Digging Deep: What is Public Education?

This topic weighs on my mind all the time and certainly is a valid question for all of us.

What is public education supposed to be doing?  I would love if anyone who comments would write a 2-3 sentence reply to that question. 

To aid in this discussion, I bring up two articles.  (For now, I'm leaving out the growing - and coming-to-your-child's-classroom like a freight train - issue of so-called "personalized learning" via technology.)  (All bold mine.)

One article is from the Center on Reinventing Public Education.  Along with being a charter thinktank, they also like to put forth ideas about what they think public education should be (but they are not interested in any discussion and, of course, you can't comment on their articles.)

I Ain’t Talking to You If You Ain’t Talking About Structural Reform spins off from remarks from the Washington State Teacher of the Year, Nate Bowling, who said, "“If you ain't talking about the teacher in the classroom, I ain't listening.”  Naturally, CRPE is disappointed with his stance.

Here's what CRPE likes:
I read Nate’s post the day before we opened our annual Portfolio Network meeting, a meeting focused on all kinds of policy discussions that Nate might refuse to talk about: moving autonomy and funding to the school level, unifying enrollment systems to ensure equal access across district and charter schools, replacing or turning around low-performing schools.
Basically, that all kinds of schools, including district and charter schools, would be one big happy family where people all enrollment in one place and you could mix and mingle kids and schools.  Except, of course, for a couple of major issues.

One, it's not a happy family when some of the relatives don't have the same public oversight as others.  Where some relatives can be a public entity on some issues and a private one on others.  Where one entity has to provide the infrastructure for a big item (like athletics) that the other entity gets to access.

Two, if you are "replacing or turning around low-performing schools" but there are different rubrics for that assessment for different schools.

But there are two lines from the article that struck me that pertains specifically to this discussion:

The primary job of government has to be ensuring that every child in every neighborhood has a range of good schooling options.

Parents and teachers have to be able to opt-in to schools that are a good fit, not be assigned.

As someone who grew up in a small town with no choices, those two items strike me.  Because options would be nice in a small town but how does anyone afford them in a school system?  Because if you open a charter in a small town, it will immediately affect the school system.

I think it possible in suburban and urban settings to have choices and, to my knowledge, most of them in this country do have options for students via magnet schools or alternative learning schools.  Are they harder to access?  Yes, but there's usually a reason for that (either in schools that have struggled in the past that are further away from many other schools or requirements to get in to keep that magnet focus.)

Those two thoughts from CRPE also strike me as very American.  We're Americans and we love to have choices.  But ask any foreigner who comes to the U.S. and goes to a Bartell's - so many choices! It's overwhelming and how do you know which one is best?  Getting the wrong toothpaste?  Not such a bad choice but getting the wrong school for your child? There's a bad choice.

That first statement strikes me as a fundamental question for lawmakers and citizens - is it the primary job of government to provide school choices for parents?  Is there really the money for all that choice? 

The second statement, about picking your school, does play into the feeling of being in control.  But, of course, if every assigned school is fully-funded with good teachers and a good principal, you can probably feel better about the assignment.  There may be that tickle in the back of your brain - "Maybe there's a better school for my child?" That may be true, but one huge item that CRPE overlooks is that parents like their child being in their neighborhood and creating connections and community there.

The second article is called The Split Screen Strategy: How to Turn Education into a Self-Improving System by Ted Kolderie and it was reviewed at Education Next.   Mr. Kolderie is a whole-hearted charter supporter so you'll probably wonder why I'd be interested in what he has to say. 

The “split screen” refers to Kolderie’s two-pronged approach to school reform, working within the existing system to try to make it better (what he calls “improvement”) while at the same time creating new systems to replace it (what he calls “innovation”).

So take out charters and this could be a good idea for districts.  What are we doing on both sides of what needs to be done in public education?

The “innovation” screen, at its core, envisions a choice-driven school environment where teachers are in charge and are tasked with personalizing an education for every child in their charge. It gives them what Kolderie calls “meaningful authority,” not just to set the course of learning for students but to establish standards of practice for the professionals in their building. He sees innovative schools as led less by single administrators like principals and more by a “partnership” of top professionals (as found in law firms or health clinics). Accountability systems would likewise evolve to encompass a broader set of indicators to try to more thoroughly capture what it means to be an educated person. It is a system marked by iteration, feedback, and improvement, and driven by empowered students, families, and teachers.

This sounds very much like the Finland model. 

I'll interject here that, truly, the only empowerment I have seen for charter school parents is in choosing the school.  I have seen very little that parents actually have a say in anything that happens in these schools.
On a fundamental level, Kolderie’s reform strategy makes a great deal of sense. The vast majority of children attend traditional public schools, and even with the growth of charter schools, publicly supported private schooling, and home schooling, the current system stands to remain the dominant educational modality for the foreseeable future. Any strategy that doesn’t have something to say about these children and these schools will be a call for “revolution at the margins.”

At the same time, it appears that Kolderie argues that our current system is “torqued out.” He seems to endorse former Minnesota Education Association president Bob Astrup’s argument that “as traditionally arranged the K‒12 system is giving us the most it can.” If this is the case, and there is evidence to support the claim, isn’t time spent on improving these institutions a waste? Shouldn’t all of our efforts be expended replacing the current system?
Readers, do you think our current system is "torqued out" or better yet, how would YOU describe our current system?  (Please don't say "broken" - be specific.)  And no, all our efforts should NOT be expended in replacing the current system because the system continues to work for many, many students.  (And, of course, charters have not shown anything near the promises they make nor are most of them scaleable.)

Probably the most common critique of Kolderie’s vision will be that pursuing it is risky. He advocates moving large numbers of students and large amounts of money into unproven learning systems that have fewer guardrails to protect students and taxpayer dollars. More-motivated or connected parents will be better able to navigate this system and create for their children a higher-quality education than poorer or less-motivated parents. It risks widening educational inequality.

Those arguments don’t hold up. In fact, Kolderie’s vision is less risky for poor families than our current system is, as it breaks down many of the walls that are currently keeping poor families out of good schools.
His newly reimagined system is a great opportunity for teachers to create schools and classes, free from bureaucratic meddling, but in order for the system to work, teachers will have to be comfortable with risk. They will have to be willing to put their “product” (for lack of a better term) out there for people to use or not use. That is a big ask. For all we complain about step-and-lane pay scales, defined benefit pensions, and multihundred-page collective bargaining agreements that spell out every minute of a teacher’s day, they provide a work environment that is light on risk. Moving to Kolderie’s nimble, agile, continuously improving system will require teachers and leaders who want to experiment, and fail, and iterate, and improve. It might very well require a major shift in the way we select, prepare, evaluate, and compensate teachers.
The new system will only work if everyone is clear-eyed about the purpose and buys into what it is trying to do. Failure will happen, and we have to be honest about that. 
In a way, that is what is happening now.  We have charter schools in this country that are, if you believe their talk of "innovation" and change, are basically experimenting on kids to try to find new and better ways to reach them.  If only charters were these hot-beds of innovation, we WOULD be able to gauge what works and what doesn't and if it is scaleable/affordable.

"Do Schools Have a Civic Purpose?"

This question in the article circles us back to our primary question about the role of public education in this country.
The Achilles’ heel of any argument for substantially personalized learning is that we have a school system not simply for the benefit of individual students but also for the cultivation of our next generation of citizens.  
Much of the talking past one another in contemporary American education discourse happens because many on the left see education entirely as a public good and many on the right see it entirely as a private good. 
 Meaning are we training students or educating them?  Creating smart worker bees or educated citizens?
Education is a mixed good; some of the benefits accrue to the individual, like increased earnings, better health, and a longer life, and some of the benefits accrue to society as a whole, like better civic engagement, more tax revenue, less crime, and less dependence on social welfare programs. An overly personalized system may tilt too far in the direction of private good, and risk eroding the values and institutions that protect the freedom of families to choose what is best for their children.
 Your thoughts?


Rick Burke said…
Melissa, thanks for this post. I hope folks will read it through a couple of times and comment thoughtfully. In SPS, we spend a lot of time putting out fires (many of our own creation) and don't always keep our eyes on the prize. A big part of this is a murky definition of what that prize actually looks like and how we measure it. College readiness? Career pathways and preparation? Skills foundations? Higher order thinking? Civic awareness? Equity and social justice? Collaboration skills? Self confidence? Work ethic? ...etc...
Anonymous said…
"low-performing schools" or schools with low performing students? Kind of tough to tell the difference.

NNNCr, that's a good point that Charlie often made. He thinks there are not low-performing schools but schools that have high numbers of students with challenges. This is why I bring up poverty so much - you cannot lay all the blame/responsibility to schools if societal issues are at the fore. At that point, the whole system has to be involved (or money given to districts to create whole-child systems.)

I note that even though South Shore gets $1M extra a year, they still struggle. Their scores are on the higher end of schools with similar populations but still, they struggle.
Greg said…
Okay, I'll take a shot at this.

