No One Way to School: Educational Pluralism and Why it Matters | Ashley Berner | TEDxWilmingtonED

so how long does it take to go from New York City to Los Angeles it's not a joke how long does it take to go from the east coast to the west coast of the United States 7 hours 79 hours 70 hours 7 days sure if you're taking a car a plane or a train I bet none of you thought in terms of taking a covered wagon cars trains and planes used to be novelties but now we take these options for granted not the covered wagon here's another question when is the last time that you heard a rousing and sincere argument for a United States monarchy probably never right I've certainly never heard it democracy used to be an abstract concept but in 1776 we fought a revolution against the king and we've had democratic institutions for so long that a return of the king really isn't it play now why is that remotely relevant to a conversation on education well let me ask you this what's public education most of us in the United States hear the term public education and we instinctively picture a traditional neighborhood school we instinctively picture public education is one thing schools that are funded regulated and exclusively delivered by the state yes our school systems are changing in the last 25 years many of our states have passed laws that enable charter schools tax credits vouchers these are constitutionally appropriate mechanisms for funding diverse kinds of schools so yes our school systems are being challenged but over and against the legitimacy of a uniform cultural default the school system now uniform is kind of an odd word to use when it comes to public education because we know our schools aren't uniform in terms of their effects but our school systems were designed to provide a uniform common experience delivered uniformly by the state in fact many of our state constitutions use this term to describe public education I want to talk just a little bit about how the United States came to have a uniform school system in the first place before I turn to educational pluralism what it is and why it matters so the United States used to not have a uniform school system we used to fund diverse schools Catholic schools Congregationalist schools Baptist schools alongside of the more neutral common schools and from in short these schools reflected the diverse population of the United States and until well into the 19th century Americans were reasonably happy with this arrangement bracket Americans who were free to pursue education happy with this arrangement but then something happened in the middle of the 19th century to disrupt that way of doing schools millions of Catholic immigrants millions came to the United States from the middle of the 19th century and as normal they expected and received funding for Catholic schools normal right but something had changed some Catholics was fine they could be absorbed and schooled so the story went but millions of Catholics this was a threat to the majority culture the majority culture was anglo-saxon and Protestant and they didn't believe fundamentally didn't believe that Catholics could become good Democratic citizens why not well there is this thing about the Poe loyalty to a foreign power and the hierarchical nature of Catholic life and worse and worship sat uncomfortably with the individualism that many Protestants had come to identify with democratic culture so what happened from the middle of the 19th century until well into the 20th we had a nativist movement in the United States this nativist movement was anti-immigrant it was anti foreign language and it was most of all anti-catholic so we had such things as states like Oregon making Catholic schools illegal the Ku Klux Klan firebombing Catholic neighborhoods and churches for decades and nativist political parties taking over state legislatures and passing bills to defund religious schools and short in the decades following the Civil War our school systems moved from being plural to being uniform and that over time became the cultural default for public education in the United States just like planes trains and democracy our cultural norms are inherited from conflicts that occurred a long time ago that's how culture works now if this conversation were taking place in the Netherlands and I looked out in the room and I said what's public education the answers would be quite different why is that because the Netherlands funds 36 different kinds of schools Catholic Jewish Orthodox Jewish Reformed Islamic socialist Montessori they also fund what we in the United States would call district schools state delivered schools still play an important role a third of the population attends such schools the Netherlands school systems in other words are plural this is educational pluralism a mosaic of schools mosaic of diverse schools that are all funded regulated but not necessarily delivered by the state now the Netherlands is not alone the list of democracies that funds pluralism is vast it includes England Australia Canada Sweden Finland Denmark Germany Italy in fact pluralism is the Democratic norm around the world Alberta Canada even funds homeschooling alongside of Inuit Jewish and secular schools the Australian central government is the number-one funder of independent schools in the country because of those schools capacity to narrow the academic achievement gaps between high and low income students Hong Kong's government funds education but the schools are delivered by the voluntary sector importantly pluralistic schools include what we would consider district schools these schools are still important but they are not sole providers educational pluralism does not cast common purpose to the wind rather pluralistic systems hold all schools accountable for academic performance and some of them even require common curricula Alberta dyes England does the Netherlands does educational pluralism is simply a different way to organize public education so when you look a crowd across the world and think of it in terms of uniformity or pluralism the United States is an outlier among democracies we're we're outliers so what so what if we're outliers we're Americans we like to be different we don't mind being different why is this a problem well I I want to suggest that having a cultural norm of uniformity is a problem in many reasons for many reasons but I want to focus on equity uniformity is a cultural default is a problem for equity there are a thousand different reasons why a particular school may not work for a particular child may have to do with the family's religious beliefs it may have to do with their pedagogical preference so you like classical book tradition you like project-based learning for example it might have to do with a mismatch with a child's disability or a child's interests it might have to do with the school size or location there are a thousand different reasons why any school might not fit a particular child but a uniform school system means that the only people who can act on that knowledge are people of means people with access to wealth can move to a School District they like better they can enroll their children and private schools low-income families don't have those options sometimes we hear the argument that if we simply funded district schools at a higher level they would all be excellent and we wouldn't have to worry about charters choice but that really doesn't solve the problem that schools are not necessarily the best district school doesn't necessarily work for every child so uniformity is a problem for equity educational pluralism on the other hand from design assumes that families and children are not all alike and that that's a good thing that schools will differ in meaningful ways and that that's a good thing and that it's our collective responsibility to ensure that all schools are held accountable for academic performance and that that's a good thing too educational pluralism does not solve all the problems that pertain to creating and sustaining a fair an excellent school system does it solve all the problems but it comes closer to fair then a cultural norm of uniformity so I'm making the case that educational pluralism is simply a better way to organize and think about public education it certainly is the Democratic norm and it works for many students all around the world so what are the odds that educational pluralism could become our default norm in the United States that one-day uniformity would be replaced by a educational pluralism the honest answer is we don't know I study social movements and how ideas migrate from the margins to the center of culture and we know the actual change at the level of cultural assumptions is arduous takes time sometimes generations and in short there are no guarantees about change at the level of culture yes our school systems are changing being challenged and pushed in many different ways but this this may not touch culture and our default we don't know but there are some things that all of us in this room can do right here and right now to make educational pluralism more likely the first thing is that we can support political compromise yes grand bargains can occur in the United States the Illinois legislature recently passed a bill that did three things simultaneously increased funding for district schools where the need was great created a new tax credit program so that low-income families could attend private schools and for quality assurance all students who participate take the state tests this is a meaningful compromise and we need to support and cheerlead for legislators legislators who can get us through the finish sign of meaningful political compromise the second thing we can do is Ratchet back the rhetoric now all countries fight about education preparing the next generation is so important that we're never gonna agree entirely about how it should be done we're going to disagree and that's expected and appropriate in a democracy but if you listen in on the debates about education in the United States you will hear entire school sectors pitted against one another districts against charters charters against choice entire quadrants battling for legitimacy now I want to suggest that this is not helpful to our students we can disagree but we do not have to demonize one another in the process educational pluralism offers us in a more generous space there's really room for all of us just as you can walk out of this room and get to Los Angeles by a plane train automobile covered wagon or pogo stick there's really no one way to do public education there's no one way to school thank you very much [Applause] you

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