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Education in Two Worlds: William Mathis on “Economics, Education and Sitting Bull” (by William Mathis)

"William Mathis is Managing Director of the National Education Policy Center, a former school superintendent and member of the Vermont state board of education. In this essay, his opinions and analysis reflect something remarkable about the culture and politics of the State of Vermont. At root, he also asks questions about the nation’s economic policy, equality, and the very purpose of universal public education.  

“Let us put our minds together and see what life we can make for our children.”

~Sitting Bull

Facing the extinction of Sioux culture, Sitting Bull realized that their hope – their only hope – was in the life they made for their children. Confronted by this reality, he saw that education was something far more than the narrow teaching of a set of test-based, academic skills. Education must impart the knowledge of the ways of the society, of fruitful interactions, of sustaining and nurturing cultural beliefs and rituals, of language and of the economic order, if you will, of a group of independent but related nomadic tribes. (And when the Anglo forces won, they established Indian schools to stamp out this culture).

The existence of any society demands the adoption and embracing of a common set of beliefs, mores, laws and rules. Yet, in a world where vision often reaches no further than the length of an arm holding an electronic screen, such unifying concepts appear as alien and archaic as a buffalo hunt. In times of great fragmentation, in a world which has such massive destructive power, and where hostile forces can easily reach around the globe, the need for national and international cooperation for the common good becomes even more vital.

In a different age with different challenges, our founders understood this necessity. Vermont’s Constitution says that schools must be maintained for the “encouragement of virtue and the prevention of vice.” In the language of the day, virtue meant civic virtue, the building and strengthening of society. Vice was actions that subtracted from the good of all. This resonating and grander purpose of education overshadows the anemic ranking of test scores that obsessively dominates the attention of contemporary reformers. Such simplification also appeals to a media whose own existence is, ironically, reduced to the race for quantifiable rankings, substituting the easily measurable for the important.

The weak narrative of numbers is echoed by U. S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan:

The fact is that we are falling further behind our international competitors educationally. In the U.S., we are still just talking about the steps many leading countries are actually taking to prepare their students for a competitive global economy. Falling behind educationally now will hurt our country economically for generations.

Leaving aside his inflated claims, Duncan's is a far smaller vision than Sitting Bull’s. Duncan argues that we should beat other nations; Sitting Bull focuses on people acting together. The Secretary focuses on what we should do for the economy; the Chief concentrates on what we should do together for the children.

The measure of our society is reflected in the health of our schools. The well-being of society can be measured in the quality and the equality of the education we provide all of our children. The United States is one of the very few nations that spend less on needy children than on the affluent. The achievement gap is not primarily a product of low quality schools; it directly mirrors the educational opportunity, educational spending, and economic gaps in our nation. Unfortunately, over the last forty years, the achievement gap has widened. The gap was smallest when our policies focused on building the strength of our schools rather than on just testing them.

Thomas Piketty’s seminal work, Capital in the Twenty-First Century, tells us that when the rate of return from invested wealth outruns the rate of growth in production wealth (as now in the U.S.), then democratic society, economic vitality and social justice are threatened. Not surprisingly, those who profit from such an arrangement work to protect their advantage. Unfortunately, wealth inequalities contributed to the 2008 Great Recession and slowed the recovery as lower and middle-income segments of society stagnated. And no Western or industrialized nation has a greater wealth or a greater achievement gap than the United States. Regrettably, the strongest predictor of test scores is not school quality; it is the socio-economic status of the children.

While Vermont does have a high per-pupil cost (which is a topic for another day), the state’s hidden and greatest outcomes for education may not be in our very high test scores as much as in the social indicators: the highest graduation rate, the second highest well-being of children, and low youth risk behaviors. A healthy society is our best return on investment.

As we enter the 2014 election cycle, there will be any number of claims about educational spending accompanied by a blizzard of opaque analyses and exotic extrapolations. Piketty cautions us against reading too much into such elaborate statistical explanations. Often, they are obfuscations masking the shifting of burdens to middle and lower-income citizens – which has the effect of making the problems worse.

Sitting Bull also said, “Inside me are two dogs. One is mean and evil and the other is good and they fight each other all the time. When asked which one wins, I answer, the one I fed the most.” As for the coming debates, we will certainly hear from the fighting dogs. Then, we choose which dog we feed. Hopefully, we put our minds together to see what life we can make for our children.

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The views expressed by the blogger are not necessarily those of NEPC.

William J. Mathis

William J. Mathis is a Senior Policy Advisor to the National Education Policy Center at the University of Colorado Boulder and the former superintendent of school...

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