Why Public Education Is Different From Other Public Goods


Shawn Gude

Shawn Gude is a writer, graduate student, activist, and assistant contributor at Jacobin. His intellectual influences include Chantal Mouffe, Michael Harrington, and Ella Baker. Contact him at shawn.gude@gmail.com or on Twitter @shawngude.

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58 Responses

  1. Avatar greginak says:

    I like all this but i would pick a nit at the mention O doesn’t send his kids to public school. The Prez’s kids, any Prez’s kids, are exceptions since there is a  lot of security  involved in having them at a school. They should go to a private school that is willing and able to handle all the stress that goes with having the Prez’s kids.Report

    • Avatar BSK says:


      Check my post below.  I addressed this very point specifically.  It really is the crux of the matter, at least for families like the Obamas.Report

    • Avatar Scott says:

      Oh, please, you can secure a public school if you want to provide safety. That is just an excuse to justify going to a private school.  That is the hypocrisy, liberals demand common folk send their kids to public schools but send their kids to private schools.  Without liberals forcing public schools on folks how else could they keep the support of the teacher unions?Report

      • Avatar Will Truman says:

        I wouldn’t *want* the Obama kids at my public school (or the Bush kids, this isn’t about BHO specifically). I wouldn’t want the security measures that would be required to keep them safe. I wouldn’t want the hassle of a pat-down every time I go to pick up my kid from school. And so on.


        • Avatar wardsmith says:

          The last POTUS who sent his kid to a public school was Jimmy Carter. Look it up. I hated Carter and thought he was a horrible president for lots of good reasons but had to give him credit for being so “egalitarian”. Security was not that big an issue. I can take you to schools in Illinois (where a certain senator has now become POTUS) and you WILL be patted down upon entering to pick up your kid. Good thing too.Report

  2. Avatar BSK says:

    I taught in private schools in DC at the time of President Obama’s inauguration.  As soon as he won, we all knew where the girls were going: Sidwell Friends.  Not because of the reputation of the school or the state of DC public schools or anything about education.  But because Sidwell had a long history of serving the elite of the elite and, most importantly, being able to provide for their safety.  Whether the lengths gone to are necessary or not, securing the safety of the First Family is a huge priority.  My school, an independent not far from Sidwell, could never have hosted the First Family without both a structural and personnel makeover.  So, practically speaking, there was but one choice for the President.

    I am a huge believer in public education in the abstract.  The problem is that public education, as it exists now, is something I am very uncomfortable with as an educator.  Which is why I continue to work in private schools and with populations that would not be my first choice.  However, if I were to enter the public systems, at least those near by, I would not be positioned to succeed.  Not because of the makeup of my class or any of that stuff.  But because I couldn’t teach the way I believe to be best for children to learn, I couldn’t teach in a way that I felt comfortable, confident, or competent, and I couldn’t put to use the skills I’ve spent the past decade developing and honing.

    I don’t yet have children but, when I do, I am not sure whether I’d place them in the public school.  I understand the argument put forth here, but we must not consider it in a vacuum. My children’s attendance in public school or my presence as a teacher there would do little to change it, with so much bureaucratic and political BS muddying up the process and incentivizing all the wrong things.Report

    • Avatar greginak says:

      There is a lot here. Could you be more specific about your issues with public schools? Clearly plenty of teachers, and the ones i know, are comfortable with public schools. How much of your feelings are due to working in DC which isn’t exactly known as the best school district?Report

      • Avatar Will Truman says:

        I can’t be sure if this is what BSK is after, though I knpw it applies to others if not BSK, so I will say it anyway: the focus on rote memorization, teaching to the test, standardized instruction, and so on.

        We can, of course, say “Well, get rid of those things!”

        Except that a lot of people want them. Or prefer them to teachers doing things as they see fit. Or, for whatever reason, don’t trust the specific local teachers.

        (For my own part, the latitude I would give the teachers would depend in good part in how much faith I had in them. Which makes it a local – and by extension personal – decision. To the extent that I can afford the alternatives, of course.)Report

        • Avatar greginak says:

          Those are all reasonable issues with how kids are educated. They don’t really go to public education per se since there are many options such as charter schools, public schools vary a lot across the country and most districts have different school options.Report

          • Avatar BSK says:

            I don’t know that most districts have different school options.  Some do.  Most cities do.  But smaller towns and rural areas often have to pool together just to fill a school, let alone a multitude.

