Putting Exceptional back in America: It’s What Great Schools Do

written by H. Michael Hartoonian

America is an exceptional place. It is exceptional not because of its landscape, the people, or its wealth, but simply because it is an idea. It is an idea sustained through engaged debate by citizens who understand reciprocal duty and who judge others by their morals and manners. It is exceptional because America (can) show the world that it is possible for a people to live as citizens rather than as isolated subjects, and as civil and civic stewards of that idea. Mostly, it is exceptional because the idea demands a deep respect for learning, hard work, thoroughness, patience, honesty, and justice.

America must have little to do with domestic and foreign policies that diminish its moral authority. Hubris, unethical private and public behavior, and distain for learning all destroy the idea – an idea to which so many have given full measure of devotion. This democratic republic needs champions who understand these things. Democracy, indeed, depends on elites to keep the debate dynamic and true. Cultures create elites or professions to protect the culture. The four classical professions are medicine, law, theology, and education. Let us here address the educator as protector or steward of the idea we call the United States of America. Continue reading

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Civic Virtue, School Reform, and the Creation of Real Wealth

written by H. Michael Hartoonian

 

When the past no longer illuminates the future,
the spirit walks in darkness

Alexis de Tocqueville

Democracy in America

What have we learned by enacting laws against bullying or noncompliance with racial integration; or laws addressing curriculum standards or student assessment, school funding, and the testing of teachers?

Primarily, we have learned the recurring lesson that command and control processes are costly, inefficient, and, for the most part, don’t work. Yet, at great cost, we persevere like Sisyphus getting little pay-back for our efforts, except the rhetorical satisfaction of convincing the uninformed that something is being done to improve our schools.

This fetish with control, however, is by no means unique to education. As a people we seem to believe that more laws and regulations are the answers to a whole array of mistakes and ethical compromises. This is consistent with the father of our Constitution, James Madison, and his thinking about social order, suggesting that if people were angels we wouldn’t need government. We are far from angels, and in need of some oversight and enlightenment. But we should also understand that there exists within our society an inverse relationship between learned levels of rightful behavior and laws that restrict freedoms. It’s a simple proposition: if we don’t act ethically, restrictive laws will be enacted. If people try to escape their ethical responsibilities and rely totally on the rules, they become subjects, even to their own desires. If the ethical is ignored, the legal, however intrusive, will be cumbersome and ineffective. Unless we understand this dynamic between law and ethics we will continue to wear away the moral underpinnings of the nation and force even more laws to be passed. What is altogether true about civic virtue is that one cannot delegate an ethical decision. Not God nor any system or institution can claim your moral duty.  Only ignorance can do that. Continue reading

Kindergarten and Finnish Lessons

written by Todd Beach

Have you ever read the book, All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten The author, Robert Fulghum, composed a poem of simple yet essential lessons, which suggest that our lives would be easier if we simplified our approach.  These lessons which we ‘learned in Kindergarten’ include tenets such as, share everything, play fair, clean up your own mess, live a balanced life, and hold hands and stick together.[1]

I recently read the book, Finnish Lessons, by Pasi Sahlberg[2], which is a well-written account of how Finland created a world-class education system.  An education system, which over the last three decades went from being a relative backwater to arguably the best in the world.  How did they accomplish this?  Was it by employing similar policies which are prevalent in the United States today – policies which include high-stakes testing and greater control over teachers through macro and micro management as well as the tearing apart of teachers unions?  No.  Actually the Finnish way is simple and in many ways reminds me of the lessons articulated by Robert Fulghum: Continue reading