Fixing America’s public schools is a compelling domestic issue with which policy makers and local school boards have been wrestling for more than a generation. Ineffective teaching, low test scores, poor graduation rates and on site violence all mark America’s public schools as institutions in need of fixing. Those charged with that task might take direction and inspiration from the work of 19Th Century education reformer, Horace Mann.
Horace Mann, Massachusetts native and Brown University graduate, brought a hefty resume of social activism with him when he took the position of President of the Massachusetts Senate in 1837. A prison reformer, abolitionist and public transportation advocate, Horace Mann was in his heart a dogged campaigner on behalf of public school education in Massachusetts.
Using his political clout Mann helped to create the Massachusetts Board of Education. From his seat as its first Secretary, Mann surveyed the local education scene and proceeded to map out plans for its improvement. The shortcomings he observed were not unlike those present in the public school systems faced by today’s educators. Mann’s three pronged approach to reforming Massachusetts schools can be instructive for those working in and for public school education today.
Take Care of Your Teachers. As a public school activist, Mann was well aware of the lack of support provided for those who took on the task of educating the young. To ensure that teachers could fulfill their calling to be effective instruments of education in Massachusetts, Mann pushed for the establishment of special training institutions for teachers that would improve both their subject area knowledge and their teaching skills.
Horace Mann also recognized that to maintain good teachers, communities needed to step up and provide for their financial support. Revolutionary in Mann’s day, the issue of solid financial support for teachers remains an issue on today’s education scene. And then as now, communities are constantly reminded that in education as elsewhere, you really do get what you are willing to pay for. Horace Mann believed that providing a solid cadre of professional teachers required both solid training and public financial support.
Take Care of Your Students. Reviewing school systems in the 19Th Century could not help but inform Mann of how little local emphasis was placed on education. Young people were needed on family farms and as wage earners in local industries. Education was an extra.
Mann’s response was to push for a system which required students to attend school for a solid 6 months out of a calendar year instead of the more customary 3-4 weeks tucked somewhere into the winter months.
Today, thanks to the efforts of reformers like Horace Mann, America’s children are required to attend schools for much of the year. But the need to take care of our students remains in places where absenteeism is rampant, graduation rates are dismal and violence is a visible part of the daily school environment.
Take Care of Your Community, State and Nation Horace Mann believed that education in any civilized society was not a luxury meant for the rich. In fact to lavish education on the well to do while omitting the education of the children of ordinary citizens, from Mann’s perspective, was a tragic error.
A well oiled democracy then and now relies upon a well educated electorate. That electorate comes directly from a sound public school system. Mann saw the overall functioning of any society as heavily dependent on the way in which the society educated its children. By educating all children fully and equally America, he believed, could add to the individual well being of each individual but also to the wealth of communities, states and nations. Every time we bow out of the opportunity to educate a child we cancel their chances for a bright future but seriously hamper our own as well.
In 2010 America can claim an educational system that requires attendance from all children. But according to the standards of education reformer Horace Mann, there is much work left to be done before public education can fuel our nation with a fully and equally educated citizenry.
I am proud to share a certain kinship with Horace Mann. We both were born and raised in Franklin, Massachusetts. There we both attended a one room school house. In different centuries we both attended Brown University and went on to invest much of our professional lives in the education of children. We both believe in the value of education and that the promise of educating each child to his or her fullest potential is a promise worth keeping.