The Staggering Naivety of Those Criticizing Public Schools as Out-of-Date


There is a popular idea going around that public schools need to change because they’re outmoded, obsolete and passé.

While public schools certainly could do with a great deal of change to improve, this criticism is incredibly naïve.

It’s the intellectual equivalent of displaying a copy of James Joyce’s Ulysses prominently on your bookshelf without actually having read it.

It’s like demanding everything you eat be gluten free without actually having celiac disease or a wheat allergy.

It’s the conceptual analogue to learning a trendy “word of the day” and trying desperately to fit it into your every conversation regardless of need or propriety.

America’s public school system is incredibly complex. And like most complex things, any criticism of it is at least partially correct.

There are ways in which the system is antiquated and could use updating. But to claim that the entire system should be scrapped in favor of a largely untested, disproven and – frankly – profit-driven model is supremely stupid.

The criticism seems to be well encapsulated in a flashy animated video from Big Picture Learning, a Rhode Island-based charter school network operating 165 schools in 25 states and nine countries. The organization has been heavily praised by the likes of former President Barack Obama and philanthrocapitalist Bill Gates.

Let’s examine the six main components of the video explaining why the charter operators think public schools are out of date and should be replaced:

1) Public Schools are Relics of the Industrial Age 

The criticism goes like this. The public school model was created in the Industrial Age and thus prepares students to be factory workers. All day long in public schools students follow orders and do exactly what they’re told. Today’s workers need different skills. They need creativity, the ability to communicate ideas and collaborate.

First, while it is true that the American public school system was created during the Industrial Revolution, the same thing can be said for the United States, itself. Beginning in 1760 and going until 1840, manufacturing began to dominate the western economy. Does that mean the U.S. Constitution should be scrapped? Clearly our form of government could do with a few renovations, but not by appeal to its temporal genesis, to when it was created.

Second, IS it true that America’s public schools expect students to do nothing but listen to orders and follow them to the letter?

Absolutely not.

In fact, this is exactly what teachers across the country DON’T want their students to do. We work very hard to make sure students have as much choice and ownership of lessons as possible.

We often begin by assessing what they know and what they’d like to know on a given subject. We try to connect it to their lives and experiences. We try to bring it alive and show them how vital and important it is.

Do we exclude creativity, communication and collaboration from our lessons?

Absolutely not.

In my class, creativity is a must. Students are required to write journals, creative fiction, and poetry. They draw pictures, maps, posters, advertisements. They make Keynote presentations, iMovies, audio recordings using Garage Band, create quizzes on Kahoot, etc. And they often do so in small groups where they are required to collaborate.

The idea that students are somehow all sitting in rigid rows while the teacher blabs on and on is pure fantasy. It betrays a complete ignorance of what really goes on in public schools.

2) Lack of Autonomy

The criticism goes that students in public school have no choices. Every minute of the day is controlled by the teacher, principals or other adults. However, in today’s world we need workers who can manage their own time and make their own decisions about what to do and when to do it.

Once again we see a complete ignorance of what goes on in public schools.

Today’s students are not only expected to make decisions and manage their time, they could not pass their classes without doing so.

Teachers often go to great lengths to give students choices. Would you like to read this story or that one? Would you like to demonstrate your learning through a test, a paper, an art project or through a digital medium?

For instance, my students are required to read silently for 15-minutes every other day. But they get to select which books to read. Eventually, they have to complete a project using their self-selected book, but they are in charge of ensuring the book they pick meets the requirements, how much they read each day in class and outside of class, and whether they should complete a given book or pick a new one.

Even when it comes to something as mundane as homework, students have to develop time management. I give my students the homework for the entire week on Monday, and it’s due on Friday. This means they have to decide how much to do each night and make sure it gets done on time.

Today’s students have much more ownership of their learning then I did when I went to school. Those throwing stones at our public school system would know that, if they actually talked to someone in it.

3) Inauthentic Learning

Critics say most of the learning in public schools is inauthentic because it relies on memorization and/or rote learning. It relies on a generic set of knowledge that all children must know and then we measure it with standardized tests. Learning should be deeper and its subjects should be something students intrinsically care about.

Once again…

Actually this one is kind of spot on.

Or at least, it’s partially true.

