Sacred Trust: A Children's Education Bill of Rights


Peter W. Cookson Jr. & Rudy Crew

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    For Susan


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    Dr. RudyCrew

    The political and ideological tension surrounding public education has created a division with dramatic consequences for children and families in America. Can American education be the much-heralded anchor of our democracy? What will it take to make it competitive again? What will it take to transform urban schools so that children with fragile beginnings in life are given the quality of teaching and access to schooling and career networks so vital to their future?

    These are questions that beg for clarity, passion, and direction. More importantly, these are times when strategy is more important than philosophy and direction more critical than the endless pandering from Republicans and Democrats along ideological lines. The simple fact is, schooling in America—public, private, and otherwise—is in need of a reasoned, thoughtful, less vitriolic, and more strategic voice from the White House to the classroom to the kitchen table.

    Peter Cookson's Sacred Trust is a must-read for anyone who wants to go beyond simplistic answers to the deeper work and the less sexy conversations. What an opportunity the Obama administration had to exhort parenting skills and the connections to preschool education. What an opportunity to speak to the arts communities and instigate the creation of new settings where all students get another tool by which to make meaning of science, math, language, and technology. And dare we mention that leadership, teaching, and parenting need desperately to be elevated beyond the rancorous debate about unions, teacher accountability, and the endless search for superman, or anyone else whose newness on the scene suggests he or she can teach or lead. It is the worst of times for those of us who live in this work, bent but not broken by the absence of a Sacred Trust for our children and the devaluing of the profession of teaching.

    In my career, I have seen significant numbers of people who care deeply, in fact, profoundly, about the issues of poverty, youth employability, and education. But caring is not enough. I have listened to people whose vision reflects growing up through the years of “all children can learn” and the powerful speeches of Asa Hilliard, Marva Collins, Jaime Escalante, and so many more. But vision, while necessary, is not sufficient either. We need vision, skill, strategy, and partnership to carry the day for the children of the 21st century. Such is the work contained in this book.

    Peter Cookson is so good at bringing each of these into focus in Sacred Trust: A Children's Education Bill of Rights. First, we need a big idea. These are big problems with a historical footprint and an even larger future impact. We need big thinking about not how much to invest in public education, but where and for how long and with what return. We need partners who see the inextricable linkage between skill development, preparation, and employability of our young people in cities across the nation. We need internships where students routinely learn the art of being civic-minded, responsible, and ethical for a country's or corporate bottom line; where by middle school they speak a second language, have knowledge of their career interests, and see firsthand the relationship between the use of participles and the presentations they will make in their chosen career. We need corporations, businesses (small and large), who sign on to the notion that America's economic might is as much tied to its education system in their own town or city as it is to the trade agreements hammered out in Washington, D.C.

    We have yet to begin these conversations. Instead, we are watching the issues of privatization, union bashing, and the devaluing of the profession of teaching take place. We are watching the rise of an anti-intellectualism of American education, whether in urban or more affluent communities. Indeed, we should be both ashamed and afraid. We are not making it easy for our children to function or fit in a world economy.

    At a time when we should be looking for ways by which to support deeper classroom instruction, higher-level assessments, and stronger leadership, we are privatizing schools as though people in the field of education are incapable of doing the work that Dr. Cookson has outlined in his book. Moreover, there is no evidence that any of these ideas for charter school structures have delivered any better outcome in terms of student performance in the past decade. Peter is right! We need to define and create a new architecture, ensuring the access of all children to world-class 21st-century curriculum and technology. He is right when he talks about eliminating boredom. He is right to be talking about elevating teaching, ways in which we can treat teachers as the scholars they can be.

    In all, this book is in the strike zone of all people who believe that public education is inextricably tied to the recovery of America. I am very glad that the thoughts in this book mirror my own and that Peter spared no opportunity to address the strategy needs of teachers and principals in our public schools and the communities they serve. We have all been called upon to leave our children a better world than it was for us. Sacred Trust is a powerful start in that direction.


    I am deeply indebted to the students and teachers who have shared with me their hopes and dreams for a better America and a public school system where all children can succeed; from their commitments I have learned much, and from their courage I remain inspired. I want to thank Corwin Senior Acquisitions Editor Debra Stollenwerk for her enduring and joyous support of this work and for me; no author could ask for a better editor. The whole team at Corwin has been tremendous in enabling me to turn an idea into a reality. Last, I want to thank my wife Susan Cookson—she is my North Star and a lifelong believer in humanity's essential goodness.

