Monday, March 24, 2008

My Three Sons

I set this blog up to defend public education, but I feel like I haven't been doing a very good job lately, especially when I look at the comments. Many of the comments at least imply that public schools don't do a very good job educating kids, and a number of people have made it clear that they believe we should dismantle our public education system. They have argued that we would be better off if education were totally subjected to market forces. Those who really wanted education for their kids could either homeschool their children or send them to a private school.

This made me start thinking about the effects that public education has had on my own kids, and it made me wonder what things would be like if there had never been any such thing. All three of our kids went to public schools (Surprise, surprise!), all three of them have graduated from college, and all three of them seem to be doing quite well. There are those who would argue that they would be doing just as well or better if there were no public schools, but I really have to wonder about that.

If there were no public school system, education for my own kids would have been a problem. My wife and I were both working when our kids were growing up, so that would pretty well shoot the homeschooling option for us. That leaves private schooling, and that would have been a battle. Now that we are older and our kids are gone, we are living quite comfortably, but things were very tight when our kids were in school. My salary when I began teaching was less than $10,000 per year. (Of course, my salary has always come from the public school system, but I doubt that anyone would argue that teachers would have higher salaries if we only had private schools.) Education is important to our family, so I suppose we would have found a way, but it sure wouldn't have been easy.

Many would argue that if we had sent our kids to private schools they would have gotten a superior education, but I don't see how they could have done any better. Our youngest son, Garrett, is very bright. After graduating from high school, he went to Stetson University in Florida which is populated largely by graduates of private schools in the South. I once asked Garrett if he felt like he was at a disadvantage because of this, and he actually laughed at the question. He ended up graduating Magna Cum Laude from Stetson.

We keep hearing that graduates of American public schools don't have the skills to go into high tech fields, but both Garrett and our oldest son, Pat, are in those fields. That's not so surprising for Garrett, but it is for Pat, because he was a student of average ability. It's especially surprising because our school has now failed to meet it's AYP in math for the last two years. I guess that makes us a failing school when it comes to math, but I have to wonder how that can be when I've got two sons doing so well who got their start right here. Pat had to work quite hard at those upper level math classes to make it, but isn't that the way it should be?

Perhaps the one who benefited most from public schools was our middle son, Andy. Andy has developed amazing people skills, and is now a third grade teacher in Pleasant Valley, Iowa. Like Pat, he was an average student, but he was a very good hockey player. He was elected by his peers as captain of his high school team, then his junior team, and then his college team for both his junior and senior years. He was also appointed assistant captain of one of his professional teams by the management. Andy believes his greatest strength is an ability to relate to almost any personality type, and I would have to agree. All I have to do is remember the variety of friends he brought home when he was in high school. When he got married, two of his old high school friends were groomsmen--one who had been near the top of his class academically, and the other who had been near the bottom. I have to believe that there could have been no better places to develop the skills he has for relating to people than the public schools that he attended for thirteen years.

The point of this post is not to brag about my sons (although you may notice that I manged to do that). In the last few posts there have been comments from a number of people who, whether they intended to or not, gave the impression that it's nearly impossible to get a decent education in a public school unless the student has a great deal of ability. This reflects what I believe to be a growing perception in our society, and I think a very dangerous one. I know this perception isn't true. I know it isn't true most intimately from the experience of my own sons, but I also know it from seeing the experiences of hundreds of other young people who have gone through the public schools in which I've taught.

Our kids got a good education in a public school because it was reasonably important to them to do so. In my 34 years of teaching, that has consistently been the case. Kids get about as good an education as they want. The problem is that we have too many kids who don't care about that. The personnel in our math department has changed little since Pat graduated, so when our school fails to meet its AYP in math for two straight years, I have to wonder why that is. Is it because the people in our math department suddenly started doing a lousy job? Or is it because we don't have enough kids who are willing to put in the work that Pat did to learn it? Since I have nearly all of our students in at least one of my classes by the time they graduate, and I see first-hand the effort they put forth, I think I know the answer to that one.

