In Defense of Public Education

As a science enthusiast who also happens to be an occasional practitioner, I get the opportunity to attend a fair amount of talks by scientists. This week I attended a talk for a general audience on upcoming US planetary science missions given by an astrophysicist. In every public-facing, general science talk I’ve been to, it’s common for someone in the audience to ask what inspired the speaker to pursue a scientific career.   Judging by this individual’s age, I anticipated he would give one of several standard responses: he might talk about watching the moon landing, reference a landmark scientific discovery – perhaps Watson and Crick – which took place during his formative years, maybe even share some anecdotes on a college professor or course that galvanized his interest in the field. His answer did not fall along these lines, but it was no less inspiring. “I grew up in extreme poverty”, the speaker revealed. “I saw scientific education as a way to escape the walls which surrounded me.” He went on to note he was a product of a public education system that worked. Ultimately it was public education that enabled him to rise out of poverty and live out his dreams of contributing to our greater understanding of the universe.

It struck me as such a simple and remarkable statement. After all, how many of us also owe our careers and successes (both professional and personal) to public school educators? How often, however, do we acknowledge their impact? While my career will likely never approach the accomplishments of this particular speaker, I too feel a great debt to a public education.  I owe much to Mrs. Hall, my grandmother’s longtime friend and teacher. Mrs. Hall helped teach me to read, pulling me out of my kindergarten classroom a few times a week for reading lessons. She set in motion a lifelong journey of education –  my master’s thesis is dedicated to her. I also owe a debt of gratitude to Ms. Hamilton, a middle school teacher who started a Young Astronauts club at my elementary school. It was the perfect opportunity for me to indulge my burgeoning interest in all things space. Below is a picture of me (long live the star spangled shorts) at Kennedy Space Center with the club circa 1994. Ms. Hamilton was also my academic coach and my English teacher. If I write reasonably coherently, it is in large part her doing.

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Young Astronauts — the highlight of my 4th and 5th grade academic life!

I am also indebted to a bevy of wonderful high school teachers. English teachers who taught me to think critically.  Humanities, music and drama teachers who taught me the importance of the arts in a progressive society.  The history teachers who taught me about European history and culture years before I would actually set foot on the continent. I owe more than I can say to my high school math instructor.  I wasn’t ever innately good at math, but he refused to accept anything less than the best from me. I remember receiving an 80 on my first Honors Algebra II test freshman year. I was devastated and wanted to drop the class. “You can do better”, he said. And I did, taking AP calculus my junior year and scoring in the 99th percentile for the mathematics portions of both the ACT and SAT. As someone whose elementary school math scores on standardized tests fell somewhere far below that, I truly don’t think there is another teacher who could have made that possible for me. But perhaps above all, I owe my career to two public school teachers I also happen to share genetic material with: my mother and grandmother. My mother was a librarian and later a special education teacher. She advocated for me ceaselessly (and was uniquely poised to do so since she sometimes taught at the schools I attended). My grandmother, who taught second grade for years, made sure I received some critical early homeschooling when she babysat me in the years prior to my enrollment in school. I am the sum total of all these teachers – there are far too many to mention in a single blog post — and their belief in me, which always exceeded the belief I had in myself.

Sometimes I feel I haven’t shown sufficient gratitude to all the teachers I’ve had, from birth to graduate school. I’m never really sure how to thank them or repay them. I get to work at a place and a field I dreamed about as a kid.  They enabled that. Sometimes when I’m driving to or from work I find myself reflecting on how unlikely the trajectory of my life is.   I grew up in a very rural area where students (sadly) may be consistently told what they can’t do because of their zip code. The media occasionally discovers Appalachia from time to time, reminding us of how poor and backward we are, how low our expectations for ourselves should be if we happen to be born there. In high school, I told a few people I thought I wanted to be an aerospace engineer. “Do you really think that’s realistic?” one adult asked. I am fortunate to have had educators and parents who never accepted that it wasn’t. Perhaps  I shouldn’t be here. But I am. And it’s in part because of public school teachers.

