What the Public Means by “Public Education”

Rick Hess asks what it means to be an enemy of public education and then links in an old essay he wrote.

There are really three ways to understand what it means for educational services to be “public”: We’ll call them the procedural, the input, and the outcome approaches . . . Traditionally, we lean on the procedural approach and term “public schools” those in which policymaking and oversight are the responsibility of governmental bodies, such as a local school board. Nongovernmental providers of educational services, such as independent schools, EMOs, and home schoolers, tend to be labeled “nonpublic.” The distinction is whether a formal political body is making decisions regarding service provision, since the fact that public officials stand for election or reappointment ensures some responsiveness to the larger voting “public.”

Yeah, that’s kind of….soulless. I don’t disagree with any particular part, but  education reform has just been handed a number of defeats over the past couple years, and this sort of definition hints at why.  Public education has a resonance, a heartbeat.  Public education in this country has spawned a million red schoolhouses, a billion dreams, battles that both inspire and embarrass us today, as communities fought, and still fight, passionately over who is, and isn’t, eligible for “public” education. And Hess’s definition misses all that.

So here’s an anecdote that in many ways covers the same point as Hess does with just a bit of heart:

In the August after my fifth birthday, my mom went down to the school to sign me up for kindergarten.

“I’m sorry, but the classes are full,” the clerk told her.

My mother was stunned. I’d been reading since I was three. I’d been talking non-stop about starting school since my birthday six months earlier, somehow having the impression I was able to start school right when I turned five and being very very disappointed, and loudly so, when I found out I still had to wait. I was oh so very ready. My mom was ready. I’m annoying; she had two toddlers still at home and would be pregnant again in less than a year. A break from me would be welcome.

“How can they be full?”

“We’re overcrowded this year. We only have four teachers. You should have signed up earlier. But we can guarantee you a spot next year.”

Mom asked to see principal X, who had the same answer. My mother related this story regularly for the next fifteen years or so, will still tell it whenever public school tales come up, and every telling makes it clear she probably still hates principal X. He actually sneered at her. We lived in a socio-economically (and somewhat racially) diverse town, and a mechanic’s wife who managed an apartment building was not high on his list of essential people who need to be kept happy. “There’s a waiting list. We often have kids drop out due to lack of readiness. Otherwise, you can start next year. I’m sure your child can wait.”

Mom persisted. The next day, she got out the phonebook and started calling other schools, who told her she wasn’t in their region, and that they were overcrowded, too. One of the clerks suggested calling the district. She called an assistant superintendent first, who shrugged her off and told her the principal had the authority here. She called the superintendent’s office, but he was on vacation. His secretary, however, listened carefully to Mom’s story and must have realized its import, because a couple days later–just before Labor Day weekend–the district superintendent called her back. He asked for her address, asked my age, and let my mom expostulate for a while before he told her she didn’t have a problem.

“I don’t?”

“No. Principal X has a problem, though. We’re a public school district. Public schools don’t get to say they’re full. So Principal X has about 4 days to hire a kindergarten teacher and open up a new class. I’ll get things started on our end. But you don’t worry any more. You just show up at school with Ed on Monday morning.”

Mom never failed to mention that superintendent’s name. Writing this account, it occurred to me to google the name and my elementary school. In a newspaper archive, I found a story from early September of 1967 reporting that the superintendent did indeed call an emergency school board meeting and get an authorization to open two more kindergarten classes for the severe overcrowding at my long-ago little school.

****************************************************************

My mom always repeated that point: Public schools don’t get to say they’re full.

It’s still true. So true that these days, a principal wouldn’t think for a moment he could fool a working-class mom into waiting another year. Public schools have to take kids even when they don’t have teachers with the right credentials. Even when they don’t have teachers with any credentials. Even when they don’t have teachers. Even when half the staff is long-term subs, or teachers don’t show up.

Public schools don’t get to say no.

I don’t want to romanticize things then or now. Communities creating public schools back in the early days of the country had no intention of giving all races equal funding, or even free education at all. To this day, we haven’t really found the perfect solution to ending the tension between equal access and parental desire to select peer groups, and many efforts have failed. Ending de jure segregation may have taken a century, but the parents just substituted the de facto version, which the courts tried their damnedest to end until some judges finally blinked.

