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School & District Management Opinion

Some Good News About Public Schools

By Brian Cleary — October 22, 2013 2 min read
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When I hear someone complain about the public school system, I feel like a parent listening to a rant by a 15-year-old. They tell me that I am terrible at my job and that I don’t listen. In angry frustration, they tell me that I don’t understand the problems, and that I care about the wrong things and should be doing more.

As a parent and as a teacher, I sit and listen, trying not to provoke. These rebukes are not news, and they are not right, but they do offend.

I don’t really understand the psychology that makes teachers and parents the scapegoats for so many problems, but in both cases I know the truth: We stand and face the challenges daily. We have become the faces associated with the struggle.

I am not a perfect parent; far from it. But my kids are happy and successful. I see evidence of their growth constantly, even when they are blind to it.

The public education system is also far from perfect. But our kids are doing better every year. I see evidence of that too, even when those complaining don’t.

• About 90 percent of the kids in the United States go through the public school system.

Famous Public School Alumni

From top: Carlos Santana, Mustafa Quraishi/AP; Annie Leibovitz, Charles Dharapak/AP; Alvin Roth, Darryl Bush/AP; Alvin Ailey, Paul Burnett/AP; Stephen Spielberg, Francois Mori/AP; Ronald Reagan, Dennis Cook/AP; David J. Wineland, Ed Andrieski/AP; Jimmy Carter, Paul Sancya/AP; Maya Angelou, Gerald Herbert/AP.

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• The dropout rate has fallen consistently over the past 40 years.

• The literacy rate in the United States is 99 percent for those age 15 and older.

• Most of our recent presidents—from both parties—were largely products of public education, including Bill Clinton, Ronald Reagan, Jimmy Carter, Gerald Ford, and Richard Nixon.

• Four of the five Americans who won a Nobel Prize last year attended public schools. Those winners are David J. Wineland (physics), Robert K. Lefkowitz (chemistry), Brian Kobilka (chemistry), and Alvin Roth (economics). Roth attended a New York City high school, but went to college without graduating from high school.

• Musicians Wynton Marsalis and Carlos Santana, writer Maya Angelou, artist Andy Warhol, director Steven Spielberg, dancer and choreographer Alvin Ailey, and photographer Annie Liebovitz all graduated from public schools.

The public school system is not broken. Just like the parents of most 15-year-olds, it is overwhelmed and overworked. It is also underrated and underfunded. But still our school system is pushing the world forward. We are as responsible for our successes as for our failures.

So when I read that we are not competitive, or when they tell us that our students will not be prepared to lead us into the future, I choose to ignore the insults. The same holds true when I hear that our students have no critical-thinking skills, and that they are weak in science and are not creative.

I respond the same way I would to my 15-year-old. After the rant has ended, I respond that I care, and that I will continue to work every day to create the best possible outcome.

Some of that work will mean fixing the problems I helped create. More of that work will require taking the situation that has been handed to us and making it work. Either way, I will continue to be the very best teacher I can possibly be.

I am not trying to keep up with the pace of change in the world.

I am trying to prepare students for a world of change.

I will continue to change the world one student at a time.

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A version of this article appeared in the October 09, 2013 edition of Education Week as Changing the World, One Student at a Time

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