Friday, January 4, 2013

Public Schools Have a Public Purpose

Richard D. Kahlenberg
Richard D. Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at The Century Foundation, is the author of several books, including "Tough Liberal: Albert Shanker and the Battles Over Schools, Unions, Race and Democracy."
JANUARY 24, 2012
New Hampshire’s new law to allow any public school parent to object to any text or subject matter in any class is the logical extension of decades of conservative rhetoric in favor of “maximizing consumer choice” in education. 
The statute, which requires that teachers and principals come up with an alternative curriculum or text for every student (at his or her parents’ expense) is a disaster in the making.
Adherence to democratic values is not automatic; it needs to be taught to each generation.
Public schools were founded in this country to make sure that future generations of citizens have an appreciation for democratic values, understand what we have in common as Americans, and have the skills to be productive members of society. The New Hampshire law undercuts all those goals.
Adherence to democratic values is not automatic; it needs to be taught to each generation. Should parents who are members of the Ku Klux Klan be allowed to create a special public school curriculum for their child that suggests that extension of voting rights to black Americans was a mistake?
As our nation grows increasingly diverse, with people speaking different languages, and liberals and conservatives getting their news from entirely different sources, we need more than ever for our public schools to emphasize what we have in common as Americans. 
Do we want immigrant parents to be able to insist that their public school child only be taught in Farsi or Hebrew? Or to require a public school teacher to create a history curriculum suggesting that America was on the wrong side of World War II?
Finally, we want public schools to produce skilled thinkers for our economy. Sharp thinking is developed in part when values taught at home are questioned and critically evaluated – even if perhaps ultimately vindicated. Doing well academically also requires what E.D. Hirsch Jr. calls “cultural literacy,” and students who are denied access to “The Wizard of Oz” or “The Diary of Anne Frank,” as some fundamentalist parents insisted in the 1980s, are robbed of cultural references that can be as important to reading comprehension as decoding skills. Finally, as a practical matter, requiring already overworked teachers to take time to develop separate curricula for any children whose parents object is likely to be enormously disruptive and have a negative impact on the education of all children.

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