But lord knows those judges didn’t blink at much else. Communities didn’t start public school to educate severely handicapped children. They didn’t start the local high school movement to guarantee everyone a diploma, much less grant a wide range of accommodations to kids with “learning disabilities”. They didn’t expect to be held responsible for disruptive kids being booted out.

Communities didn’t start schools with the idea of guaranteeing equal results for every student, or being held accountable if racial groups didn’t have exactly equal achievement outcomes. Most assuredly, communities didn’t begin public schools with the expectation that they be forced to teach students in their own language. Nor were they expecting that they’d be forced to treat girls as boys or vice versa or any particular gender any particular kid happens to happen upon.

The courts and the federal government have cheerfully, ruthlessly, often unthinkingly expanded “public” well beyond what any community would ever envision. With the arguable exception of special education funding, the communities of America haven’t effusively welcomed these expansions (and if they knew how few results we’ve gotten and how much we spend, they wouldn’t be keen about special education, either.)

If public education of 150 years ago had to live with all the mandates placed on it today, well. The public would have said no. If the public was given a say today, it’d probably still say no.

But if what it wants is no longer available, the public still has a dream of public schools, a dream that surveys show time and again those schools deliver for their constituents, even while the politicians declare them “failing”.

But what the public means by public education isn’t charters. It’s not those carefully managed magnet schools. No, those eight specialized New York high schools aren’t public, either. Vouchers for private schools certainly aren’t public, particularly not when existing private schools reject most applicants and most vouchers go to kids already in private schools or to create fraud opportunities by con men.

If a school can deny students access despite living within its mandated boundary; if attendance is a privilege and not a right, then it’s not public school. It’s merely a free school run by public dollars that doesn’t have to act like a public school.

But despite the appeal of private privilege for free, charters and vouchers have only two real constituencies. Both constituencies want to improve their children’s peers. Neither really believes  for a cold second that the free versions of private school are in any other way vastly superior to public schools. And both constituencies are limited by geography and demography.

All the demonizing, all the castigation, all the freebies, all the dedicated billionaires willing to write checks right up until they manage to kill teachers’ unions (and boy, watch the money dry up then), and yet there’s not much of a sale, is there?

Public schools aren’t anywhere near perfect. And I have no idea how to balance public access, public need, and public will.

But despite all demands piling on more services, more mandates, more expectations, our public education system comes closer to our country’s ideal of education than charters and private schools designed to hoover up vouchers can ever dream of.

Charters and vouchers have lobbyists, politicians, judges, and occasional carefully marketed tales.

Public education has history. It has resonance. It has heart. I hope that’s enough.

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47 responses to “What the Public Means by “Public Education”

  • Roger Sweeny

    New York City’s “exam schools” aren’t public schools? I think the public in NYC feels differently.

    How strict is your definition of “public”? Are magnet schools not public? Are they public if no one is ever turned away but non-public otherwise? Are they public if the problem of too many applicants is resolved by a lottery but non-public if it is resolved by some sort of selective admission process? Does it matter what the selective admission process is?

    This is probably a reductio ad absurdum, but do Honors or AP classes that are limited to a certain number of top-performing students render a school non-public?

    • educationrealist

      I specifically said that magnet schools aren’t public, didn’t I? Right before I mentioned the NY schools. Any school that restricts admission is not.

      If Honors and AP classes have lots of interest, they should set a standard. And everyone who makes that standard should be accepted, yes.

    • Roger Sweeny

      Yes, you did. My bad.

      So are you saying that only geographically-based schools are public? Or is the problem limited enrollment? If magnet schools accepted anyone who applied, would you consider them public?

      • educationrealist

        Enrollment can be limited if they take *all comers* in that limitation. So geographic limitations–all comers. IQ cutoff–all comers. Deaf kids–all deaf kids. And so on.

      • Roger Sweeny

        If I understand you correctly ….A science and technology magnet school would be public if it said, “We welcome any 13-year-old in the County who has a B average in middle school science and math courses, and a 600 on our Science and Math Aptitude Test.” However, it would not be public if it said, “All applicants are ranked on the basis of middle school science and math course grades, and score on our Science and Math Aptitude Test. We then accept the top 100.”

        Two questions:

        1) Is this what “the public” sees as the difference between public and non-public schools? Is this history and/or resonance and/or heart?

