Education Opinion

Do Public Schools, Umm, Suck?

By Nancy Flanagan — January 19, 2013 4 min read
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Recently, my friend and IDEA colleague John Dubie, a high school senior, posted a personal, autobiographical blog entitled “Big Picture Saved My Life.” John meant that statement literally. It’s his story to tell--and I urge you to read it--but I was stunned by the aftermath of the piece, which was picked up, reprinted and dissected in a number of other blogs. I was especially surprised by those commentaries bearing titles indicating that John’s life was saved by leaving traditional public school.

The irony? Dubie spent much of the blog describing the first eight years of his education in a Catholic school, where he was generally seen as a disruptive loser by the faculty. And-- the Big Picture Learning program he credits with making all the difference is housed in a traditional public school, in Burlington, Vermont, and very much supported by the principal there.

Because I’m the person who suggested John tell his story in public, this re-interpretation of his autobiography made me see red. I said as much, in the comments, noting that his generosity shouldn’t become a cheap excuse to slam public education again. I said: What I’m worried about here is protecting a young man who graciously shared a deeply personal reflection having his story--and his face-- used to promote the idea that public education sucks.

The response I got: Seriously? Of course public education sucks.

Do public schools suck? Is that the conventional wisdom, the reflexive, global response these days? Do we have to start with the conviction that public education has failed, before we can transform or improve, regenerate or revitalize a fully public system? I say no. In fact, the best time to change public education is now, while its strengths, resources and merits still exist.

What’s the case for supporting and believing in public education?

• All governance models--public, chartered, independent, parochial--produce exciting schools and disastrous schools. Plus--a school that challenges and delights one child is completely unsuitable for another. There are plenty of students who thrive under direct-instruction, highly structured traditional content-delivery models. And others who learn best through self-directed exploration of ideas and subjects that interest them. Doesn’t matter whether the school is private, public or chartered--different strokes, etc.

• Public education remains the Big Kahuna of governance models in the U.S. Why would you tear down the considerable and historic infrastructure of a system that has educated--however imperfectly--generations of (successful) Americans, instead of updating it, repairing its cracks and flaws and outright malfunctions? Other nations have retrofitted their public systems, using both research and imagination. Why wouldn’t we?

• When and where public education is not meeting the needs of students, why is that so? Public education has been radically re-shaped in the last decade, driven by “reform” policy that clearly isn’t yielding the expected results (and that’s a very sanguine synopsis). Public education is the only “choice” when other options are exhausted, so public schools are filled with our poorest children, those whose parents cannot provide transportation or uniforms or help with algebra homework.

• Who’s saying that public education sucks--and why are they saying it? For some parents, the fact that their child doesn’t get a custom-tailored learning experience or enough attention is reason enough to believe that public education is substandard. For others, there is a knee-jerk assumption that the only good education is a series of competitive-admission, high-ticket private schools. There have always been helicopter parents and elitists--but much of the anti-public education drumbeat lately springs from a media-fed conviction that “unbundling” education will open up a huge, untapped market. You have to ask: What’s in it for the most vocal and persistent public school critics?

You don’t really know what a particular school or classroom is like until you’re there. We’ve all read the polling data that shows parents generally think the schools in their community are pretty good; it’s the schools in other places--scary urban places, or maybe just the next district over, or public schools across the nation--that are terrible. I’ve been in plenty of classrooms in Detroit Public Schools where there was order, curiosity, learning--and joy (and usually, about twice as many kids as there should be). Nobody would hold up DPS as a model. But in the midst of breakdown, there are pockets of triumphant accomplishment.

Shouldn’t we be shoring up public education, as America’s best idea? Shouldn’t we be investing in repair, enhancement, innovation? Let’s stop with the facile pronouncements on the failure of public education--they reveal failure of our own imagination and democracy.

The opinions expressed in Teacher in a Strange Land are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.