Why Public Education Matters

Mike Dwyer

Mike Dwyer is a former writer and contributor at Ordinary Times.

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23 Responses

  1. Patrick says:

    A JPL scientist whose name I won’t mention because it might embarrass him does advanced Math schooling at our kids’ public school and he’s awesome at teaching the kids. We have a few Caltech people that help teach science classes (including my wife). We have a guy who runs his own groundskeeping business that tends the school garden, an Audubon society member that teaches science lessons about birds, another JPL guy that does robotics and volunteer science teaching, an artist who gets the kids to paint murals on campus, the list goes on.

    The more people put into public schools, the more the kids get out of ’em.Report

    • Mad Rocket Scientist in reply to Patrick says:

      I love volunteering at schools for science & math education! I wish I had more time to do it (toddlers eat up soOoOoOo much time…). At least I still get to participate in FIRST.Report

  2. Darwy says:

    I have very fond memories of field trips out to Barn Island, Project O, Sturbridge Village and others.

    Those natural science trips I took are a large part of why I went to college in my chosen fields. My teachers during my junior high and high school years were wonderful, inspiring people to whom I still am indebted.Report

  3. Good post, Mike. The opportunities for education are just about everywhere, and (assuming we don’t kill a their sense of curiosity), most children are interested to learn about a lot of different things. The education system would be well-served if it could incorporate some of these opportunities into their standard offerings (much as Patrick describes).Report

  4. Kazzy says:


    It seems as if you are using the term “public education” in a different way than we typically do. Your excerpt juxtaposes “public education” and the “traditional classroom”, though for many people, the traditional classroom is public education.

    Can you expand on how you are using that phrase?


    • Cascadian in reply to Kazzy says:

      @Kazzy I’ve been busy and haven’t been around. You asked me what I thought the role of public education was in a thread that has its comments closed. I didn’t mean to ignore you.

      In the context of that conversation and knowing what you do for a living, I’d answer that kids should have the ability to maximize their potential. It’s a pretty milk toast answer but it’s a huge question just for little ones.

      When I was initially thinking about the proper role for public education my mind exploded. Who for? Preschool? knitting for grandmothers at a community center? legal education for inmates? MOOTS for adults? It was just too big and messy of a question. Today it seems that education is more important and diversified in its benefits than at any other time. It’s also a time when the internet is changing things faster than Gutenberg. I’m not smart enough to see the end picture or ultimate answer to a broader reading of your question.Report

      • Kazzy in reply to Cascadian says:


        No worries. When I asked the question, I was speaking specifically of public K-12 education, but there is certainly room to consider other pieces of it, and to even wonder if public K-12 education should be what we default to when thinking about “public education”.

        But I ask because so many people want to say, “This is what we need to do to fix education?” Which leads me to ask the questions you posited here: For whom are we fixing it? For what?

        I am very, very purpose driven. Identify a goal or set of goals. Identify a path to achieve those goals. Start down the path. Evaluate as you go whether the decisions you make are getting you closer or further from your goals. Rinse. Repeat.

        I will say that the number of educators who have no purpose, no goals, no why to the what of their work… eash.

        One more anecdote: I sometimes have colleagues come up and say, “What do you think of this lesson?”
        “It depends.”
        “On what.”
        “Well, what is your objective?”
        “Um… I dunno. It’s a math lesson. And I think it is cool!”
        “‘Cool’ is not a learning objective. Is your focus on multiplying fractions? Or reducing them?”
        “Both, I guess.”
        “You guess?”
        “Yea. I mean, it just seems like a great lesson. The guy next door did something similar so I had this idea.”

      • Mad Rocket Scientist in reply to Cascadian says:

        @kazzy Don’t your colleagues have degrees with some component regarding how to educate youngins’? They anecdotes you relate sometimes make me wonder if you are working with people who have degrees in $SUBJECT_MATTER, but no training in being a teacher.Report

      • Kazzy in reply to Cascadian says:

        Heh. Well… it depends…

        Some folks do not have degrees in education. A number of our assistants are career-changers. This isn’t uncommon in independent schools. Most, if not all, are working towards degrees in education. The more experienced ones have taken on larger roles in the classroom, but still lack some critical skills.

