"But if it is believed that these elementary schools will be better managed by...any other general authority of the government, than by the parents within each ward [district], it is a belief against all experience." --Thomas Jefferson

Monday, October 18, 2010

5. Developing Democratic Character in the Young?

My fifth issue is to make sure that associations and advisers are focused on academics, not politics.

I was asked today, by a reporter, about my opinion of the mission statement Educating all students to ensure the future of our democracy. As you know from reading this blog, I think there are much better mission statements. But, let me go into a little more detail about my concerns, and my suggestion.

First, this mission statement has nothing to do with academics. Have you ever tried to take a picture and then moved the 'auto-focus square' to something other than what you wanted? The result means that the forearm might be in focus, but the face is blurry. Schools exist to teach kids how to read, write, and do math (and history, science and art, as well). When we shift our focus from the basics, we lose our clarity of purpose. Of necessity, we will also lose some of the achievements in those areas, as well. Anytime our focus isn't on basic academics, the academics will not have the emphasis and the subsequent results that they should.

Second, assuming we want a somewhat political statement, shouldn't it at least be factual? Our Founding Fathers were pretty clear about the Constitution establishing a republic and not a democracy. Benjamin Franklin was asked by a woman at the close of the Constitutional Convention, "What kind of government have you given us?" He replied, "A Republic...if you can keep it." You are welcome to explore the Founders' views on democracy and republic, but, suffice it to say, the Constitution establishes a Republic to preserve those natural "unalienable rights" Jefferson referred to in the Declaration of Independence. To me, having a mission statement that refers to our system of government as a democracy, rather than a republic, is a bit like teaching a kid 2+2 = 5. It's close, but still wrong. We should be in the business of accurately representing all facts to our students. Their conclusions are their own, but the answer to 2+2 should always be 4.

Next, I am concerned with the way the parent complaints about the mission statement were handled. Anytime you have a customer complaint, you have failed either in setting appropriate expectations or delivering on your promises. In either case, there is work for you to do. It is always best to acknowledge the customer's concerns as valid, and work toward resolving those concerns. None of that was done in this case. There seemed to be an emotional tie to the mission statement from the board that didn't make sense. I've worked for several organizations, and I can say I never had an emotional tie to a mission statement. Why was this the case with the school board?

Perhaps it was because, as I read, it took over 40 meetings to come up with the mission statement. At first blush, you have to wonder how inefficient it must be to spend that amount of time and come up with something so non-academic. However, just a few weeks ago, it was clarified (in a meeting I attended) that the Areas of Focus took 40 meetings. The mission statement (and motto: Enculturating the Young into a Social and Political Democracy) came almost verbatim from the writings of Dr. John I. Goodlad.

This leads me to my final point. If we are taking cues from one individual (or an organization), should we not discover what that individual/organization has to say about those issues? I would like to share with you two quotes taken from Developing Democratic Character in the Young (Goodlad, et. al.) "Parents do not own their children. They have no 'natural right' to control their education fully." And, "Public education has served as a check on the power of the parents, and this is another powerful reason for maintaining it." Having enjoyed reading this tome over the past few weeks, I can say the most distressing part of Dr. Goodlad's emphasis is the devaluation of the parents and their values. This is integral in developing good "democratic" character because parents may be steeped in religion and values that do not agree with what Dr. Goodlad emphasizes as the purpose of his idea of 'democracy'. In short, if we are teaching morals in school, whose morals are they? Dr. Goodlad's or yours?

The bottom line is that parents want to send their kids to a school that teaches core academics. Our schools should reflect that desire. Ultimately, the students and their families are primarily responsible for their learning. The teachers, schools, and district are there to assist families by providing additional educational opportunities. I am very grateful to my kids' teachers who have assisted us with this rewarding task. I would like the district to maintain the focus on those issues that are most important to public education--reading, writing, and arithmetic.


  1. Wendy, I appreciate your thoughtful response to the reporter's question. I agree with you that the mission statement could be more clear -- there are obviously some parents who don't understand it. I also agree that the school district should air on the side of courtesy and civility when dealing with parent concerns.

    Here's where I disagree with you:

    1. The mission statement has _everything_ to do with academics. Admittedly, you're missing what a number of parents are missing, because it is not explicitly stated. Perhaps if it was worded this way, you would understand where the district is coming from: "Educating all students in reading, writing, math, science, history, and the arts to ensure the future of our democracy."

    Of course, that's a bit wordy, isn't it? So they left out the laundry list of topics, and assumed that when the say "educating all students" that this of course includes a strong curriculum. The statement focuses a bit more on the _reasons_ for educating students than you would perhaps like -- the whole point is to ensure that our children are functioning members of our society. But I don't think that means it is not about academics at all.

    2. I don't think this is a political statement. It really is about preparing our kids so that they can succeed.

    3. You are making the same mistake as Oak Norton and the other parents who have complained about the district's use of the word "democracy" rather than "republic." The truth is, our country is a "representative democracy" or a "democratic republic". It includes elements of both representation (e.g. election of our senators) and direct democracy (e.g. we vote on property tax increases, state constitutional amendments, etc). MANY, MANY people use shorthand to refer to our political system as a 'democracy' and it is understood what is meant. For crying out loud, Ronald Reagan used the term 'democracy' to refer to the United States all the time. We speak of bringing democracy to Iran, not a republic.

    Really, this is making a mountain out of a molehill. The description of our country as a democracy is not wrong.

    Furthermore, if you would read what BYU and Goodlad have published about this mission, you will find that by democracy they mean "social democracy" as well as "political democracy". Stated more plainly, they want students to be effective citizens in our communities (e.g. as volunteers for PTA) as well as in civic affairs (e.g. running for city council). There is nothing nefarious about this.

  2. 4. While the district should do better about treating parental concerns more seriously, parents too have a responsibility to be civil in their treatment of our district and school board. There have been times when parents have acted VERY badly in their pursuit of this agenda to rid the school of what they see as "socialist" teachings.

    5. I agree that I am uncomfortable with some of Goodlad's work. However, I think it is wrong to take unrelated statements he has made, which have NOT been endorsed by the district, and use guilt-by-association to claim that this makes the mission statement a poor one.

    It is perfectly OK to associate with people that you disagree with. It is also OK to take the 10% of good from what someone has done and build on that in your work, while leaving out the 90% you disagree with. The school district is NOT subscribing to Goodlad's beliefs about weakening parent's role in their kids' education. They ARE using one small statement of his, one that has been endorsed and taught by BYU.

    I find it really disappointing when people say "oh, he is a bad person, therefore you are also a bad person for associating with him, and you can't possibly use any of his statements to do something good."

    6. The bottom line is that our school district IS teaching our kids core academics. Our schools DO reflect that desire. Students and families ARE primarily responsible for their kids education, and the school district believes that too. The focus of the school district IS on core academic differences.

    To expand your disagreement over a mission statement wording into an assumption that the school district's priorities are misplaced is wrong. My wife and I have been in the trenches, volunteering next to the teachers and working side-by-side with the schools. They are doing a GREAT job. There are things I would change, for example getting rid of Connected Math in our middle schools, and I would encourage them to excel even more. But they are not on the wrong track. They are doing many things well.

    Let me conclude by saying that I support your campaign and I think you'd make a great board member. I think we agree a lot on the direction our schools should take. I just don't think the mission statement is out of whack or a major issue to focus on. And I don't think jumping onto the "republic" vs "democracy" hobby horse will accomplish anything worthwhile.