Defending Public Education

Lisa Cooley, a Maine school board member and blogger, has been posting for a while now about how public education needs an overhaul.  Her most recent post, found at the Innovative Educator, is entitled I Am No Longer Willing to Let Traditional Schooling Hurt Our Children. I believe she equates traditional education with public education and vice versa.  Her post has received a lot of positive comments; since I disagree, I’m using this venue to cross-post my own responses.

Cooley: If we agree that schools are built on a foundation that is shaky at best, what would happen instead if we did things differently?

I almost completely disagree. The purpose of public education is not to cater to individual kids’ [parents’] needs or wants, but to create an informed and literate populace. That means that there needs to be a general understanding of what’s important for people to know: literature, writing, math, science, etc. Allowing individual students to determine their own learning plans based on what they [think they] care about [for now] is not going to help.

The statement that schools alone are hurting students is itself harmful. Schools and teachers do not go out of their way to create problems for students. Students come to school with their own sets of problems that then play out again throughout the day without any help from the school itself. As several researchers have recently pointed out, the primary problem for American schools is poverty.

As Mr. Bartan says, some kids have the opportunities to pursue their passions. Others don’t. Schools have to level the playing field as much as possible with limited resources (financial, personnel, time and otherwise) available to them. It’s illogical to demand the complete reform/transform/overhaul of traditional education based on anecdote.

The responses to the above were almost completely negative. I was accused of not understanding that schools are oppressive places designed simply for an out-dated industrial model. So, here’s what I wrote:

I understand the thinking behind “the education system was designed for the industrial age and that doesn’t fit our current times”. I just believe it’s erroneous. 

Starting with Maria Montessori and moving through John Holt and others, many educators have theorized that public education needs an overhaul because it doesn’t meet the individual needs of kids. On the other hand, public education hasn’t changed a lot probably because meeting the individual needs of individual kids is time-consuming and expensive as evidenced by special education (PL 94-142 passed in 1972) which is based on the Individual Education Plan (IEP). Each identified special education student is guaranteed a “free and appropriate (not perfect) public education” (FAPE) through whatever accommodations and modifications are required in his/her case. It’s a valuable but costly process that has created a specialized bureaucracy in schools and towns across the country.

I am retired and currently working as an Educational Technician with at-risk kids. These students do not have the type of home life that provides opportunities for pursuing their passions and interests (except video games and hanging around town). They don’t even have the type of home life that encourages reading or cooking (so as to learn fractions, for example) or building (geometry) with Mom and Dad or grandparents. 

One purpose of public education is to level that playing field as much as possible. That’s a reason Maine provides laptops for all middle-school students. Another purpose is to provide a foundation in basic skills and knowledge. Kids are kids, no matter what era they live in. They need guidance. They need help. They aren’t in a position – yet – make their own decisions because the don’t have the experience to know what they need.

The idea of a free day is lovely, but schools run 9-10 months of the year. Show me how this works for an entire year. And then another entire year. I doubt you can. And even if you could, the resources required to make it happen would be astounding.

Blaming schools for society’s ills is pointless. 6 hours per day (give or take) for 175 days (or so) is all schools see of kids. The rest of the time is spent at home or out-and-about. Kids who are on the edge of homelessness, or searching for a sexual identity, or living with grandparents because Mom and Dad are in drug rehab are unlikely candidates for appropriately pursuing their passions – in or out of a school building. Help schools, stop blaming them.

I know that my lone voice won’t make a lot of difference in defending traditional public education but it’s important for someone to try: there’s a lot of good in public education today and it does not require a complete reinvention. Tweaking, yes.  Truly heeding the voices of teachers and other educators, yes.  Acknowledging the needs of kids, yes. Letting them run the show? No.

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18 Comments

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18 responses to “Defending Public Education

  1. ==I know that my lone voice won’t make a lot of difference in defending traditional public education but it’s important for someone to try: there’s a lot of good in public education today and it does not require a complete reinvention. Tweaking, yes. Truly heeding the voices of teachers and other educators, yes. Acknowledging the needs of kids, yes. Letting them run the show? No.===

    Really? You don’t think teachers, educators, and kids can be empowered to run the show??? There are numerous successful school models that prove you wrong. Spend a little more time on my blog if you want to educate yourself on what those are.

    Currently we have politicians and the multi-billion dollar publishing/testing industry running the show gaining huge profits and inflating egos/reputations off our kids backs.