Our kids wanted to get a decent education in large part because it was important to my wife and me. That's almost always the way it is--when the parents really care about their kids' education, the kids almost always end up doing at least okay. I do have to admit, however, that I did have one huge advantage over other parents: I worked at my kids' high school. Every day, I would see how they behaved in the halls, and if they fell behind or did something stupid in one of their classes, it wouldn't be long before I found out. But most important of all, I would see who they were hanging around with, and I would know what those kids were like in school.

The biggest danger for concerned parents sending their kids off to middle school and high school is not that the school will have poor administration or even poor teachers. The biggest danger is that their kids might end up following the wrong crowd. The influence of peers is enormous to teenagers, and it is something with which many parents can't compete. This is the area where I wish those of us in public schools had more power to help the parents who care about their kids education. If we could separate the most incorrigible kids, it would be a big step forward.


Blogger Peter Thies said...

But, until we can separate the incorrigibles, without fear of lawsuits, I must support those parents who opt for alternatives to the public schools.

3/24/2008 1:30 PM  
Blogger Dennis Fermoyle said...

Peter, that is why I would be willing to make this trade: allow vouchers for those who want to send their kids to private schools, but give public schools the same power in dealing with disruptive and apathetic students as those private schools have. Ain't gonna happen, but it's something I would support. I think public schools would come out the clear winner, because there would be little reason for people to send their kids to private schools.

3/24/2008 3:07 PM  
Blogger what'sinaname said...

I support public schools. I believe in the goals of a public education system that strives to educate all its citizens. In fact, I love that about our public school system!
I grew up with an educator parent. My three boys use the public school system (one is in college now). One son has a language based learning disability which makes negotiating the public school system a little more challenging, but not impossible. My husband graduated from one of the worst ranked public schools in Texas, and now, he has a PhD and educates young adults at a major university and maintains a successful research program. I also possess a BS in Microbiology.
Could we have done these things without our particular public school system? Maybe - most likely. More important, could children who do not have advantages I believe my children have succeed without public school? Probably not.

3/24/2008 3:22 PM  
Blogger Roger Sweeny said...

Our kids got a good education in a public school because it was reasonably important to them to do so.

If all the books about education disappeared tomorrow and that quote is all we were left with, we would probably come out ahead.

3/24/2008 4:12 PM  
Blogger Mrs. C said...

Well, I live in the Dark Ages and believe that barring extreme circumstances, women should stay home with their children. You may say that that is a tangent, or that the "reality" most people live in is different; however, to my mind, the issue is central. There is no reason that the vast majority of parents couldn't home-educate their children if it were an important family goal. The idea that a woman can leave her children with others for most of their waking hours without some ill effect is erroneous.

I've attended something like 10 different public schools because we moved frequently. My father was an executive and I was able to attend school with the children of celebrities and diplomats. And yet I think that I got some semblance of an education not because of who attended school with me, but because of the fact that my mother and father would make life utter misery for me if I didn't bring home a decent grade.

I think *whatever* system you employ, parents are ultimately responsible for the education of their children. Were I or your sons living in squalor in the inner-city, I daresay we would have *still* succeeded academically, given our parents' determination on our behalf.

And Dennis, maybe your blog's SUCCESS is the fact that you tolerate discussion from a diverse population. You can never convert the "lost" if they don't show up to your sermon, you know.

3/24/2008 5:04 PM  
Blogger Dennis Fermoyle said...

What's & Roger, thank you!

Mrs. C., even though we both worked while our kids were growing up, my wife and I had a nice situation with our kids. You see, my wife worked nights as a waitress. So she would have the kids during the day, and then I would be home at night. During the summers, I was basically a stay at home dad, and I always felt good about that because I was able to make up for the all the time I was gone in the winters due to coaching hockey. In fact, I felt like I probably had a much closer relationship with my sons than most fathers.

Regarding your last paragraph, let me give you a very big and heartfelt AMEN! Although I don't exactly think of you as "lost." :)

3/24/2008 6:15 PM  
Anonymous Dean Shareski said...

While I would have similar arguments, we both send students to school that largely because of their parents, can perform well in schools that are designed for the 1950's. My kids do well in school but are not engaged in learning. They don't love school. That's what I want;kids to love to learn and love to do that at school. Why don't most kids like school? Can't learning be good, hard fun? That's how I define a good school, watching kids have fun learning really hard things.

Currently we have a segment of our students who do very well but are largely unengaged and also a segment doing poorly and are unengaged. This needs to change.

It's not about blaming teachers either, teachers for the most part are doing the best they can with what they know. It goes way beyond that to curriculum that is both outdated as well as too focused on knowledge let alone that fact that we still teach most subjects in isolation. For lessons in how to do it right, we need to model more of our schools after Kindergarten. The best ones are clearly a model for engaged, authentic and relevant learning.

3/24/2008 9:45 PM  
Blogger Mrs. C said...

Dennis, I'm sorry if you think I was "judging" you or your wife for her working. I CAN'T do that fairly, you see. But I can tell you that generally speaking, in my opinion staying home is the best. It sounds like given you both felt she HAD to work, you put a lot of effort into dovetailing your schedules so that the children had a parent available.

I'd love to read your wife's blog if she has one. Bet she had some INTERESTING patrons on the night shift LOL!

3/25/2008 2:46 AM  
Blogger Charley said...


Thank you for running with my question about what a High School graduate would look like. I asked the question, and then promptly went out of town for a month and wasn't able to reply. I'll get to that one as I am able to stop and consider your answer.

In the mean time, while I don't think this comment addresses this particular post directly, I get a sense from your posts in general and from your comment responses that while you support public education, you are frustrated and worn down by the attitudes of the children and possibly by the constraints of the system in which you work.

Have you ever read anything by John Taylor Gatto? Gatto was New York's Teacher of the Year and two-time NYC Teacher of the Year. His story sounds a lot like what I'm hearing from your writing. He desperately wanted success from his kids, but found himself hamstrung by a system that wouldn't allow him to draw out individual talents and abilities, that wouldn't allow him to help them escape the boredom inherent to the curriculum. He bent and broke rules to fan into a flame the spark that is love of learning, and for that he was soundly disciplined.

He has some very provocative writings that can be found HERE, HERE, and HERE.

At MY BLOG, I recently wrote a post on the effects and problems of peer-dependency, something inherent to the group classroom. You no doubt deal with it every day and see its results as it consumes virtually all your students. Only a few strong ones can withstand it (I was one of those strong ones in my day, and I can say from experience, it is a very lonely and persecuted life)....

I also commend the tone of the comments, both by most who comment and by you. It is nice to have a civil discussion by people who passionately believe in their positions.


3/25/2008 8:27 AM  
Anonymous a homeschool mom said...

Dennis, this is another great post. I do agree with you. We need public schools.

I wonder if the attitudes would change about education if we had to start viewing it as a privilege rather than a right? Education is a privilege that all in this country enjoy.

We lived Singapore for awhile some time ago. The kids in that country have a much different view on education than our kids do. It was not uncommon to see kids studying in the McDonalds at 10 at night still in their school uniforms. I remember one day my husband and I were on the bus and the mom in front of us was quizzing her young boy. He was probably 4. She was making him read the letters on the advertisments and when he got one wrong she flicked him on the head. My husband and I were horrified. Now, I am by no means condoning such behavior, but education is the number one priority for the kids over there and the parents don't tolerate poor progress. If the kids don't study the schools have no problem kicking the kids out.

I sure do have a problem with getting off the topic, don't I? :) Anyway, all I was trying to say is that I agree with you that the education is the responsibility of the person receiving the education. If the kids don't want it or fail to see the importance, then I think the hands of the teacher are tied.

I still think that there is a lot about the public schools that needs fixing, but it isn't going to happen until everyone stops blaming everyone else. I believe in choice. I am thankful that we have choice.

Congratulations on the success of your children! You have every right to be proud. Brag away! :)

3/25/2008 9:00 AM  
Blogger CrypticLife said...

You have every right to brag about your 3 sons. I tend to brag about mine every chance I get.

My oldest and youngest are pretty clearly the brightest -- my oldest has a sharp and methodical mind combined with a vaultlike memory, and my youngest has shown a rapid facility with languages, a talent for music, and a sharp wit.

