enter the 21st century with a huge system of public schools teaching most American children.

Public Education may be one of the greatest achievements of our country. For generations, people of all races and cultures, religions and backgrounds have been educated for free in American public schools. Let me conduct a quick poll. How many of you here in this room attended public school for at least some part of your education? As you can see, it is an overwhelming majority.

Yet our public education system is not something we can ever take for granted. Unlike what some people think, the privilege of receiving a free education paid for by tax dollars is not written into the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution of the United States, or even in the bill of rights. The commitment to the idea of public education emerged slowly over generations before and after the first public schools instigated by Horace Mann. Today, our public school system is educating more children than ever before. Yet the perception that mainstream America holds toward public education is decidedly mixed.

Like many of you, I am a product of the American Public School system. I grew up primarily in Fairfax County, Virginia–one of the largest school districts in the nation. My mother taught in that school district and all but one of my three sisters graduated from a Fairfax County high school. While I can’t say we all loved every minute of our education, for the most part our time spent in public school was enriching. I particularly remember a great year I spent in an Alternative Learning Program (at Herndon High School), which I am convinced prepared me well for college and kept me from the boredom many of my friends experienced in the high school environment. But that was long ago–almost 25 years! And since then, my contact with public schools has been limited to occasional journeys into them as an invited guest or as an interested aunt.

That changed this fall when I was given the opportunity by some of the educators and supporters of public education in our congregation to experience school life a bit more up close and personal. I took on this interesting task because of a commitment made by our regional social justice organization, UUs for Social Justice in the Baltimore/Washington region, to put public education at the top of its agenda. As co-chair of this group I felt like I needed to know more. What I have learned is both heartening and of deep concern.

On August 26, a group of Paint Branch educators gathered at my home to talk with Jaco and me and with each other about their concerns for and commitment to public education. During that time together I learned a lot, in particular two really important things. First, they declared that public education is getting a terribly bad rap–that they and their colleagues in public schools for the most part are dedicated, well trained and doing a good job. That said, they also recognized the many challenges that face public education today. One Paint Branch teacher passed on an article that spoke to this directly and I found its points to be ones that made sense to me. It gave me a framework to help understand what I wanted to say to you today.

The author, Tony Wagner, a Harvard expert on public education, suggests that schools aren’t failing. In truth, more young people are graduating from high school and going on to college than ever before in the history of our nation. And the student body is far more diverse than it has ever been. What he sees isn’t failure so much as a rapidly changing environment that has created unrealistic expectations of public schools. He also says that the way we have "done" public education in the past may not work in today’s world. What does he mean by this? Let me give you some examples.

Wagner writes, "our system of education was designed to serve as a sorting machine. Historically, we sorted out the 20% or so of students who were going on to college and to professional and managerial careers and gave them the skills they needed. The rest of the students received the functional equivalent of an eighth grade education–the minimum needed for work and citizenship for most of the 20th century."

While this may have changed somewhat in more recent times, this assumption–that we need to "sort" kids by ability–is still prevalent in many of our schools today. When I recently visited a Montgomery County high school, I saw this in action. The class I attended was a science class designed for teens who weren’t going to take the harder science classes, like Physics. The class was filled with a diverse group of young people, but many could barely read at an elementary level. The teacher had to work with a class of 30 and most of her time was spent just getting them to pay some attention to what she was trying to teach. Her frustration was real, and so was that of the few kids who were there to learn. The only time everyone paid attention was to the drawing of "student of the month," perhaps because there was a financial award!

And that brings me to another challenge facing schools: many kids today are taught to believe that their goal of life is to consume, not create. Starting at the youngest ages, children in our culture grow up with a constant bombardment of advertising. Channel One, the popular TV show that is beamed to thousands of US schools, throws in commercials at regular intervals. In elementary school kids are rewarded with name brand pizza and ice cream certificates for reading or math skills.

And ask any average teenager today about what they want to do when they grow up and you will likely get an answer that includes what they’d like to have: enough money for a nice car, cool clothes, etc. I know that there are plenty of young people out there who are extremely creative and for whom the consumer culture isn’t nearly as important as it is to their peers. But I think all of us must recognize the truth that too many students are being prepared to be consumers not citizens.

And then there is the biggest challenge of all: the enormous lack of adult mentoring available to children today. In many families, in particular those that are struggling financially, both parents work long hours and are not at home with their children to the degree that they would wish. Add this to crowded classrooms and a lack of nearby extended families, and you have a very serious problem.

Some education experts suggest that young people are being raised by their peers far more than they are by caring adult mentors. In communities where poverty is rampant, like some of the neighborhoods around Paint Branch, you have children as young as 6 or 7 coming home to no one. At our neighborhood school, Cherokee Elementary (just down the road on Riggs), over half the children come from non-English speaking immigrant families, and even the normal mentoring of kids by parents and family members is made more difficult by the fact that by the time kids are in third or fourth grade they usually speak English far better than their parents.

While they may be getting wonderful parenting in some ways, this language gap means that parents may not be able to help young people with their lessons. And it becomes a serious problem when non-English speaking parents are not able, because of language difficulties, to advocate for their kids in the same way as English speaking parents. And that brings me to yet another challenge, the huge disparity between the haves and the have-nots in the public school setting.

Since most public schools are funded through property taxes, in poorer counties (where the tax base is low), schools automatically have less than their neighbors in more affluent counties. And even if schools have the same amount of tax income, the outside money that comes through fundraisers and PTA activities can differ enormously from region to region. In some schools with wealthier parents, the PTA can raise enough money to pay for music teachers, art teachers, and other enriching programs that poorer schools will have to miss out on. Is this fair? Of course not. But until something changes, it’s the way it goes.

