Horace Mann League Blog: Bill Mathis – Outstanding Public Educator – Presentation

  1. Education and the Building of a Nation
  2. Rise of the common school and the requirement for democracy
  3. When we had Promise: The New Deal, Great society
  4. Artificial Intelligence: economic and social collapse?
  5. What we must do today and tomorrow

Horace Mann Award Remarks

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Bill Mathis and David Berliner

Introduction -

When I consider the luminaries who previously won this award, I think I am Ross Perot’s running mate Admiral Stockdale, shouting, “Who am I? Why am I here?” I keep looking over my shoulder for somebody with an envelope yelling,” No! The real winner is Moonlight!”

I want to thank the Horace Mann League for this award to Kevin Welner and me.  It is most humbling. In any case, the award should go to our policy fellows, authors and staff. I am only the surrogate.

Now, you get to sit on the edges of your chairs and see if my voice gives out before I reach the end of these remarks. This could get exciting!

In the interest of time, I have compressed my comments to American history from 1642 to 2065.

With this audience, this will be familiar ground.

EDUCATION AND BUILDING A DEMOCRACY–In the colonies’ earliest years, education was exclusively for the affluent. But people like Benjamin Rush and Thomas Jefferson,  saw that universal public education was absolutely critical if this new thing called “democracy” was to last. Setting aside the ugly bigotries in our history, education was written into state constitutions, –It was to consolidate a stew of different languages, religious affiliations, ethnic groups and levels of fortune into a working commonwealth. Massachusetts’ constitutional framers wrote, “Wisdom, and knowledge, as well as virtue, diffused among the people, (is) necessary for the preservation of their rights and liberties.

Horace Mann put it this way, “Education, then, is the great equalizer of the conditions of men – the balance-wheel of the social machinery.” Through the twentieth century, a popular view was that universal education would produce an equal and democratic society. Lawrence Cremin and John Kenneth Galbraith viewed the GI bill’s educational entitlementsas the key building blocks of the strongest democracy and economic power in world history.  As a result, higher education became democratized and millions were lifted into the middle class. The nation was at its zenith.

From this we learn,  Education is for the common good. It is not a market commodity! But our social progress was — and is — checkered. Residential segregation and unequal opportunities still blight our society. Unfortunately, rather than addressing unpopular root causes, it was far more convenient to demand that schools solve these problems. With the exception of the New Deal the civil rights era, and the Great Society no serious effort has been made to assure equal opportunities. The reason we have an achievement gap is because we have a school funding gap, we have a wealth gap and we have a racial gap – which we dismiss by blaming the victims.

In 1983, The Nation at Risk report thundered,“the educational foundations of our society are presently being eroded by a rising tide of mediocrity that threatens our very future as a Nation and a people.”

The new purpose of education was not to guarantee democracy, it was to economically compete on a world stage. This was a sweeping change, not fully appreciated at the time. Test-based reform, appealed to conservatives because it sounded tough; to liberals because it illuminated plainly visible problems; and it was cheap – You do not have to address the causes.

Having high test scores was falsely linked to economic health. In hyperbolic overdrive, we have had 35 years of Chicken Little screeching “the sky is falling.” But the nation is still the premier economy of the world.

By declaring schools “failures,” it became acceptable to divert public monies to private providers. Yet, after a half-century, there is no body of evidence that shows privatized schools are better or less expensive. Large-scale voucher programs actually show statewide score declines. The plain fact is that it segregates. It imperils the unity of schools and society. It works against the very democratic and equity principles for which schools were formed.

The Genius of American Education –Lawrence Cremin, in his 1965 Horace Mann lecture, said our genius is in working with common and united purpose. We came together and defined our nationhood, our society, and our economy. The foundation was the common schools movement.

Regrettably, we still have great schisms, economic segregation is greater than what we saw in the gilded age, environmental catastrophes threaten entire species, and our federal government’s lack of stability has reached crisis levels. We are torn by a new racism, bigotry and selfishness.

If our purpose is a democratic and equitable society, test scores—are not wrong – but they lead us astray. They distract our attention. Instead, let’s take Horace Mann’s perspective. Our success is measured by

  • how well we enhance our social well-being,
  • how we manifest civic virtues, and
  • how we dedicate ourselves to the common good.

The Future – is going to get worse. Routine jobs are being automated and will basically be gone in the next 12 years. That’s about 40% of today’s jobs – gone! The middle class is hollowing out. By 2065, artificial intelligence will match, then exceed, human capabilities. Different sources estimate different doomsdays but it all happens in our grandchildren’s lifetimes.

The jobs that will disappear first are those that are lower paid, lower-skilled and require less education. This raises the specter of even greater gaps between the affluent and the increasingly unemployed. Machines will be able to enhance their own capabilities without human intervention. Car problems are already diagnosed and repaired by plugging a computer into the car.  About this brave new world, Tesla’s Elon Musk says “With artificial intelligence we are summoning the demon.”

Paradoxically, technology reduces the need for highly skilled workers.  This is why we see the middle class slide into poverty while the top one percent accumulates disproportionate wealth. And the privileged have shown little concern for the less fortunate.

Things we need to do –today and tomorrow -  The half-life of technologies is accelerating exponentially.

Educational reformers vacuously talk about high standards, the common core, standardized tests and accountability systems But who needs to know subject matter? We’ve got Google!

We ignore the most important requirement; the health of society.

It is hard to conceive of a stable society when 40 to 80% of the people will essentially be jobless, while total wealth continues to increase. Will we invent new ways of conceiving of the common wealth and how it will be allocated?  Ron Dworkin put it this way, “No government is legitimate that does not show equal concern for the fate of all those citizens over whom it claims dominion and from whom it claims allegiance.”

The tasks before us require a rebalancing of educational purposes.

A society can exist only as long as it holds cooperative and mutually supporting values. Our nation was brought into being by the bruising, molding of a common ethos, and we must restore the bonds of community. To that end, we must first address the inequities that schools perpetuate:

  • Pre-school is guaranteed only for the affluent
  • Special education instruction is often isolated and taught by an aide.
  • Tracking is hotly defended by privileged parents – and many teachers.
  • Few poor children are in the gifted and talented program
  • Dual college-high school enrollment is most accessed by the affluent.
  • Technical education sorts children – We know that
  • Private school enrollment and school choice variations segregate.
  • And public schools are segregated as well

In a time of atomistic isolation, we must redefine our culture, we must reform our government and we must reform our schools for the benefit, if not for the very lives, of our children and grandchildren. And that puts a burden on us. We must teach

  • Healthy personal relationships, Cooperation, sharing, group actions, and thinking.
  • We must share our vision more broadly, and
  • We must teach democratic competence and engagement

Horace Mann’s great balance wheel turns slowly. But we have no alternative. We must turn the wheel. We must embrace higher purposes and paraphrasing Dewey, we must expand our heritage of values, we must make the world more solid and secure, and we must generously share it with those that come after us.

William J. Mathis

February 16, 2018

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William J. Mathis

William J. Mathis is the managing director of the National Education Policy Center at the University of Colorado Boulder and the former superintendent of schools for the Rutland Northeast Supervisory Union in Brandon, Vermont. He was a National Superintendent of the Year finalist and a Vermont Superintendent of the Year....