When someone speaks poorly of public institutions there is probably a story there.
To that point, if you read the millions of words I've written about education, you might wonder if I harbor ill will for public schools. I won’t blame you. It’s apparent in my words that there is a problem. What is it?
Well, first, I “did my time” as a K-12 public school student in three states as a child. None of it was good. I hated every minute of it and I was bored to death. I was a terrible student who never reached my potential and there were material consequences for it once I reached the real world of work, bills and taxes.
After that experience, my more important connection to schooling today is that I've been a father since 1990, and in that time I’ve seen approximately 26 years worth of first days at school. I've encountered many teachers who have taught or worked with my kids, and I've been in and out of schools as an activist parent. When it comes to knowing the ingredients for a great school, you can’t pee on my leg and tell me it’s raining.
If you’re a parent or guardian too, then you’ll find nothing surprising about me saying there is nothing on planet Earth I love more than my children. And any entity that cares for them in any way ought to anticipate scrutiny, rather than simply demanding blind support as public schools too often expect.
If I’m critical, it's not because I'm anti-public school. On the contrary, as a long-term and current stakeholder in education, I feel like James Baldwin when he talked about loving America so much that, "exactly, for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually.”
No, I don’t love public schools as much as I love America, and public education isn’t exactly my ministry, but my kids are in our local, traditional public schools for the foreseeable future. Expect a saint when things go well. Expect Braveheart when my kids get less than what they deserve academically or socially.
Let me clear up another misconception, too. You also might think I oppose racial integration (I don’t) in the schools, that I’m not fond of teachers (I am), and that I think they all should be replaced with Teach For America candidates (I don’t), and that I only believe charter schools are worthy of support (Nah!). Again, these are fair conclusions given my writing, but here on my home turf, I’m not Citizen Stewart, I’m merely an education civilian who is deeply concerned my kids will miss important opportunities to learn.
My kids are assigned to district schools based on our residential address. There are at least three charter schools nearby that we could have selected but didn’t. One is a sham. Another has an all-year schedule that would likely put my kids on track for therapy in the future. The third I can’t find on a map, but I have heard it isn’t for us. We’re pretty light on options.
In our school, we have nothing but veteran unionized teachers (with an average tenure of 12 years), who have mastered their styles of teaching to the extent that they can. Our school is clean, safe, well-maintained, well-staffed and in the hands of competent leadership.
On top of that, the student body is racially integrated with about 50% White students and 30% Black students, with smaller populations of Latinx, Asian and multiracial students.
As schools go, it’s pretty good.
Oh, there is one more thing to mention: The school is failing.
Out of 850 elementary schools in the state of Minnesota, ours ranks somewhere in the middle. White students perform above the state average with about 75% proficiency in math. For Black students, it’s only 29%. If I offered you more stats they would only get worse.
So why are our kids there?
Did you see everything that I said above? It's clean. Safe. Integrated. The teachers are nice people. Some of them teach well.
Our kids are generally happy. They have social relationships with children across the spectrum—from those living in poverty to those living in nearly million-dollar homes—and, unlike the horror stories we hear from across the country, we haven’t cut music, art and physical education out of the school day.
But, the truth is, when I think about all of this I struggle. Because I investigate and promote schools for a living, I get to see how much more rigorous other schools can be when compared to ours. I see schools that are better organized around achievement, where kids are mastering lessons my kids aren’t even exposed to—where the technology keeps parents, students and teachers on the same page.
You can’t rewind childhood, so I feel like we might be succumbing to lowered standards while children elsewhere are challenged to be their most excellent. That haunts me.
This is why I am so incredibly critical of public schools. It's not because I have abandoned them, or because I am against them in general. I want these schools to be better for my kids and yours, and I don’t intend to be quiet about it.
My critics—often people with kids in private schools or “public” schools so exclusive they should be considered private—will see my activism as breaking the sacred ritual of speaking no evil toward a cherished institution, but it won’t stick.
When I ask you repeatedly “how are the children,” you have to know that the first ones I’m thinking of are mine. They are basically OK, but their schools could be much better. And isn't better what we all want for our kids?