7 Things You Need to Know about your Public School

Our public schools are the last real space where people from different classes and different walks of life come together to learn, to share ideas, and to be afforded a fair opportunity to reach for the American dream. At the same time, unless you work in a public school or have a child enrolled in one, chances are you don't get to spend much time in them.

Two years ago I founded Going Public.org, a site for those who believe that public education is the heart of our democracy. One of our goals is to educate the average American on what thechallenges and successes of public education really are. To that end, here are seven things you need to know about your local public school.

1. Most parents really, really like their neighborhood schools. 
In a recent poll conducted by Hart Research Associates, more than 75 percent of parents surveyed said they are satisfied with their children' teachers and most would rather see their neighborhood schools strengthened and given more resources than have options to enroll their children elsewhere.

2. Parents are the single most important key to student success. 
Henderson and Mapp revealed in an analysis of 51 studies that students with above average parent involvement had academic achievement rates that were 30 percent higher than those students with below average parent involvement. Henderson and Berla found that the most accurate predictors of student success in school were the ability of the family (along with the support of school personnel) to (a) Create a positive home learning environment, (b) Communicate high but realistic expectations for their children's school performance and future careers, and (c) Become involved in their children's schooling.

3. Your school has lost a tremendous amount of state and federal funding and has little ability to replace it.
If you are asked to contribute Kleenex, hand sanitizer, poster paper, markers, paper cups... it's because funding for teachers, textbooks, and school buses are just some of the areas that lawmakers are choosing to cut from public education. House Republicans have cut proposed funding amounts lower than in any year since 2004.

4. Too many minutes each week will be spent "teaching to the test." 
Because of the relentless pressure to boost scores on standardized tests students at your local public school will lose the classroom time that has traditionally been used to engage in critical thinking, participate in the arts, music, and even physical education. Some parents are beginning to opt-out and are keeping their children from taking standardized tests.

5. Your neighborhood is as important as the school it supports.
Trying to fix a public school without fixing its neighborhood is like trying to clean the air on one side of your screen window. Families, neighborhoods and communities are inexorably intertwined.

6. If fewer than 10 percent of the children in your local public school are on free or reduced meals, congratulations!
You can count on the fact that they will rate at the top on any international assessments in math and science. The problem in our schools is not teachers. It's poverty.

7. If your school believes that the purpose of public education is to prepare students to be well educated in order to take part in our democratic society, go to the head of the class! Does your school invite students to weekly town hall meetings? Do students have a voice in some decisions? Are teachers part of a collaborative team along with parents and administrators? If so, your children are better equipped to preserve, protect and promote our democratic way of life.

Teachers throughout the country are marching, picketing, and joining others to inform the public about the dangers of corporate control of public schools.  They cannot do it alone. They need the support of parents and other community members who will not allow the privatization of public education to happen right under their noses. We need to you to contact educators with your support and your time. It's the entire community who will, in the end, save public education for our kids. YES, WE CAN!

Want to volunteer at a public school? Click here to say you'll do it.

Nancy Letts is the founder of Going Public.org. She has been an educator for 50 years and is the author of “Creating the Caring Classroom."

Fixing Education: Who You Gonna Believe?

I remember the PTA meeting very well. Parents and teachers were at loggerheads, because standardized test scores had just been published. The students at this top tier public school didn’t do very well, and the parents were furious. They blamed the teachers. The teachers blamed the parents. The superintendent blamed the tests. Every group retreated to a corner to lick their wounds. The principal wanted to do some healing so she asked me to assemble a panel of teachers who would speak to parents about the schools’ homework policy. A nice, easy non-confrontational policy that was clearly explained in the school’s handbook. (Note to self: Never believe the words in a school’s handbook!) I knew, of course, that there was no universal homework policy no matter what was printed . Each teacher tweaked and tailored the homework to the needs of each student.

I suggested we sit in small groups, teachers and parents together, and read a short piece about homework. One teacher in each group was trained to facilitate a thoughtful dialogue about the ideas in the piece.  Were we ever surprised by the conversations! Think homework policy is an innocuous way to bring people together? Here’s what we heard:

 “ My husband and I get home at 8pm every night. We don’t want to have to deal with homework . Please don’t give it.”

“ I had to do 3 hours of homework every night in elementary school. Why aren’t our kids getting the rigorous work I had to do?”

“ I will always correct my child’s homework even when you tell him to do it on his own. I believe homework is a window into my house and I will not let you see it “dirty.”

“ Why do I let my kid make projects on her own when I see the perfect work that comes in from other parents? Those kids couldn’t possible make an igloo out of sugar cubes so perfectly without help.”

“ I don’t even understand the math that my child is coming home with. How do you expect me to help her?”

“I told my kid not to worry about the math homework; I wasn’t very good at it either.”

Who would you believe? And what steps would you take? If we can’t talk sensibly about homework (Is it even necessary? How much is too much? What kind is most effective?), how can we possibly discuss what we believe to be the purpose of education?

