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Greetings, Mr. school board member, Miss/Mrs. school board member!  Glad we can talk!

“What is the purpose of education? This question agitates scholars, teachers, statesmen, every group, in fact, of thoughtful men and women,” Eleanor Roosevelt wrote in the 1930 article, “Good Citizenship: The Purpose of Education,” in Pictorial Review, cited in Willona Sloan’s “What Is the Purpose of Education?” article for the ASCD Education Update, July 2012.

A report from Public Agenda by Rebecca Silliman and David Schleifer titled “WHERE AMERICANS STAND ON PUBLIC EDUCATION” is illuminating.  The report’s findings include the following:

“…Americans believe public education should not only focus on academics and college preparation but should also help students develop career and interpersonal skills and prepare them for citizenship and the workforce.

While Americans do most often cite academic preparation as the main goal of public education, half believe the main goal should be either to prepare students to be good citizens or prepare them for work…” (emphasis mine);

  • “…Most Americans also believe it is important for K-12 education to teach students to be good citizens….Eighty-two percent of Americans say it is extremely or very important for students in public K-12 to learn to be good citizens.” (emphasis mine)
  • “Fewer than half of Americans believe their local public schools are doing a good job at preparing students for college, the workforce or to be good citizens….only 34 percent think schools are doing a good job at preparing students to be good citizens….” Based on PDK International’s 2016 48th Annual PDK Poll; (emphasis mine)
  • “…Most federal and state policies focus on academic success and college preparation. Many Americans feel, however, that public education should be about more than academics. Many believe public schools should offer career training, help develop interpersonal skills and prepare students to be good citizens ….” (emphasis mine)

In the context of this report, it would be a fair statement to say that the American people prefer democracy to any other system, and that learning to be “good citizens” means learning about our core values of American constitutional democracy, and that part of  K-12 education’s goal ought to be to produce graduates who’ll take the responsibilities and duties of citizenship seriously … which in turn would increase the chances that the “government of the people, by the people and for the people will not perish from the earth” – a fervent hope of Abraham Lincoln.

In other words, if you, as school board members – through your actions, policies and practices, in concert with your administrators and teaching and non-teaching staff – produce graduates steeped in the core values of American constitutional democracy, the idea of preserving, protecting, and defending American democracy for the benefit of present and future generations, becomes all the more attainable.

To each K-12 school board member or school district superintendent, then, the following questions would seem pertinent:

  • A K-12 system’s MISSION STATEMENT represents the system’s blueprint for success or its navigational GPS. Do the words or the terms “civic and history education” or “responsible citizenship and American democracy” appear as part of your school district’s MISSION STATEMENT?
  • Specifically, is “teaching or preparing students to be good, responsible citizens” or “civic and history education” part of your school district’s MISSION STATEMENT? If not, why is that the case?
  • Without purpose and direction expressed in your school district’s MISSION STATEMENT, aren’t you in effect suggesting that preparing students to be good citizens is an unworthy goal? Without such a definite goal or purpose, aren’t you leaving its accomplishment to chance?
  • When attending workshops on school board governance, you, as school board members, are invariably advised and trained to restrict yourselves to the BIG PICTURE – which means policy-making. You are advised, “Keep your hands off the school system’s operational details. Operational details properly belong to your school district’s administration. Don’t intrude on the administration’s bailiwick.”
  • Could there possibly be a PICTURE displayed in a MISSION STATEMENT bigger than the grandiose goal of preparing students to be good citizens, to increase the chances of preserving, protecting and defending the greatest experiment in democracy the world has ever known? So that “the government of the people, by the people and for the people shall not perish from the earth”?
  • If you sit on a K-12 school board, why wouldn’t you want to have such a grand and noble purpose, among others, as preparing students to be good citizens of American society, a society designed to be a bastion of democracy?
  • board member, Miss board member, Mrs. Board member … with all due respect, you are basically saying, to your community, that preparing students to be good citizens is NOT that important, unworthy of inclusion in your MISSION STATEMENT! Really? Is there anything else that can produce a jolt of greater direction, greater purpose, and greater meaning for K-12 education — for American society’s sake — than preparing students to be good, responsible citizens?

