Published: Thursday, January 31, 2013
Updated: Thursday, January 31, 2013 00:01
“Is education a fundamental right?” Wendy Puriefoy, president of Public Education Network (PEN), asked. “In a democratic society, you bet it is.”
As part of an ongoing lecture series put on through the Boston College sesquicentennial celebration and organized by professors of the Lynch School of Education, the University invited Puriefoy to discuss the challenges with public education in America on Tuesday afternoon.
A nationally recognized expert on public school reform, particularly in low-income regions of the country, Puriefoy spoke to both the organization’s approach to civil society and how educators can participate in “public engagement.”
“We have an education system that really is failing to educate large numbers of poor and disadvantaged children,” Puriefoy said. “A democratic society requires that the public be educated … you can’t talk about equal justice under the law if we are not providing education … [people] have institutionalized inferiority and racism.”
Since the organization’s founding in 1991, PEN, under the leadership of Puriefoy, has developed into an international network of regional education funds that positively impact nearly 8 million children through education reform initiatives in school finance, the promotion of an informed public, and enhanced academic opportunities for underprivileged children. “But there is still a great deal of work to be done,” Puriefoy said. “Improving school systems is a community effort.”
Puriefoy addressed the inequality that largely characterizes modern educational systems and their affect on measurable data, like graduation rates and higher educational opportunities among certain socioeconomic groups, by noting a study conducted by Kenneth and Mamie Clark.
The Clarks’ experiment measured children’s perception of race by presenting them with two dolls to choose from—one with white skin and yellow hair, the other with brown skin and black hair. When asked which doll they would rather play with, the majority of children chose the white doll—reflecting the “internalized segregation” many children experienced during the time of the experiment. “The challenge of our educational system is figuring out how to construct it for all students,” Puriefoy said about the social divides that detract from educational endeavors.
PEN currently focuses its attention on the growing disparity in education between particular social groups and the need for the public to realize this growing gap. “We’ve got to develop a narrative. The next step is to develop specific goals that we want to achieve,” Puriefoy said, addressing the inconsistency of educational opportunities for varying students.
Puriefoy’s philanthropic efforts are also focused on engaging the public to facilitate a relationship between educators, families, students, and local governments, generating a broader, more cooperative effort in public education reform. Before her involvement with PEN, Puriefoy also served as the chief executive officer of the Boston Foundation—a community foundation consisting of over 900 charitable funds whose mission aims to address crucial community issues.
The civic leader in education also drew attention to the substantially lacking wages teachers receive, claiming that “studies on salaries have shown most daycare teachers are not paid any more than the parking lot attendant,” and raising concern about the desire of future generations to undertake teaching positions. “It’s just too dangerous too live without people being educated,” Puriefoy said.
However, Puriefoy sees hope in the development of new educational opportunities for all given the societal progress our nation has made in recent history. “I think we are living in a great moment in this country,” she said. “We have a great opportunity in this country, but if we’re going to make that kind of change, we need to get about it now.”
For many seeking equal opportunities through the reformation of contemporary public education, Puriefoy leads the front for narrowing the “achievement gap.” “We can do something about this problem,” she said, “and it’s up to us to make this change.”