All Parents Should Know These Public Schools

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Your son will have to repeat this grade”

For my mom, as for any parent, those words were scary. My kindergarten teacher explained further that I needed to repeat the grade because I had failed the subject of “chair sitting.”

Trouble with sitting: me in the mid-1970s

Although my mom was a public school teacher herself, she decided I needed something different than the neighborhood elementary school. My parents scraped together the money for three years of tuition at a private Montessori school. Montessori was better suited to my needs at the time: upon my return to public schools, I was a full grade ahead of my chronological peers rather than a full grade behind. In other words, the three years I spent at Montessori made a difference of two full grade levels upon my return to public school.

My school days were not so unusual

My experience would not surprise education scholars. Sir Ken Robinson has shown how bad traditional K-12 schools are for many students, especially young boys. Even within traditional schools, Stanford University’s Eric Hanushek has explained that the difference between top and bottom teachers can be as much as a full year of learning per year of school (because, compared with an average teacher, a top teacher provides 150% of the learning per year, while a bottom teacher provides only 50% of the learning per year).

This scholarship helps explain parental behavior. Parents want children to have amazing opportunities, which is why taxpayers spend roughly $600 billion per year on K-12 public schools. Those who can afford to, however, also spend billions out of their own pockets for tutors, afterschool activities, summer camps, and sometimes even private schools. For parents, sending their child to private school can mean walking away from tens of thousands of dollars they have already paid in taxes — yet it happens frequently. Even in prosperous suburbs with high-performing traditional public schools, parents worry about rote learning, inapt content, unhealthy food, and uneven teacher quality. In less prosperous areas, for families with fewer financial resources, or for parents whose children have special needs, the system can feel like a brutal and hostile bureaucracy.

The new public schools: tailored to the needs of all children

That is why all parents should know about a new kind of public school. At these public schools, the technology, curriculum, and pedagogy differ from what we saw when we were students. Even the cafeteria is different: students eat whole foods instead of mass-produced tater tots stuffed with sugars and trans fats. Tablet computers deliver customized content, such as books and multi-player games, automatically adapted to each child’s level and style of learning. These tablets replace chalkboards and readers, and automatically measure student progress so kids never have to stop to take standardized tests. These regular measurements serve as mere inputs to sophisticated assessment systems that adapt to each classroom and provide actionable feedback for students, parents, and teachers. Computers also handle paperwork for the class, freeing teachers to focus on synthesis, mentoring, and individual engagement. Kids of vastly different backgrounds and abilities work together developing their full potential. The most effective teachers engage across many classrooms, communicating via technology to thousands of children.

Just as fascinating as the classroom innovations are the economics. The school costs the same as any other public school (nationally, the average cost per pupil was $12,401 for the 2011–2012 school year). Their purchasing agents resist the lobbying of textbook, computer, and agribusiness companies. They obtain nearly free content from the public domain. They use bulk purchasing and their public mission to obtain steep discounts for hardware and supplies. The find that they can purchase healthy food, often locally grown, within existing budgets. Additionally, mobile computing allows students to go outside more often. Students spend so much time outdoors that they use real estate only occasionally, for certain kinds of performances and hands-on learning. Overhead costs have plummeted, much as middle management costs were cut in the private sector decades ago. All of these cost savings are re-invested in recruiting, training, and compensating teachers, helping attract and retain amazing talent.

Where you can find these new public schools

The biggest reason parents should know about these new public schools is that they don’t exist yet. In a chapter of the book Educational Entrepreneurship Today, released this month by Harvard Education Press, several other authors and I describe how venture capitalists, venture philanthropists, teacher leaders, and public officials are working toward public schools of the type I just described.

We are already seeing the early stages. My Progressive Policy Institute colleague David Osborne recently described how teacher-led schools have innovated to better meet student needs. In San Jose, California, the teachers’ union worked with the local district leadership to combine rigorous standards with student-specific safety nets; the result raised college attendance rates despite demographic challenges. This is but one example of how the teachers’ unions have started to invest in seed ideas that might lead to big changes. These efforts are not limited to cities and suburbs; for instance, a rural high school in Indiana has started to embrace “blended learning” that combines great teaching and digital empowerment.

The private sector is also playing a key role. Businesses are sprouting up to empower teachers: a former New York City public school teacher built a marketplace for lesson plans called TeachersPayTeachers, which has paid millions of dollars to teachers who have come up with outstanding ideas. More broadly, “teacherpreneurs” are finding ways to lead changes in the profession without leaving the classroom.

As with all public sector services, however, change requires public demand. Parents who want these innovative new schools must be full partners in supporting teachers and political leaders in innovation. They can do this by accepting risks, embracing the nonprofit sector and private sector as well as paying taxes to the public sector, engaging thoughtfully, and setting high expectations. More and more, Americans are realizing that we have the tools, the resources, and the teachers to give our children the best school system in the world.

Dmitri Mehlhorn is a Senior Fellow at the Johns Hopkins University Institute for Education Policy. This was republished from Medium.

Education that patronizes the poor isn’t ‘progressive”

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The paradox of education is precisely this – that as one begins to become conscious one begins to examine the society in which he is being educated.

– James Baldwin

Poor children deserve an education built upon rich intellectual resources drawn from history’s world fund of information. Yet, sadly, these very children will encounter educators and school systems too lost in progressive ideology to see the poor as capable of such an education.