        2) I gather that the major (only?) reason for drawing the distinction is that “only public schools should get public money.” But what is it about “takes all comers within some limitation” that makes those who do it worthy of government money and those who don’t not worthy?

      • educationrealist

        1) Yes. “Which school is public: Stuyvesant High or Podunk High?” the public would answer that Podunk High is public. If then told both of them were public, most would demur.

        2) Not sure. But certainly “free schools should not take money from public schools”. It’s not about “worthiness”, but rather about the assumed cost of educating all students rather than just the convenient some.

      • Victoria Bartholomew

        A public school looks different state to state. Some states allow charter schools to be labeled public and then cannot turn away students. This means that they will be allowed to take some or all of the tax money from the state taxes and also have a private board of investors. These schools typically are required to follow the same state testing requirements as any other public facility… it’s just not directly run by the state department of education. These are becoming very popular in urban areas and on online settings.

        I worked for a public charter school for a while and saw a lot of pros and cons.

        There are also private charter schools. This just means that they can reject students, ask for money to attend, and have a board of investors/policy makers.

        Depending on the state, there are almost no laws for private schools. Typically they just have the same testing requirements as public schools.

      • asdf

        “free schools should not take money from public schools”

        This was used to justify trying to shut down my magnet school and harassing everyone who went there. I’ve learned to associate it with some of the worst human beings I’ve ever known.

        Why shouldn’t the intelligent in our society get specialized education based on their intelligence?

        Why shouldn’t middle class people be able to educate their children in a disciplined environment?

        Public shouldn’t mean “everyone gets the same miserable gruel that doesn’t serve their needs, but at least we are all in it togethor.” If it does, fuck public education.

        Public education was invented so that average people could learn the three Rs without going broke because most couldn’t afford it back in the day. Everything beyond that is negotiable.

      • educationrealist

        Answer to the first–our school is set up to educate the intelligent. Most people mean “teaching more”, which is of questionable value. But I’m not averse to tracking at all.

        Answer to the second–they can. They just have to move to a better district or pay for private. The suburbs in most states are good at protecting their schools. Some states struggle more with this, and I’m not unsympathetic. That said, what you want will cost taxpayers a fortune and no, you don’t get it just because you whine loudly.

      • asdf

        “That said, what you want will cost taxpayers a fortune and no, you don’t get it just because you whine loudly.”

        My magnet school costs less then my local public school. Also, my people pay more then their fair share of taxes.

        I think its ridiculous that “go into massive debt to leverage for a house as a backdoor way of getting into a ‘good school'” is considered the only legit way to get a quality education. It’s a massive economic distortion, its unavailable to lots of the middle class (who can’t afford reasonable school districts), it cedes our cities to be places no middle class family is allowed to stay. And it hasn’t even resulted in particularly good schools outside peer effects.

        We can do better.

      • educationrealist

        Your magnet school costs less because it creams. And it doesn’t cost less than educating all the same kids in one school. I don’t disagree with the rest of what you say. But the solution is to get the problem kids to small charters, not put a few of the behaving kids into them. Until that happens, yeah, you’ll have to pay for a better school someway or another.

        Besides, I’ve found that more than a few suburban parents significantly overstate the “badness” of their local schools.

      • anonymousskimmer

        “But the solution is to get the problem kids to small charters”

        My school district had a public “alternative high school”. Is this not typical?

      • educationrealist

        Alternative high schools aren’t charters. I’m saying that make charters mandatory for certain kids, giving public schools the right to permanently expel.

      • asdf

        Why should we pay more. The purpose of public education is to bring out everyones talent. If you in the top 1% of IQ, that isn’t going to happen at average public school X. Should all smart kids not born to UMC parents be doomed to mediocrity? In the name of what objective?

      • educationrealist

        ” If you in the top 1% of IQ, that isn’t going to happen at average public school X”

        Sez who?

  • Purple Tortoise

    If it’s true that public school must take all comers, then it’s equally true that students in public schools must take whatever education they are offered, however bad or good. And so if you are in a class where the teacher’s sole instructional method is having students copy by hand paragraphs from the textbook (as happened to me), there’s no recourse. And if a school doesn’t provide basic equipment in science labs or doesn’t provide teachers with subject matter expertise in what they are teaching (as happened to me), there’s no recourse. And if the material presented in the classroom is unsuitable for your cognitive level (as happened to me), there’s no recourse. The only real requirement is that an adult be present in the classroom, but public schools are under no obligation to provide an education. I suppose it must be this way given the constraints under which public schools operate.