        A number of other teachers, especially as you move into the upper grades, do indeed have degrees in their respective content areas, but not necessary in education. This boggles my mind. Mastery of the content area is important, but so is pedagogy.

        But teacher education programs are also largely to blame. I went to one of the top graduate schools for education in the country. Even there, my curriculum development class had a number of people who thought a cobbling together of potentially good lessons/activities constituted a “curriculum”. Terms like “scaffold” or “sequencing” were unfamiliar to them, even after completion of the course.

        I do think some of this is a larger human failing. How many people take “health advice” without first setting goals? Retirement advice? Career advice? How many people even have articulated goals for themselves in any area?Report

      • Mad Rocket Scientist in reply to Cascadian says:

        @kazzy Suddenly, I want to home school my kid…Report

      • Kazzy in reply to Cascadian says:


        It is one reason why my opposition to increasingly standardized education in our public systems is, at most, soft. Standardization removes control from classroom teachers. I, personally, balk at this because I feel capable of properly exercising that control. I’m far from perfect, but I think I’ve got a pretty good batting average. But a lot of teachers can’t properly exercise this control. So decisions are made on their behalf by more talented/knowledgeable people. It is far from a perfect system. But given that we can’t or won’t address teacher standards from the bottom up, we have to look for top-down solutions. Unfortunately, this becomes self-perpetuating.

        I realize I am pointing with broader strokes. There are a great many talented teachers, in both the public and private sector. Most are at least competent. Most public schools do a decent enough job.

        I see behind the curtain so I know how the sausage is made. But, hey, sausage still tastes good. Given what you bring to the table as a parent, I’m pretty confident your kids will turn out well.Report

      • BlaiseP in reply to Cascadian says:

        @mad-rocket-scientist : I home schooled my youngest, the boy. Most people don’t realise how home schooling doesn’t just take the kid out of a bad system but also puts the parent into the role of teacher. Not an easy job.

        Lot of mickey-mouse stuff to do. Be prepared to do a LOT of grading homework, writing lesson plans, making sure the material gets covered. Add another two, maybe three hours to your working day. It’s really no different than what a teacher does, anyway.

        My son had some specific issues: he’d been in a gifted program which didn’t continue into high school. He was self-motivated, which most kids aren’t. But it wasn’t easy working with him. It’s hard to plan anything, harder to do what a teacher’s learned over the years. My wife was a teacher but she had baskets full of her own kids’ work to grade, her own lesson plans to write. I ended up doing most of my son’s pedagogy and truth is, I wasn’t nearly as good at it as I though I’d be.Report

      • Cascadian in reply to Cascadian says:

        I’m not familiar with what’s available in the States these days. We used to use a homeschooling center for help with curriculum and science classes when we were in Seattle. In Canuckistan, we have distance learning. The curriculum is all laid out. Kid get’s a couple boxes of books and lessons each term. We work through this together then email the finished work to a teacher that evaluates and corrects it. It’s a pretty great system.Report

      • Kazzy in reply to Cascadian says:


        PLEASE tell me that “Canuckistan” is a real place!Report

      • BlaiseP in reply to Cascadian says:

        Oh, Canuckistan is real, all right. The annual migration of the gorbies will soon be under way, as soon as there’s any decent snow pack on the slopes of Canuckistan.Report

      • Cascadian in reply to Cascadian says:

        @kazzy Of course Canuckistan is a real place. As is the Province of Lotus Land. ; )Report

      • Mad Rocket Scientist in reply to Cascadian says:

        @kazzy @blaisep

        I’m not seriously considering homeschooling The Bug, although my wife & I are more than ready to supplement his education should we find areas that are lacking (me being the science & math guy, my wife covering the liberal arts). But the idea that teachers don’t know how to put together a logical curriculum… that worries me.

        as to @cascadian comment, WA state has a distance learning program very similar to what he describes, as well as a lot of homeschool support via online resources (provided the parents do not think the internet is an evil place and refuse to go there – my wife ran across such people when she worked as a public librarian, folks wanting her to get the information for them & then print it all out for them).Report

      • Kazzy in reply to Cascadian says:


        My new assistant is an aspiring teacher currently working on her masters. She brings lots of ideas and energy to the classroom, which is great. But I constantly have to ask her “Why?” when she pitches an idea. But she’s young. And, hopefully, will learn.

