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Diane Ravitch's Blog: William Mathis: Beware of Secret Supplications

William Mathis is an educator in Vermont.

Secret Supplications of the Heart: On Educational Equity

William J. Mathis

The recording angel keeps the judgement day ledger of everyone’s pluses and minuses. Prayers and good deeds get pluses – unless they are contrary to the “secret supplications of the heart”— which are the hidden things the supplicant really wants. Then, it’s a minus. In Mark Twain’s short story, the coal tycoon publicly prays, in a booming voice, for a mild winter to ease the suffering of the naked and the poor. His secret supplication, however, is for a record cold winter to increase coal sales.

Likewise, in soaring and lofty terms, our Washington and state policy-makers call for fixing things like the “broken” campaign finance system. But their secret supplication is for a fruitful crop of election contributions while restricting their opponent’s campaign cash. 

Each evening, the news brings us a talking head making just such grand pronouncements. Jaded watchers suspect his secret supplication is exactly the opposite. To be sure, all fields have their own secret supplicants. Education is no exception. For the most part, these embroideries are not very dramatic. Nevertheless, they affect children, society and the public purse.

Democracy has to be re-born in every generation. Starting in post-colonial times, our nation established universal public education as the way to maintain and refresh democracy. To have equality, all people must be equipped with the knowledge and skills to be a successful and contributing member of society. Thus, all children were to go to the common school. All would toe the same mark at the beginning of adulthood. Despite some ugly exceptions, it worked-out pretty well. 

Unfortunately, things began to change. The public homage to equality continued to be prayed but a multitude of secret supplications (aided by neglect), belied our more pious public prayers. Democracy, equality and the American dream are praised but reality shows more self-interest than common good. To be sure, people of good intention are often unaware that some of the things they embrace often have a dark side: 

  • Pre-school is our wisest educational investment. Yet the system (if it can be called that), is a checkered patchwork that the affluent can access but the working, single mom cannot afford.
  • Our neediest special education children are often taught in segregated settings, frequently by unlicensed and untrained school aides. Many get a lesser education than what their classmates receive.
  • Tracking is hotly defended by parents and many teachers. The result is the advantaged travel first-class with a top tier teacher while the less advantaged children travel in steerage with a lesser curriculum and teachers who are lower on the totem pole.
  • Few poor children are in the gifted and talented programs.
  • Dual college-high school enrollment is most accessed by the affluent.
  • Technical education sorts children. Even though promoters argue for more respect, it is seen as a lesser program.
  • School funding – Nationally, our cities and rural areas are underfunded, and lack the tax base to make up the difference, while our suburbs provide the finest education on the planet.
  • Even with the equalizing power of school finance reforms, the smallest schools spend less.
  • School choice segregates – Although some providers embrace equal opportunities the research evidence is clear.
  • Drop-outs come disproportionately from less affluent families.
  • Community schools are the preferred model but the composition of the student body reflects the wealth (or lack thereof) of the community.

Before jumping on “failing schools,” we must remember that they are a disquieting reflection of society. They are the product of our secret supplications. Avoiding the real problems, educational reform has focused myopically on things like STEM, standardized testing, common core and privatization. Yet, none of these address the problems of a society with a yawning income gap. Our social fabric is torn by opportunity gaps, and our communities are re-segregating while technology threatens jobs and meaningful employment. 

There is no reason that we cannot resolve these societal inequities. Our continuation as a nation and a world depends on what we do together. There is no limit on good will or our own collective strength.

To be sure, every parent wants (or should want) to give every advantage to their children. But rather than secret supplications to hoard for the few, the very survival of democracy depends on a grander vision where all are provided with equal opportunities, where we generously share with each other, and where we lift up all our children. 

William J. Mathis is the managing director of the National Education Policy Center and a resident of Goshen, Vermont. The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect the views of any group with which he is affiliated.

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Diane Ravitch

Diane Ravitch is Research Professor of Education at New York University and a historian of education. She is the Co-Founder and President of the Network for Publi...

William J. Mathis

Following a decade as the Managing Director of the National Education Policy Center at the University of Colorado, William J. Mathis serves as a Senior Policy Adv...