            FWIW, when I refer to “public schools”, I’m not referring to “charter schools”.  This might be unfair, but at least we can be clear on language.  My feeling on charter schools is radically different, with most of the difference being positive (though I do have some problems with them, as well).  And privates are far, far from perfect either.Report

          • Avatar Will Truman says:

            All of that helps, but the charter option can be somewhat limited. One of the reasons that Shawn is cool with them is that they take in so few students out of the pot. And, depending on where you are and the governing rules, charters can be under too much scrutiny or too little (depending on the district, depending on your perspective). And these are all political decisions.

            A charter system that would really alleviate my own concerns about these things would probably be large and aggressive enough to negate Shawn’s rationale for the imperative of public schooling to begin with. They take kids out of the pool.Report

      • Avatar BSK says:

        I’ve also taught in Boston, NYC, and the NYC suburbs, so my experiences are limited to just DC.  WT touched on a lot of the points.  In addition to that, there is the overprescription of both curriculum and teaching methods.  For someone like myself, who teaches early childhood (Pre-K is my first choice, though there are few districts offering it, and Kindergarten) and believes in a child-centered, play-based approach to learning, I would basically be left out in the cold.  I would be required to give kids worksheets and have them do desk work, which I don’t think is the best way for most kids to learn.  If I deviated from this, well, I wouldn’t be able to deviate from this.

        Many people prefer this model because, as WT astutely points out, it minimizes the harm a bad teacher can cause.  If a teacher is teaching from a prescribed curriculum (which is sometimes broken down as far as the day and hour) and teaching to a standardized test, they can’t really careen the train of the tracks.  Of course, they also are limited in their ability to reach new heights.  And this is what troubles me.  If I were to do as I did this week, and spend a handful of days exploring the concept of “melting” in response to a weekend snowfall that was all but gone by Tuesday, I’d catch hell for “deviating from the curriculum”.  Nevermind that the kids would have been preoccupied with what was going on in the world around them and, thus, not all that interested in my prescribed lessons.  Nevermind that I can think of no better way for 4- and 5-year-olds to experience this topic than by watching and feeling a bag of snow as it melts on the heater.  On and on…

        Anyway, I’m digressing.  My main problem with the public school system is that its response to bad teachers (and believe me, there were and are bad teachers out there and teachers as a whole have themselves primarily to blame) was to make the teachers as indeterminate in the process as possible by automating it.  Which only doubled-down on the problem because it chased good teachers (like I fancy myself to be) away because we would not be able to put our talents and knowledge to use.

        Is this overly pessimistic?  Probably.  Do their exist systems where administrators are powerful enough to buck the system enough to give good teachers freedom?  Yes.  But these systems are generally already thriving and the return on further human investment in them is greatly diminished.Report

        • Avatar Plinko says:

          Are you doing or are you aware of Tools of the Mind, BSK? I remember reading about it in Nurtureshock and would love to hear your opinion if you’ve got any experience with it.


          • Avatar BSK says:


            I’m not, but I just took a quick glance at the site and am intrigued. My initial response to anything crowing about young kids’ “lack of readiness” is to look at expectation, which have been creeping ever higher with more and more academic pushdown (today’s K curriculum looks more and more like yesterday’s first and last week’s second). If we haven’t already, we are on the verge of simpy outpacing the kids. My general response is that it is not the children who are not ready, but the schools. All that being said, it appears TotM has a broader focus, looking at the “whole child” and recognizes the importance of social and emotional development n academic achievement, for which the former has a smaller window than the latter. I’ll read more and post back later with more. Thanks!Report

          • Avatar BSK says:

            TotM is based primarily on the work of Vygotsky, who is probably the single biggest theorist influence for me. So, yea, I like that. The constructivist approach, based on his social-construction theory, is what I employ. As far as ECE reform goes, this might be the most encouraging program I’ve seen (by a country mile). It does still seem slanted toward standardization, just of a model more in line with my own viewpoints, and I’d prefer to see us move away from a one-size-fits-none approach, but it is a step in the right direction. I decry standardization because kids aren’t standardized… For every kid who’d thrive in my environment, there is at least one who’d thrive in a different but well planned, develomentaly mindful model. I also think each program shod have the latitude to adjust to its local area and population and it is not clear if this program offers that (though my hunch is that it would). All in all, an impressive and encouraging program that I hope to learn more about. Thanks! Happy to dialogue more, here or anywhere else that makes sense.Report

            • Avatar BlaiseP says:

              I encountered Vygotsky when my wife was getting her Ed degrees.   His work was just then coming out of the deep freeze, though I suppose he’s always been around in certain circles.

