Public school used to work. Here's why.

"Through Our Spirit We Will Shine, We Are The Class Of '79." That is me on the front row, middle, with the really great blue sweater and some sort of weird Native American brown stripe across the chest. Fashion was not my strong suit. Photo Credit: Goldbeck Panoramic Photography.

“Through Our Spirit We Will Shine, We Are The Class Of ’79.” That is me on the front row, middle, with the really great blue sweater and some sort of weird Native American brown stripe across the chest. Fashion was not my strong suit. Photo Credit: Goldbeck Panoramic Photography.

Public education can work.  To me, that statement is an observed fact rather than an opinion because the faculty and staff of Douglas MacArthur High School, circa 1976-1979, cared enough to give me and my friends the tools to lead productive lives. I can read and write well enough that companies pay me to do it. The broad themes of world history and politics do not come as a surprise to me. There was a time I could do quadratic equations.  But most importantly, as quickly as the world has changed since my graduation, I have been able to change with it. My high-school friends became doctors, lawyers (maybe too many of those), university administrators, businessmen and women, researchers, scientists, pilots, teachers and a host of other cool things.

None of this happened by coincidence.  MacArthur High School drew from a diverse population both racially and economically. While most of us were comfortable, few of us were privileged and those who were did not see their privilege as some type of anointment from God.  I am sure more than a few of us were dyslexic, learning disabled, emotionally challenged, second language learners or the like.  But somehow, someway the faculty and staff met the objective of the public school system by producing “an educated citizenry.”

MacArthur’s success is a testament to teachers who knew and practiced their craft. Sharon Harris, Debbie Trice, Judy Gamble and Virginia Peak sparked a love of reading and writing. Somehow, Doris Kays made Latin fun for a generation of MacArthur students.  Jack Magness was not a calculus teacher, he was “Uncle Jack..”  I cannot begin to describe how much Ellie Ledbetter taught me about dealing with people; particularly people who disagreed with me.

Common to each of these teachers was a central idea.  When you entered a class at MacArthur, the teachers expected you to succeed.  Not having read the material or a failure of effort was outside normal.  It was clear that if you were unprepared or did not give effort the problem was your behavior; not your genetics, not your parents and most definitely not a failing of the teacher or the school.


Treat a man as he is and he will remain as he is. Treat a man as he can and should be and he will become as he can and should be.

Stephen Covey


In the 1990’s Texas and the nation decided that schools needed to be “accountable”  in a way that had not been measured before. At the time and still in some respects, a good idea.  At the very least we should decide what it means to be an “educated citizen” and understand whether a high school diploma certifies that the owner of that diploma meets the criteria.

In emphasizing accountability, however, we imposed a consumer ethic onto education.  Just like we expect a grocery store to provide us with food, we now expect a school system to provide the children with a grocery bag of skills.  “A pound of organic, grade A English skills. And for Johnny can you give us a dozen really good mathematical masteries, please?”  With new accountability systems in place, the war has been over the right cost of the bag of education and  where it should be purchased.  And if the bag does not get filled, the answer seems to be to close the store.

But education is a participatory exercise.  Or as E.M. Forester said “Spoon feeding in the long run teaches us nothing but the shape of the spoon.” Implicit in today’s accountability regime is an expectation that teachers must provide students with motivation in addition to learning strategies and particularized knowledge.  That may make some sense for kids in at-risk situations, with parents (or a parent) who lack those skills. But traditionally, motivation was  the province of the parent, not the teacher. A society hell bent on measuring educational results has ignored this paradigm shift in who we are measuring.

To be more specific, if your kid fails a geography test it is almost a certainty that she did not study hard enough.  The teacher has done her  job by providing the feedback in precise terms.  A red 57 at the top of the page means “not acceptable, try harder.”  A follow up 61 on the next test says “this is serious, it is time to bear down.”  There should not be much mystery about this process to adults with enough life experience to be parents of school-age children. If the child is having a hard time interpreting the messages the school is sending, the parent(s) must be the ones to do the explaining and enforcing. Failure to change the child’s behavior is not a failure of the education system; it is a failure of the parent and student.

Yes, the world is changing but some truths are eternal.  Hard work begets success is one of those truths.  That is something both my teachers and my parents understood.  Together, they made  MacArthur High School a place where learning was expected and accomplished. Holding schools responsible for results in an absolute fashion absolves parents from the necessity of delivering the core message of education and  exempts students from the consequences of their choices.  If you want a bag of groceries, maybe you need to help plant the garden.

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