    • educationrealist

      Yep. That’s why I think it’s criminal that the SC allows special ed students to sue.

      That said, the hard truth is that if your story were true, or more than a one year problem, we wouldn’t have the improved test scores that we had. So either you’re exaggerating (likely) or you just had bad luck to get one of the fringes of schools. But yeah, if you can’t afford private school you take what you get.

      • Purple Tortoise

        The irony is special ed kids only get the formal process of education, not necessarily an education itself.

        The non-teaching teacher was a one-year problem (for me), and I don’t know why he wasn’t fired. But my broader point is that no one higher up ever suffers for letting such situations occur.

        Regarding the rest of my story, I was in a rural district that experienced rapid exurban growth during my high school years, and perhaps they had too little money for too many needs. But I was a fringy student — very bright — who received a one-size-fits-all mediocre education. My high school didn’t offer even a single AP course, and I had a very tough time in college going up against students who had gone to magnet schools in New York.

        Perhaps test scores have improved, but I suspect a lot of teaching to the test has occurred. I’m seeing many kids who placed out of calculus courses via AP and yet do not know calculus.

        At any rate, I solved the problem of providing a suitable education for my own bright kids — we homeschool.

      • educationrealist

        Teachers only teach to the test in high blk/Hispanic districts from my experience, and even then only in elementary school.

      • Purple Tortoise

        I teach at the college level, and a general view has developed that students are entering with higher GPAs and more APs under their belts, but with less command of the actual material.

      • anonymousskimmer

        “a general view has developed that students are entering with higher GPAs and more APs under their belts, but with less command of the actual material.”

        Out of curiosity, is this view supported by empirical data?

      • Mark Roulo

        “a general view has developed that students are entering with higher GPAs and more APs under their belts, but with less command of the actual material.”

        Out of curiosity, is this view supported by empirical data?

        High School GPAs seem to have risen over the last 25 years or so:

        Male and female high school graduates are scoring higher grades, according to the U.S. Department of Education. The mean grade point average for female high school graduates was 3.10 in 2009, .33 higher than the average GPA for young women in 1990. The average GPA for male high school graduates over the same period rose .31 points to 2.90. Some say this means American high schools are churning out smarter, harder-working students. But others suggest GPAs have been boosted by “grade inflation,” the idea that teachers are simply giving higher grades for the same level of academic achievement. Studies from ACT and College Board, the companies that run the two preeminent college-entrance exams, show GPAs increased while scores on the standardized ACT and SAT did not, a phenomenon they say likely indicates inflation. ACT estimates the average GPA inflation was about .25 on a scale of 4.0 between 1991 and 2003, though the 2005 study’s authors believe even that number understates the actual amount of grade inflation. Whether from hard work or grade inflation, GPAs grew the most for students with lower standardized test scores, and the least for those with higher scores on the SAT or ACT. The chart below tracks the rise of high school GPAs for male and female graduates.

        https://www.usnews.com/opinion/articles/2011/04/19/average-high-school-gpas-increased-since-1990

        and the number of students taking AP classes taken has also gone up:

        Over the past decade, the number of students who graduate from high school having taken rigorous AP courses has nearly doubled …

        https://www.collegeboard.org/releases/2014/class-2013-advanced-placement-results-announced

        I don’t know how to measure actual command of the material

      • anonymousskimmer

        Thanks Mark. I saw a video once that showed students who do well on tests don’t always know the actual basis of the material (a HS teacher chose some of his best physics students and they were quizzed on material they had learned in such a way to show they understood the physical laws, not mere regurgitation). That and the above are definitely indicative.

        Still I wonder if Purple Tortoises’ peers are actually measuring this among their students, and if so whether this is comparing the top to the top and the middle to the middle on a student %ile basis (e.g. SAT-normed), or whether its comparing GPA and AP average to GPA and AP average. (I.e. ‘On average’ are students entering with less command of the material, or are they entering with less command compared to the average student with the same GPA and AP score as yesteryear? The latter is mere grade inflation and increased AP access + AP teach-to-the-test. The former is a more serious concern as it may be showing a global decrease in learning and teaching at the K-12 level.)