              My kids were then teeny little things and I was working at home.  Though I wouldn’t recommend him to the ordinary parent, Vygotsky sorta influenced me as a parent/teacher, his emphasis on language and interaction seemed obvious and important.   Clarified some things for me as a parent where Piaget was just too simplistic.   His critics say Vygotsky put too much emphasis on language.   They were, of course, crazy.

              My oldest child was the product of my wife’s first marriage.   The child arrived in the States, painfully shy, speaking no English.   I got a set of labels for everything in the house, stove, bathroom, window, door, you name it, it got a label.  Language is context.

              My little education hobby horse was play.   I made sure that child got out and played with the neighbor kids and I’d sit there in the playground, sorta providing a running translation of what the other kids were saying to her.    Soon enough the shyness was completely gone, she was running around having a good time and within two months was uttering complete English sentences.

              If there’s one thing I’d change about the public schools, I’d lengthen the school day just to make for more playtime.   I’d engineer as much learning as possible around the concepts of play.    The one time in a person’s life when they’re genuinely curious, just bursting with with the will (and ability!) to master new material all the time, we squish them into little desks and tell ’em to shut up.   Schoolrooms should be noisy places.Report

              • Avatar c mambuca says:

                Great commets! As an early childhood educator for the past 20 years I agree that a classroom should be allowed to be noisy.. at times. There has to be a  healthy balance between productive noise and quiet listening/participating in a controlled group discussion time to get the maximum amount of quality work done. As an elementary teacher, I would work a longer school day without any extra pay if it gave the students 15 minutes more of recess.Report

              • Avatar BlaiseP says:

                Quality play is quality work.   If we want to instil the virtues of democratic ideals in our kids, another thing I’d do immediately is to quit talking down to children.   Teachers ought to get out there and play with those kids, parents, too.   Vygotsky makes a huge deal of Proximal Development:  aside from the parents, the teacher gets more face time with your kid than anyone else in his life.

                Children rise to the level of expectations, turning their little faces to the sun like so many flowers orienting themselves in a field.    We’re doing them no favors by making them grow up too quickly.Report

              • Avatar BSK says:

                I explicitly tell my students this. Your play is your work and your work is your play. If it isn’t noisy at times or messy at the end, we didn’t do enough.

                BlaiseP, kudos to you for your work with your children. Even if you hadn’t adhered to a philosophy similar to my own, it is clear that your thoughtfulness and attention was going to stear those kids right. Which is often what matters most. Traditional or progressive, Reggio or Montessori, thoughtful, caring, attentive adults in the lives of children are key. And, as you pointed out, giving them plentiful oppourtunities to work with, play with, fit with, learn from, etc. other children is what will best prepare them for the world they encounter.Report

            • Avatar Plinko says:

              Thanks, BSK. I’m not really all that well versed in development or pedagogy, so I’m not sure what i would have to say beyond my own desires/expectation for my daughter’s education. Your comments just reminded me a bit of the TotM part of Nurtureshock, which I found interesting but hadn’t encountered outside of that book.Report

  3. Avatar Will Truman says:

    My primary objection to this notion that there is a sort of obligation to turn our kids into the pot of public education is that it leaves questions unanswered. Namely, what are they going to be doing when they get there? Most of the time, I don’t have a problem with it. But a lot of people are going to have a problem with how things are taught, what things are taught, and what the overall environment is going to be like.

    When the rubber hits the road, how does the fostering of democratic citizens work? And what if I disagree with their definition? Any attempts at training citizenry (a concept I do not oppose, in principal) is subject to the views of whomever is doing the teaching. A school district in Idaho might define it differently than a school district in New York. A school district in Idaho is likely going to take exception to being told by DC how citizenry is taught. A transplant into Idaho might take exception to how how Idaho is going about it.