How would I describe the current system? Underfunded. Look at the per student funding at Washington Middle School, for example, $6k per student. The school does amazingly well with that amount of money, but it's shockingly low compared to the $30k+ per student private schools have. Underfunding is what the McCleary case in the state legislature is all about, and it needs to be fixed.

What is public education supposed to be doing? Educating children. I know that sounds flippant, but it's worth repeating that everyone in public education exists only for that reason, not for themselves, but for children. The mission of public education should be giving as many children as possible the chance to learn to the maximum of their ability, with each child having the challenges, tools, and support they need. This is a long-term investment by society in its citizens. Today's children are tomorrow's doctors, scientists, artists, and taxpayers. We should all want every child to succeed.
PublicMom said…
I think that these are interesting questions. Melissa you hint at it, but I think it's worth calling out: people value local control and autonomy over "choice", even if they use the choice word.

I've thought about our culture and why this is so and if there is something to it. In France they have an Academie for language and centrally organized ministries for everything. Same in many other countries. We take the opposite approach and are incredibly fragmented in our governance, practices, financing etc. On the face of it our system seems inefficient, but I think it's something to be celebrated in that I do believe it fosters more creativity. The downside of course is that equity is really hard to achieve in this environment.

My definition of public education:
1. All institutions have to comply with the same laws and rules within their respective jurisdictions (e.g., federal, state, local)
2. Public means that parents and community members have a meaningful say in the governance of their schools and when unified, can change decisions (within the bounds of the law and constitution)
3. As a public good, financing is secure and allows for long term planning and success.
4. Public means that we use education as a social equalizer and way to enable any one to achieve the American Dream (where socioeconomic or racial status does not act like a Caste system).
5. Public education is a way for a nation to shine and show the world how great we can be, as a unified whole.
6. Public education is a way for a nation to achieve cultural alignment around values in our Constitution (eg., freedom of speech, due process, universal rights etc)


Anonymous said…
To me, the purpose of a public education system is to foster the development of an intelligent, informed, capable populace, allowing each individual to contribute to our country to the extent of their wishes and abilities. The pub ed system should work in concert with the social services system to ensure that all those who face additional challenges (e.g., poverty, disability, ELL, etc.) have the support they need so they can thrive and achieve and contribute to their potential, just as the everyone else should also be encouraged and supported to do. The system should provide strong building blocks to serve as a foundation/floor, but not a ceiling.

Half Full
Anonymous said…
My concern for years about public education in Seattle is the lack of progress on good curricula, especially in math. Some parents get around the confusion in math by outside tutoring. That creates less equity for students who do not receive extra help and are stuck with bad textbooks.

The fad of Everyday Math and confusing word problems seems to be getting worse with Common Core. Instead of standing by a better elementary textbook (Math in Focus) a couple administrators muddied the waters with something else.

Parents in the public education system should be able to trust educators with the best curricula out there. Currently that is not the case. I am not for charters but I would really like to see best practices in SPS. The administrators have been winging it for years.

S parent
Eric B said…
I was going to write something, but Half Full did it better. I think that's an excellent description of the goal for public education.

Where I struggle is how to measure that, since you can't say you improved anything you can't measure. I don't think the answer is quantitative (how do you measure creativity on a multiple choice test?), but qualitative has its own set of problems.
Anonymous said…
Half Full has an excellent definition of what a public school system should do for its kids. Like Melissa, I was raised in a rural public school system where there were no choices. Teachers either did or did not pay attention to the educational needs of individual kids.

I don't know what it would take to fulfill Half Full's vision in Seattle, maybe more funding and fewer kids per classroom so that teachers can actually see their kids' needs. However, I do know that my kid is not getting that in our neighborhood school, even though our school considers itself one of the best in Washington for its test scores. For my kid, who tends to do well on standardized tests, school is often just a holding pen where good behavior is not rewarded with greater intellectual challenges. We are facing what is a sad and difficult decision for us, moving our kid out of our neighborhood school and to Cascadia, hoping that will provide a more enriching environment. Although our kid's numbers label the kid as "highly capable," we'd much rather see our neighborhood school willing to meet the kid's needs than look for other schooling options.

Half Frustrated
Anonymous said…
Charter schools are not the answer, but they can be part of the solution.

In addition, we should fully fund all of our public schools, including charters.

- Robert James
Mr. James, that's a fine opinion but did nothing to answer my question. Not so helpful to this thread.
Austin Rubio said…
Education is really very important for every child. Poverty on children can lead to lifelong struggles, especially on the young kid's who don't receive an education. In many countries shall is free, but there are additional costs for uniforms, books, transportation and many more. Hence some organization like mission humanitaire Afrique are taking good efforts that you can find out more, how these volunteers are working for child poverty development.

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