    Why do you think politicians and businesses rather than the people who are in schools (educators, students, and I would add parents) should be in power? We don’t need to hand the future of our children over the politicians and those who stand to make bundles off them.

    Educators, parents, and their students know better. What is happening in schools today is not best for kids and it won’t just take a little tweaking by the politicos and business folk to fix it.

    • Interesting that you now say that it’s teachers, parents AND kids who need to be empowered. I agree with that. What I don’t agree with is that public (traditional) education needs a complete overhaul based on the wishes of the kids themselves. The original post was entitled “I Am No Longer Willing to Let Traditional Schooling Hurt Our Children“. That’s a far cry from empowering teachers, who are major players in the system that allegedly harms kids.

      • ==Interesting that you now say that it’s teachers, parents AND kids who need to be empowered.==

        I’ve always said they need to be empowered.

        ==What I don’t agree with is that public (traditional) education needs a complete overhaul based on the wishes of the kids themselves. ==

        Students are the clients of school. School is not meeting their needs. It’s stuck in the past. Students are unnecessarily stuck in the schools in a time when learning no longer needs to be place-based.

        Schools are graduating students that are prepared for the past but not able to function successfully in the present.

        I know of many schools who have been completely overhauled based on the wishes of students that are achieving phenomenal success. You should take time to learn about models like Democratic Schools, Big Picture Schools, Nuestra Escuela, and The Schoolwide Enrichment Model.

        When we partner with young people to lead their learning, the outcomes far exceed the wildest dreams of most traditionally-minded adults.

      • I’m afraid Lisa Nielson and I seem to have merged identities…I haven’t posted yet in this thread, so all the Lisas you see other than this one are Lisa Nielson.

      • Thanks for the clarification.

  2. Public education represents a legitimate confluence of interests – the students’ interest in self-actualization and the community’s interest in an educated citizenry with sufficient basis in common experience for empathy and compassion toward others.

    It strikes me as an unproductive polemic to argue that the interests of kids are somehow at odds with the interests of community.

    I don’t think I’m alone in understanding that a common expectation of education is that it will expose students to a breadth of knowledge and skills with which they were previously unaware. To me that suggests a certain amount of necessary (and welcome) nudging from teachers, not just a simple facilitation of students’ existing interests.

    • ==Public education represents a legitimate confluence of interests – the students’ interest in self-actualization and the community’s interest in an educated citizenry with sufficient basis in common experience for empathy and compassion toward others.==

      Do you have any source that indicates that is what public education represents? I think that is nice, but I think it is inaccurate. I think folks like John Taylor Gatto, John Holt, Ivan Illich and Seth Godin more accurately describe the Horace Mann’s Prussian-based model that he brought to the U.S. which was to train the common people to be compliant and obedient workers. The people training them don’t send “their” children to these schools. Their children have a different education.

      ==I don’t think I’m alone in understanding that a common expectation of education is that it will expose students to a breadth of knowledge and skills with which they were previously unaware.==

      School doesn’t expose, it imposes. Students don’t have a real choice in what to learn, which teacher they will learn from, or how they will learn. This is forced upon them. Imposing knowledge upon people, forcing them to memorize, regurgitate, and do what they are told on demand does not effectively support learning. Seth Godin and Dr. Peter Gray write prolifically about the damage that this sort of learning causes. In many cases it doesn’t entice students to learn these things, it turns them off from things and often tells competent, capable individuals they are neither because they don’t learn the way school tells them they should learn. I was another kind of student. I did well with my ‘sit n git’ ‘memorize n regurgitate.’ I was always at the top of my class, but I retained nothing after the dump onto the test or meaningless paper. What this teaches is to sit and do as you’re told. Not ingredients for success today.

      Reading about things and being tested on them does not enable them to develop the skills you speak of either. You develop skills by doing. There is very little actual doing in school and much more reading about doing.