It accurately represents one kind of curriculum being mandated on public schools from the state and federal government. It’s called corporate education reform, and as pervasive as it is, you’ll also find the overwhelming majority of school teachers and community members against it.

This is why Common Core is so unpopular – especially among teachers. This is why almost everyone wants to reduce standardized testing and the kind of narrowing of the curriculum and teach-to-the-test practices it brings.

However, there’s something incredibly disingenuous about this criticism coming from a charter network chain. The educational practices these critics of public schools often propose replacing this standardization with are often just a rehash of that same standardization using more modern technology.

Business interests, like Big Picture Learning, often propose using competency based education or personalized education programs on computers or devices. These are extremely standardized. They follow the same Common Core standards and use computerized stealth assessments to determine whether students have learned the prescribed standard or not.

In short, yes, corporate education reform should be challenged and defeated. However, as in this instance, often the same people criticizing public schools for these practices don’t want to undo them – they just want to expand them so they can be more effectively monetized by big businesses like them!

4) No Room for Student Interests

Critics say the standardized public school system requires each child to learn the same things in the same ways at the same times. However, each of us are different and have individual interests and passions. The current system has no room for self-discovery, finding out what children enjoy doing, what they’re good at and where they fit in.

Once again, there is some truth to these criticisms.

The corporate education model is guilty of exactly these things. However, teachers have been pushing to include an increasing amount of individualization in lessons.

This struggle is inherent in the essential dichotomy of what it means to be an educator today. We’re told we must individualize our lessons for each student but standardize our assessments. This is fundamentally impossible and betrays a lack of vision from those making policy.

If the lawmakers and policy wonks who made the rules only listened to teachers, child psychologists and other experts, we would not be in this predicament.

As it is, many teachers do what they can to ensure students interests are part of the lesson. They gauge student interest before beginning a lesson and let it guide their instruction. For instance, if students want to know more about the weaponry used by the two sides in the Trojan War, that can become part of the unit. If, instead, they wonder about the role of women in both societies, that can also become part of the curriculum. Just because the higher ups demand students learn about the Trojan War doesn’t mean student interest must be ignored. In fact, it is vital that it be a component.

Moreover, creative writing, journaling and class discussion can help students grow as learners and engage in authentic self-discovery. Two weeks don’t go by in my class without a Socratic Seminar group discussion where students debate thematic and textual questions about literature that often spark dialogues on life issues. When students hear what their peers have to say about a given subject, it often results in them changing their own opinions and rethinking unquestioned beliefs and values.

In short, less corporate education reform means room for more student passion, interest and self-discovery.

But these critics don’t want less. They want more!

5) They Don’t Respect How We Learn

Critics say that each student is different in terms of how they learn best and in how much time it takes to learn. As a result, students who comprehend something at a slower rate than others are considered failures by the current system.

In the corporate model, this is true. However, most districts take great pains to give students multiple chances to learn a given concept or skill.

The fact that not all students will know the same things at the same times is built in to the curriculum. Teachers are familiar with their students and know which children need more help with which skills. Concepts are reviewed and retaught – sometimes through copious mini-lessons, sometimes with one-on-one instruction, sometimes with exercises for the whole class.

The further one gets from standardized tests and Common Core, the more individual student needs are respected and met.

But again that’s not the goal of these critics. They blame public schools for what they only wish to continue at higher intensity.

6) Too Much Lecturing

Critics say that under the current system, students are lectured to for more than 5 hours a day. However, this requires students to be unable to interact with each other for long periods of time. Students are at different levels of understanding and nothing can be done to help them until the lecture is over. Wouldn’t it be better to let students pursue their own education through computers and the internet so they could proceed at their own pace like at the Khan Academy?

And here we have the real pitch at the heart of the criticism.

People who wish to tear down public schools are not agnostic about what should replace them. They often prefer privatized and computerized alternatives – like the Big Picture charter chain model!

However, these are not entirely novel and new approaches. We’ve tried them, though on a smaller scale than the traditional public school model, and unlike that traditional system, they’re an abject failure.

Giving students a computer and letting them explore to their hearts content is the core of cyber charter schools – perhaps the most ineffective academic system in existence today. In my state of Pennsylvania, it was actually determined that students would learn more having no formal schooling at all than to go to cyber charter schools.

