Personal – The Power of Public Education

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Yesterday I saw a post on Jezebel after Betsy DeVos was confirmed as Secretary of Education asking readers to post their experiences within the public school system.  Since I didn’t have a plan for today’s post, I’m going to answer the call.

I went to a really good high school.  Like, low-low triple-digits in the U.S. News and World Report rankings for “Best High Schools in the U.S.” good.  Single digits for ranking within my state.  It didn’t hurt that we lived in one of the richest counties in the state, in one of the richest communities, and had the competitive influence of Washington D.C. looming nearby.  I know how lucky I am.  I know that my school is not like every other school out there.  But I do know that it is still a public school, and that even though my school was wonderful with all these advantages to bolster it, there are so many great schools out there that don’t have every little thing going for them.

Someday if and when I have children, I’ll want them to go to public school too – because of the experience I had.  Because I know that putting my children in a public school will expose them to a more diverse way of life than they would see in any private school, no matter the efforts to be inclusive.  When a school costs nearly as much as one spends on housing each year, it doesn’t matter how much financial you give out – for some, it will always remain out of reach – even if only mentally.

Public schools, in my experience, are going to prepare you more for the real world and the way that things will be.  Yes, there were the occasional parent-teacher conferences when things got bad (like the year that I fell so behind in English class that I didn’t read more than 1/3 of the books assigned), but generally, you are allowed to fail.  Just like in real life.  No one is holding your hand and calling mommy and daddy when every little piece of homework is not turned in.  No one is monitoring the friendships of children and calling home when two kids are so close that they are “excluding other children”.  My school in particular is known for preparing young people for post-secondary education, and I cannot even count the number of times I had to get up and give presentations in front of the class – something that I was forced to do all the time in college.

I also learned in public school how to get by.  Those years in which I wasn’t a great reader of “classical literature” were also an instruction in how to fake it until I made it.  How much could I rely on SparkNotes and Cliffs Notes of classic works?  How could I stay under the radar enough to not get in trouble, while still getting through?  How could I reconcile my own literary tastes with those of the things I was meant to be reading?  I learned how to do this in public school – and amusingly enough, the “staying under the radar” thing is a skill I used through college and grad school (and even in jobs) when I was thrown into group discussions and committees for things that I was not adequately prepared to discuss.  A lot of this is my own fault, but if I had been in a more attentive private school with teachers focusing on me, I would have curled up and failed hard.

In a small school that was overly competitive in every aspect (academics, sports, music, theater, etc.) it was hard to stand out.  I was forced to confront my shortcomings.  The places where I succeeded, I knew I was actually good.  The ones where I didn’t, I was able to be more realistic about my own skills and abilities.  I may have fancied myself an actress in middle school, but competing for parts in high school was harder, and I had to confront the fact that maybe that was not where my strength lay.  And while I wasn’t the best/flashiest singer in school, I was perhaps the best singer of my particular part (alto) in the school, being the only girl to be selected at all for the state choir competition my senior year (though I was an alternate, not in the actual choir – which was itself a wake-up call).  I tried hard, but I knew which subjects were better for me – biology, math, Spanish, government, music – and those in which I struggled – physics, chemistry, English, history.  Public school gave me a realistic idea of where my strengths and weaknesses were, and didn’t sugar-coat it.

But perhaps even more important than the school that I attended – because while it is a very good school, it does not simply  churn out success-after-success on a production line – is the fact that I had attentive parents.  Parents who cared about what I was doing, who asked about classes, who engaged me academically.  My parents made sure I was able to focus on learning, and had opportunities outside of school to broaden my mind and horizons.  We went to museums, the theater, and took trips to other countries.  We visited historical sites around the United States, and we ate dinner together as a family.  Those family dinners were often interspersed with requests to “go get a dictionary” or “go look it up in the encyclopedia” because we were discussing things that were not familiar.  If I didn’t have parents who had engaged me at home and who didn’t think that learning was only for the classroom, it wouldn’t have mattered where I went to school.

And that’s a big part of why public schools are so important – for so many families who don’t or can’t engage in learning activities with their children after school or on weekends because of time or financial reasons, public school is it.  As much as they would want their children to have every opportunity, the school day is the learning time, and the rest is what it is because of the need for family survival.  If public school funding is cut, then many of these kids who still wouldn’t be able to go to a private school will have even less chance for success at a poorly-funded school system.  And cuts to benefits for the poor and needy will make it even more difficult for their parents to give them the time and attention that would allow them to succeed away from the classroom.

I believe in public schools.  And I believe in the power of parental involvement.  But when funding is cut, it’s not the parents who lose out – it’s the kids.  And America’s future.


Ok.  That’s my rant.  I know some of you who went to  high school with me will potentially read this – what are your thoughts?  What are your thoughts on our education?  And for those who went elsewhere for school – what do you think about your education?  I know I made a lot of sweeping generalizations about public-vs-private, and not all of them will be accurate, but they are the situations that I am familiar with, and based on my experiences.  I’m curious what everyone else has to say.  Also curious as to how we’re going to get through 4 years with a secretary of education who has never been involved with public education in any way…

2 Comment

  1. Nicole Holstein says: Reply

    Good thoughts, Maggie. I agree with you on many of the virtues of public school, especially the diversity issue. Even though I grew up in West Virginia, which is 92% white, my high school was actually a fairly even split between black and white students. We also had quite a range of socio-economic strati represented in the school, from kids who lived in huge houses in the best neighborhoods of Charleston and wore nothing but designer clothes, all the way to the other end of spectrum where just getting enough food every day was a struggle. I learned a lot of things that weren’t taught in the classroom, like the realities of poverty, what cycles of abuse and addiction look like irl, how class and privilege can allow one to be willfully blind to the suffering of others. I learned how important the free school breakfast and lunch programs were.
    I also learned that despite its many flaws, having some kind of federally-directed standard for education was vital. Not all teachers are created equal, and without it, there would be pockets where students were allowed to flounder in mediocrity without growth because the teacher didn’t actually care about putting in the work, or where a teacher’s personal beliefs would become the curriculum. I saw an interesting cycle, where students who were considered “less bright” were almost exclusively the same kids whose families were very poor, or very uneducated themselves, or undergoing some kind of family trauma. And those students somehow ended up in classrooms that “level appropriate” but were taught by some of the worst teachers. And those teachers demanded very little from their students, in terms of behavior, growth, or even effort. In effect, they had all their excuses made for them to NOT succeed and never had their real barriers to excellence addressed at all.
    I also learned that good teachers are not paid what they are worth, but they don’t complain. They just smiled at me while they bagged my family’s groceries at Kroger over the summers.

    I had a lot of awful teachers. But I also had phenomenal ones. I am also super lucky that I went to the only school in my state that offered the IB Program, which I honestly believe is the best educational program currently out there. As a result of all this good and bad, I ended up with, I believe, a great foundation of knowledge and critical thinking skills, a social awareness most people never arrive at, and a toughness for standing up for myself and fighting for my place, and also a healthy disrespect for authority for authority’s sake.

    1. maggie says: Reply

      I think the idea that sticks out most to me in your comment (other than good teachers being GREAT) is this: “federally-directed standard”. If there’s no standard of achievement or competence, then why are we continuing to shuffle kids along through grades that they’re not prepared to enter? It’s a system that sets kids up for failure. But making sure that there’s a basic level that kids at a certain age/grade can do and understand is so important. Shunting more poor kids off to private, religious or charter schools where this is no real standard for learning can be dangerous when those kids reach some other educational institution or life experience that DOES require them to meet a certain standard that they’re not ready or able to meet.

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