    Corwin would like to thank the following individuals for providing their editorial insight and guidance:

    Marie Blum


    Canaseraga Central School District

    Canaseraga, NY

    Addie Gaines

    Elementary Principal

    Kirbyville R-VI School District

    Kirbyville, MO

    Jill M. Gildea


    Harrison School District #36

    Wonder Lake, IL

    Martin J. Hudacs


    Solanco School District

    Quarryville, PA

    Dan Lawson


    Tullahoma City Schools

    Tullahoma, TN

    Kristine Servais

    Associate Professor of Educational Leadership

    North Central College

    Naperville, IL

    Jill Shackelford

    Former Superintendent

    Kansas City Public Schools

    Kansas City, KS

    About the Author

    Peter W. Cookson, Jr. is the founder of Ideas Without Borders, a Washington, D.C.–based educational consulting firm focusing on human rights and 21st-century learning. A sociologist of education, he has taught and held leadership positions at several leading colleges and universities including Teachers College, Columbia University.

    After working as a case worker in New York City, Cookson started his teaching career as a fifth-grade social studies and English teacher in rural New England. He writes extensively on the topics of equality of educational opportunity, 21st-century learning, and school choice. Some of his works include School Choice: The Struggle for the Soul of American Education (Yale University Press), Expect Miracles: Charter Schools and the Politics of Hope and Despair (Westview Press, co-authored with Kristina Berger), and “What Would Socrates Say?” in Educational Leadership.

    He holds a doctorate in the sociology of education from New York University and a master's degree from Yale Divinity School, where he held the Katsuso Miho Fund for Scholarship in Peacemaking.

    He can be reached through his website at


    There can be no keener revelation of society's soul than the way in which it treats its children.

    —Nelson Mandela
  • Resource 1: The Historic Issue of Equity and Excellence

    By the 19th century, it was evident that public education was too important to be left to chance or to local commitments alone. The United States was spreading westward, the South was developing a culture and economy built on slavery, and the North was becoming industrialized. Immigrants from Ireland and Germany were coming to Massachusetts, once the stronghold of Puritanism and Englishness. In 1848, Horace Mann, the secretary of the State Board of Education in Massachusetts, called for a statewide system of common schools.

    Mann's manifesto was the opening salvo in what was to be the dramatic history of public education in the United States. While there is a danger of trying to bring too much order to a complex history, in my mind there are six major periods in American history when the idea of universal quality education was proposed, fought over, ignored, subverted, elevated, but never fully abandoned:

    The Era of the Revolutionary Ideal (1750–1824): We have already seen how important free and universal public education was to the Founders’ vision; in their minds, education was the foundation of the democratic experiment.

    The Era of Jacksonian Equalitarianism (1825–1865): This is the era of Mann and the spread of the common school. This is a historical period when a sense of national unity was advanced, although not without resistance, particularly in the South. This was also the age of the first great wave of immigration; the idea that education could be “the great equalizer” spoke to a new purpose for education—one that unified Americans and crossed state lines.

    The Era of Expansion and Consolidation (1866–1917): Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation in January 1863; the 14th Amendment to the Constitution was adopted in 1868 stating that no state could “deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of the law; nor deny any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.” Viewed as a right, education became part of our cultural and political legacy.

    Public education became part of our cultural landscape, although it remained contested ground in three significant areas: de jure segregation in the South and de facto segregation in the North, the rise of a large Roman Catholic school system, and the withdrawal of the upper class into private schools often modeled after elite British schools. These three departures from the common school ethic would prove to be sources of overt and covert conflict in the coming decades. The provision for public education becomes part of many state constitutions.

    The United States began moving toward a public school system as we know it today, and while the locus of control was at the state and local levels, the ideal was national.

    The Era of Confidence (1918–1954): The two world wars transformed the American political landscape and established the United States as the world's premier power. There was a new sense of a single United States, and it was assumed that public education was a foundational institution of democracy and the nation. In 1944, FDR proposed a Second Bill of Rights ensuring social and economic rights—including the right to a good education.