      • Mark Roulo

        PurpleTortoise: “I teach at the college level, and a general view has developed that students are entering with higher GPAs and more APs under their belts, but with less command of the actual material.”

        anonymousskimmer: “Still I wonder if Purple Tortoises’ peers are actually measuring this among their students, and if so whether this is comparing the top to the top and the middle to the middle on a student %ile basis (e.g. SAT-normed), or whether its comparing GPA and AP average to GPA and AP average.”

        Purple can answer this better than I can, but …I’d expect that most college professors just compare their view of the current students that they have with what they remember of the students that they had 20 years ago. No quantifiable measurements (other than maybe comparing the scores of tests given in the class with scores from years past … though if the test has changed one can’t conclude much).

    • cthulhu

      I’m perfectly willing to believe PT’s anecdotes, because I went through similar stuff. E.g., I sat in the back of the classroom in high school math and science classes self studying because I was well beyond what the teachers could teach me (and well beyond the other kids too), and my small rural school had no AP classes or anything remotely like a gifted and talented program. But ultimately for me it didn’t really matter; I did well enough on the ACT to get a good scholarship to the school I wanted to attend and was able to catch up in key areas like calculus and physics (neither of which I was formally exposed to in high school; we had no teachers qualified to teach either) with minimal hits to my GPA.

      And maybe that’s my point: the really smart kids will manage for the most part; they’ll figure out how to get what they really need to succeed. But the public schools need to serve that broad middle area of capabilities, where school excellence can maybe make a meaningful difference in where these kids will end up. I’m with Ed on the “pick a standard and stick to it” instead of limiting enrollment for programs like AP or magnet schools, for example. We don’t need public schools trying to pretend they’re the Institute for Advanced Study.

      Oh, on the special ed topic: I have special needs kids (mostly autism spectrum disorder), and we learned early on that special ed and the IEP process was a huge sanity sink that served only special education bureaucracy interests, and stayed the hell out of it. I don’t pretend to know how to cross that particular Serbonian bog where children whole have sunk (apologies to Edmund Burke), but what they’re doing now ain’t it.

      • anonymousskimmer

        “the really smart kids will manage for the most part; they’ll figure out how to get what they really need to succeed.”

        What’s “for the most part”, what’s “succeed”?

        Since we’re all into the personal anecdotes….

        This is not always true, even of some kids who are far brighter than anyone who has ever read this blog (e.g. Miraca Gross’ work, the Terman study, etc…).

        People differ. What’s a survivable ecology for some is superb for others and a literal and figurative death trap for others. You need knowledge beforehand on which ecology is best for you, for you to jump into once an adult. And only the individual is in the best position to make this choice (with very rare exceptions).

        Kids need the education on how the world works, what alternatives there are, etc… in order to effectively utilize whatever education they do receive. They need this knowledge from those who actually are knowledgeable on the subject. Unaddressed naivety sucks far more than a bad school.

      • cthulhu

        Herrnstein and Murray’s “The Bell Curve” has interesting data about how “the really smart kids will manage for the most part; they’ll figure out how to get what they really need to succeed.”

      • educationrealist

        Yes. Their data showed it was better to be born poor and smart than low IQ and rich. But I am skeptical these days that it’s better to be poor and smart than rich with an IQ of 100+.

      • anonymousskimmer

        “Their data showed it was better on average to be born poor and smart than low IQ and rich.”

        I haven’t read their data, and would appreciate a link, but the added caveat is always the case with demographic statistics.

      • anonymousskimmer

        I consider “success” to be a far higher bar than “managing”, and I think most people would too.

      • cthulhu

        My very informal definition of “managing” perhaps reflects my mid-south-west US, small town middle class upbringing (which is a long way away from my coastal elite circumstances nowadays), but by it I mean something along the lines of “doing about as well socioeconomically as their age and IQ cohort members.” Lots of weasel words in there, I know, and one can quibble mightily about exactly how to define that cohort, but I’m not trying to make a fully testable hypothesis statement at this time. So if you want to substitute “success” for “managing”, I think the two words are comparable in what I was trying to convey, in my two-steps-removed-from-po’-white-trash colloquial speech 🙂

        If you’re defining “success” as the equivalent of “full professor at Harvard” or “CEO of a Fortune 100 company” or “chief neurosurgeon at Massachusetts General”, though, then I think you’re setting the bar too high.