      ==To me that suggests a certain amount of necessary (and welcome) nudging from teachers, not just a simple facilitation of students’ existing interests.==
      First, many students don’t learn best from teachers. In fact, many students say they would learn best if the teacher would just get out of the way. Believing teachers are the only method of learning is the type of traditional thinking that must be overhauled. Believing that a student passionate about what they are learning needs and welcomes nudging from a teacher is a belief from someone who has never been exposed to learning environment where students are empowered to discover and learn about what they love. There are many types of non traditional school models that successfully achieve this. The leaders at these schools believe the job of teacher is “exposing kids to a whole lot of different things and trying to get their lightbulb to go on.” Once you do that, they don’t need your nudging. If you want to understand how this works you can read
      http://theinnovativeeducator.blogspot.com/2010/12/preparing-students-for-success-by.html and http://theinnovativeeducator.blogspot.com/2008/12/you-can-get-dalton-education-at-nyc.html

      It is non-traditional schools, teachers, and leaders like the ones highlighted in those articles that will give schools the overhaul they need. We don’t even need to reinvent anything. It already exists as the Schoolwide Enrichment Model. What’s also nice is that It is a model where you can achieve and measure success without a single bubbletest.

    • Despite the fact that I have tried to be very clear about my views on this, my meaning is regularly misinterpreted and I have to take part of the blame for that (but not all of it…:)). I’ll say again what I said in response to comments on Lisa Nielson’s blog. My background is, educationally, very traditional. My sister, brother and father have advanced degrees in math and science. I believe there IS stuff people need to know, background kids need to have. I believe there is enough knowledge in the world that not everyone needs to learn all of the same things at the same time, but still, I like for people to use apostrophes correctly and to know the difference between a grand jury and the Supreme Court!

      My problem is that public education in its traditional form is not getting us there, for a lot of reasons. Among those reasons are the corporate education agenda, high-stakes tests that are connected to funding, charter schools, and all those reforms that weaken public education.

      But even if we took away those tests now, I believe we’d still have to take a hard look at how we do school. What should we do about the epidemic of student disengagement? The kids who are going to college unprepared for the work? The school-to-prison pipeline? Pound stuff into kids’ heads using a heavier hammer? Yeah, that’ll work…a little…but not a lot. There will still be massive disengagement; there will still be an adversarial environment between kids and adults in schools. I propose to question what we might not have questioned before. That was what I was trying to do with my post about how education harms children.

      The world is very different now than it was when I was a kid. Kids have a different relationship with information, and a life if interactivity that we never could have dreamed of. We haven’t responded to these changes in an effective manner, and I’m not talking about getting IWBs into every classroom or even yet letting kids have cell phones in class, which I support. And there are lots of other ways things have changed; the global economy has had a big impact on what students aspire to…and don’t aspire to. They need MORE than just preparation for a job, any job, factory or otherwise. They need to be educated in the entrepreneurial spirit.

      I talk about passion, and people sometimes think I mean that kids shouldn’t ever have to learn anything they’re not passionate about. But if you think that, you haven’t really followed the idea through to the end. The root of the word passion is suffering. It is something that you cannot NOT learn about. I’m passionate about school change, and am right now not doing my work shift so that I can respond here. It is the thing you are more than willing to work hard at, and it doesn’t even feel like you’re working. It’s as necessary as breathing.

      Not everyone’s interest is going to be a passion, sure, but even simple enjoyment can make more out of the process of learning. And the expectation that kids can HAVE a passion is not a bad thing at all.

      If you follow the idea through you realize there is more to it. Passion is not a thing; it is a process. That process necessitates focusing the attention of adults in the school system on who kids are, finding out what they love, what they enjoy, and responding to it. What harms children in school, in tiny increments, undetectable in most children, is the wearing down of identity, a demand by school that kids change themselves to fit into its tight spaces. Some kids simply can’t do it, and those kids are a “problem”. Other kids can, but they don’t really understand the reasons; they comply but it wears down their self-respect. If a kid can’t fit in, they generally blame themselves. So instead of helping a kid build self-respect by finding out how to help them pursue what they love, you are wearing it away by verbal and non-verbal, institutional disapproval.

      Following kids’ passions, finding out what they enjoy, opens worlds. My contention is that if you devote a substantial amount of energy to this, that you will be paid back tenfold in kids’ genuine desire to learn more.

      Nancy contends that I look at my own family and say “Hey! This can work for anyone!” She calls my arguments anecdotal, and probably thinks that I’m a dangerous idealist, trying to make big changes to an institution I don’t understand. Yes, I talk about my kids, and I will say that I don’t think there’s anything special about them. What we’ve done is follow their interests, from the time they were very small. When you’re talking about kids who have a different kind of home life, there is a much more urgent need for public school to find out who they are! Connecting them to learning is the first job of a school. I don’t care what the on-ramp to learning is, just let them get on it. Respect who they are and they will learn to respect themselves. Self-respect comes from accomplishment. Accomplishment is hard. To get through it you need to be ignited. (See the Talent Code for neurological reasons why ignition is so important.) You can’t achieve mastery if you are not motivated.

