Friday, March 3, 2017

Imagine a Secretary of Education for America’s Schools

When the President of the United States appoints a Secretary of Education who openly, vocally, and financially works to destroy the public’s schools, we can sigh and hope to outlive her time in office, giving what support we can to the teachers we know and the schools that serve our communities.  Or we can declare the experiment in democratic education over (as some have already done), and shed tears for what this generation of children will miss and what our country will lack when their schools are closed and they, and their friends, are outsourced to private “education management companies” called “charter schools.”

Or, we can heed Maxine Greene’s admonition to foster in each other a social imagination – the imagination to envision a more just society, a creative public spirit, and a collective sense of urgency to make democracy work for everyone.  For Greene, an esteemed professor at Teachers College and a tireless advocate for educating through the creative arts, a social imagination was not idle musing or wishing what might have been.  An informed social imagination leads to action for justice.

I invited readers to imagine along with me what it would mean if we had a Secretary of Education for America’s children:  a cabinet member who understands the gravity of being the voice of the children –all our children – at the highest levels of government, and who acts accordingly.   Now we need to imagine what a Secretary of Education would do in her first months in office if she understood, cared about, and used her power to advocate for the public’s schools.

Again, cue up John Lennon’s “Imagine” or maybe “What a WonderfulWorld.”  And let’s imagine together…..

Imagine a Secretary of Education who understands that an investment in America’s infrastructure absolutely must include making sure that every public school, in every neighborhood, is built as an engaging learning environment and an asset to its community. That secretary would call in the Secretary of Labor to remind him that building good schools, and renovating older ones, is a great for job creation – for the workers immediately employed and for economies that that powerful learning will generate in the schools they build.  Our imagined Secretary would enlist the Secretary of Health and Human Services and colleagues NIH and the CDC and EPA for their expertise in assuring the building materials are built with children’s health in mind, safety from toxic chemicals, with clean air and water a given.  She’d of course call on the expertise of the Department of Energy and the professional organizations of school architects for specs on energy efficiency and renewable systems throughout, to model for the children a reverence for nature’s resources as well as to reduce expenses.

Imagine a Secretary of Education who tells the Congress and the President and infrastructure designers to get ready to build, but not until she has consulted with teachers and parents about what they want their school buildings to be.  Lively learning centers, yes.    Abundantly equipped, yes – even in the poorest neighborhoods, the most remote rural counties.    And inviting to all – a place where teachers want to teach, children are excited to spend their days, parents and neighbors know they are welcome to visit and volunteer.   Well acquainted with the amenities in private schools, the Secretary will already know that teachers need offices and conference rooms for study and lesson prep and collaborating across disciplines; teachers won’t have to ask for those basics. But teachers will want to weigh in on things this particular Secretary of Education may not think of – a community clinic with mental health services as well as basic family medicine, spaces for parents to meet, a community liaison who knows well the families’ languages, needs, assets and network of referral services throughout the community.

Imagine a Secretary of Education who understands that learning involves all the senses.   She might take a literal walk in the park to confer with the National Park Service, the US Forest Service, the Secretary of the Interior as well as the leaders of Nature Conservancy and various urban park systems to ask how they could work together to make sure every American child has places to play outside. She would have read Last Child in the Woods on the plane in from Michigan and arrived fired up to get America’s kids outdoors, exploring, discovering, skinning their knees and – the radical part – getting to play!

I’m beginning to like this imagined Secretary of Education.  Though I doubt she’ll materialize on her own. It will take a village – a very large and energized village and its teachers – to “raise” her.  In a future post, we’ll imagine what she might learn from America’s teachers – if she did decide to become the Secretary of Education for all of America’s children and all of the public’s schools.

Add your imaginings to mind in the Comments section here:


William R. Jordan III said...

Imagining as the (maybe essential) first step toward action and change: I like it. And the relevance for job creation. Yes. AND, let's keep in mind that the emphasis need not be entirely on STEM disciplines. As emerging technologies increase productivity, we look forward to the prospect of, if not the literal "end of work", at least a dramatic reduction in work hours, and so an opportunity to recover the kind of life Marshall Sahlins, in his "The Original Affluent Society", described as typical of traditional peoples--that is, a life in which people spend relatively little time at "work," and a good deal of time telling stories, singing and dancing around the communal fire. That may be the most salient aspect of the "paleolithic prescription," at least as important as diet and exercise to living a good, fully human life.

This clearly points toward the importance of serious emphasis in education on experiences and disciples that provide the foundation for the fullest kinds of human achievement, characterized by qualities such as curiosity, insight, generosity and what might be called the spirit of poverty. Here, I believe it's fair to suggest that when one of our political leaders pointed out recently that the last thing we need is more students majoring in anthropology and French poetry, he or she got it exactly wrong. There is good reason to believe that opportunities for human fulfillment not fully realized by most since the Stone Age are rapidly becoming accessible to millions and maybe billions of people.*

Our systems of education have a crucial role to play in realizing this possibility.

The future of civilization, and indeed our planet will depend on it.

*For some thoughts on a relevant example, check out a reflection on the development of the practice of ecological restoration not just as applied science, but as a performing art on our website, Environmental Prospect (( )

Bill Jordan III
The New Academy for Nature and Culture

J.Kingston Reed said...

Creating schools that center around the community is essential. In turn, the community is more invested in the schools. Schools that are a part of the community, that provide to the community, not just in future brain power, but also in health, economics, recreation, etc., seems to me to be one of the most important things one of these imagined schools could be. Even more important might be to make sure these schools are flexible as demographics shift and the community around the schools changes. This has become the norm, especially in Houston. These changes, these adaptations, need to be community-based, and they cannot be prescribed generally from on high. With that said, we cannot lose the Department of Education, as De Vos and others would like to happen. Inequality is already rampant in our education system, and vouchers or school choice, as prescribed by De Vos, is not the answer. If anything, these vouchers will help to create further stratification in terms of inequality, while also aiming for competition and falling into a further diluted pool of mediocre (or failing) schools. This is vague, I know. Imagining something better, something that actually places agency in those that work in education, those that understand communities, is a good first step. I don't think we have it this time around, though. Your calls for action have been noted, though, and I hope they continue.