      • anonymousskimmer

        Fair enough cthulhu (never thought I’d write that!!!). 😀

        My personal definition of success is having entered a Biosciences Ph.D. program in my early 20s. It took me over a decade and a half after high school to finish a B.S. (which rhymes with BS, which stands for bull****, to steal from the music man). And a US Ph.D. program is not going to happen.

        My definition of managing is having never had to declare bankruptcy (managing that student loan and credit card debt!), and having never been homeless.

        I don’t keep in touch with my high school cohort, but I believe most of them have done better than I have so far. And since I didn’t realize that it’s expected one negotiate salary for a union government job, all of my co-workers of the same age range are paid more than me.

      • asdf

        “doing about as well socioeconomically as their age and IQ cohort members.”

        As a parent, is that really all you care about. If so, why bother doing much of anything, as you say it works out on average.

        As a smart kid from a working class family that ended up UMC professional like my IQ says I should, I can tell you I’m going to make sure my kids know the things I didn’t know. Not even so maybe they will be some CEO, but because there is a pretty wide range of quality of life outcomes within “doing about as well socioeconomically as their age and IQ cohort members.”

        Does having some kind of career mean you have the right career? Does reaching some earnings goal by 35 mean it doesn’t matter how alienated and bored someone was getting there? There is a lot of life, and education, beyond the fact that people’s earnings conform to a bell curve around their SAT score.

    • Victoria Bartholomew

      I am certainly not the champion of public schools, but I would like note that there are a lot of “policies” in place that penalize teachers for just being “present in the classroom.” Now, are they working? I think not. But there is research that has been collected that shows that there is no curriculum, or reading program, or intervention, that can out weigh the effects of poverty. The only method that has shown more net growth than the negative net effect of poverty is by a whole school system of interventions. Check out Mike Mattos here: http://mattos.info/Mikes_Books.html . He has lots of great information about this.

      I believe that this can be generalized to show that your environment, culture, and genetics have a far greater impact on your academic success than one teacher. If we cannot get whole schools to work together, then teachers are always going to fail. One person cannot possibly meet every single need in the classroom.

  • Purple Tortoise

    I eventually turned out fine, but for many years I resented how much of my childhood time and potential was wasted because I was a particular age and therefore had to be in a particular grade and therefore had to sit through slow-paced instruction on particular basic topics.

    And if the purpose of public schools is really to serve the broad middle, then it can be done at a fraction of the taxpayer money we are now spending on it. And if we are going to spend many times more to help children with capabilities outside the broad middle, why not spend it on the smart kids, who will gain much more benefit and provide much more back to society than will the low end and special ed?

    • anonymousskimmer

      “why not spend it on the smart kids, who will gain much more benefit and provide much more back to society than will the low end and special ed?”

      All kids, outside of the profoundly damaged, should be able to contribute more to society than the educational input spent on them.

      What you’re effectively saying is that it might be a good idea to spend money on momentary distractions instead of taxing it to spend on a quasi-arbitrary portion of our future citizenry who would then be capable of assisting the rest of our citizenry in building a better future with more satisfying momentary distractions.
      —–

      And now, the anecdotes:

      “I eventually turned out fine”

      I’m perpetually 15 years behind where I could have been, and have had career areas in which I could have contributed well, and desired to contribute from, forever shut off (barring a lottery win or its equivalent).

      On top of the standard resentment for wasted childhood and potential.

      I intimately know other people in which this is also the case.

      —–
      I have an acquaintance with an IQ around the 90th %ile, who never broke a 700+ on any of the SAT subtests, received a double major with honors in the hard sciences from a flagship or equivalent, went onto a HYPS-caliber graduate school, and is now a tenure-track professor.

      This acquaintance has developed a good academic work ethos, and has always had a love of the field, but also has/had a probably diagnosable inferiority complex which was compensated for by seeking praise (from the teacher) for their academic abilities.

      The system favors certain mental disorders over others. It favors certain attitudes over others. Regardless of whether these disorders or attitudes are positively correlated with contributive abilities once one has left the system. Or whether these biases are simply necessary and fair biases to select with in the first place.

      If the correlation ain’t unity, you’re not there yet. Stop resting on your laurels and figure out what’s missing.

