By Meryl Streep
Born in the mid-nineteenth century, the public school as we know it has contributed greatly to shaping American society. It has been a major battleground in the fight for equality for minorities and women. In many ways, the history of American public education mirrors the history of American democracy. And in this moment in history, under the new administration, we see public education and everything it stands for under attack.
In School: The Story of American Public Education, esteemed historians of education trace the historical trajectory and the inspiring story of a great American experiment. This collection of essays is the companion to the PBS documentary of the same name. Actress Meryl Streep, who narrates the documentary, wrote a foreword for the book. As you will read below, she shares with us what public schools have meant to her and their invaluable worth to all generations.
When we think about our days in school, we often recall a particular teacher who made the most difference in our lives. For me, it was my music teacher, Claire Callahan. I was in high school and thought she was inconceivably old—something like twenty-four. She was a guitar student of Andrés Segovia. She didn’t have enough money for her lessons, so she came to my suburban school in New Jersey and taught music. She was absolutely amazing.
Teachers perform major miracles in America, daily. My interest in public education comes from the respect I have for what teachers do and is very personal. My brother teaches in a New York City public high school, and I’m really proud of him. He has made me aware of the issues that our teachers face, a lot of them having to do with the lack of attention that they receive and their low salaries. I went to public schools in New Jersey as a child and have sent my children to public and private schools on over four continents and two coasts. They’ve been in every kind of school you can imagine—in Africa, England, Australia, Texas, California, New York, and Connecticut.
Once I became a parent, it confounded me that the school in my district in Connecticut was always underfunded. First we couldn’t get uniforms for our band. Then we couldn’t get instruments. Then, well, perhaps we wouldn’t have a music program at all. And the school needed a lot of money that was raised, and contributed, by parents. I thought back to when I was growing up. In our school we had had a band. We had had an enormous hot lunch served in the cafeteria. We had had a new school with an auditorium where plays were staged. When I sent my kids to public school, I had to pack lunch for them. My kids held plays not in an auditorium, but in the gym. Why is this? Why, after World War II when everybody was coming out of the army and didn’t have a lot of money, a time when everyone on my street lived in small houses, did we have fabulous schools? Somehow, when I was growing up, we were able to have a wonderful music teacher. And a fantastic art department. And a drama department in which I got my start, as Marian the Librarian in The Music Man, and for which I’m very grateful.
I wonder at the reasons behind the differences in public schools then and now. An evident one is that money was spent on public schools after the war because they were deemed important. Another reason is that at the time, many very bright women had no other place to put their intelligence and ambition except in the school system. Those women now are in law school; they are doctors; they have other kinds of lives that give them other advantages, including better pay. We’ve lost some great teachers. To keep this from continuing to happen, we need to pay more to people who teach. I think that if we were to make the positions in inner-city schools more valuable, we would immediately draw people to teach there.
We’ve reached a controversial moment in the history of public education, a time when we must pay attention to our schools and invest in the specific school systems that need help. This book takes a history look at public education while keeping an eye on the present. It teaches us that all the questions we ask about public education today have been considered at some point before. And it reminds us that public education for all Americans is relatively new, and something we cannot afford to take for granted.
Click here to learn more about the PBS documentary School: The Story of American Public Education. To read about Betsy DeVos’s confirmation hearings as Secretary of Education and her history with public schools, check out these articles from NPR, the New York Times, and CNN Politics.
About the Author
Actress Meryl Streep has been nominated for the Academy Award nineteen times, and has won it three times. She is also the spokesperson for the National Women’s History Museum. In 2014, she established two scholarships for students at the University of Massachusetts Lowell: the Meryl Streep Endowed Scholarship for English majors; and the Joan Hertzberg Endowed Scholarship for math majors. In April 2015, Streep funded a screenwriters lab for female screenwriters over forty years old, the Writers Lab, to be run by New York Women in Film & Television and the collective IRIS.