"We can all agree," wrote a contributing editor for The Weekly Standard not long ago, "that American public schools are a joke." This way of thinking and talking about our public schools has been with us for some time: cynical and despairing. It was what led me, in the early to mid-1990s, on a cross-country journey to observe a wide variety of public schools that had been judged by their teachers, students, and parents to be good and decent places of learning.
I took side roads, stayed overnight with families, consulted local historical societies, and spent hundreds of hours in remarkable classrooms. The journey was both geographical-recording actual classrooms and communities across the United States-and philosophical, trying to gain a lived, felt sense of what public education means in a democracy. It was a powerful journey, and it seems that the same kind of reflective trek is needed more now than ever.
It is easy to lose sight of the broader purpose and grand vision of the common public school. Instead we have culture wars, fractious politics, the conservative assault on public institutions, and the testing, testing, testing.
Now, God knows, there is a lot wrong with our schools-from the tangles of school politics to the terrible things often assumed about the abilities of kids from poor communities. I don't dispute that. But the scope and sweep of the negative public talk is what concerns me. It excludes the powerful, challenging work done in schools day by day across the country. It limits profoundly the vocabulary and imagery available to us, constrains the way we frame problems, and blinkers our imagination. This kind of dismissive talk fosters neither critique nor analysis. It plays into troubling and unexamined causal claims about the schools' responsibility for our economic woes and social problems. And this blend of crisis rhetoric and reductive models of causality yields equally one-dimensional proposals for single-shot magic bullets: Standards will save us, or charter schools, or computer technology, or the free market, or broad-scale testing programs like No Child Left Behind.
Yet, the classrooms I visited, distinct though they were, provided a different sense of schooling-the feel and clatter of teaching and learning. Here's a commonplace moment from a chemistry class in Pasadena, Calif. The students had been conducting experiments to determine the polarity of various materials: