How Public Education Can Survive…and Prosper

As public schools were reopening around the country in September, The New York Times devoted an entire Sunday “Opinion” section to ask “What Is School For?”   Twelve writers provided answers, including “Everyone,” “Economic Mobility,” “Making Citizens,“Learning to Read,” and “Wasting Time.”  In the lead essay NPR’s Anya Kamenetz argued that while public schools are for everyone, they are also in serious trouble; declining enrollments, teacher shortages, right-wing attacks, more voucher programs that siphon funds away from public schools, and funding cuts are among the problems she delineates.

But what about the future? Can public education be saved? If so, how and by whom?  Because The Times did not address those questions, let me suggest that, if public schools are going to survive and prosper, they must emulate public libraries.

Not long ago public libraries, not schools, were the endangered species: no one was reading books because video and video games were taking over. Funding for libraries was shrinking, and they were opening late, closing early, and staying shut one or two days a week.   

What happened?  Contrary to popular myth, it wasn’t just ‘Harry Potter.’  No, the library community woke up and realized that they had to market themselves. Librarians added DVD’s to their collections, made their public spaces hospitable, created events for different groups, and reached out to their various communities.  

Their strategies worked, in most places anyway. Over the last two decades, public libraries have made themselves ‘must go’ places for millions of Americans, young and old. Today, two-thirds of us carry library cards, and half of us visit the library at least once a year. If you’re like me, you ‘visit’ your local library on-line, click some buttons to borrow books, then go to the building itself when the library reaches out to say that your book is ready. Nothing could be easier or more appealing.

A 2013 survey revealed just how much we care about libraries:  Some 90% of Americans ages 16 and older said that the closing of their local public library would have an impact on their community, with 63% saying it would have a “major” impact. Asked about the personal impact of a public library closing, two-thirds (67%) of Americans said it would affect them and their families, including 29% who said it would have a major impact.”

For years the fundamental difference between public schools and public libraries was that nobody had to go to the library, while school attendance was mandatory.  Schools were a monopoly and had little or no reason to change–or even question–what they were doing.

However, a lot of people were unhappy with public schools, but those seeking alternatives to traditional schooling were generally rebuffed by local School Boards and other political entities, which were seemingly more concerned about test scores, graduation rates, and cutting budgets than about the individual needs of students. But just saying ‘no’ to demands for change didn’t work, and parents today have choices, including public charter schools, on-line schooling, vouchers, and homeschooling. That is, today many children do not have to go to their local public school. 

And both during and after COVID, many parents have been voting with their feet, as The Times and others have pointed out.  “Public school enrollment remains down for a second consecutive year, at 49.5 million in fall 2021 compared to 49.4 million in fall 2020, according to preliminary federal counts from the U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics. Comparatively, pre-pandemic enrollment was at 50.8 million students in fall 2019.”

Defenders of public education often respond by attacking voucher programs, online schooling, and charter schools–often with good reason.  However, this defensive strategy, even when supported by strong evidence of embezzlement, inefficiency, and low achievement, will not be enough to bring back dissatisfied parents. Nor will negativity build support among the general public, the 75% of households who do not have school age children.

To survive and prosper, more public schools must do what public libraries did: 1) sell themselves to parents and the general public and 2) get better. 

Displaying student work on school walls is not enough. Instead, students should be working in public and with the public.  Here are a few possibilities: 

  1. Teams of 7th and 8th graders interview local merchants about their businesses and then post the stories, with photos, on the school website. 
  2. Groups of 3rd and 4th graders go to local nursing homes to read to, and chat with, residents. Post the student reports, with photos, on the web. 
  3. Invest in an outdoor air quality monitor (less than $300) so that teams of 5th and 6th graders can monitor the local air quality several times each day. Link with other middle schools around the state so students can compare and contrast air quality. Invite local experts to Zoom with students to answer questions. The reports should be posted regularly on the school website.
  4. 10th and 11th graders ask local residents–especially those without school age children–to recite well-known lines like Hamlet’s “To be, or not to be” soliloquy. Then students should edit the videos so that each resident has one or two lines. Next, post the resulting montages.

What is likely to happen is a groundswell of public enthusiasm: “Did you know what kids are doing these days?” and “Don’t you wish you could be a kid again?” and “Did you see me on the web? Reciting Shakespeare!” 

Activities like the above are game-changers for children as well, but schools must do even more. Today’s kids swim in the internet’s sea of information, and so schools must help them learn to distinguish truth and facts from fiction and misinformation….while encouraging them to choose facts and truths.

Because the purpose of school is to Help Grow American Citizens, it’s worth unpacking that phrase. “Help” conveys an essential point: schooling is a cooperative endeavor with parents and educators working in the best interests of children. 

Because schooling is a movie, not a snapshot, “Grow” suggests that School Boards should actively discourage high-stakes testing.  Those exams reveal how students did on that test on that particular day–and perhaps not much more.   Those tests (asking “How Smart Are You?”) are supported by those who want to sort and classify children. However, parents and competent teachers recognize that every child has talent and therefore ask a different question, “How Is This Child Smart?”

What does it mean to be “American” today? Is it flag-waving, flag-burning, or somewhere in the middle?  That’s an important, if difficult, conversation to have.  

The final word of the phrase, “Citizen,” also cries out for public conversation.  Just what do we want all children to be able to do when they grow up?  If we want adults to work well with others, then students ought to be working together in school on projects and other ‘cooperative learning’ endeavors.  If we want adults to be comfortable speaking in public, then children ought to be doing that in school. If we want adults to be able to make sound decisions, then students ought to be deeply involved in determining their course of study.  

Schools that change along these lines will be offering parents more choices for their children, and enrollment will climb.  Responsive schools will survive the attacks by forces that do not want Americans to think for themselves.  Conversely, public schools that fail to adapt will continue to wither, depriving millions of children the education they are entitled to.

11 thoughts on “How Public Education Can Survive…and Prosper

  1. John, your thesis is right on target, as far as it goes. Perhaps your sentence, “For years the fundamental difference between public schools and public libraries was that nobody had to go to the library, while school attendance was mandatory.” needs a companion. Public libraries empower their visitors to make 100 % of their own choices about which resources to use. Let’s amplify further your sentence, “If we want adults to be able to make sound decisions, then students ought to be deeply involved in determining their course of study.” We must advocate for self-directed learning in a democratic environment. Learn by making decisions.


  2. Dear John: I know something about education as I taught in public schools and Catholic schools for over 34 years. In addition, my son is a HS teacher at Brophy College Prep and my daughter is a k-6 Dual Immersion teacher (Spanish and English) at a public magnet school The Sherman Academy. Public schools have to be safe and offer things of value to parents and students. In general I would say American schools are mediocre to poor.

    I have tutored (privately) many homeschooled students. Unlike other public-school teachers who are hostile to homeschooling families I was glad to help them areas THEY KNEW THEY WERE NOT QUALIFIED TO TEACH such as a Foreign Language (Spanish), I also taught homeschoolers who were concurrently enrolled in the local junior college. Most students were in a home school environment k-8 only because they wanted to do high school sports. One of the reasons the public supports public schools is due to the athletic programs. But schools without athletic programs or special academic programs or certification programs are not going to attract and retain students.

    Some inner-city schools are so bad and so dishonest they should have been shut down years ago. Schools are dishonest when they have AP classes on the books but year to year not a single student takes or passes the AP test. In some schools they no longer use AP texts. Schools also play around with attendance figures. If a student comes one minute before the bell he or she is marked as “TARDY” which counts as present for the day. This is, in my opinion and corrupt and demoralizing practice. Many schools are reluctant to discipline or suspend students and the long-term effect on teachers is also demoralizing.

    And of course in some states like California they have stopped administering the CAHSEE or High School Exit exam. I taught and tutored the CAHSEE for many years. often tutoring all day on Saturdays. Students knew they had to pass in English or Math and were motivated to attend regularly and even come voluntarily to tutoring. One effect of the CAHSEE was that “D-Dare Devils” and chronic cheaters could not graduate without showing basic skills. The test was fair and not over rigorous. Students could pass the English section independently of the Math section and take the exam multiple times.

    But the powers that be (Gov Newsome) granted diplomas to hundreds of thousands of students who did not pass the CAHSEE and stopped administering the exam. Before the CAHSEE most school districts had their own writing and math proficiencies but to my knowledge no district had reestablished exit exams. So many students accumulate hollow credits. We have some idea of the low education level of graduates as to how they score on ASVABS and how many have to take remedial classes at Junior Colleges.

    By the way I attended public schools and our three children all went to public schools and State Colleges. So I am grateful for the public education I received and the education our children received. So I am not anti-education or anti-public education.

    But I am in favor of authentic standards and integrity in schooling. One of the reasons I was a longtime advocate of AP classes is the fact that AP classes are demonstrably comprehensive and represent an authentic standard. Even students who scored only a 2 (Possibly qualified) were far better prepared that students in general classes. Public schools will thrive IF

    1) they are safe and clean places to learn
    2) they have academic rigor
    3) they embrace concurrent credit with local junior colleges
    4) they offer on-line classes and special certifications
    5) They offer vocational programs.
    6) they have strong athletic programs and JROTC programs

    Public schools will not thrive if they are hostile to the values of the local community. Public schools will not thrive if they tolerate violence or indiscipline among students. Public schools will not thrive if they do not have a variety of athletic and extra-curricular activities. Public schools will not have the respect of the local community if they do not represent authentic academic standards that are universally accepted.

    I believe “school choice” should be an option but only as a last resort. One of the things that disturbs me about private schools and charter schools is that teachers are often exploited, underpaid and not secure in their jobs. One of the challenges of American schools is attracting and retaining teachers.

    If teaching is not a financially stable career then many teachers will leave the profession or decide not to go into education. A society that does not value and hold teachers in high esteem is a society that is doomed to chaos, mediocrity and decline.


  3. I have a very different view of how to save America’s public schools — and they definitely need saving. Without some kind of dramatic change, our public school system could easily be completely compromised within 15 years.
    The first step to saving our schools is to recognize that our school system is a toxic soup of misconceptions and noise. As the Times indicated, we don’t even really know what school is for. The vast majority of our classrooms violate the First Principle of schooling: amplify innate learning drives, do NOT short-circuit them. But that’s exactly what we do: transform enthusiastic kindergartners into bored fourth-graders.
    Because we ignore the First Principle and short circuit learning drives, public education in America today is a failed industry. Proficiency on NAEP ranges from 12% to a high of 41%. This is ridiculous.
    The second step is to understand why our schools have failed. As we all know, our schools were created in the industrial age to retool farm kids for factories. This involved deeply compromising children’s humanity by using the power-down or “vertical”, command-and-control paradigm that is non-innovative and results in low expectations.
    Power-down schools knock out of children exactly the human qualities that we need today: critical thinking, collaboration, creativity, curiosity and other “soft skills.” The resulting system is imprinted on virtually every American child starting at age 5, so it’s just part of everyone’s reality. Significant efforts have been expended over the decades to make schooling more student-centered, but this seems to be a perpetual losing battle.
    Research I observed at Duke University showed a path to success. It changed the fundamental paradigm in the classroom from the industrial, power-down model to the power-up, “empower-and-connect” model for 5000 K-2 students in the research and many others in K-5 and high schools that voluntarily adopted the pedagogy when the research ended. The results were dramatic: a 24-fold increase in the number of disadvantaged students identified as gifted and, in an example high-fidelity school, an increase in fifth grade proficiency in ELA/math/science from 41% to 86% as the proportion of poor students went from 71% to 89%. This is on the order of a ten times effectiveness increase with no changes other than philosophy and pedagogy.
    Because the Duke project observed the First Principle, these economically disadvantaged but high-achieving students loved school and were enthusiastic about learning and life. Teachers and parents enthusiastically supported the program. Nonetheless, every single school backslid to the old paradigm when leadership changed because, it turns out, American schools optimize for the comfort of leadership and NOT for student achievement.
    I have mentioned these results to many education school professors and other pundits. Not one has ever showed surprise, as if these kinds of results were commonplace. This is a huge disconnect: if we can make our schools 10 times better, why don’t we scale up a program to do just that and figure out how to stop the backsliding? If this requires a Manhattan project, then start a Manhattan project — or ten if need be.
    This could all be done virally using the Tesla model. A small group of people started Tesla in 2005 and, a mere 17 years later, the entire $5trillion automotive industry is being irreversibly transformed. The same could be done in education. But let’s not fool ourselves: the only way our public school system can survive and even prosper is by making all American schools into First Principle, power-up schools.
    I don’t see any alternative. Does anyone else on this thread?


  4. Good points here! Remember our visits to the library when we were in school. The librarians showed us how to find books of interest in the card files. Today it’s on our cellphones. What’s not there now is someone to help us find the right sources or novels of proper interest. First must come the learner’s desire to learn.

    We must show them why it’s critically important in life to learn more useful knowedge from those who can help us find it….our librarians, teachers, parents, counselors and mentors. The need for more knowledge is a lifelong pursuit of learning and sharing what we learn with others, just as we learned.


  5. Hugh Osborn, whom I have not met but know for his commitment to better learning opportunities for all children, makes a number of great points in his comments above. This one, toward the end, is chilling, and his question demands exploration. “I have mentioned these results to many education school professors and other pundits. Not one has ever showed surprise, as if these kinds of results were commonplace. This is a huge disconnect: if we can make our schools 10 times better, why don’t we scale up a program to do just that and figure out how to stop the backsliding?”

    So, WHY DON’T WE? Is it because we don’t care about ‘other people’s children,’ to borrow Lisa Delpit’s memorable phrase? I fear it’s because we believe education to be a zero-sum game: if lots of other children get a great education, my children won’t get into the best colleges or get the best jobs!

    The other question that we reporters are trained to ask is ‘WHO BENEFITS?’ Follow the money, and you will discover that lots of pieces of the system benefit from failure and mediocrity. A great example is the proliferation of remedial education departments in community colleges. To stay in business, they NEED failing students, and so they have NO incentive to intervene at the HS level to prevent students from performing poorly. The best way to impress HS students about CC’s expectations would be to give the placement test to all HS juniors; then give them their results and say “If you don’t do better, you will come to CC and essentially REPEAT your HS junior and senior years. You will use up your Pell grant, and, after two years, you will then be ready to actually take college courses.” That would wake kids up, but it would mean far fewer kids needing remediation. That would spell the end of the CC Remediation Department. Follow the money to find out who benefits….

    For the same reasons, we cannot expect teacher training institutions to be of much use in reforming education, because they benefit from the continuing exodus from teaching: they train the replacements. If teaching were truly a highly respected and well-paid profession, more men and women would stay….and teacher training institutions would see their enrollments decline. Again, follow the money!

    Treating every child as ‘gifted’ is the beginning of the paradigm shift that Hugh Osborn is calling for. Asking my Q, ‘How is this child smart?’ instead of ‘How smart is this child?’ is another way of taking that step. But we have to follow through.

    We need to make the case that our society benefits when everyone has a decent chance to succeed. We believed that when we passed the GI Bill (though a big part of the reason it passed was to keep ex-GI’s (battle-trained warriors!) from being idle on the streets) over the objection of most of higher education.

    We have to appeal to different parts of our brain: educate all children 1) Because it’s the morally and ethically right thing to do; 2) Because our economy needs trained workers, or else the Chinese will eat our lunch); and 3) Because if we don’t, they will grow up to pillage, rape, and kill US!

    Pick your reason!


  6. John, these are great points. I really hadn’t thought about the organizations making money from the failure of the system. But I really don’t understand why the top professors from Harvard and Stanford, who focus on policy more than training, don’t advocate for one or more Manhattan projects to figure out how to stop the backsliding. We know how to fix the system but we don’t.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s