Though my memory is very poor, from a two-page set of handwritten notes I had saved from a board discussion on mission statement in April 1988 (the bulk of my files from eight years on my local school board are gone), I had written down questions like:  ‘Society’ is mentioned, but why not call it ‘democratic society’?  How could we use the term ‘global society’ but be reluctant to say ‘democratic society?  And why is the word ‘democracy’ nowhere in our draft?

What ultimately happened to my local school district’s MISSION STATEMENT at that time, I have no vivid memory.  What revisions may have transpired since then, I have no idea.  All I know is that the current MISSION STATEMENT of my old local school district can stand some improvement, as it relates to civic and history education – what I’d call values education.

My perspective in 1988 was – and still is – the perspective of a naturalized immigrant who fled a dictatorship and, consequently, now adores Lady Liberty and worships at the altar of American democracy.

Yes, I confess.  I now worship at the altar of American democracy.  If you ask me what my religion is, I might be tempted to say, “My religion is democracy!”  I am truly forever grateful for the many blessings America has given me and my family all these years.  America was – and still is – my refuge.

Several months ago, out of curiosity, I visited the websites of almost 500 school districts — 491, to be exact (top ten districts in enrollment in each state in the U.S., with Hawaii being a single-district state) – to find out if the goal of preparing students to be good citizens is part of their MISSION STATEMENTS, or if the words ‘American democracy’, if not just ‘democracy’, somehow found some precious space in their MISSION STATEMENTS.

NONE of the 491 school districts had values education as part of their MISSION STATEMENTS.  You know what else I found?  The goal of preparing students to be good citizens appears in the MISSION STATEMENT of just ninety-six school districts, or twenty percent (20%) of my sample.  For a huge chunk of the rest of my sample, for the great majority, 395 — eighty percent — the answer is a disappointing NO!  In other words, “good citizenship” was deemed not that important, so it did not merit any mention on their MISSION STATEMENTS.

This is incredible.  I don’t get it.  It appears that many school board members all across this great country of ours do not deem it proper and fitting to include the goal of preparing students to be good citizens as a key part of their MISSION STATEMENT!

If we extrapolate the results of my random survey, assuming that they represent the whole universe of roughly 13,600 school districts, it would be fair to say that we have reached a very sad – indeed ‘depressing’ — state of affairs in the K-12 education community.  It would appear that great number of America’s school board members do NOT deem it fit to include ‘good citizenship’ as one of the purposes of K-12 education!  Really?

From my layman’s vantage point, I strongly contend that VALUES EDUCATION – which I define as education on core values of American constitutional democracy, such as life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness, equality,  TRUTH, as well as rule of law, separation of powers, representative government and civilian control of the military — ought to be a key component of every public K-12 school board’s MISSION STATEMENT.

“The only title in our democracy superior to that of President is the title of citizen,” Louis Brandeis once said.  “A democratic form of government, a democratic way of life, presupposes free public education over the long period; it presupposes also an education for personal responsibility that too often is neglected,” according to Eleanor Roosevelt

I’m sorry if I’m nagging you.  But … what could be a more noble purpose of education than to inculcate in the minds of our youth the CORE VALUES OF AMERICAN CONSTITUTIONAL DEMOCRACY?

In the grand scheme of things, at the end of the public K-12 production line – I’m not in the least comparing our precious young ones to widgets — what could be a better outcome than turning impressionable youngsters into highly responsible citizens in adulthood with the requisite “civic knowledge, civic skills, and civic dispositions“ whose conduct and behavior could, or would, help to preserve, protect and defend the longest-running experiment in democracy the world has ever known?

Forgive me, but I just wanted to know.  By the way … THANK YOU for serving on the school board.  I know it can sometimes be a THANKLESS job.  I hope the people in your community appreciate the time, effort, and energy associated with your service.

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