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.