I am consistently saddened to see the public school system in this country under attack and its educators vilified. It’s not a perfect system, but I would argue mightily that the proposed alternatives would leave behind far more students.   Public schools have an obligation to all students, from those who have the most to those who have the least. They have a responsibility to students who are motivated and want to learn, the students who come to school well-fed and with their homework done. But they also have an equally important responsibility to students who don’t have advocates outside the four walls of the public school they attend. Students who might have an outburst in class or break down crying because a parent is in jail again. Students who depend on a free school lunch for the one meal they will receive that day. Students whose everyday reality consists of circumstances most of us cannot fathom. Recently Kentucky’s governor Matt Bevin, while spearheading the passage of a bill introducing charter schools in Kentucky, stated educators who opposed the bill were only concerned about the money they would lose rather than the welfare of their students. Bevin couldn’t be more wrong. In my experience, there is no one who cares about student outcomes more than public educators. They can’t select their students. They must care about all of them. It’s a charge they do not take lightly. When I was growing up, I saw educators buy their own school supplies for their classroom. When we were on field trips, I routinely witnessed teachers buy lunch or dinner for students they knew otherwise couldn’t afford it. I’ve seen teachers send home Christmas gifts and food in backpacks. These are the same teachers who volunteer at basketball games and moderate academic tournaments. Their jobs and commitments to their students are 24/7.

Schools in Appalachia already have incredibly limited resources. I’m not sure what the percentage of students on free lunch was for the schools I attended growing up, but it was in the 90 percent range.   Many students had parents who were out of work, who struggled with addiction, who lived in the kind of poverty we like to pretend doesn’t exist in this country. It’s precisely those students who will be left behind by charter schools and privatization of our educational system. Who are we to say those students aren’t of value? Rural areas, where schools are often remote and closely tied to the communities they reside in, stand to experience the greatest negative impact from a voucher system.  For small towns, survival of these schools is closely tied to the survival of the community itself.

We can’t let the free market decide which students deserve an education. Such a philosophy is not befitting of a great society, nor is it in our best interest. The problems we face are immense: climate change, disease, poverty. The great minds we need to solve them must come from everywhere, not just the suburban enclaves which stand to benefit from further privatization of our education system.

Emil Freireich is a name you probably haven’t heard of. The son of Hungarian immigrants, he grew up in extreme poverty during the Great Depression (you can read a harrowing account of his childhood in Malcolm Gladwell’s book David and Goliath). Freireich’s father died when he was a baby and his mother spent her life working nearly around the clock in harsh factory conditions to support her family. Emil went to schools filled with children of similar economic circumstances. Statistically, he should have also spent his life in poverty. But as a teenager, Emil became interested in physics.  He recalls in an interview from a National Institutes of Health oral history project:  “I just happened to make an acquaintance with a Kotter-type professor, a guy who had a reasonable background, who was intellectual, and who came into ghetto high schools to teach. And he taught physics. And for some reason I got interested in physics. He had a contest, and I did the contest.” That contest was a school science fair, which Emil won with a project on Bernoulli’s Principle.  Emil recalls: “My physics professor said, ‘Freireich, you ought to go to college.’ Well, we said, “‘What was college?'”   Emil Freireich entered college at 16. enrolling with money scrapped together and donated from friends and neighbors. In 1965, now working as a doctor and medical researcher, Emil Freireich led the development of combination chemotheraphy. Today that discovery forms the basis of virtually every successful chemotheraphy cancer treatment regime.

There are so many stories like Emil Friereich’s in the world, stories of students who succeeded in part because a public educator became their advocate when they had none. Let’s reacquaint ourselves with the idea that all children can learn and very often rise to the expectations set for them.  John F. Kennedy, born to wealth and privilege but imbued with a social conscience that reflected compassion for the disenfranchised, saw education as the “means of developing our greatest abilities, because in each of us there is a private hope and dream which fulfilled can be translated into benefit for everyone and greater strength for our nation.” Let’s recommit ourselves to making public schools better for everyone and unlock the potential of all students who can strengthen our country. Public schools can do better, but they can only succeed if we as society commit to the value of all children.

Disclaimer:  As always, views expressed here are solely my own and do not express the views or opinions of my employer.

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