      • Ricky

        “I’m perpetually 15 years behind where I could have been, and have had career areas in which I could have contributed well, and desired to contribute from, forever shut off (barring a lottery win or its equivalent).

        On top of the standard resentment for wasted childhood and potential.”

        Is the fault of the school system? Or do you resent the fact that you have a high IQ and did nothing with it for 15 years? Just curious.

      • anonymousskimmer

        I feel it’s wrong going on about this here (sorry for the spam everyone), but since you ask:

        Blame lies with me. It also lies with my parents. It also lies with the legislators who require particular series of courses to graduate. There is some blame with the school as well (I was unaware of particular things until it was too late to change my course selections to take advantage of them and also too late to avoid particular pitfalls).

        I think the largest fault of the school system is that it constitutionally assumes the students do not know what they want to do with life. That the student is there to be filled with particular batteries of knowledge and then be pushed out into the world where they will jump through generic hoops and be successful. For a naive student who knows exactly what they want to do in life, but has no particular guidance on how to get there from the adults in their lives, there is no guidance available. Not in a typical school district at any rate. Not without making waves or otherwise acting in an extremely extroverted or gregarious manner. And what little advice there might be is only helpful if the student knows the right questions to ask.

        Naivety sucks. Asking the wrong questions sucks. Not knowing to ask the right questions sucks. Ignorance of one’s ignorance sucks.

        —-

        I felt old at the age of 10. I feel something akin to panic at the fleeing of time (this isn’t alliterative or philosophical or poetic or anything like that, I literally mean what I wrote). Losing 15 years feels like hell. Being forced to jump through a neverending series of hoops (courses) only tangentially related to what I wanted to do, never knowing whether I would ever even start felt like hell. It was a proximal cause for both depression and a stress-exacerbated tic disorder.

        Damnit. One opportunity for undergraduate research at the first tertiary school I dropped out of probably would have saved me. Being able to do the work in addition to the scholasticism and regurgitated learning school forces on students might have been the focus I needed, the joy I needed in order to believe that I would eventually get to where I wanted to be – enough to stick with it instead of fleeing into dissipative escape mechanisms (video games, rollerblading, etc…) and eventually dropping out.

        It also would have been nice to have been dormed with some other biology majors instead of CE/CS majors. It would have helped with focusing on studying, etc…. The school chose where I dormed, not I. (According to my second roommate, the CS major, my pseudocode was well written and Pascal-like in syntax, IIRC. Not that that mattered for my Bio and Chem courses.)

        —-

        In High School, I’d mandate more counselors. A minimum of 1 per 100 or 150 students, who follows a student through their entire time in the school, who has maybe 30 minutes every other month to talk with the individual student (or groups of students, as appropriate for the student). Time to get to know the student and, for the more reticent ones, find out what they want from life so as to best help them navigate the educational system to get there.

        I don’t expect the counselor to deal with anything other than how to navigate the secondary and tertiary educational systems and the ancillary things such as certifications and internships. The counselor should not be a parent proxy, that’s the parent’s job, just a subject matter expert on the educational system who also knows the student as well as an interested non-related adult can.

  • educationrealist

    I didn’t quite get the last anonymous skimmer comment:

    “What you’re effectively saying is that it might be a good idea to spend money on momentary distractions instead of taxing it to spend on a quasi-arbitrary portion of our future citizenry who would then be capable of assisting the rest of our citizenry in building a better future with more satisfying momentary distractions.”

    If you were referring to the quote, he was saying exactly the opposite.

    As to the cite, it was in the Bell Curve.

    • anonymousskimmer

      “If you were referring to the quote, he was saying exactly the opposite.”

      This is what I may be incorrectly inferring:
      (To make this easier to read I am bolding the quoted text)

      “And if the purpose of public schools is really to serve the broad middle, then it can be done at a fraction of the taxpayer money we are now spending on it.”

      -Inference: We can spend less and still get adequate results.

      “And if we are going to spend many times more to help children with capabilities outside the broad middle, why not spend it on the smart kids, who will gain much more benefit”
      – Inference: The kids below this “smart kid” threshold I have chosen would also get a benefit, but not as “much more” as those above the “smart kid” threshold.