    Is there an obligation to send them in for seven hours a day and then spend time undoing whatever you object to about the local norms and customs (or whatever is coming out of DC)? My wife and I commented that if we were in Utah, in anywhere but SLC, we might send out kids to a Lutheran school so that they get a good, secular education.

    None of this is to say that a free-for-all voucher system, wherein the government subsidizes every parent’s decision on precisely what kind of education their child receives, is the best idea, either. But I consider the existence of some sort of obligation to participate in the system to be… kind of problematic. And, I have to confess, I am a bit mistrustful of institutions that suggest that I have an obligation to utilize their services for the common good.Report

    • Avatar Lyle says:

      Historically the religious schools have existed because parents do not want the influence of the homogenization of the public schools. Consider the 1950s when catholic kids went to catholic school because that was the thing to do. Likewise the more conservative Lutheran bodies had their own schools (I went to one the first 3 years of school). My mother went to a Lutheran school and when she wanted to go to the public high school pressure was put on her to go to the lutheran high school to protect her from the real world.

      Or in todays environment consider the home schooling movement where one of the main motives is to avoid exposing children to things the parents believe the kids should not be exposed to.Report

      • Avatar Will Truman says:

        For what it’s worth, this is why we were talking about the Lutheran school:

        There’s been a great deal of litigation over this school set-up, dating as far back as the 1930s, but so long as the seminaries are on private land, there’s nothing illegal about it. Allowing kids out for religious education during the school day has a pernicious effect on public-school life. So many kids leave for these classes that it automatically singles out the few non-Mormons who don’t participate. For one year, I attended a public high school and frequently found myself abandoned in class along with a few Hispanic kids while everyone else trekked over to seminary.

        The church stretched into public school life in other ways, too. In high school, I had Mormon bishops as teachers who never missed an opportunity to bring the church into class lectures. Prayers before every event were common and coaches often blessed athletes before sporting events. My swim team would collapse into a crisis if we were expected to compete in meets in Idaho or Wyoming on a Sunday. Many of the Mormon kids on my team honestly believed that if they swam on Sunday, the devil would create an undertow that would drown them. Graduation ceremonies were held in Mormon tabernacles, and school choirs sang Mormon religious songs.

        Until fairly recently, many public schools annually celebrated “Missionary Week,” when Mormon kids were supposed to come to school dressed up in the uniform of the LDS missionary—which they were all aspiring to be. Non-Mormons might as well have put big signs on their heads that read, “Convert Me.”

        Some of the school districts even used missionaries as “tutors.” They were supposed to be doing math and other such studies, but the ACLU was flooded routinely with complaints from non-Mormon parents saying that their children were being subjected to religious indoctrination, and the practice was finally ended.

        The social pressure to follow the Mormon kids just to avoid ostracism is intense. More often than not, non-Mormons just join in and eventually cross over all together. The system works quite well. I was safely inoculated both by my parents and by the more free-thinking Jesuits and Lutherans. But my cousin, whose parents were divorced when she was young, wasn’t so lucky.

        In all likelihood, we would actually look into a non-religious private school or an Episcopal school first, if there were any around.Report

    • Avatar Kyle Cupp says:

      When the rubber hits the road, how does the fostering of democratic citizens work? And what if I disagree with their definition? Any attempts at training citizenry (a concept I do not oppose, in principal) is subject to the views of whomever is doing the teaching.

      This is one reason why I favor strong local control over some aspects of public education.  Education doesn’t mean the same thing in every place and every time, and if we’re serious about pluralism, which we should be, then we ought to be open to a plurality of approaches to public education, even if we also need some basic standards and principles across the board.


  4. Avatar Brandon Berg says:

    Public school isn’t really a public good. It’s both rivalrous and excludable. It’s really more of a private good funded and provided by the government.

    Also, I do think it’s hypocritical to oppose vouchers while sending your children to a private school which costs roughly the same as a public school. If you think private school is better than public school, and the government is going to be spending that money anyway, then it should spend it on the better schools. Where Obama has an out, I suspect, is that this particular school is much more expensive than a typical public school, so he can claim that the higher quality is due to the greater expense, and that a private school costing roughly the same as a public school would not.

