50 and 100: A pair of PDK milestones

 

Some things get better with age. Whiskey and wine, for example. So too, according to the internet, do cast iron skillets, baseball gloves, cheddar cheese, and fountain pens. Many people swear by well-worn blue jeans, sneakers, and cowboy boots. And some are fond of old copper pots and flannel sheets, not to mention classic movies, long friendships, and childhood memories.

To this list, I’d like to add the PDK Poll of the Public’s Attitudes Toward the Public Schools. Now in its 50th year, the poll has only become more valuable over time, providing an ever-expanding archive of ordinary Americans’ beliefs and opinions about their schools.

Sometimes the poll’s findings give us cause for optimism; for example, in years when pundits and policy makers have leveled intense criticism at public education, the poll has helped put things in perspective, showing that most Americans continue to hold favorable opinions of their local schools. (This year, consistent with previous findings, 70% of public school parents say they would give their local schools a grade of A or B.)

And sometimes the findings can be alarming, as is the case with one of this year’s items: For the first time since we started asking this question, in 1969, the majority of respondents (54%) say they would not want their children to become public school teachers (suggesting, perhaps, that years of stagnant salaries and test-based accountability have taken a significant toll on the status of the profession).

But whether the poll’s findings strike us as hopeful or bleak, they afford us a bird’s-eye view that we cannot get anywhere else. Like a handful of other longitudinal databases in K-12 education (for example, the U.S. Department of Education’s National Assessment of Educational Progress or its National Teacher and Principal Survey), this one offers a useful check against any pundit or policy maker who makes bold declarations about the state of the public schools. On some topics, opinion has remained consistent over five decades; on others, it has evolved. Whatever the issue at hand, though — curriculum and instruction, school safety, sex education, desegregation, the purposes of K-12 education, and on and on — the record is available to anyone who wishes to consult it.

Which brings me to the second milestone that PDK will be celebrating in 2018-19: With the current issue of Phi Delta Kappan, the magazine begins its 100th year.

I’ll leave it to readers to decide whether Kappan has aged gracefully, but I do want to argue that age itself has its virtues: Within our archive lies the collective memory of our profession. If a topic has been debated by educational researchers, policy makers, and practitioners at any time over the past century, then it has been debated in these pages. Each new article that we publish is, in a sense, just the latest turn in a sprawling conversation about teaching and learning that has continued over many decades.

Historians like to point out that our debates about public education haven’t always evolved so much as they’ve doubled back on themselves, forever swinging back and forth, like a pendulum, between the same old positions (for example, from student-centered instruction to teaching the basics, then back again). And there’s some truth to that. Every article we publish in 2018 will likely include echoes of articles published in 2000, 1980, 1960, and so on.

But as historians also like to point out, ideas and events always differ in their repetition. Contexts change, nuances emerge, priorities shift, and the conversation about our schools never really comes back to the same place. Which is why it’s so important to continue debating the core issues — how to organize the curriculum, how to teach it, how to assess learning, how to provide meaningful opportunities to all children, how to define the purposes of public education — and looking back to see how our past debates can inform our present ones.

Much like the PDK poll, then, Kappan gives us a rare and valuable record of our American conversation about teaching and learning, and we have much to learn by sifting through its archive. As you’ll see, starting in the October issue, we’ve been doing so ourselves: In celebration of our 100th year, we’re introducing a new feature to the magazine, taking a few pages to describe how we’ve covered important topics over the years, with an eye to the ways in which our old conversations continue to shape our new ones. We hope you’ll enjoy the view.

 

Citation: Heller, R. (2018). 50 and 100: A pair of PDK milestones. Phi Delta Kappan, 100 (1), 4.

RAFAEL HELLER (rheller@pdkintl.org) is Editor-in-Chief of Kappan magazine.

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