The reason? It is beyond naïve to expect children to be mature enough to control every aspect of their learning. Yes, they should have choice. Yes, they should be able to explore and develop as individuals at their own pace. But if you just let children go, most will choose something more immediately gratifying than learning. Most children would rather sit around all day playing Grand Theft Auto or Call of Duty than watch even the most interesting educational video about math or science.

Adolescents need structure. They need motivation. In short, they need a teacher – a human authority figure in the same room with them who can help guide their learning and hold them accountable for their actions.

The mere presence of information on the Internet will not make children smarter just as the mere presence of a book won’t increase their knowledge. Certainly some children are self-motivated enough and may benefit from this approach, but the overwhelming majority will not and do not.

Our public schools do need a reformation, but this edtech-biased criticism only hits part of the mark.

The major problems are corporate education reform and standardization. And unfortunately edtech plans like privatization and competency based schemes only seek to increase these pedagogies.

Public schools are not outdated. They have changed and evolved to meet the needs of the students attending them. The fact that they serve every student in a given community without weeding out the less motivated or those with special needs as charter chains like Big Picture do, demonstrates this very flexibility and daily innovation.

They can be robust systems fostering self-discovery, autonomy and deep student learning. We just need to have the courage to support them, strengthen their autonomy and avoid trendy, shallow and self-centered criticisms from charter chains hoping we’ll buy what they’re selling.


41 thoughts on “The Staggering Naivety of Those Criticizing Public Schools as Out-of-Date

  1. It’s not naive, it’s advertising. It’s a very sophisticated brand-switching campaign of a very generic sort — Can’t Get No Satisfaction, More Taste, Less Tar, Pepsi Generation, I Can’t Believe It’s Not Public Education — and there is never any intention to tell the truth or make a truce comparison.


  2. I think there are large differences across disciplines within a school and large differences between schools when it comes to most of these points. Creativity in math classes is certainly not encouraged, for example. My middle son almost never solved a problem the way the textbook told the students to solve it, but he learned the painful lesson never to let the math teacher know that was the case.

    One thing is clear: there is a much larger variety in educational approaches in private and magnet schools than there are in traditional catchment defined public schools. The families that live on the 500 block of Maple Street and are assigned to school A will be upset if they prefer the style of education given to the students on the 600 block of Maple street who are allowed to attend school B. The reverse could just as easily be true. As a result, the school board does all it can to make sure that school A and school B do not differ in educational philosophy or curriculum. This, I think is the standardization that critiques of traditional public school point to, not something that can be solved by allowing students to read what they like for 15 minutes.


    • Would you level the same criticism at police departments, fire companies, public works or the military? I guess what I’m asking is exactly how libertarian are you, teaching economist? Government services need to be standardized in terms of which services they provide but not in how they provide them. This is not onerous. A burning building may require one fire truck to put it out. Or it may require three or more firetrucks. No one complains if the service was properly rendered. In schools, the teacher is the expert in the classroom. She is in the best position to determine how to educate the children in front of her. When that autonomy is usurped, there are problems. As long as she is making a good faith effort to educate her students, she should be left to do so. And that’s what most people did until private industry decided to insert itself so as to maximize its profit margins and then bought off our elected officials to allow them to do so unhindered.


      • Your fire example is a bit misplaced. If the fire company uses water to put out a class B fire, it will probably spread the fire. If it uses water to put out a class D fire, it has just added fuel to the fire. Different types of fires are best fought using different methods, so it is very possible that the service could be improperly performed.

        Can we agree on some facts of the world? When I look at education, I see that schools students can choose to attend (charter, private, or magnet) offer a wider range of educational experiences (Montessori, Waldorf, progressive, language immersion, etc) than traditional catchment schools with geographically determined admission criteria. Do you see this as well?


      • Actually, as usual, TE, you’re the one being disingenuous. By your logic, we should have one fire department that fights fires with water and others that use other methods and each individual 9-1-1 caller should be able to choose (or even have to choose) which fire department they want.

        What we actually have is one fire department that knows best what method to use to fight any given kind of fire. What we should have (and mostly did have before rephorm came along) is one school system that knows best how to educate different kids in different subjects.