    Or, alternatively, that his daughters have special security needs that the private school is better equipped to provide.

    Which is not to say that I don’t think the teachers unions calling in a favor plays a role here.Report

    • Avatar James K says:

      Yes, education may produce a positive externality, but that’s not the same as a public good.  For one thing, public goods are necessarily natural monopolies, and that’s not a tenable position to take for education.Report

  5. Avatar Al says:

    cross-group interaction is an important component of a robust, democratic education.

    It’s clear that democratic society would cease to function without a basic core of knowledge among the citizenry–including the three Rs. But where is the actual evidence that a voucher-based system, assuming it was funded enough (and that is a big if), would not impart the required ideas? And what are the required ideas? It’s worth noting that worse than a voucher-based system is surely the concept of “neighborhood schools” where gifted children in poor areas are stuck with a crap education unless their parents can afford the full tuition for private schools. Magnet schools provide a way out of this dilemma.


  6. Avatar Al says:

    And what are the required ideas?

    Maybe you answered my question and I just didn’t pick it out.

    Seeing that a multicultural, pluralistic society can work—not perfectly, not without angst, not without effort—is an essential part of a civic education.

    I don’t know about you, but I went to a public school and the socioeconomic makeup of my classes taught me very little about a “multicultural” society. There were honors and regular classes in freshman and sophomore year. Then in junior and senior year were the regular, honors and AP courses. The poor, minority kids largely did not show up in the toughest courses. When one did they were the exception. The most memorable liberal voice I recall was probably a wealthy (and attractive) Jewish girl who felt ambivalent about being rich.

    It does seem possible that going to a public school imparted secular values over the religious ones of parochial schools. But why should secular values be required?


  7. Avatar Roger says:


    Some questions…

    Is the purpose of public schooling to educate kids or to expose them to multiculturalism and pluralism?

    Are you assuming there are no tradeoffs between these goals?

    If there are, how do we choose between them?

    More importantly who should choose?

    Finally, it seems like your parents chose for you and got you a good education. Do you really wish they had left you in unsegregated schools full of average kids?  What do your parents say?



  8. Avatar Kyle Cupp says:

    Public education, an idea I also find radical and beautiful, poses practical difficulties in part because it presents parents with potentially conflicting moral obligations: one the one hand, parents have the responsibility to give the children the best education they can; on the other hand, they have a responsibility to the common good–to the education of other children in society.  Sometimes these responsibilities align: we send our son to public school and would likely do so even if we could afford the tuition of private schools in the area.  The public schools where we live rock.  Sometimes these responsibilities conflict, though.  For example, a particular private school may offer a special needs program worlds superior to what’s offered at the area public schools.  Here the decision is more difficult.  In the end, the ethics of school choice, so to speak, isn’t something we can be dogmatic about.


    • Avatar BlaiseP says:

      My two oldest children are the product of public schools.   I spent a few years in public schools but then I was dragged around so often I went to six different high schools.   I suppose we live our adult lives largely in reaction to our childhoods, swearing we won’t repeat the mistakes of our parents.   I kept my kids in one place, (well, two, back and forth to Guatemala), but they went through the same schools with the children they’d always known.

      But my youngest was different.   A moody, gifted child, he came home from school and yelled at me.   “I’m learning absolutely nothing!”   We asked him what he wanted and said he wanted to be home schooled.   We got an educational psychologist involved to figure out a transition for him.   He got pretty dramatic about it all, insisting ever more loudly that he hadn’t learned anything in about a year, which was true enough.   He’d been in what few gifted programs were on offer but the high school didn’t have similar programs.

      So we pulled him out and got him on a correspondence course for a high school degree.   Within three months he’d finished that program and gotten his HS degree.   I bought him the most powerful Mac available at the time, put Mathematica and Statistica on it, gave him a college math textbook and told him to self-educate.   He did, too.  Went though that textbook in no time flat.   Took to political science and history, literature, physics, chewed up my Japanese textbooks, pretty much anything he could get his hands on.   Replaced his Mac twice as more powerful machinery became available.