    The Civil Rights Era (1955–1983): Brown v. Board of Education (1954) compelled the federal government to end segregation and to ensure equal protection under the law. There followed, in quick succession, events that resulted in the public schools’ taking on the major burden of promoting social justice. In 1955, Rosa Parks refused to take a place at the back of the bus in Montgomery, Alabama, and was arrested; the University of Mississippi was integrated beginning in 1956; the federal government sent troops to end segregation in Little Rock, Arkansas, in 1957; the Civil Rights movement, led by the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr., swept the nation; in August 1963 King delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech at the Lincoln Memorial; riots broke out in many major northern cities; the Civil Rights Bill was passed in 1964; neighborhoods were torn apart as children were bused across school district lines to enforce desegregation mandates; racial conflict erupted in urban school districts such as Ocean-Hill Brownsville in Brooklyn; the U.S. Department of Education was established in 1979. In 1983 the A Nation at Risk report was published (National Commission on Excellence in Education, 1983).

    This report was perhaps the most devastating indictment of American public education ever written. It began by saying there was a “widespread public perception that something is seriously remiss in our educational system.” The report went on to describe how our society and schools were being “eroded by a rising tide of mediocrity” and raised the stakes considerably by concluding, “If an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today, we might well have viewed it as an act of war.”

    It was clear that the federal government was jumping into educational reform with both feet. Our schools were failing. Yet very little positive reform was suggested; the national vision was negative and highly politicized.

    The Era of Deregulation and Marketization (1984–present): With what might be called the conservative restoration at the national level, we have seen that the federal government has had, at best, an ambivalent attitude toward public education. For a number of years the federal government supported alternatives to public education; even the Clinton administration, which, rhetorically, was pro–public education, did little to deal with underlying problems. What did occur was that a Washington, D.C.–based “accountability movement” successfully captured federal policy, resulting in the “No Child Left Behind” law mandating outcome-based results in terms of student achievement; this resulted in a national testing regime.

    The Obama administration is pouring a great deal of money into education and has promised to make it a priority. It is difficult to say what the outcome will be; more money does not necessarily translate into 21st-century education for all children. When Madison called for national leadership in shaping America's educational destiny, I wonder if he had the current state of affairs in mind. The Founders might be appalled to learn that we spend more than $10,000 a year per child to provide a quality education with so few results—the language of A Nation at Risk echoes back to us as if we were in a continuous loop of brave words and weak and confused actions.

    Resource 2: The Virginia Declaration of Rights

    Even before the Declaration of Independence, George Mason and James Madison drafted the Virginia Declaration of Rights in 1776. It contains 16 articles that affirm the inherent nature of the natural rights to life, liberty, property, and the pursuit of happiness. It also describes government as a servant of the people. Here are a few passages from the Declaration:

    Article1. That all men are by nature equally free and independent, and have certain inherent rights, of which, when they enter into a state of society, they cannot, by any compact, deprive or divest their posterity; namely, the enjoyment of life and liberty, with the means of acquiring and possessing property, and pursuing and obtaining happiness and safety.

    Article 2. That all power is vested in, and consequently derived from, the people; that magistrates are their trustees and servants, and at all times amenable to them.

    Article 3. That government is, or ought to be, instituted for the common benefit, protection, and security of the people, nation or community; of all the various modes and forms of government that is best, which is capable of producing the greatest degree of happiness and safety and is most effectually secured against the danger of maladministration; and that, whenever any government shall be found inadequate or contrary to these purposes, a majority of the community hath an indubitable, unalienable, and indefeasible right to reform, alter or abolish it, in such manner as shall be judges most conductive to the public weal.

    Article 4. That no man, or set of men, are entitled to exclusive or separate emoluments or privileges from the community, but in consideration of public services; which, not being descendible, neither ought the offices of magistrate, legislator, or judge be hereditary.

    Resource 3: Education and the Peace Dividend

    For the past 4 years, the Institute for Economics and Peace has published the “Global Peace Index,” ranking individual countries by their peacefulness. In 2010 the United States ranked 85th out of 149 other countries—ahead of Iran, Russia, and Colombia to be sure, but sadly behind Canada, Jordan, and Brazil, to name but a few. Instead of leading the world in the quest for peace, we are lost in the middle of the pack, in much the same way we are lost in the middle of the pack in global measures of student achievement. A key structural element that is highly correlated to peacefulness is high participation rates in primary and secondary education.

