Saturday, November 11, 2006

Public Education: What I Believe

This is basically an opinion blog that attempts to defend the performance of those of us who work in public schools. It's a dirty job, but somebody's got to do it. It's been about six months since I began it, so I decided that it's time to do a summary post on my basic beliefs. Here they are:

1. I believe that public schools are doing a much better job than we are given credit for. I believe the best evidence of this is in the millions of public school students who have gone on to live productive lives.

2. I believe the most important factor in determining a student's performance is effort and not ability. I believe that student's who care about their education and try hard end up doing well, while those who don't care and don't try do poorly.

3. I believe too much of the blame for students who perform poorly is placed on the public schools themselves, and too little is placed on the parents of those students, the neighborhoods in which those students live, our culture, and especially the students themselves. (Public education critics view this as whining, but it's important, because as long as education reform ignores that and focuses solely on things going on inside the schools, any improvement is going to be limited.)

4. I believe that when education is a priority to the parents, the chances are good that the students will take their own education seriously. On the other hand, if parents don't make their kids' education a priority, the chances are that the kids won't either. (I recognize that there are exceptions to this, and that when parents care and the students don't, sometimes it is at least partially our fault.)

5. I believe one of the most important factors that determine the learning that takes place in a classroom is the effect that students have on other students. That means that if an average student is placed in a classroom with a lot of highly motivated students, that student will learn much more than if he or she is placed in a classroom with a number of apathetic or disruptive students. At the high school level, I believe this factor might be even more important than who the teacher is in that classroom.

6. I believe that a full-fledged voucher system would make public schools worse. The parents who would be the most likely to take their kids out of public schools and send them to private ones would be the parents who care the most about their kids education. As a result, there would be fewer and fewer highly motivated kids in those public school classrooms, and they would be made up of a higher and higher proportion of kids who don't care. I fear that this could result in a snowball effect as more and more parents pull their kids out of the public schools as they become worse and worse until they simply became holding cells for kids with no hope, no dreams, and no drive. However, I do believe that there are some places in our country where the public schools have become so bad that vouchers are justified. Sadly, they already have become "holding cells" but they have some kids in them who do want to learn, and they should be able to go someplace where they'll have a reasonable chance to do that.

7. I believe the most important reform we could make in public schools is to give teachers the power to remove disruptive and apathetic students from their classrooms. There would have to be safeguards to make sure that this power wasn't abused, but it should not involve lawyers and thousands of dollars to do it. Teachers should be given the power to remove kids from class, who have little interest in their own education and are hurting the education of their classmates. (There are people who have wanted to jump down my throat when I've stated this without further explanation. If you are one of those who want to do that, please check out this post before you do. If you still want to jump down my throat after you read it, jump away!)

8. The next most important reform we could make would be to give principals the power to keep their best teachers, regardless of seniority, when cuts have to be made, and to fire teachers who are not doing their jobs effectively.

9. I believe that God is alive and well in public schools.

So, there you have it. I realize that the world isn't going to stop because I've posted this, and that I shouldn't be expecting a breathless phone call from Margaret Spellings or President Bush, but I thought it was I good time to sum things up.


Blogger Deb Sistrunk Nelson said...

You state your position well. If anyone is a defender of public education, it is Dennis Fermoyle! Maybe we should buy you a T-shirt styled like a Superman shirt. ;-)

Good post, Dennis.

11/11/2006 8:56 AM  
Blogger jettybetty said...

Well, the world may not stop because posted this, but I just bought your book! ;-) I have lurked here for most of your 6 months--I only apologize for not being more encouraging--I know you are indeed in the trenches--and I am so thankful you are doing what you are doing!

I have found little to disagree with you in your writing--and much to agree with. I have no idea why I am so passionate about public education in America--our children are grown--all public educated and doing well--but I still really care.

What I do totally agree with is if students come to school expecting and wanting to get a good education--they probably will. For the most part, this comes from parents wouldn't you say? So, how do we get more parents to emphasize education?

I do think Public school is a great place to share God, too. He's very much alive in many of the ones I know about.

It is indeed refreshing to come here--I have been reading a blog this week written by homeschoolers who have decided public schools should all be abolished. They think it would force parents to be responsible. I think anarchy would break out in our streets!

Thanks again for what you do! I do believe you are making a huge difference in your student's lives.


11/11/2006 9:02 AM  
Blogger Dennis Fermoyle said...

Deb, it is great to hear from you again. We'd kind of lost touch there for awhile, and it's my fault. I've been so busy since school began that it's been a chore just to do one or two posts every week. And congratulations on your Cardinals! But I must admit that as a Twins fan (three and out in the playoffs), I'm very jealous.

Jettybetty, that is the nicest comment anyone has ever made on any of my posts. There are times when I wonder why I'm doing this, and after going back and forth last week with Crypticlife, I really needed to hear something like this. Your comment really made my day! Thank you!!!

11/11/2006 12:40 PM  
Blogger Deb Sistrunk Nelson said...

Dennis: I'm glad we're in touch again, too. It was I who fell off the face of the earth. I am now working daily at a public high school, and I haven't given up my consulting work. Like you, I haven't been posting as often as I used to.

Thanks for the congrats on the Cardinals. It is an exciting time for us. Maybe the Twins will come through for you next year. THAT would be exciting!

I'll try to make up for neglecting you. Hang in there!

11/11/2006 1:23 PM  
Blogger jettybetty said...

My analytical mind is working overtime tonight.
Where would you propose *disruptive* students go? Would you require them to go to alternative school?
I am just thinking through your points--and realized I didn't understand totally!

11/11/2006 6:55 PM  
Blogger Dennis Fermoyle said...

Hi again Jettybetty! I did a post on this subject this summer, and it can be found at this address:

I know that a number of bloggers provide links on their comments, and I wish I could do that. Either I can't do that from my computer, or I'm too dumb to figure out how. In any case, I hope this helps.

11/12/2006 3:11 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I tend to agree with everything you've written.

I do feel, though, that higher standards for teachers, lower class sizes and real, practical teacher training (led by people who actually teach) would result in fewer disruptive students.

11/12/2006 7:46 AM  
Blogger Dennis Fermoyle said...

NYC Ed., I would have a tough time arguing with that!

11/12/2006 8:30 AM  
Blogger jettybetty said...

Thanks again--I thought I had read most of your posts, butI missed that one.

My first response would be--if you do suspend students--because they are disruptive in class--where will they go? Will they just be on the streets?

However, I do agree that there would be more motivation for them to cooperate and try to learn if they knew they could be suspended. It is also true that many students, who would otherwise be learning, are distracted by these students--and they would have a much better chance to succeed--and I am all for that!

I also love that you will let them come back--if they do indeed see they need an education at some point.

I totally agree with nyc educator--how we get all that though???

11/12/2006 4:39 PM  
Blogger EHT said...

Well, without going into a lengthy response I say ditto, ditto, and ditto. :)

11/12/2006 8:34 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Great post! While I agree with the vast majority of what you wrote, I've seen cases where #2 doesn't apply. Students who struggle through courses like math or science, giving it their best shot still end up with marks far below those with "natural ability", regardless of the effort these last put into the class. I personally feel that this shouldn't be the case, but there has to be a balance point between rewarding effort and requiring standards of knowledge. I don't think I've nailed it yet in my classroom, but I'm getting closer. Once again, great post.

11/13/2006 6:18 AM  
Blogger CrypticLife said...

Hi Dennis,

Thanks for this post. It's good to have a summary.

If I completely agreed, I probably wouldn't bother posting. However, I'll start by saying I completely agree with 2, 4, and 5.

7 and 8 I agree would be quite beneficial, though I can't judge the relative importance to other possible reforms (i.e., I cannot say they are the "most important" reforms). I think, for example, that school teacher salaries should be increased to the point where the profession is financially desirable, as well as personally desirable, and thus becomes competitive to enter. I think right now the only way to implement nyc educator's suggestion of higher teacher standards is to raise the pay scale (at least, it would make it far easier to raise those standards).

I'm an atheist, so I won't discuss 9, except to say that I don't think I have an issue with how you define god as being "alive" within the schools.

The main propositions I have trouble with are 1 and 3. The reason I have trouble with them isn't the content, but the uneasy sense of vagueness I get from them. Take, for example, "public schools are doing a much better job than [they] are given credit for" (the other example, that parents should take more blame, seems to really be simply the converse of this one). I don't really know how much "credit"/"blame" is given or have a way to quantify it. Would this be the same as saying "public schools are criticized too much"? If it is, well -- I suspect it's the parents who you want more of who are doing the criticizing (referenced in #4), and they're doing it precisely because of their focus on the importance of education. If it's instead (or likely, in addition) that "public schools are not lauded enough," then it lies on the schools to promote themselves more effectively (unless you think the responsibility lies somewhere else?).

I think your focus on students who have gone on to live productive lives is misplaced because few will see a causal link. The strongest evidence should come in the form of progress of children still in school or just out of school. Absent that, you need to lay a lot of groundwork for your link. I looked a bit at the evidence for foreign student performance in American colleges as a start.

I am not at all convinced, incidentally, that such evidence does not exist. In fact, I think the tragedy of your argument is that it relies on something that's rather tenuous. If you could find the right measure of student performance, you'd have some objective data stating that American public schools are doing something significantly better than other nations.

Let me give you something that may be helpful. I work in IT in a large financial firm. I've dealt with a lot of people with foreign educational backgrounds -- Russian, Indian, Chinese. While I have generally found they have an excellent knowledge of technology (at least, within their area), they sometimes seem paralyzed when it comes to an actual problem. They become so convinced they know how it "should" work that if something doesn't work the way they expect they start stacking up evidence that supports their view of how it should work rather than looking at the fact that it doesn't. They end up making excellent reference manuals, but poor troubleshooters. There are, of course, exceptions -- I have just found that fixed mindset to be somewhat common.

Is this a consequence of their schooling system, or is the greater American flexibility a consequence of ours? I cannot say; it's certainly not unreasonable to say that it could be. But your argument would be far better if you could attribute it to directly to the public schools, rather than factors such as society or parenting. Right now your argument is the legal equivalent of a res ipsa loquitur -- there's some result, such-and-such explanation would account for the result, and we can't think of anything else to explain it (in your case, this explanatory factor being public schools). Res ipsa is not a favored form of argument, and doesn't work particularly well here because other factors besides public education could explain performance later in life.

Incidentally, regarding the "whining" comment, you already have a defense. Blaming the students is "whining" as long as you haven't proposed a solution. But you have: you say disruptive or apathetic students should be removed, and have some reasonable alternatives. Your "School? History? Who cares?" post (here?)did not make this connection at all. I don't know if I'm the only one to ever accuse you of "whining", but I think if you always made reference to this solution you'd cut down on this sort of accusation.

11/13/2006 11:13 AM  
Blogger CrypticLife said...

Incidentally, you can provide links in your comments by typing
<a href = ""> this post </a>


this post

11/13/2006 1:08 PM  
Blogger Dennis Fermoyle said...

Ian H., I can't argue with what you have to say about math and science. In fact, you might be able to use me as evidence. But I think you'll agree that, overall, kids who try hard end up doing well. And thank you!

Crypticlife, I see you are back to haunt me again! Actually, I think your comments are fair, and I really appreciate the blogging tip.

That being said, I am a little baffled by your unwillingness to accept the success of former students as evidence that they have been well prepared.

This is definitely tied into my belief that students who try hard end up doing well. As I said earlier, my experience is that by the time students leave high school, they are prepared for whatever it is they wanted to be prepared for. The kids who try hard usually want to go to college, and those kids are consistently accepted into colleges and they consistently do well once they get there. Isn't that evidence of good preparation? The students who don't try as hard generally don't have any interest in ever going to a four year college. Even though their effort hasn't been that great, and they haven't learned as much as some other kids, they seem to be able to perform adequately wherever they go next. I'm also not aware of any kids in our school ever wanting to go into the military and being turned down. In other words, all of these kids have been prepared for there next step. They have basically decided what their next step will be, and used what we have given them to be prepared to succeed there.

Like you, I have three kids, and I believe that all three of them are evidence that our school did a good job preparing them. One is a computer guy in the Twin Cities, another is a web developer for the Tribune Corporation, and he works in Orlando, and the other is a teacher. I can easily point to classes in our high school that helped prepare the two that are in computers for the college classes they would need to take in order to earn their degrees. My son who is in Orlando went to Stetson University in Florida, and most of his classmates had attended private schools. I once asked him if he felt like he was at a disadvantage since he had gone to a public school, and he actually laughed at the idea.

Regarding the criticism of public schools, I'm refering more to criticism that we constantly hear in the media. My great fear is that there negative portrayal of public schools will become a self-fullfilling prophecy. That criticism encourages parents who care about their kids' education to take them out of public schools. If we lose enough of those kids, it's entirely possible that we will become every bit as bad as our critics are now saying we are.

Thanks again for the tip! I'm looking forward to giving that a try.

11/13/2006 3:51 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

To play the devil's advocate for a minute, why do you think it is that some students don't care about their education? Some of the blame can be laid at the feet of parents who don't prioritise education for their kids, but is that the sum of it? Our critics would charge that the majority of students who don't care about learning were disconnected from school at a young age by the same school system. To be fair, there aren't really that many unenthusiastic kindergarten students. So what happens to them that in ten years, they lose their drive to learn, to be a part of a group, and to advance themselves?

Everyone has had a bad teacher somewhere in their school life (mine was my grade 3 teacher - brand new out of uni and had no classroom management skills). This can't be the only factor that unhooks kids from learning. You've got students that are in the same class together from kindergarten right up through high school, and they have vastly different attitudes toward learning. What causes this? Not that I'm expecting you to solve one of the great mysteries of teaching, just curious about your thoughts on the subject.

11/14/2006 6:23 AM  
Blogger Dennis Fermoyle said...

Ian, I think you are raising an important point, and believe it or not, I've been thinking about the same thing. Rather than addressing it here, I think I'll do a post on it. It will be a couple of days before I get to it, though, because right now, I'm swamped at school. I've got ideas--and that's all they are, but I hope that I can draw some comments, because I want to see what other people think. Like I said, I think it's a very important issue, and I'm not sure some of the standard answers we're used to hearing are always correct.

11/14/2006 5:54 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


The government mandates that parents send their children to school (compulsory attendance laws). The government determines what children will be taught in school. The government determines what school children will attend. The government requires that parents (taxpayers) fund schools. The government gives parents very little choice in the education of their children. Why should you be surprised when some parents choose not to be very involved in their children's education?

11/15/2006 7:31 AM  
Blogger Dennis Fermoyle said...

Steven, your point of view is an unusual one. Do you realize that most people criticize public education because they say government isn’t doing enough? Government has never been as involved in education as it has been since NCLB was passed. Is that what you’re objecting to? People like E. D. Hirsch argue that the national government should take even more control of what is being taught. He says that local control is an idea that we have to put behind us, and he basically believes that we should be teaching the same things at the same times all across the nation. Your approach seems to be the exact opposite of that, and it leaves me scratching my head. I am also curious about what it is that we teach that you are objecting to. By the way, do you realize that one of the first people in the United States to push for a public school system (or government schools, as our critics would call them) was the father of small government, Thomas Jefferson?

Regarding parental involvement in education, my simple point is that the children of parents who make education a priority usually do well. Kids with parents who don’t treat education as important tend to do poorly. I know that when my own kids were in K-12 and college, I wanted them to do well, and I did everything I could to encourage that. I didn’t do that because I was enamored with the people or institutions that were delivering the education, I did that because I cared about my kids.

11/16/2006 4:05 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


Thomas Jefferson wasn't right about everything, and having the government establish public education was one of the few things he was wrong about.

The private education system that existed before public schools became the rule was serving us very well. Literacy rates were about as high as they are now. I believe that we would be much better off now if we had left education as a private system.

The government has no business using public funds to provide for private goods such as education. People should provide for their own education, just as they provide for their own food, clothing and shelter. I don't buy the public benefit argument. That argument could be used to justify just about anything that the government wished to do "for the good of society".