      Soon enough I couldn’t keep up with him.   Tried to give him some guidance in History and Lit, we’d talk about what he was learning.   He tore through the community college offerings in about a year as soon as he could drive over there.

      Want to give your kid the best education possible, right from the start?  Become friends with your kid’s teachers.   Participate in what’s being taught, keep that all-important fire of curiosity lit in your child.  A bad teacher can put out that fire, folks, and once it’s out, getting it relit is just hell.  It was a narrow scrape with my youngest.


      • Avatar Roger says:

        Hi Blaise,

        If I am reading them right, some of the comments in this thread seem to imply you have a responsibility to the other kids in your youngest child’s school. That the other kids benefit from being around your brilliant one. Furthermore, they seem to suggest that just being around all the normal kids in their rich diversity is good in a secondary way — for your kid.


        • Avatar BlaiseP says:

          No.  Quite the opposite.   Children aren’t brilliant, they’re just kids.  Everyone’s kid is good at something.   The essence of a public school education resolves to keeping the neighborhood kids together in a common context, so they don’t develop the little pointy heads and stupid ideas so prevalent in the private schools.   Good for a kid, be he ever so brilliant or athletic or whatever he’s good at, to be around kids of all sorts, mostly to socialize him to dealing with all sorts of people.   That’s good for democracy, letting kids sort themselves out.Report

        • Avatar BlaiseP says:

          I might add, I had serious reservations about pulling my boy out of the public school.   I made a serious effort to keep him socialized, team sports and the like, the city had plenty of that sort of thing…. but remember, this kid had gone to school with the same kids since he was in kindergarten.   Those kids kept coming over to the house, all the time.   That’s what I’d lacked as a kid, consistency, friends for the long haul.   It’s hard to lose five complete sets of friends in seven years:  that’s what happened to me and I swore my own kids would never endure that.Report

  9. Avatar Shawn Gude says:

    Really good substantive discussion. This is why I love the League.

    A few responses: I’ll concede that the Obama example isn’t the most fitting one, as the heightened security the Obama kids require may be beyond the capacity of a public school. My larger point holds true for most elected officials and the public writ large, though.

    On the question of parental involvement, pedagogy, and curriculum, communities and parents should have a role in shaping their public schools. I’m certainly in favor of a pluralistic public education system that varies with local contexts, and local control certainly bolsters democratic agency. This system of goverance can’t be used to impinge upon basic rights or undermine equity, however. Hyperlocalism can precipitate vast funding gaps between rich and poor districts.

    To my own high school education– it’s beyond question that I benefited from the magnet school I attended (having two public school educators as parents doesn’t hurt either). I received more college credit than would have been available at my home high school. On the whole, though, I regret my decision. I was an apathetic, relatively mediocre, intellectually uncurious high school student. (That changed shortly after I hit college.) In high school the one thing which did vivify me academically–newspaper, which was taught by my favorite teacher of all time– was at my home high school.Report

  10. Avatar Plinko says:

    Here’s a question that bothers me about hailing localism as a major virtue for schooling – why would we believe that the best way to determine educational priorities is to base it on the preferences of the local population?

    Taking for granted that there is no one-size fits all approach, I don’t understand why we assume that the assortment of needs would be driven by regionalism – that the kids in one town might be better served in a Montessori setting and the next town over would be better off with KIPP.  It seems much more likely to me that any given group is going to have a broad range of children and determining what approach works best would be possible only on an individual level or a macro level and finding a way to sort kids into appropriate systems.

    By making localism the determining factor, you’re guaranteeing that a  the educational flavor of the month of a district’s leaders adhere to doesn’t serve significant portions of the population, even if they happen to land on the actual right approach for a majority – who’s to balance the detriment of the minority?Report

    • Avatar BlaiseP says:

      What is implied by Localism?   In an ideal world, localism would mean the feedback loop was short enough for the teacher be in touch with the parents, working out what’s best for the child.Report

      • Avatar BSK says:

        But not all decisions can be made on an individual basis. With class sizes often pushing 30 or more, a teacher can only be so responsive to individual needs. Wich is unfortunate. Ideally, you’d have variety, so Mr. A’s 5th grade biology course might be geared towards one type of student/learning type and Ms. B’s 5th grade biology course, right across the hall, is structured very differently. And not just because the teachers are different, but because of a deliberate attempt to offer varied instruction. You could also go a level up and say JFK High employs model X and FDR hugh employs model Y and students and families self-select with support from teachers and counselors. Not a watertight solution, but better than what we got now.Report

        • Avatar BlaiseP says:

          All these are important considerations.   Yet consider the benefits of allowing the teacher some rein in terms of his own teaching methodology.   In a classroom of 30 kids, you and I both know who gets the lion’s share of attention and it isn’t the kid who needs educational input.   It’s the kid who’s acting out.Report

    • Avatar BSK says:

      There are a lot of ways to “localize” education, many of which are good, and some of which carry the real problems you point to. My belief in that governance should be “local enough” to account for the real differences that exist between communities, while macro enough to ensure that basic standards are maintained. An ELL program in Arizona should look different than one in San Franscisco which in turn should look different than one in NYC. The history curriculum, outside of local history, probably should be pretty similar.

      There is an interesting argument in favor of what is called the core knowledge program, which was panned by many for ignoring community based interests. “Why is it important for urban black kids to learn who Elvis was?” many asked. The counter to that was, right or wrong, there exists a dominant culture in this country and access to that culture is partially prdicated upon knowledge of the culture. Right or wrong, one of those aforementioned poor black kids, now grown and ready for the workforce, might have his options limited if he doesn’t understand this dominant culture. The argument runs parallel to the one around “ebonics” or AAVE, wherein often well-meaning, liberal whites argued in favor of “localism” and the community itself largely said, “You crazy? Teach our kids properly.”. Lisa Delpit probably had the most nuanced perspective, wherein she saud that kids should have their personal experiences recognized and validated while also preparing them for a world that might not be intersted in all that. Once inside that world, they can seek to broaden it.
      So, this is sort of a round about way to say I agree with you, but that we don’t necessariy need to take an either/or approach, but can pursue a both/and one.Report

      • Avatar Plinko says:

        Thanks for the nuanced response, BSK, I feel like I always see a sort of knee-jerk flight to ‘local control!!!’ as a response whenever education policy is discussed, but never any discussion of what that would entail outside of a refusal to engage with outside ideas.Report

  11. Avatar wardsmith says:

    I’ve posted this link previously elsewhere on this site, but it bears repeating. There has been a deliberate dumbing down of America. The entire e-book is free (6.5MB) and has a complete bibliography. She did her homework.

    I spent all my formative years in private schools. I complained to unsympathetic parents about always having to take the “honors” courses and my last two years of high school were all advanced placement classes. Being ‘egalitarian” I opted to send my kids to public school. By high school I’d had enough of that and made them go to a Jesuit high school like I’d done. They had an extremely hard time making the adjustment. Even though the eldest was a straight A student in K-8 he struggled to make C’s at the high school, previously he had simply been held to a different standard. He complained but learned to buckle down and now (like his younger brother) credits his high school education more than his college for the life skills he has acquired.

    My wife went to school in Taiwan. Their system is based on the British, where the “public” schools are open only to those who do the best on regular and progressively more difficult testing. Parents routinely hire tutors for their children who often spend at least 4 more hours after school in private lessons. Oh, and their school year is longer and the class day is much longer. And the classrooms typically have 60 kids in them. In Taiwan if you go to a private school it means you’re a failure (because you didn’t get accepted into the quality public school) but at least your parents are wealthy. Overcoming her stigma of private schools was my biggest challenge.

    On a world stage (see Patrick’s great OP on IQ) we have to compete with Taiwan, China, India and the rest. We’re competing with one hand tied behind our back while hopping on one foot. Even looking at the same Poisson distribution that Pat had, consider that the high achievement capable members of our society (unknown) are likely undiscoverable by our abysmal public education system. And yet Americans continue to demand preeminence on the world stage. All we’re really good at is war.Report

    • Avatar Teacher says:

      I’ve been watching with conversation with great interest but mostly lurking because anything substansive I have to say would really be quite substansive in its own right. However I’m shutting down the cloaking device to agree and emphasis a point:

      Other countries to do not attempt to educate all students.