        Incidentally, you want all your different fire departments to be funded out of the same pot that was funding the one fire department and then you’re going to blame the fire department when they no longer have the resources to adequately fight fires.

        Liked by 2 people

      • Dienne,

        The difference between schools and firefighting: the fire station can fight any class fire (though they are doing less and less firefighting) because they can fight each from the same truck while a school can not take divergent approaches to education at the same time.

        If it were possible that a school could be a Montessori school, a Waldorf school, and a French language immersion school and a Mandarin language immersion school all at the same time, then by all means have one school do all of those things. How would that work?


      • “…while a school can not take divergent approaches to education at the same time.”

        But schools do that all the time. They have different tracks for vocational, arts, academics, etc. – are you saying those aren’t divergent approaches? They have gifted classes and remedial classes and pull-outs for kids needing extra help. Those aren’t divergent approaches? Some schools even have schools-within-schools that offer, say, a progressive approach or a military approach. The elementary school in my home town, for instance implemented a progressive school-within-a-school a number of years ago. It’s pretty successful, as far as I know.

        A lot of what you’re talking about, though, is Cadillac education. Chinese immersion, for instance, is really not necessary considering our country speaks English. If you want your kid in Chinese immersion, you can perfectly well pay for that yourself. And if you’re too poor to do so, well, that’s sad, but I’m too poor to buy a Ferrari, so sometimes life just sucks.


      • Dienne,

        It is certainly true that some folks think the children raised in relatively poor households do not deserve a “Cadillac” education. It is also true that I am not one of those people. I am a bit surprised that you are among that group.


      • Great, so you support giving all kids a $40,000 voucher so they can all attend Lakeside Academy. Okay then. Curious how you plan to fund that?


      • Alternatively, TE, we could do Cadillac education all through the public school system. Schools could be so well funded that if one kid in the entire school was ready for differential equations, the school would have the resources to hire a teacher for that kid. Or if one family wanted Chinese immersion, the school could hire a teacher for that family. Every single need or want of every single kid/family could be satisfied. Would you support that? I would – I think it would be great.

        But again, where would the funding come from? It’s certainly not going to happen when we’re trying to fund multiple school systems with the same funding as one school system.


      • Dienne,

        I don’t see why this has to be prohibitively expensive. Tuition at my local private Montessori school is a bit under $8,000 a year, tuition at my local private Waldorf school is a little over $8,000 a year. Those tuition rates comparable to the per student expenditure rates in my local public school district. Are the tuition rates at the progressive school that your children attend a good deal higher than the per student student expenditure rates of the public school district?


      • Dienne,

        You would not have to have each school offer everything if you allow the students to choose the school. You could choose to attend a Montessori school or attend a French immersion school. Giving students the freedom to choose schools gives schools the freedom to be different from each other.


      • So you *don’t* support offering Cadillac education to all students? (The rich, of course, can have Montessori *and* French immersion. And differential equations.)


      • Dienne,

        “Cadillac” is your word for what I am describing, not mine. I am thinking about a world where relatively poor households could choose a Montessori education, a Waldorf education, a progressive education, a project based education, etc.

        As a private school parent, I would think that you valued your ability to choose a progressive private school for your children. Didn’t you look at a selection of schools and decide which one would be the best for your children?


      • I’m just trying to figure out how far this “choice” thing goes, TE. You ridiculed me for calling Chinese immersion “Cadillac education” and you said you think children of the poor deserve that kind of education. Exactly how many and what kinds of choices available to the rich should be available to the poor? The Rockefellers can choose to have their kid in a Chinese immersion Montessori school with an advanced math program and a fully-stocked woodshop, ceramics studio and multi-stage theater programs. Should the Johnsons have the same choices?


      • Dienne,

        I don’t think the Rockefellers can choose a Mandarin immersion Montessori School. Do you know of one that exists?

        If you really wanted to be serious in this discussion, you would point out the geographic limits to this idea. The important issue here is population density. In order to have a variety of schools there must be enough students to support the schools. Obviously easy in gigantic school districts like NYC Public or LA Unified, doable to a limited extent in relatively small school districts like my local district (about 11,000 students), but really impossible in small rural school districts. Should we allow students in urban and semi-urban areas to have access to a variety of possible educations when students in rural areas will not be able to have the same access? That would be an interesting discussion.