Just because most people disagree with me doesn't mean that I am wrong.

I fully agree that children of parents who make education a priority usually do well. I'm one of those parents that treats education as a priority, just as you are. But I don't need the government to tell me what my children have to learn and where they have to go to learn these things and what I have to spend to educate them. I, and I suspect that you and most other parents, would do a fine job educating your children without government coercion.

I'm not trying to jump down your throat, Dennis. I just want to express another point of view.

Sorry about the Vikings. But they still have time to come back.

11/16/2006 9:06 PM  
Blogger jettybetty said...

Do you have your children in private school? Or do you homeschool? If that works for your children--what about all the children that have parents that don't care enough about them to provide either of those solutions? What would you do for them?

I think my own children would have been just fine without public schools. I agree with this statement from Dennis: "I didn’t do that because I was enamored with the people or institutions that were delivering the education, I did that because I cared about my kids." I don't know about our society as a whole.

Steven--how would you educate the masses of children--whose parents just don't care?

11/17/2006 4:48 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


My quick answer (I have to get to work):

My children are all in public school.

Please explain to me why the provision of education is any different than the provision of food, clothing and shelter. The government doesn't force everyone to participate in universal food and housing programs.

11/17/2006 5:24 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

You made your first mistaken assumption when you said education is a private good. In a democracy, it cannot be. An educated public is good for the country, which is why K-12 is paid for by the taxpayers, regardless if they presently have kids in the system. It's mandatory because of the legacy of the industrial revolution. When they first implemented factory schools for those 9 and under, many parents didn't see the benefit, having gone their lives without formal education. The parents preferred that their children work for a wage alongside them. It took an act of British parliament and a generation of young people to grow up in the system before there was a generalised feeling that education was valuable.

11/17/2006 6:12 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

From Thomas Jefferson's First Inaugural Address (since you brought him up):

A wise and frugal government, which shall restrain men from injuring one another, which shall leave them otherwise free to regulate their own pursuits of industry and improvement, and shall not take from the mouth of labor the bread it has earned. This is the sum of good government.

We can disagree all we want, but this is what I BELIEVE regarding the true purpose of government.

11/17/2006 7:26 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Ian, an educated public may be good for the country, but that doesn't justify the government being given the power to establish public schools and force people to participate in and fund those schools. The purpose of government should be to protect the rights of individuals to realize their own potential, without violating the rights of other individuals (to restrain men from injuring one another, as Jefferson put it). A government that is given the kind of power necessary to establish compulsory education and force people to pay for it can use that same power to do just about anything it wants to do, so long as politicians can convince enough people. Like going to war in Iraq.

11/17/2006 2:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I guess you and I are just going to have to disagree on this. It's good for a country to have an educated public, in my estimation. That makes it necessary for the government to (a) pay for education, since they're mandating it; and (b) set some kind of curriculum guidelines so you don't have white-supremacist schools on the taxpayer's dime.

11/18/2006 10:49 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

It's Liz here from I Speak of Dreams.

On your point 6, I believe that a full-fledged voucher system would make public schools worse. I used to be an ardent voucherista. Since observing the developments in Florida, I've changed my mind.

It is very hard to start and run a good school, no matter how funded. What's happened in Florida is rampant corruption, without a great benefit for the kids.

I am deeply suspicious of for-profit education in the k-12 market too.

What is deeply affecting public school quality in my neck of the woods is something most school districts were totally unprepared for.

That is of course uncontrolled immigration from non-English speaking countries. This is a federal problem -- the feds are supposed to control the borders -- but the consequences of the feds' failure are carried by local authorities (school districts).

In the next-school-district over from mine (k-8 district) 43% of the the kids are English Language Learners (raw # = 3,841). Of those, 58% were intermediate or below. I couldn't find the number of bilingual teachers...but there are danged few. I do know that the principals of the two schools with the largest ELL enrollment are monolingual.

It's a multiple-whammy: English is not spoken in the home, so parents can't help with homework; parents are themselves ill-educated; the countries-of-origin lack a culture of respect for education; parents are working multiple jobs to keep the families fed and housed, so kids are unsupervised.

I ask you, how can the public school system address all of the preceding?

I assumed that Minnesota didn't face this problem, and found out I was wrong, at least in Saint Paul:

English language learners are the most rapidly growing population in U.S. schools. In the ten years from 1993-94 to 2003-04, total K-12 enrollment increased by onlyabout 7%, while ELL enrollment increased by 65%.

In 2001, 4.6 million ELL students were enrolled in U.S. public schools—a full 10% of total preK-12 enrollment.

Today, about one in five students in public schools lives in a home where English isnot the primary language. The U.S. Census Bureau predicts that by 2030, studentswho speak a language other than English at home will constitute 40 percent of the school-age population.

Fifteen states have reported an increase in ELL students of more than 200 percentover the past three years.

A 2002 study found that Spanish was the native language of more than 75% of ELL students nationwide. Next were Vietnamese (2.4%), Hmong (1.8%), and Korean (1.2%).

According to national statistics, students for whom English is a second language arethree times as likely as native English speakers to be low academic achievers. Theyare also twice as likely to be held back to repeat a grade level.

Since 1990, the ELL population in Saint Paul Public Schools has increased by more than 270%, from 4,633 (1990-91) to 17,170 (2005-06), while overall student enrollment has increased by just 17.3%. ELL students represent 40% of the 2005-06 SPPS student population. In Minnesota, Saint Paul’s ELL population makes up 27% of the state ELL population.

native laguages of SPPS:
English – 24,000
Hmong, 10,600
Spanish – 4,100

11/19/2006 3:42 PM  
Blogger A Romantic Artist said...

I guess my major question is how do we, as educators, make the schools a more attractive place for parents to be involved with, thus increasing their involvement with their students' education?

I don't know the answer, but, as a future educational leader, its something I'm wrestling with. Have we made schools attractive enough multiculturally or are we teaching to the traditional "dead white men" curriculum? When we lump socio-economic advantages/disadvantages into the same category as student achievement, we then have to ask the question, what are schools doing to draw these people into our educational culture?

I don't think this is the fault of teachers. I do think it is the fault of short sighted administrators.

Of course, there's more to the story and there are thousands of questions to be asked regarding this.

I guess I'm curious as to what you think.

11/25/2006 8:23 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

As a father of 2, my eldest just 5 years old, I feel that the emphasis for failure is always placed, by default, at the teachers door. Personally, I feel that students who fail are created by poor parenting. Teachers can only build on the skills that students arrive with. If education and morale standards and not nurtured and enforced in the home, then the teacher will always struggle.

I firmly believe that it is a aprents responsability to engage with their children. This is not always easy, we all face the challenge of increasingly long working hours and socail pressures but we should not forgot or neglect our children, surely they are why we work in the first place?
Notwithstanding this, I feel that most adults would engage more positively with their children if they had some guidance on child education.
I feel that some parents can be afraid to engage with schools for fear of highlighting their own failures.
A means of engaging is therefore providing a less structured intergration into the school spirit/ethos. Games/fun days and even fetes can be a succesful why of encouraging participation. Once the parents feel comfortable with the teachers/school it is a little easier to partake.
I feel that child achievement/perception of development can also affect parents. I have had several comments of 'your son always does really well' from parents with children in the same classes. This is usually positive comment but I feel that some feel threaten or under pressure because there own child does not meet a percieved success requirement.
As a designer, I spend a lot of time producing educational products for my son, word charts, shapes, games etc to help support his development. We use these to decorate his room. We started this approach when he was 2 years old, encouraging him to create his own posters etc. the trick worked, he loves charts and loves learning what is displayed and what it means.
I recently took the step of publishing these on a website for free download, my aim being to share my sucesses with other parents and hopefully get some advice in return. For those who are interested, you can find the site at

Anyway, sorry to be so long winded. The reason I posted is that I would like to say that, as a parent, I appriciate the efforts that teachers expand on behalf of our children. Your true commitment and dedication is undrlined by the comments and thrust of this site.

Thank you.

12/14/2006 11:37 AM  

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