Rebuilding the Village: What Our Schools, and Our Society, Need Now

"It takes a village to raise a child.”  -- African proverb

As a teacher turned education advocate, I often wonder what America would be like if we actually took our responsibility to the future seriously; if we embraced the idea of being a “village” that collectively supports its children, and each other.

In that America, I see communities full of healthy children supported by secure families, because the adults in their lives are paid fair salaries and benefits for their contributions to the community, and work in humane circumstances that allow enough time off-the-clock to care for their kids and replenish themselves. Because they and their families breathe clean air, drink clean water, eat actual food, and live in safe surroundings, these kids usually develop as they’re supposed to, and don’t experience undue stress or pain. And when these children arrive at school (fully staffed, of course), they’re alert and ready to learn -- which means their teachers can focus exclusively on teaching and learning, using their knowledge and expertise to develop each student’s full potential.

Unfortunately, for most American communities, such a world is pure imagination. Instead, our reality is one of a physical infrastructure in decay, as roads and bridges crumble and public utilities rust and erode from neglect. Under- and unemployment are rampant, as are the parallel trends of over-work and job insecurity, and most families’ real income and wealth have barely budged for over thirty years. Food insecurity and homelessness, especially among families, are on the rise. I could list more -- but I’m sure I don’t need to.

In our schools, these trends have two major (and myriad minor) impacts: first, when schools are forced to sacrifice staff, programs and more because of budget cuts, and again as students come to school burdened by more unmet needs than ever -- the direct result of the strife they and their families experience beyond the schoolhouse doors. Doing more with less becomes the expectation, to the detriment of under-served students and over-worked educators alike.

As the situation continues to spiral downwards, the powers that be-- public officials, thought leaders and others who prop up the status quo-- repeatedly say that we must (continue) to do even more with even less. They allege that "nothing can be done" about poverty or the related social ills affecting our students, so educators must be more "accountable"-- as though it’s fair or even possible to be held accountable for things one cannot control.

And because an endless supply of distorted data hide the hard work, dedication and quality of most of our schools and educators, the public frequently accepts these allegations and jumps on the school-bashing bandwagon. This, instead of asking what is (or should be) an obvious question: How is it possible that the wealthiest nation on earth has to gut its school budgets, and skimp on everything else we associate with a civilized society?

The law locks up the man or woman

Who steals the goose from off the common.

But leaves the greater felon loose,

Who steals the common from off the goose.

The short answer to that last question is that it’s a lie: we can indeed afford these things if we invest our common wealth in our common well-being instead of letting a few people hoard it all for themselves. People, especially folks outside the education reform world, often ask me what they can do to help schools. My answer is this: as educators continue working to improve the profession, everyone should be helping rebuild the rest of society. Here are some thoughts on how we can do that.

Enough in-fighting, already!

Most of us quite rightly perceive that the destructive social and economic policies inflicted upon us amount to something like a war on our way of life. So why are we firing upon our fellow soldiers instead of the opposing army? Because we look and live differently from each other? Because some of us were born here and some weren’t? Because some of us still have some semblance of job security and others don’t? All distractions in the grand scheme of things. We all deserve to live how we choose as long as we don’t hurt others, and all of us, not just some, can have what we need and a little of what we want-- if we succeed in restoring the commons (rebuilding our village, if you will). This is especially important among activists, who are both notoriously wonderful in commitment to the issues—and notoriously awful about tolerating the differences necessary to build working coalitions. Yes, it’s frustrating, but we need to learn how to accept certain differences and disagreements in order to achieve the bigger goal on which we all agree: a healthier, more secure world in which we can all live and let live. We know this. Let’s act like it.

Start (or keep) raising awareness of the root issues.

Anyone who has listened to the voices of folks closest to classrooms knows that the issues we see in schools are reflections of the broader issues facing society. And if you’re reading this, chances are you’re already pretty aware of the policies (tax breaks for the wealthy, inadequate regulation) and practices (union-busting and other forms of exploitation) that created this mess-- but you might have trouble explaining it to others, or wonder how we go about building the political will needed to turn these policies around.

Fortunately, there are more ways than ever to connect and share ideas with people who are working to build a better future. And given how many of us are waking up to the reality that the status quo is not working as advertised, moving previously hopeless or even apathetic people to action may be as simple as sharing a thought-provoking image, or getting them to watch a movie. For example, the new documentary Were Not Broke illustrates in clear and striking terms how the same corporate interest groups that have fueled our other economic woes have also re-written our tax policy and purchased our elected officials in order to avoid paying their fair share of the taxes a civilized society requires. The film also highlights the engaging and effective tactics a new generation of activists are using to fight the corporate tax-dodgers who are starving our schools and communities. Likewise, Heist explains when, how, and by whom the seeds of our current economic problems were sown. So far, everyone I’ve met who has seen either film leaves fired up and ready to do something; I, for one, want to make sure more people have that experience.

Start sharing accountability instead of sacrifice.

Those who benefit from the way things are would like us to believe that there is no way back from these troubled times, that this is just the way things are, and that we need to deal with it. We know that’s not true-- especially not when the wealthiest among us have only had to "deal with" record profits and enough extra cash to buy gold-sprinkled ice cream, islands, and of course, politicians.

So the next time you hear an elected official talking about increasing teacher or school accountability, turn the tables. Ask what they’ve done to establish the kind of fair and sustainable economy that supports healthy schools and more. Ask them what steps they’ve taken to create tax policy that restores needed revenue by taxing wealth more than work, and cracking down on corporations that hide American-made profits in foreign tax havens. Tell them there are no excuses for giving themselves and their rich patrons tax breaks, when we should be putting Americans back to work by fixing roads and other public utilities, and restoring funding to important public services like schools and libraries. And tell them that if they don’t start doing more accountable governing with less corporate influence, we’re going to keep the pressure up until they do -- or replace them altogether.

America is still a wealthy nation, but we really can’t afford a reductive education policy debate designed to relieve our so-called leaders of their responsibility to promote our shared best interests. If a few powerful people can successfully use two manufactured crises -- the alleged quality crisis in our public schools, and the budget crisis they've created -- to convince us to abandon our schools to private interests, America will become unrecognizable to those of us who want to see it as a land of justice and opportunity. Not only will continued divestment create even more joblessness in the short-term; over the long-term, mis-educated youth will grow up unable to meet the social, civic and economic challenges that await. If we’re serious about putting students first, then we need to rebuild the entire village that supports them, instead of tearing apart the schools that have, for too many children, become their last refuge from a troubled society.


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