      We are having our test scores held up against that and we’re being told that we’re failing our students because we don’t care, because we don’t teach well, because we generally suck as teachers and you can tell because our test scores are lower than other countries.

      Countries that exclude the worst students by denying them education.

      I won’t comment on the “rightness” of that and I won’t comment on the pros or cons of “weeding out” those who are not up to academic rigor.  I will say that the laws in this country now require me, as a teacher to attempt to teach some fairly advanced concepts to ~all students~, a task my Japanese counter part is not expected to attempt.


    • Avatar Roger says:


      I agreed with you right up to the last sentence. The strange thing is we are still extremely productive, extremely creative and leading the world in science, new technology and creating pharmaceuticals.  Go figure.Report

      • Avatar wardsmith says:

        Teacher, God bless you and I mean that sincerely. I couldn’t possibly teach to the /mean/ although I’ve happily volunteered to teach advanced classes and mini-courses. In truth the Germans may well have a better system wherein those who think they want to grow up to be skilled mechanics are welcome to pursue that gymnopediae. We have an economy rapidly devolving towards 90% service (unfortunately) yet still educate as if we were 90% manufacturing (and in manufacturing I include farming, the last bastion of American greatness).

        Roger, I admit to a little hyperbole there, I was in my cups as the Bard says, but looking at the Phd’s we’re minting in the STEM categories and the fact that I have to hire H1B visa candidates every year (competing with Microsoft, Intel and the rest) because American students find the curricula too challenging, I’d say we’ve got a long way to go to continue our preeminence. Of course if you are an American student and hit USC after your public school teachers have done everything they could to keep the class from advancing too quickly for the poorer students to keep up, well it is understandable that you are reluctant to put in the harsh hours to achieve relative competency.

        But so long as we regress to the mean…


    • Avatar Matty says:

      My wife went to school in Taiwan. Their system is based on the British, where the “public” schools are open only to those who do the best on regular and progressively more difficult testing.

      This does not sound like the British system I am familiar with, tax funded ‘public’ education is available to all up to the age of 18 and most areas will have one secondary school, known as a comprehensive for children of all abilities. You may be thinking of the older system retained in some counties where children are sorted by a single test at 11 into Grammar (more academic) and Technical or Secondary Modern schools. Or you may be thinking of Public Schools in the English sense, which filter by parents ability to pay the fees but do produce better exam results on average than state schools.Report

      • Avatar BlaiseP says:

        It’s a problem of definition.   Here’s what you need to understand about why Ward put it in quotes.   The UK public school is decidedly not for All Children.   It is for the scions of the elite and the well-heeled.Report

        • Avatar Matty says:

          I did refer to Public Schools at the end of my comment. My confusion was that as a product of an English comprehensive I don’t consider Public Schools the British system, they aren’t and can’t be what most of us get. Also they don’t base admission on “regular and progressively more difficult testing” but on payment of fees.Report

  12. Avatar Jaybird says:

    One point my brother-in-law likes to make is that children have no control group.

    When we pass a major overhaul of education, we always do it EVERYWHERE. We never say “well, let’s do it in 50% of the places, wait two years, then compare and contrast”. When we screw up kids, we screw up *ALL* of them.Report

    • Avatar James K says:

      Yes indeed, we don’t experiment with education – that would require a stated hypothesis, controls and proper monitoring.  All we do is tinker unsystematically.Report

    • Avatar greginak says:

      huh wha…Ed researchers do all sorts of experiments, even with control groups. The problem is in scaling up successful ideas or in even having them implemented decently. The big ideas that get passed have, in every case i have ever heard, have been researched and experimented.Report

    • Avatar Roger says:

      Inherent in experimentation is variety and selection.

      The question I will ask Greg is who does the selection and what are they selecting for?

      By asking the question I am of course implying that some of our problems are due to the wrong people selecting which ideas to spread based upon reasons which may not be related to the best outcomes.


      • Avatar greginak says:

        Research in education is done, at least in my experience, by psychologists and educators. They are testing various theories about how people learn, etc. Like most science, even social science, it goes on out of the publics eye since it is boring and slow. Also like a lot of science it only gets notice when the results are mangled by the press.  Ed researchers love to have control groups since the results are more sound although that can be difficult in some situations.Report