    Peaceful societies can be characterized as having a set of common structures and social attributes that can be identified through statistical analysis. These structures and attitudes include

    • Well-functioning government
    • Sound business environment
    • Respectful of human rights and tolerance
    • Good relations with neighboring states
    • High levels of freedom of information
    • The acceptance of others
    • High participation rates in primary and secondary education
    • Low level of corruption
    • Equitable sharing of resources

    The importance of education for creating peaceful societies can hardly be exaggerated; the report's authors conclude,

    A broad education creates a larger pool of human capital in which societies are more likely to continue to learn and adapt and make reasoned responses to crisis situations. Well-educated societies are usually successful at attracting foreign investment because skilled workforces are typically more valued. Well-educated societies also tend to have well-functioning governments because the delivery of educational services is generally supplied by government. (Institute for Economics and Peace, 2010, p. 34)

    We know that violence suppresses economic output by destroying human, social, and physical capital. The Institute for Economics and Peace maintains that violence costs the world economy $5 trillion a year. The report's authors estimate that “if an improvement of 25% in global peacefulness could have been achieved in 2009 then this would have unleashed $1.2 trillion in additional economic activity” (2010, p. 42).

    From these findings, it is evident that an investment in world-class public education not only is the right thing to do as a society; it is the smart thing. A revitalized public school system will propel the United States into a new era of vitality and a sense of hope that is grounded in real, lasting accomplishments (Cuban & Shipps, 2000). Global leadership in the 21st century will not go to those countries feasting on power steroids; it will go to the thoughtful, the educated, and the compassionate.

    Resource 4: Principles of Multicultural Education

    James A. Banks has been researching and advocating multicultural education for many years, resulting in research-based principles for creating multicultural schools and learning environments. The principles in this section, advocated by Banks and his colleagues, are reprinted with permission from “Diversity Within Unity: Essential Principles for Teaching and Learning in a Multicultural Society,” by James A. Banks, Peter Cookson, Geneva Gay, Willis D. Hawley, Jacqueline Jordan Irvine, Sonia Nieto, Janet Ward Schofield, and Walter G. Stephan, Phi Delta Kappan, Vol. 83, No. 3 (November 2001): 196–198, 200–203. Reprinted with permission of Phi Delta Kappa International, All rights reserved.

    Teacher Learning

    Principle 1: Professional development programs should help teachers understand the complex characteristics of ethnic groups within U.S. society and the ways in which race, religion, ethnicity, language, and social class interact to influence student behavior.

    Student Learning

    Principle 2: Schools should ensure that all students have equitable opportunities to learn and to meet high standards.

    Principle 3: The curriculum should help students understand that knowledge is socially constructed and reflects researchers’ personal experiences as well as the social, political, and economic contexts in which they live and work.

    Principle 4: Schools should provide all students with opportunities to participate in extra- and cocurricular activities that develop knowledge, skills, and attitudes that increase academic achievement and foster positive interracial relationships.

    Intergroup Relations

    Principle 5: Schools should create or make salient superordinate crosscutting memberships in order to improve intergroup relations.

    Principle 6: Students should learn about stereotyping and other related biases that have effects on racial and ethnic relations.

    Principle 7: Students should learn about the values shared by virtually all cultural groups (e.g., justice, equality, freedom, peace, compassion, and charity).

    Principle 8: Teachers should help students acquire the social skills needed to interact effectively with students from other racial, ethnic, cultural, and language groups.

    Principle 9: Schools should provide opportunities for students from different racial, ethnic, cultural, and language groups to interact socially under conditions designed to reduce fear and anxiety.

    School Governance, Organization, and Equity

    Principle 10: A school's organizational strategies should ensure that decision making is widely shared and that members of the school community learn collaborative skills and dispositions in order to create a caring environment for students.

    Principle 11: Leaders should develop strategies that ensure that all public schools, regardless of their locations, are funded equitably.


    Principle 12: Teachers should use multiple culturally sensitive techniques to assess complex cognitive and social skills.


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