If I had to guess who might be most successful, though, I might go with my middle child. He's pretty average, even maybe a little slow, academically. He is startlingly adept at dealing with people, however. He understands their emotions and knows how to get them to love him or to run away crying (well, he's pre-school. . . so sometimes that's what he's going for). He's become incredibly popular wherever he goes.

How does this all relate to public school? Well, only my oldest is in ps, and it's certainly not doing much for him so far academically. I don't view this as too much of an indictment by itself because of his intelligence and the work we've put in as parents, but if I were working in the school system the existence of students who were advanced far beyond the curriculum, and weren't being stretched further, would give me pause.

3/25/2008 3:25 PM  
Anonymous daniel simms said...

Good of you to bring up John Taylor Gatto, Charlie. He has some very important things to say about public education. There are a lot of his articles and other articles of the same persuasion at If you haven't been there yet it is certainly worth the look.

3/25/2008 7:30 PM  
Blogger Dennis Fermoyle said...

There are some really nice comments here, and I really do appreciate them, but I'm short on time this morning, and I wanted to respond to Crypticlife, and what I say to him probably applies to Dean as well. Once again, you are there and I am here, but I don't see what you are seeing regarding kids with strong academic ability. In fact, in our school, the kids with the most ability almost always seem to be the happiest with school. It's hard for me to think of any exceptions. In our family, there is no question that our brightest son enjoyed his classes the most, and I don't remember there being any problem with boredom. It is possible that I would see that more of what you are talking about if I was an elementary school teacher, but I really don't see it at the high school level.

Mrs. C., first of all, I didn't feel like you were judging. I really do get concerned about the way everyone is so focused on their careers these days, and I'm not sure we're focused enough on our kids. Your point is well taken. Once again, I'm really glad you comment as often as you do on my posts, even if we disagree a lot. And by the way, my wife is fantastic socially and she is the family negotiator, but don't hold your breath waiting for her to blog. That just isn't her bag.

Charley, thanks for the reading tips, and I will get on it, but right now I'm definitely behind in my reading. And I'd also have to say that you are reading me correctly!

Homeschool Mom, thank you for a very nice comment!

3/26/2008 4:52 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

3/26/2008 6:45 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

mrs c said:
There is no reason that the vast majority of parents couldn't home-educate their children if it were an important family goal. The idea that a woman can leave her children with others for most of their waking hours without some ill effect is erroneous.

So why should this be strictly a woman's job? What about the educational level of the parents? What about the sanity level of the parents involved?

Not every parent is cut out to have a child underfoot in modern society as it is currently constructed. The fantasy that we can hearken back to 19th century rural life is just that--a fantasy (and keep in mind that many farmers sent their children to school as well). Not every person can or should be teaching their own child--temperaments differ, and I for one resent the arrogance and attitude expressed in such a statement.

I am not the person I would have been if I had spent most of my waking hours with my mother. Thank God for that. And, as it were, in my own parenting, I felt that my academic teaching experiences with my child were a worthy supplement to his learning which he would not have had if I'd had the teaching of him full time. I got to do the fun stuff, as it were.

3/29/2008 7:28 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Joycemocha writes: "Not every parent is cut out to have a child underfoot in modern society as it is currently constructed. The fantasy that we can hearken back to 19th century rural life is just that--a fantasy (and keep in mind that many farmers sent their children to school as well). Not every person can or should be teaching their own child--temperaments differ, and I for one resent the arrogance and attitude expressed in such a statement."

Thank you very much for echoing my thoughts. I am a sole working mother in a neighborhood of arrogant stay-at-homes, and I've often wondered just what it is a stay-at-home mother does for her children that a working mother doesn't? Help with homework? Working moms do that. Volunteer at school? I was a room mother for three years running because the stay-at-home mothers were all sooooo incredibly busy. Help with fundraisers, the school play, the end-of-year teacher's gift? Working mothers do all that and more. They simply don't have 8 hours a day without the kids, so they do it all more efficiently.

3/31/2008 8:06 AM  
Blogger Charley said...

Please don't use the "working, single mom" as the copout excuse for not home educating your children....