      1) For those kids who are just to the wrong side of “smart kid”, Purple Tortoise is saying that the much lower spending is adequate.
      2) Purple Tortoise is also saying that “smart kids” will benefit from extra dollars, and from*** those extra dollars will “provide much more back to society than will the low end and special ed”.
      3) However, we know from current studies which use just above/just below thresholding for control group studies that those who are just below this “smart kid” cutoff would also benefit from the extra dollars, and to an extent that they will also: “provide much more back to society than will the low end and special ed”, because they are nearly identical in ability to those just above the threshold.

      So where can you justify drawing this arbitrary line?

      I’m claiming that you cannot. So the only ethical thing to do is the best that you can for as many as you can, until you can, with 100% confidence, identify a point of negative returns.

      And don’t sell out the future for a trip to Tobago. 🙂 (I guess you can claim that you’re benefiting the children of Tobago with you tourist dollars, so meh, okay.)

      *** – If I’m inferring incorrectly, this is where it is happening.

    • anonymousskimmer

      ““What you’re effectively saying is that it might be a good idea to spend money on momentary distractions instead of taxing it to spend on a quasi-arbitrary portion of our future citizenry who would then be capable of assisting the rest of our citizenry in building a better future with more satisfying momentary distractions.”

      If you were referring to the quote, he was saying exactly the opposite.”

      I see where the miscommunication lies.

      By “quasi-arbitrary portion of our future citizenry” I was referring to those below the “smart kid” cutoff, and by “the rest of our citizenry” I was referring to the “smart kids”. So my bad on terminology.

      I was hoping someone might have a URL to the Bell Curve data (tables and graphs). I’ll be a bit less lazy and google that. 🙂

  • asdf

    “So where can you justify drawing this arbitrary line?”

    We do it all the time. It’s called tracking. It works pretty well.

    “I’m claiming that you cannot. So the only ethical thing to do is the best that you can for as many as you can, until you can, with 100% confidence, identify a point of negative returns.”

    Why 100% confidence. Why not 98%? People make practical and efficient decisions like that all the time.

    Why don’t we just give everyone appropriate schooling, knowing that that will differ based on IQ and other factors. To the extent resources are limited lets choose the highest ROI.

    • anonymousskimmer

      “Why 100% confidence. Why not 98%? People make practical and efficient decisions like that all the time.”

      People make crappy decisions all the time to.

      Make the best decision you can, but my aim is justice, not efficiency. And “practicality” covers a lot of choices.

  • What it REALLY Means to Oppose Public Education | Malcolm the Cynic

    […] I know he is, because he just put a post up on how the public school system is totally the way to go. […]

  • Joseph Moore

    Love your tag line – “No Dewey-eyed dreamer.” I note with amusement, however, that the study you link to to support your claim that “the public still has a dream of public schools, a dream that surveys show time and again those schools deliver for their constituents, even while the politicians declare them “failing”.” is from the NORC – in other words, from the University of Chicago, where Dewey plied his trade, and where his influence was most keenly felt. Now, it might seem a stretch to see the spectre of Dewey in that study, which I only skimmed, except he’s still the big dog in education in Chicago. Add to this that he was a Pragmatist – meaning, simply, that the ends justify the means, especially if those ends are the Worker’s Paradise (you should read his apologetics for the Soviet atrocities – bracing stuff), and you have the classic situation where scholars decide what the truth is then create whatever evidence they need to support it.

    An assumption seemingly shared by both you and the parents in the surveys: that schooling IS graded classrooms. That schooling IS what they, themselves, went through. Historically, this is nonsense – even in America, it’s only been true for less than 100 years, and was unknown anywhere 200 years ago. This is of a piece with another common historical error: it is commonly assumed that ,modern school are the descendants of the one room schools, that the same civic-minded care for the children that led pioneers to build hundreds of thousands of one-room schools evolved into graded classroom schools over time. The reality: a bunch of education zealots, drunk on the Prussian schools that were all the rage among the enlightened, waged war against the one-room schools for 75 years, and only won in the end when the population moved from country to city during the Great Depression. Locals typically fought the state education department’s efforts to close down local schools and replace them with ‘consolidated’ schools.

    Those farm families were wise to do so. Current public schooling represents the death of local control of education – by design. Read Fichte, Mann, Barnard, etc. – getting the parents out of the equation was the goal from the beginning.

    School divorced from family, community and friendship is, at best mere training, and cannot be education in any real sense. Our current schools by design seal off exactly those influences.

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