      Nancy and others have told me that since I’m not a teacher, I really can’t make a credible statement about school. This is pretty offensive to me. We watch lots of West Wing reruns around here, and in one episode the President says, “You know why I know it’s environmentally sound to let forest fires burn? Because smart people told me so. That’s why.”

      I read a lot. I listen when people talk. A huge percentage of the people I listen to and read are teachers. It’s amazing to me that we can be advocates for education and denigrate the act of scholarship. I read! I talk. I listen. And I’m a pretty smart person myself. So, yes, I can make statements even though the only teaching I’ve ever done is how to bow in the tone zone and keep a straight wrist and relaxed fingers.

      Think a little bit about these ideas; think about my own goals for education and what I want for children before you decide that I am that dangerous idealist.

      • If you are a Suzuki violin teacher, why aren’t you considering yourself a teacher? Do you think a teacher of music is any less than one of another subject? Do you think you must teach in a school building to be called a teachers? It isn’t and you don’t. You do happen to be a teacher Ms. Cooley.

      • Lisa C: I’m not questioning your expertise because you aren’t a teacher. Lots and lots of people who aren’t teachers have perfectly valid ideas about education. I was not a teacher until a smart principal took me under her wing, recognizing some natural aptitude.

        What concerned me most about the Innovative Educator post was its repugnant title. Traditional education is NOT tests and corporate influences and other recent ed-reformy policies. There are big differences among traditional education and “industrial education models” and current education trends, so attacking a former, but meaning a latter is confusing (or vice versa since I still don’t really understand what the original intent was). I agree that some of the current educational trends do, in fact, have the potential to hurt students. But that’s a far cry from claiming that traditional education harms kids, particularly since teachers are the primary providers of that education.

        As to finding a kid’s interest even when s/he has a difficult outside-of-school life: great idea. Implementation is the challenge. Sometimes we get lucky and stumble upon “the key”. Sometimes it’s obvious. But most of the time we have no idea and – even when we do – no way to make the accommodations necessary to unlock the potential because there simply aren’t enough resources. There may need to be a person with whom that kid connects and that person may not arrive in the kid’s life for many years, if at all. To expect public schools to be every thing to every student is unrealistic. To hope is another matter entirely.

  3. ==I know that my lone voice won’t make a lot of difference in defending traditional public education but it’s important for someone to try==

    “School was invented to create a constant stream of compliant factory workers to the growing businesses of the 1900s. It continues to do an excellent job at achieving this goal, but it’s not a goal we need to achieve any longer.” -Seth Godin

    The education of your past will not prepare students for their present. Let them have the freedom to learn in the present so they can be prepared for the future. This is not a threat to publicly-funded education, but it is a threat to the traditional model of school.

    We need to “stop stealing dreams” of our kids by keeping them stuck in your past. The new book by Seth Godin with that title might be a good place to open the eyes of traditionalists to the need for updated learning options for students. You can learn how to download it for free at http://theinnovativeeducator.blogspot.com/2012/02/stop-stealing-dreams-seth-godins-new.html

    • What you assume, Lisa, is that I’m stuck in the traditions of the past. Not so. I have no problem embracing new educational strategies when they acknowledge that kids are kids and that Piaget’s developmental theory still applies.

      My own two kids attended an alternative school (tuition-based) up to Grade 1; my daughter was part of an “innovative” program for gifted/talented kids in Grade 4/5; we then moved to Aroostook County and they attended a double-graded school until 8th grade; my daughter attended Marlboro College in Vermont – not known for its traditionalism. We had computers at home before they were known as such (you probably don’t remember the Adam word processors). I introduced desktop computers and a pilot STEM curriculum into the school at which I taught in the early 90s.

      But, I refuse to use my own children’s experiences as the anecdotal basis for understanding how other kids think and function. Life imposes rules. Kids need to learn that, along with all the curriculum stuff. Public education has a broader responsibility than just to the individual kids who attend any particular school at any one point in time.

