Honestly, I never dreamed it would be a controversial post. One of my friends had posted a listing of all the public schools she had attended with the caption, “Proud member of #ProductOfPublicSchools.” So I did the same, from O’Dea Elementary School in Fort Collins, Colorado through my four schools in Amherst, Massachusetts: Marks Meadow Elementary School, Amherst Regional Junior High School, Amherst Regional High School, and the University of Massachusetts, where I got my M.A.T. in French (For the record, I got my A.B. in French from Middlebury College, which I also loved.) Not two minutes later, I got the response back from another ARHS graduate: “So what?”
Before long, a lively discussion had spring up between this other ARHS graduate who was not remotely proud of our school, and a number of other people including a recent Stoneleigh-Burnham graduate, a friend who teaches in Virginia, my mother-in-law (whose four kids all attended ARHS and UMass and had great experiences), and of course me.
There were myths to be dispelled. Contrary to the common narrative, the position of the U.S. relative to other countries as determined by educational testing has remained relatively constant for the past three decades. If you factor out underserved schools, we actually have one of the most successful educational systems in the world according to this standard. Again contrary to a commonly held belief, there are indeed still schools that teach cooking and/or financial literacy, and a fair number of schools that still keep gardens.
We had knowledge and beliefs in common. Many public schools have cut necessary programs, many are hyperfocused on testing, the cost of higher education is a serious concern, and there are negative effects caused by a common narrative that emphasizes the importance of college to the detriment of professions that don’t require that level of education. There are also wonderful technical high schools (Franklin Tech right here in our home county is a great example) that deserve more attention and respect. And several parents shared pride in how hard their kids had worked for their educations and how well they had done.
There was information to be shared. The link between funding levels and school success is quite clear. Increasing funding for underachieving schools does in fact help, presuming that the money is spent on initiatives that are based in sound educational research and that are evaluated and tweaked for effectiveness. Initiatives that extend beyond schools to address effects of poverty (if not sources - that is a bigger issue to tackle) are more successful than those that focus only on the schools. As far as addressing poverty, cities that have increased the minimum wage on a local level have in fact seen positive effects in a number of ways, including an overall strengthening of their economy.
On occasion, I meet someone who assumes that I wouldn’t support public schools because I teach in an independent school. Nothing could be further from the truth. First, I would never deliberately undercut the school system that helped me get where I am today. Second, I believe deeply in the value of a good education for all kids, including the 90+% of U.S. kids who attend public school. It’s a benefit to the kids and to the country, and it’s also quite simply the right thing to do. Third, most of the kids I teach in Humanities 7 come to us from public schools, and they generally arrive with solid skillsets and genuine curiosity about the world around them; how could I not appreciate that?! I have met a number of independent school people down through my 32 years in teaching who do seem to rejoice at public schools’ travails (no one working here, by the way), but I am neither that cynical nor that mean.
Of course, I believe deeply in the mission and purpose of this school. I love and believe in my students, and I have a deep appreciation for my colleagues and the daily work they do. I will give my all to ensure we remain strong and keep growing. But I know the vast majority of my teaching friends and colleagues around the country and around the world, wherever they might work, have equally strong commitments to their schools, students, and colleagues, and that warms my heart.
So absolutely, let’s celebrate public schools. Let’s recognise what they do well. Let’s also look at where they could improve - which must include recognizing the stumbling blocks (e.g. persistent underfunding in many districts and increasing economic inequity throughout the U.S.) we as a country have placed before them and doing all we can to remove them. Let’s furthermore recognize the fundamental importance of respecting civil rights and keeping school environments safe for all.
And, as should always be the case, let's ensure the Department of Education does the same.
With thanks to Bruce, Charlie, Gail, Harper, Joann, and Marci for the different ways they all helped inspire this post.