The Changing Nature of Citizens

As the relationship of citizens to public schools is changing, so are citizens themselves. Most simply, while about half of households had children enrolled in public schools fifty years ago, only about 24% do today.12 With fewer adults actively tied to public schools, it is likely that many adults have less interaction with public schools, less knowledge of public school matters, and less concern for the role of public schools in society. Moreover, as documented by a decade of studies by the Kettering Foundation, citizens increasingly do not feel that public schools are our schools, that we have influence over them or responsibility for their outcomes. As Kettering Foundation president David Matthews rightly assesses, “This perception is not just a school problem; it is a serious political problem"13 Indeed, when an institution lacks a public that buys in, supports, or otherwise takes responsibility for it, it fails to sustain the legitimacy needed to remain viable.

Philosopher Judith Green explains that “dangerous habits of daily living have become increasingly widespread—constant busy-ness, fashionable cynicism, reliance on experts, willful ignorance of our nation’s history and of current events, materialism, personal greed, and, especially since September 11, feelings of ‘ontological insecurity’, generalized anxiety, and personal impotence"14 These changing ways of life have exacerbated citizens’ disengagement with public schools, even leading some of us to simply pretend we care about education while directing our true attention elsewhere and others to trust education reformers and corporate philanthropists to take care of education because we are too busy to do so.15 In part, we may hand over care for public institutions when we grow complacent, assuming democracy has and will continue to operate with or without active commitment on our part.

Indeed, in the larger public realm beyond schools, citizens have increasingly become less interested in government and politics. And some of us who do express interest often feel that our voices are not heard or that we cannot effect change. We tend to see government as a bloated bureaucracy that does not include us, and politics as bogged down in petty partisan battles.16 “In place of government of the people, by the people, and for the people—a politics in which we have a role and personal stake—we see government as ‘for’ the people, providing us services and giving us answers. In place of citizens, we have become a nation of clients"17 Rather than being active players in public life, influencing and having a stake in policies and practices that impact shared living, citizens have become more content playing the role of consumer. Some feel we purchase politicians, policies, and practices with our votes, taxes, or campaign contributions, and expect returns on our investments, typically in terms of our own personal or financial interests. In other cases we are even overtly encouraged to assume consumer positions by our leaders. For example, in the trying times following the attacks of 9/11, as Americans struggled to determine how to best support each other and our country, President Bush recommended that we go shopping and visit Disney World, as key ways to maintain our lifestyles and our economy. And to support our country through a difficult recession, President Obama incentivized us to purchase a new car with the “Cash for Clunkers” program.

What results from these recent changes, then, is not only passive or disengaged citizenry, but also citizen consumers who have lost sight of the efforts, benefits, and experiences that can potentially result from shared democratic living. These are citizens who emphasize their own private interests over the public mission of institutions like schools. They hold public schools accountable to an array of goals, many of which are self-serving or focused on the immediate success of their own children. And, when the public schools fall short of meeting all these goals, they are described as failures, largely in terms of failing the individual children or families, rather than in terms of what they have or have not contributed to common goods like liberty, democracy, and community.18

All of this brings us to the current struggle related to accountability. While pressures on schools and teachers have been quite high for some time now, the more recent push for accountability, intensified by policy developments like NCLB and RTTT, has had a marked impact on the status of schools in the public’s view. Problematically, however, demands for accountability have largely been divorced from genuine discussions about educational goals and public needs, a prerequisite for determining whether or not schools have sufficiently upheld our expectations of them.

Instead, accountability has come to be overwhelmingly determined by test score performance—what some call “accountabilism”19 As such, test score data become the main criteria of measuring educational success. For example, in the assessments of school districts released each year by my state, Ohio, student test performance is the first and most significant indicator used. Intriguingly, those achievement results are juxtaposed to financial data that compare performance to spending per pupil, thereby providing seemingly clear measurement of a school’s economic efficiency. Heavy emphasis on testing data, largely thought to reflect national competitiveness and prospects for individual economic gain, molds the curriculum toward tests and forecloses citizen and educator discussions about how the goals of education could be different. As Deborah Kerdeman intriguingly explains, “Accountabilism further presumes that information garnered from tests represents a complete, definitive, and perfectly transparent indicator of student learning.”20 While seemingly clear and objective, the language of school finance, test scores, and related teacher performance evaluations is much more complex, largely technical, and sometimes difficult to understand. This makes it even harder for the public to have the drive or ability to weigh in on the goals of education and how to best define success, leaving us to defer to experts and statisticians to interpret results rather than to actively craft the criteria of measurement in the first place.21

Citizens, then, have become watchdogs of public institutions largely from the perspective of consumers, without seeing ourselves as citizens who compose the public of public institutions. Accountability becomes more about finding failure and placing blame on our schools and teachers, rather than about taking responsibility as citizens for shaping our expectations of schools, determining the criteria we use to measure their success, or supporting schools in achieving those goals. As I negotiate the shifting terrain of public schools and citizens in this book, I intend to disrupt the current accountability crisis by redirecting the burdens of action toward citizens, as well as schools. I aim to reconstruct the notion of responsibility and to reassert its role in vibrant democracy so that it motivates action to secure and improve associated living as a means and end of public schools. Doing so may simultaneously invigorate public life, improve the legitimacy of our schools, and emphasize citizen development within our schools. Taking up responsibilities to public schools may offer citizens a new way to claim their citizenship and reclaim some of their power by engaging in public life and public work.

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