Mediocracy: How to Fix our School System's I's

05/01/2011 11:43 pm ET | Updated Jul 01, 2011

One letter separates democracy from mediocracy: I. Our greatest leaders remind us of this from time to time. They have phrased this notion simply and eloquently: "Ask not what your country can do for you," "Yes we can," "Let us strive on to finish the work that we are in." Yet their voices do not echo through the halls of the most important places they should be heard: our public schools. And I'm not talking about kindergartners who scream "MINE!" before they learn how to share.

I'm talking about the grown-ups.

I'm talking about adults blinded by their I's. I'm talking about teachers who watch the clock in their own classrooms, principals who never leave their offices, district leaders who impose strict regimes on their educators, parents who quibble over their children's grades and community members who think that living across the street from a great school is an inconvenience. At a school board meeting about the construction of a new high school, I actually witnessed one concerned citizen express that last sentiment, something to the effect of "What are we supposed to do with the burden of this school in our neighborhood?"

When it comes to public education, we are a people so blinded by our I's that we can't see the "they" looking up to us -- the "they" that was the reason we built schools in the first place, the "they" that is our kids begging us for our eyes. Sure, we repeat mantras like "Children first," but, as many observers have pointed out, we have actually constructed a system that sacrifices the needs of students to the demands of adults.

The truth is that we Americans are so blinded by our I's that we are failing to see the most glaring problem facing our schools: we have no vision for what we want them to do. We say "Children first," but we have no idea what it means. We want the best education system in the world, but we have no idea what it would look like. In our national conversation about the puzzle that is our failing school system, we are so busy trying to place individual pieces -- accountability, choice, etc. -- that we have forgotten to look at the box to see what the finished product should be: what do we want our kids to know and be able to do when they graduate from high school?

Without a cohesive, thoughtful, and comprehensive answer to that question -- a vision for our children's future -- any efforts to address the systemic issues will be in vain. Our answers up to this point have been either too vague to enact ("college and career ready") or too specific to inspire ("proficient scores on standardized tests").

So I will take a stab at it: We the People of the United States, in order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence (sic), promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, will provide a free and excellent education to all children in the United States of America.

I knew that there was a reason Ms. Harris had me memorize that in eighth grade. My compliments and my gratitude to the Founding Fathers for supplying exactly the cohesive, thoughtful and comprehensive vision we've been looking for. Here's what their vision means for our kids and their education:

  • In order to form a more perfect Union, our children will learn the fine American art of the compromise.
  • In order to establish Justice, our children will learn the workings of our nation's laws and government.
  • In order to insure domestic Tranquility, our children will learn to engage in civil discourse.
  • In order to provide for the common defence (sic), our children will learn the importance of civic service.
  • In order to promote the general Welfare, our children will learn the knowledge and skills they will need in order to be productive participants in the economy.
  • And in order to secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, our children will learn that they will be the guardians of this vision and that it will be up to them to provide an excellent education to the generations that follow theirs.
  • However, in order to ensure that this vision is attained, we need to correct a few I's. First, we must protect this vision by abolishing that curious institution known as the local school board -- it is an asylum for the blind. School board members' eyes are profoundly compromised by their I's and the I's of their constituents. It is impossible for them as a collective to stay focused on our vision for our kids, and it is even more difficult to hold them accountable for doing so. Instead, we should invest authority over public education in the executive -- as has been done in cities like D.C., New York and Chicago -- as it is easier for one person to keep his or her eyes on the prize than several. Furthermore, we are more able to hold a single elected official responsible for his or her policies than an entire board.

    Second, we must develop a national curriculum that makes this vision come alive in the classroom. That national curriculum ought to be our King James Bible, a project that calls together our finest minds in every discipline and tasks them with compiling their ideas so that all of our children will have the opportunity to learn -- in the words of education historian Diane Ravitch, "the best that has been thought and known and done in every field or endeavor."

    Furthermore, because we want to secure the Blessings of Liberty to our Posterity, we cannot afford to bicker about what should and shouldn't be taught in schools. Instead of holding the debates about American exceptionalism and Roe v. Wade amongst ourselves, we should let our kids dazzle us with their own eloquent arguments. We need to invite our children into those conversations -- that knowledge belongs to them just as much as it belongs to us.

    Finally, we need to ensure that our kids know that they are in school in order to achieve this vision. We need them to know that they are in school to open their eyes and forget their I's. After all, when the I's disappear, mediocracy becomes democracy.