Let's Build Schools Worthy of American Democracy

07/24/2012 10:04 am ET | Updated Sep 23, 2012

The root causes of educational failure, as well as our recent inability to improve schools, are mostly linked to the de-industrialization of America. Both our schools, and well-intentioned reformers, have been too preoccupied with remediating the myriad of ills produced by economic decline. To build an education system for the 21st century, we must get back to our roots and visualize schools that are worthy of American democracy.

Baby Boomers like me grew up during "Pax Americana" and the greatest economic boom in world history. As the economic pie grew, we became more willing to share and a foundation was laid for social and racial justice. During those forty plus years, the economy lifted all boats. Having survived the Great Depression and World War II, the "Greatest Generation" did what was necessary so that Baby Boomers would have unlimited horizons. They embodied the principle of, "It takes a village to raise a child." Because parents instilled confidence in us, our generation knew in our bones that tomorrow would be better than today. The lesson is clear. Instill hope and people will rise to the occasion.

My Sunday School teacher, Bob Axworthy, was a classic American tinkerer. In 1970, Bob did something that we rarely hear about anymore. He challenged our high school to compete in the Clean Air Car Race from Boston to Pasadena. Putnam City West High School students built a propane-fueled car that met 1975 exhaust emission standards and competed with M.I.T., Cal Tech, and other top universities in the cross country adventure. My classmates' real world project exemplified the type of opportunities of that era, when everything seemed possible.

Just three years later, the Energy Crisis stunned our economy and our collective confidence. Fist fights broke out while motorists waited in lines to fill up their gas guzzlers. The states began a race to the bottom, trying to lure factories to the Sun Belt where unions were weaker and wages and benefits were lower. In the 1980s, financial engineering, subsidized by "Reaganomics," accelerated the closing of factories even when they were still profitable. In my state, 10% of jobs disappeared in just one year, 1983.

Families broke under the pressure. For many black families in my neighborhood, who had often struggled to hold themselves together through generations of Jim Crow and whose hopes had risen due to civil rights victories, the overnight economic collapse was the last straw. As is true today, the financial engineering that accelerated the decline of industrial jobs also led to a banking crisis; families who had saved for years to buy a home endured foreclosure, as the banking elites were bailed out.

After forty years of economic decline, hope has been beaten down. The rich have gotten much richer, and the poor much poorer, as the middle class shrunk. Students who were just a few years younger than my classmates were labeled "Generation X." They were seen as the first generation destined to not do as well as their parents. Opportunities have continued to shrink for today's youth. Americans now find themselves in the unprecedented position of trying to manage our decline, as opposed to exploring new frontiers.

Some of Generation X's most talented leaders recognized that schools were no longer providing enough of a ladder to opportunity and equality. Some rejected the wealth they could have gained in the corporate world and helped lead a market-driven school reform movement. After seeing the decline of the old New Deal/Fair Deal progressivism, it is easy to understand why this younger generation adopted a narrower pedagogy. Unfortunately, their contemporary data-driven accountability movement focused on the parts of schooling that could be measured. The bubble-in school of reform adopted the financiers' methods (that had destroyed poor families' jobs) in order to rescue the children who were left behind in the post-industrial inner cities.

Affluent children still attend progressive schools where students explore and create, and learn to produce the digital miracles that ensure prosperity for today's innovators. But, after forty years of economic decline for the working people who attend public schools, the idea that all poor children can engage in exploratory learning has been abandoned for standardized testing.

The first step is to stop accepting the idea that our nation is in decline and quit complaining about liberalism's failure to end poverty. Our schools must cease their failed focus on remediating students' weakness and start building on our kids' strengths. For instance, what if we challenged inner city teens to compete in, say, the Progressive Automotive X Prize competition to build a hybrid car that gets 100 miles per gallon?

At this point, I hope many or most readers know where I'm heading. We should all watch PBS Frontline's, "Fast Times at West Philly High" and the high school's international competition to design such a car. As one student proclaimed, West Philly High proved that, "We can be just as innovative as the CEOs of Ford, GM, Honda, Nissan ... And we don't even have diplomas yet." By the way, the shared adventure was just as fulfilling for adult sponsors.

We should take advantage of our era's technology and follow the link to the PBS website. It describes other challenges that our students could tackle such as using computer aided design to invent high-efficiency, prefabricated homes or retrofitting inefficient urban centers. Or, as Van Jones says, we should build "community schools" to become laboratories for creating "Green" jobs. We should heed the wisdom of PBS's John Merrow and teach students to monitor water quality and design sustainable environmental systems. Or, we could launch a Digital Games for America and challenge twenty-somethings to help students create their own educational computer systems.

The second step towards rebuilding the hope that great schools need is to look at our situation with fresh eyes. Yes, salaries for males have declined for 43 years, but how far have we fallen? Take a look at the problems around the world, and the way that other nations have struggled with globalism, and our nation's problems seem eminently manageable. After all, America's economic prospects during the "jobless economy" of Bill Clinton's first term looked sad, but think of the burst of productivity in his second term. America has overcome much much worse. We need to suck it up and build on our strengths. We must stop trying to turn our low-income schools into an educational equivalent of the Model T assembly line, and create the type of urban schools that we would all want for our own kids.