        And I should say that not ALL teachers can’t put together a logical curriculum. But there is no doubt a significant subset who can’t. They may be over-represented in the private system since, despite much marketing to the contrary, we technically have no hard standards for employment.Report

      • BlaiseP in reply to Cascadian says:

        But the idea that teachers don’t know how to put together a logical curriculum… that worries me. Teachers do know how to assemble a logical curriculum. But that’s not how things work out in practice, unless you’re in a private school or some other situation where teachers have some authority — or they’re shielded by competent school administrations and that has to go up to district level as well.

        All these wonderful teachers we read about every so often, you know, the superstar teachers who produce such remarkable results? See above paragraph for why they even exist at all.Report

    • Mike Dwyer in reply to Kazzy says:


      I guess I would call that ‘public school education.

      I view public education as anything going on outside the classroom. It’s geared toward the public and not just to students. When I was an archaeologist we called the academic side of this ‘public archaeology’.

      The problem I probably made by writing this post way too fast was in not being clear that there are two goals here:

      – Educate adults to create cheerleaders for your work
      – Provide curriculum-specific instruction for students on field trips.Report

      • Kazzy in reply to Mike Dwyer says:

        Thanks, Mike. I like that thinking. I think you might be interested to read some of the early advocates of progressive education, particularly John Dewey.

        Disclaimer #1: Progressive education as it was envisioned in the early part of the 20th century and progressive education as it is largely practiced now are two different beasts. So, if you have your misgivings about the current practice, please do not let it bleed into your study of the former.
        Disclaimer #2: I have come to understand that Dewey was also part of the broader progressive political movement at the time. I know very little of this and will say that I didn’t read very much overt politics in his educational writing. So, if you have your misgivings about the progressive political movement of the time, please do not let it bleed into your study of the parallel educational movement.

        Dewey’s seminal work is aptly named “Experience and Education”. Wikipedia offers a pretty solid summary that might wet your appetite: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Experience_and_Education_(book)

        In my own teaching, I often get looks from parents when they ask about field trips and I say, “We’ll have to see where our curriculum takes us.” I do think there is value in young children doing something fun for fun’s sake, but I don’t think that field trips should be seen as a break from learning. Rather, it is a unique opportunity to enhance it. So a few years ago, when my kids wanted to build their own airport in our dramatic play area, we visited a local airport. We got to tour the hangar, drive down the runway, interact with various professionals… it was amazing. Some parents would have rather we simply gone to a zoo and looked at animals (which no doubt can be a valuable experience), but after that trip, these kids literally built an airplane and airport out of cardboard and other materials. It was an amazing experience on so many levels. To me, that is what field trips ought to be about.Report

      • BlaiseP in reply to Mike Dwyer says:

        If only John Dewey was turned loose on the public education system today, what a housecleaning he’d do. Trouble is, I think he’d get into the same quarrels with the educational establishment he did back in his own time, at the Laboratory School.

        The signal problem with education, then and now, is how utterly political it’s become. Every two-bit elected official feels obliged to mess with it. Won’t empower teachers in their own classrooms. Won’t apply scientific principles to the problem — especially all these Creationist dunces cropping up everywhere. Won’t view education, especially early childhood education, as the most important investment we can possibly make in our citizenry. Lost in the shuffle are the children themselves.

        I often disagree with you, Kazzy, but as a teacher, you are more important than you could possibly know.Report

      • Murali in reply to Mike Dwyer says:

        Dewey had his fingers in a lot of pies. Dewey was also involved in pragmatism, which is in many ways a fundamental shift in focus in philosophy.Report