      I – and other traditionalists, I believe – have no intention of stealing anyone’s dreams. What we want to be sure of is that ALL kids have the best opportunity to pursue their own dreams that we – as a society – can give them. That means having access to the basic skills and knowledge needed to understand the world of their future. My New Jersey public school education 50 years ago certainly didn’t know what I would be facing in the world of today, but it prepared me (as did the schools Steve Jobs and Hilary Clinton and many other baby-boomers attended) as best it was able for what lay ahead.

      We owe it to the kids of today to do the best we can for them. This means challenging them, caring for them, teaching them and expecting them to understand their own obligations to society, not just themselves.

      • ==Life imposes rules. Kids need to learn that, along with all the curriculum stuff. ==

        Schools impose inane rules that often are not good or healthy for children. Instead, we should empower those in our schools to follow principals in which they have a say.

        ==A principle internally motivates you to do the things that seem good and right. People develop principles by living with people with principles and seeing the real benefits of such a life.

        A rule externally compels you, through force, threat or punishment, to do the things someone else has deemed good or right. People follow or break rules.

        Which is the hope most parents have for their kids? Do they hope their kids will comply with and follow rules, or do they hope their kids will live their lives making choices that are good and right?

        Most people heard sometime, somewhere “we have to have rules” and they swallowed it because they were punished if they didn’t, and so, here they are today, talking about rules without any thought to what rules really are.

        For a lot of people, thinking too deeply about what they believe is too painful. It’s just easier to do what was done to them.==
        -Sandra Dodd

    • ==Traditional education is NOT tests and corporate influences and other recent ed-reformy policies.==

      Ummm…yes. It is. Children can’t graduate or be promoted unless they take tests. Parents are told their children will be kicked out of school if they don’t take tests. Teachers can’t keep their jobs if their kids don’t do well on tests. Schools are closed if they don’t get high test scores. And these tests are measuring the wrong things!

      But…

      The corporate test-making industry is making mega BILLIONS off our children.

      This is a requirement of traditional education @edumaine. Wake up and smell the greed and deceit.

      This requirement of traditional education is indeed hurting children.

    • ==As to finding a kid’s interest even when s/he has a difficult outside-of-school life: great idea. Implementation is the challenge. Sometimes we get lucky and stumble upon “the key”. Sometimes it’s obvious. But most of the time we have no idea and – even when we do – no way to make the accommodations necessary to unlock the potential because there simply aren’t enough resources. There may need to be a person with whom that kid connects and that person may not arrive in the kid’s life for many years, if at all. To expect public schools to be every thing to every student is unrealistic.==

      Really??? Why do you continue to choose to perpetrate a lie? I have shared with you numerous times that this can be done and it is possible to make the accommodations necessary for children without high costs. It seems you want to convince yourself of a truth that is easier to believe than the truth that exists.

      As you know, but are failing to acknowledge, the Schoolwide Enrichment Model and others like it provide a framework to support young people in finding and developing their interests. It’s not any more expensive than the approximately 8k we currently spend per pupil nationwide. Teachers are the people who should be connecting kids. We must expect public schools to do this and the fact is, they have proven they can…well, they can when they are not handcuffed to traditional standardized tests and government controls.

      • NancyEH

        Kindly do not call me a liar. Your views on public education – Renzulli’s work on gifted/talented education aside – are different from mine, but that does not make either of us a liar.

      • There are numerous models that provide a framework to support young people in finding and developing your interests. Perhaps you have not seen SEM work. I have seen that work as well as many others. There are many models besides SEM that don’t rely on stumbling, and accommodations are a part of such models. These are not the traditional schooling models, but they do exist and result in satisfied educators and successful students. Call it what you will. Omitting information which you know exists is misleading and results in individuals making conclusions based on incomplete facts.

  4. 92. Because or despite?
    Did they reach their level of accomplishment and contribution because of what they are taught in school, or despite it?

    That question ought to be asked daily, in every classroom and at every school board meeting. The answer is almost always “both,” but I wonder what happens to us if we amplify that positive side of that equation.
    -Seth Godin, Stop Stealing Dreams (http://theinnovativeeducator.blogspot.com/2012/02/stop-stealing-dreams-seth-godins-new.html)

    The answer for me…despite. Folks like Steve Jobs and Albert Einstein have alluded to a despite answer as well. 50% of kids in places like where I’ve lived dropped out and most of those who are there still say school is boring and irrelevant. Just because we survived does not mean we owe our survival to what we endured.

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