There are many working, single moms who do just that. The difference is they see the benefits and make the sacrifice. And lest you think I don't sister is one. She would qualify as "working poor." Yet she homeschools her progeny by herself. The other difference is she does have a community of friends upon whom she calls for help when she needs it.

So maybe the answer is to work to develop a community again????


Oh...and Dennis...I realized I DID use the word "provocative" in the sentence with the links to Gatto's articles.... In the mean time, it seems someone in another comment thread recommended THIS ARTICLE by highly successful entrepreneur, Paul Graham. I have read it in the past, and agree with the recommendation.

3/31/2008 10:05 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

charley said: "Please don't use the "working, single mom" as the copout excuse for not home educating your children...." to which I think was aimed at me. To set the record straight: as I said, I am the sole working mother in a community of stay-at-homes. I am not a single parent. To address your other issues: at two points I did consider homeschooling because my county cut the gifted & talented program and my kids were quite frankly bored. After putting time and effort into researching different homeschool practices and curriculae, I decided that homeschooling was not in the best interest of *my particular family* (your mileage may vary). Instead I decided to become more involved with the public school. In my area, the homeschooling groups my children would have to socialize with were all of the "dinosaurs never existed because JEEEEZUS didn't say so in the Bible!" types. I wanted more for my children.

The point I was making with my previous post was in agreement with another poster's, who is tired of the hoary old myth that "Leave it to Beaver" was a documentary, and that the pioneer women spent their entire day catering to every need and whim of their children, and how wonderful it would be if women who use their skills to work would instead chain themselves to their stoves and bake cookies all day.

4/01/2008 2:18 PM  
Blogger Dennis Fermoyle said...

"After putting time and effort into researching different homeschool practices and curriculae, I decided that homeschooling was not in the best interest of *my particular family* (your mileage may vary). Instead I decided to become more involved with the public school."

Anonymous, I'm so glad you did. It's good to know the good guys win one once in awhile. I really hope it's working out for you.

4/01/2008 2:47 PM  
Blogger Charley said... courageous enough to use your name! "all of the "dinosaurs never existed because JEEEEZUS didn't say so in the Bible!" types." Cynicism really isn't very becoming, you know. This comment shows your bias and your ignorance because it is so demonstrably untrue. To say your children couldn't receive a better education outside of a group classroom just doesn't stand up to the facts. If you don't want them to learn of creation, then don't use a book that teaches it. Let them believe they are advanced apes who will return to the slime from which they came....

Dennis... "good to know the good guys win one once in a while." I hope that was said tongue in cheek, for if you truly believe homeschoolers are "bad guys,"... well this "bad" home-educator will not bother you or your blog any longer.


4/02/2008 2:56 PM  
Blogger Dennis Fermoyle said...

Charley, come on. I think you've read enough of my posts and comments to know. That's right in there with my comment to Ian about logic getting better as we go north (when the son of mine our family refers to as "the smart one" lives in Florida.) This blog has attracted a number of people who disagree with me, and I like that. But sometimes I start to feel a little alone here, so it's nice to get people who are on "my team" once in a while. If I get really nasty, that's one thing, but I hope you'll cut me a little slack in some of the "witty" remarks that I make to them. Honestly, Charley, there was no offense intended.

4/03/2008 2:44 AM  
Blogger Charley said...

Sorry Dennis...I guess I was a bit on the touchy side yesterday....


4/03/2008 5:49 AM  
Blogger Dennis Fermoyle said...

No problem, Charley. I've been known to get a bit touchy myself now and then. You and I are on different sides in that I am a public education guy, and you are sold that homeschooling is the way to go. I respect that, and I know I'm not going to change your mind. But please understand that when I argue against you; when I try to convince someone who is thinking about homeschooling to go the route of public schools, it's because I recognize that many of those people are great parents who make their kids education a priority. I definitely don't see them as bad guys.

And despite the fact that you and I totally disagree about public education, I have thoroughly enjoyed our exchanges. But I do get a little worn out by you, Homeschool Mom, Mrs. C., Amy, Mark Roulo, Crypticlife, etc., because because you're all so articulate that it really forces me to think.

4/03/2008 3:14 PM  
Blogger sexy said...







3/03/2009 12:10 AM  

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