A philosophy of education has been relayed from every media source known to us. Not lately by those who tie their souls to the classroom. By business leaders and “reformers” who rely on little or no research, who use improbable business models to tell us how to teach. “If it works for business….”

Who believes them?

Those who are making educational policy these days continue to stay within their comfort zone, hardly ever inviting educators into the conversation. Most have not spent a month, a week, a day in a real classroom, teaching real kids. Nope. They continue to stay close to their business model regardless of the results. They continue to speak to the converted. They find their voices echoed in a chamber that doesn’t confront them with challenges.

According to Daniel Kahneman, winner of the Nobel Prize in Economics and author of Thinking, Fast and Slow, “Contrary to the rules of philosophers of science, who advise testing hypotheses by trying to refute them, people (and “school reformers” -inclusion is mine) seek data that are likely to be compatible with the beliefs they currently hold. The confirmatory bias of (this kind of thinking) favors uncritical acceptance of suggestions and exaggerations of the likelihood of extreme and improbable events.” Do you believe him?

Kahneman adds: “Complexity is painful to contemplate. “Casual explanations of chance events are inevitably wrong.”

If it’s not too late for thoughtful and serious dialogue around the purpose, the value, and the meaning of public education, more parents and educators will have to begin to think of themselves as political animals. They will have to enter the arena of public discourse, speak with authority, use anecdotes backed up with research. They will have to be continually on task and on target.

Those in the business of making profits from our public schools really have no skin in the game. If they lose, only money is lost. Not their prestige, not their values. Not their own educational possibilities. If we loose…… Do you believe me now?

Fair Does Not Equal Equal

When my children were younger, their operative word was “FAIR,” as in: “It’s NOT fair!.”

“It’s not fair. Liz can stay up later than I can.”

“It’s not fair. Jeff doesn’t have a curfew, and I did.”

Most parents hear it. And most say, “I will give you what you need. You and Jeff are different and need different things. That’s what’s fair.” 

It seems so obvious that those who believe “fair is the same as equal” are about three years old. Or 15. But not older, more mature adults. Not those who demand we all take-and are judged by-the same standardized tests. Not the feds who compare all apples [children and their teachers] to all oranges. Oh, wait!

Either we’re all the same or we’re not. Either we each need the same time, love, access, information.. OR WE DON’T.

Is there an adult who honestly believes it’s fair to compare students in Scarsdale with students in East LA and that they both need to be compared with kids in Kansas City? Who is the adult who refuses to acknowledge the irrefutable fact that where you live determines how well you’ll do on standardized tests?

It is an abuse of power to hold all students and their teachers accountable to the same tests. It is an abuse of children to treat them all as if they are a variation of the same child. It is an abuse of intellect to tell what children DO NOT know instead of showing us what they CAN do.

Some flexed their parent power and decided they had the right to opt their children out of their states’ standardized tests. They believed that our democracy depends on a healthy, diverse public education system. They know that teachers are being judged unfairly when the data and the theory are unreliable and invalid. These parents believe that an educational experience should be challenging, focused, and child-centered. It should not be dependent on hours of test prep and drills. No one who ever went to school would put up with hours and hours of test prep! Fill in the bubbles, answer the correct question. Do it again and again. Faster. Faster. Paper airplanes would be sailing through the air at my elementary school. (Do you hear me, graduates of Bell Avenue Elementary in Yeadon, Pa?)

Americans who continue to believe that public education has produced the most innovative and savvy students in the world have begun to recognize the Kool Aid offered in the guise of “choice,” charters, vouchers. They are taking a stand the only way they can by removing their children from abuse.

Fair does not equal equal. And here’s what not fair:

  • It is not fair that 20% of our children live in food insecure households (read: they come to school hungry). Hungry kids do not think about solving math problems, so those kids will never…. you know

Think it’s not your problem because: your kids are in ‘good’ schools, or because you don’t even have kids in school, or maybe you think it’s the problem of those in poverty to pick themselves up and get a job? Think our democracy can continue to survive when our public schools are left to pick up our pieces?

It is our problem because when the human race neglects its weaker members, when the family neglects its weakest one – it’s the first blow in a suicidal movement (Maya Angelou)

What is fair? Here are some ideas:

  • Opt-out from the standardized tests. You have the right. And the responsibility to vote with your refusal to drink untested Kool Aid.
  • Vote in School Board elections for candidates who are supportive of public education.
  • Inform yourself regarding how candidates for school boards are being financed (Why in the world would outside forces want to contribute $5,000 to a candidates’ coffers. Hmm…)
  • Make friends with a teacher, offer to volunteer in his/her classroom, learn how to counter those who believe the media hype about inferior education and lousy teachers (and their unions).
  • Read something-anything-about the history of public education in America. Why it began. How it fosters the best and the brightest. When the courts tried to make diversity the law of the land. And when the courts decided we’ve had enough of democratically integrated schools. Start here or here.

These men ask for just the same thing, fairness, and fairness only. This, so far as in my power, they, and all others, shall have. – Abraham Lincoln