The ironic malfunction of that thinking is that it sees itself as humane while it furthers a cruel inequity, the gap between the knowing and unknowing classes. Lowering expectations for children because their life circumstances seem unbeatable has the nasty effect of assigning them permanently to low stations, and into the service of better educated people.

That is the message in a post by Tarjinder Gill who taught in inner-city British primary schools and came to believe the progressive education movement jeopardizes the freedom of poor and working-class children.

“Deprivation is, it seems, destiny for children in British schools,” she says.

She is irked by a high level education official who criticized school reformers because they “have the temerity to ‘refuse to accept that teachers alone cannot compensate for the lost life chances of poor children’.”

American education reformers know that criticism well.

The worst crime of all is that these reformers are “great adherents of ED Hirsch and his powerful knowledge curriculum’ who refuse to accept that children living in poverty ‘find a narrow academic curriculum, topped off by timed exams, alien to their lives and their interests’.”

Even as humans have learned a great deal during their time on Earth, the poor just aren’t interested in learning about it.

According to Gill, that dangerous prejudice grew legs in last century and still hurts the under-classes today.

Back in the 1960s, prime minister Harold Wilson backed a comprehensive education system on the promise that it would effectively provide grammar schools for all. Alas, this was not to be. Instead, the knowledge-rich grammar school curriculum was attacked as ‘middle class’ and ‘elitist’. Teachers, trained by progressive educationalists in universities, started to enshrine prejudice against working-class children into the core of the education system, at the same time as flying the banner of equality.

A commitment to teaching the ‘best that has been thought and said’ has been replaced by an array of educational fads. Teachers are encouraged to focus on ‘relevance’, only teaching topics of ‘interest’ to less well-off children. However, such a focus merely reinforces existing inequalities. The obsession with ‘relevance’ means that, by virtue of their differing experiences and backgrounds, middle-class children benefit from a richer curriculum than their working-class peers.

While children from advantaged families access the intellectual capital of all preceding generations, poor children are given discovery HRquoteand inquiry that, Gill says, leaves them on the “sandy pit of their own ignorance” rather than “standing on the shoulders of giants.” This “reinforces inequalities as it promotes the view that children should discover knowledge for themselves rather than being directly taught.”

Many “progressive” educators, especially the millions who have been steeped in Paulo Freire’s tea, will revolt at the thought of “directly” teaching or canonized knowledge.

Freire proposed a form of discovery and inquiry that views the student, especially the oppressed student, as a co-creator of knowledge and learning rather than a vessel where facts can be deposited.

He said:

One cannot expect positive results from an educational or political action program which fails to respect the particular view of the world held by the people. Such a program constitutes cultural invasion, good intentions notwithstanding.

Unlike the Hirsch-ites, Freire said a real education radical will not “consider himself or herself the proprietor of history or of all people, or the liberator of the oppressed; but he or she does commit himself or herself, within history, to fight at their side.”

5E0A6727-683x1024That is almost educational poetry. It’s tempting and beautiful, and somewhat like the work of painter Henri Rousseau in its precious impracticability.

We can wait for the poor to discover for themselves the alphabet, letters, calculus, astronomy, and the base knowledge that is passed generation-by-generation to the offspring of the rich so they can rule the world, but that conceit positions poor children to be self-confident dunces in a world of learned opportunists. That ideology, which is meant to free the poor, becomes the key that locks their cell.

There will be no revolution of illiterates. If there were such a revolution it would be quelled by the knowing class. Liberation has never been formed on a rejection of knowledge, and there will be no jubilee based upon jingoistic, self-pleasing ignorance. It is unlikely that the poor will experience all that Freire and Franz Fannon and James Baldwin would have them experience if they have not learned to read, write, and compute well enough to decode the world that has them bound.

Direct teaching speeds acquisition of the very skills to enable their fight for freedom. Lowering expectations for the acquisition of these skills lowers the probability of their emancipation.

For those “educators” who will ask us to be realistic about the limits of children in poverty, to see how their circumstances are immutable barriers to their humanity and cognitive ability, to be so compassionate as to see how feeble and deficient they are, Gill says:

The failure of so-called progressive teaching methods has not led to a culture of excuse-making. ‘Sort out poverty, deprivation, home circumstances, racism and sexism’, the progressives cry, ‘and our methods will eradicate bad behaviour and enable these children to succeed’. In the meantime, poor children are treated as collateral damage. Badly behaved pupils are allowed to disrupt the learning of other pupils and are lavished with special attention. This neither supports the child with behaviour problems nor their classmates. This common occurrence stems from the idea that educating poor children is secondary to meeting their pastoral needs. But even if this were true for a small number of children, it should not be the basis of all teaching.

She is dancing somewhere between the paternalism of core knowledge and the maternalism of a leftist misreading of Freire. Neither position will do everything for poor people, but the former is more pragmatic and useful than the latter.

She speaks from lived experience as someone who “lived in poverty” and saw how education “transformed” her life. Now she reminds others who are similarly situated to “[c]hallenge government policy by all means, but remember this: it is the duty of those for whom education offered a brighter future to make sure that ladder is not pulled up.”


Tarjinder Gill blogs at  

h/t to Eric Kalenze @erickalenze for posting her work.