RALEIGH — State Board of Education Vision of Public Education in North Carolina: A Great Public Education System for a Great State is the title of a vision statement adopted by the State Board of Education earlier this month. I will not provide a line-by-line critique of the statement or the longer document from which it came, that is, Edward Fiske and Helen Ladd’s A Vision of Public Education in North Carolina. Rather, I’ll share some of my initial thoughts about it and the philosophy of education that it espouses.
By design, the vision statement is broad. Therefore, a range of policies might fit under one or more of the principles outlined. Take the following passage, for example.
If public funds were to be made available — whether in the form of school vouchers for parents or state revenue foregone in the form of tax credits for scholarships — the private and religious schools benefitting from such funds would need to be incorporated far more explicitly into the public school system.
What does it mean to “incorporate” private and religious schools “far more explicitly into the public school system”? I suspect that the word “incorporate” is a euphemism for “regulate” or “control,” but it is impossible to know for sure.
Fiske and Ladd’s essay is instructive in this regard. Fiske is former education editor for the New York Times, and Ladd is a professor of public policy at Duke University. Their statement, A Vision of Public Education in North Carolina, provided the foundation for the vision statement and goes into much more detail about the vision adopted by the State Board of Education.
Specifically, their piece is much more explicit about the desire to regulate nonpublic schools that receive public funds. Fiske and Ladd remark:
In practical terms, this means that charter schools, virtual schools, and other new options must be accessible to all students and held to the same high standards of academic, fiscal, and other forms of accountability as traditional public schools. To justify state support, they must also embrace the central values of the public school system of which they are a part.
The idea that we hold our traditional public schools to high academic standards is debatable. That issue aside, the notion that public charter schools would have to embrace “the central values of the public school system of which they are a part” is troubling. Simply put, I do not think there is a consensus on the “central values of the public school system.” Moreover, do traditional public schools embrace these so-called “central values,” or is it another double standard, a kind of ideological litmus test for participating nonpublic schools?
Fiske and Ladd allude to the kinds of central values they have in mind. Predictably, their vision of public schools has a progressive tilt, but the most striking section of the essay is their adherence to systems theory. They write:
A state education system is more than a collection of students, staff, teachers, and administrators going about their appointed tasks, and it is more than a collection of self-sufficient independent schools. It is a “system” — an organic whole with multiple and mutually dependent and interdependent parts interacting and working together over time toward common goals.
Systems theory (also called “systems thinking”) largely dismisses the role of individuals (e.g., “students, staff, teachers, and administrators”) and segments (e.g., “self-sufficient independent schools”) within a system. Instead, it takes a broader look at the system by examining and rationalizing the interaction of its parts. There is no hierarchy. There are no right answers. As Peter Senge explains:
[Systems thinking] is a journey that we are all taking together. There are no ‘teachers’ with correct answers. ... Each of us gives up our own certainty and recognizes our interdependency within the larger community of practitioners. The honest, humble, and purposeful ‘I don't know’ grounds our vision for learning organizations.
In other words, systems thinking is not about “you” or “them.” It is about “we.”
Why is this important? The systems theory approach introduces Fiske and Ladd’s section on school choice. They argue that charter schools, early college schools, and the NC Virtual Public Schools are acceptable only if they “maintain their status as an integral part of the larger state education system.” (Emphasis added.) Similarly, they argue that nonpublic schools that receive funds from vouchers or tax credits must be “incorporated far more explicitly into the public school system.” (Emphasis added.) In other words, schools of choice are fine as long as they conform to the goals and expectations of the larger system. Competition be damned.
These ideas are at the core of the State Board of Education’s vision statement, but it does not stop there. School districts are flirting with the idea of adopting systems thinking principles. What’s next, standards based on systems thinking? Oh, wait...
Dr. Terry Stoops (@TerryStoops) is Director of Research and Education Studies for the John Locke Foundation.