Forgive me if the picture I paint isn’t rosy. The truth is, despite this and all the other challenges I’ve mentioned many schools are doing incredible things with wonderful kids. But there is a real need for greater support and understanding of what is facing our schools today. Tony Wagner, whose work seems really on target to me, believes that community involvement is key.

And it’s not just that schools need more parental trust and support. There is also a need for people of all ages, in all neighborhoods, with or without kids in public schools, to recognize that public education is something that belongs to all of us. If public schools are one way that young people grow up to be good citizens of our nation, then it seems reasonable to think that all of us should care about what goes on in them. And it seems sensible to consider how we might make a difference in this critical aspect of our national life.

And that leads me back here–to all of us sitting in this room. We may not realize it but our neighborhood schools are hungry to build relationships with folks just like us. We may think that the separation of church and state prevents it, but we would be wrong. Religious groups of all kinds are partnering with public schools to offer mentoring, support and nurture in many different ways. UU Churches all over the nation are figuring out ways to make such connections.

For example, in Baltimore, First Unitarian has an ongoing relationship with a neighboring school. They help by tutoring, raising money for supplies, and by advocating for educational initiatives in Annapolis. In Rockford, IL, where my sister is a public school teacher, her church has a partner relationship with a local school. Church members go in weekly to tutor and be "grandparents" to kids who are far from loved ones. And models like this abound.

Can we imagine developing a ministry to our neighborhood schools? I know they’d love to have us, because they’ve told me so. Following today’s service, during the enrichment hour, Sheila Jackson, of the Prince George’s County Public School system, will share her ideas of ways we might make such connections. But let me preface her remarks by suggesting some ideas of my own.

First, we could each make a commitment to thank and make stronger connections to our fellow church members who work in public education. If you are a teacher or work anywhere or in any way, in the public school system, would you mind standing for a moment. We thank you for the hard but critical work you do each day. (And let me note that a number of our teachers also volunteer in our religious education program and are there right now!)

Second, we could make individual commitments to do more. If we are parents, and are not already involved in our kids’ schools, we might find a way to offer our support to their teachers and administrators. Public School work can be very lonely and demanding. Many educators are lambasted by experts and parents alike for doing a job that the average Joe thinks he can do better. In the Education Review of the Washington Post published this past summer, author Linda Perlstein writes of an emerging paradox (and I will quote her at length).

"The American public is asking the same teachers they don’t have confidence in to do things they inherently feel they’d do a better job at themselves. In addition to reading and math, it’s up to teachers to make sure children know about sex but don’t have it, to teach children how to manage anger they bring from home, to show a mentally retarded girl how to use a spoon and show a fatherless boy how to be a man… With such expectations, a confidence gap is inevitable. Teachers insist that much of the crescendoing criticism of public schools is unwarranted. But they acknowledge they don’t even trust themselves to do all they are asked to do."

Yes, I know that there are ineffective teachers and administrators out there. But many of the teachers I talked to and read about suggested that far too often parents make assumptions about teachers motives or abilities that can be downright unfair. If parents and other adults in the community would make the effort to go into schools as a tutor or mentor or even just to help with copying, bridges might be built across this divide. There are lots of programs out there for individuals to hook up with, including one listed in our bulletin today, the HOST program at Mt. Rainier Elementary School.

As important as it is for individuals on their own to get involved in public schools, yet another option for Paint Branch would be to create an all church program that could involve a lot of our members. There are some really good models out there and there will be a training in February put on by UUs for Social Justice to help congregations create just such a program. Imagine what it would be like if we "adopted" a school and provided lots of different kinds of support, from collecting school supplies in the late summer to mentoring or tutoring individual children, to having an after school homework project here at Paint Branch. The possibilities are endless. But it will depend on a committed group of volunteers to make it happen.

Already PBUUC members CharAnn White, a public school teacher in Montgomery County, and Doyle Niemann, a member of the Prince George’s County School Board, have agreed to be on a task force to explore this in more depth. And I’m willing to add my time and support as well. But we can’t do it alone. If you can imagine this as a project for Paint Branch to take on, stay for today’s forum and make yourself known to CharAnn or Doyle or me. If our church wants to go down this path collectively, to really make a difference to the children in our community, then let’s find a way to do it, together.

There is obviously a lot more to talk about concerning public education in our nation, region and neighborhood. It’s a topic as fascinating and as critical as any facing our nation today. But let me close by returning to where I started, with the founder of public education in America, Horace Mann.

Mann's religion played a big part in his commitment to education. While the principles we affirm today were not, in their current form, a part of Mann's Unitarianism, the belief in the worth and dignity of every person, our first principle, infused Mann's work. Today, our world is in dire need of people with open minds, moral values, and loving hearts to create educational environments where all children can flourish.

Can we imagine living out Horace Mann's democratic ideal that all children who live in this country shall have an education that prepares them to be good citizens, able to live useful and moral lives? I challenge us to remember our first principle and work with those in our communities who are striving to strengthen public education, not join with those who would demolish it.

Unitarians and Universalists have always valued education. It is a crucial part of who we are as a religious people. It is my hope that we will continue to commit ourselves to the ideal of a free and excellent education for all Americans. It’s not an easy task but it is an essential one. May we, in partnership with teachers, parents, administrators, students, community and religious leaders find a way to make it so for all the generations of Americans to come.

Sing: #288All Are Architects

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