      • If the Rockefellers want their snowflake in a Mandarin immersion Montessori school, they will create one if one does not exist. Should the Johnsons have that choice to?

        C’mon, TE, you’re dodging the issue and you know it. Rich people spend fortunes to allow their kids to have every conceivable educational advantage. I want to know where you think the line is between the choices the rich have and what the poor should have, if any. Trying to pretend that you are so concerned about poor kids not having the same choices as rich kids is disingenuous unless you really are proposing an unlimited budget for the education of poor kids, which you are, of course, not.

        I personally would be happy to allow poor kids all the same choice advantages that rich kids enjoy, but we can’t do that on the budget we currently allow for poor kids’ education. If you’re talking about expanding that budget, I’m all ears. Shall we cut back our foreign military bases, reduce our military engagements, roll back the national security state, cut corporate welfare? Now that’s a discussion worth having if “school choice” is really so important to people who pretend it’s the “civil rights issue of our times”.


      • Dienne,

        How about just the same choices that your family has in deciding where your children will be educated? Not the Gates family, not the rich, just the same choices as your family.


      • In other words, what public school student used to have … before the charter-baggers and public ed dollar diverters got into the act.

        * I’m talking about the period after desegregation began (circa 1965 where I grew up) and before the recent wave of resegregation.


  3. Steven, Dienne …

    Are you beginning to see the con yet? If not, I can recommend a few films that are very instructive.

    P.S. The Cadillac is under the middle cup, no wait, it’s behind Door № 2, no wait …


  4. My family consisted of two parents and six children. My father worked in the oil fields at various levels from “rough neck” to “tool pusher” (some type of supervisor). It was a non-union industry and he eventually had to take multi-year contracts to work overseas so that we could get by. Having to move around a lot afforded me “opportunities” to experience several different styles of schooling, mostly public but including parochial and a brief stint in a private military academy. The latter took some scrimping on my parents’ part but they thought it would be my only leg-up to college.

    You and many other unthinking people appear to operate on a number of assumptions that my experiences have taught me to doubt. Private schools are not inherently superior. Public schools can be progressive, at least they used to be. As it turned out, it was my public school education that gave me what I needed to gain a scholarship to college. The parochial and private schools were “interesting” and they remain parts of my life, but they were not superior in their educational impact, not by a long shot.

    My contention is that the quality of public schools this country once had made a high quality education open to all — and that is what we should strive to regain for the future.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Jon,

      I am not saying that private schools are superior. I am saying that allowing students to choose a school allows schools the freedom to be different from each other. Students can benefit from having a school that matches their needs and abilities.


  5. My parents had 12 children. They chose to send us to parochial school and they paid in full for their choice. We did not have a school nurse, physical education or playground equipment. Two hours of each school day were invested in religious education and Mass. So, science, art and music education were minimal. No school cafeteria so bus riders brown bagged and walkers went home. My home was near school so my mother dealt with as many as 6 kids coming home for lunch while she was also tending toddlers and nursing infants. The parochial school for which my parents tithed the one income of my dad and paid tuition for very minimal program decided not to chose one sibling. My brother had a seizure disorder which required he take medication through the day. My mother was a licensed teacher and could have come to school to assist with him, medicate but would have had one toddler with her when she attended him. So, imagine a kid with 10 siblings “chosen” and later his little sister but he is not “chosen” by his parent’s choice of schools. This is my problem with charters and private schools. They do the choosing. They are selective. This business that the parent chooses the best match of school for their child is inaccurate. The schools choose which kids they will take. Our local public school sent a bus to the end of the driveway for my “special needs” brother, had a school nurse to admin his meds and determine if he was seizing (petite mal type that could go unnoticed, just appear to be inattentive but remain fully conscious). He got physical education and physical issues that were overlooked by doctor and would not have gotten any attention in parochial were identified. He had a hot lunch in a cafeteria. The heating and cooling in his school buildings were superior and his physical comfort level better regulated. Before you point out that this was a generation ago…..I know of a woman with 5 children. She has them enrolled in private school now…except the youngest who is downs syndrome. Her kids’ school didn’t choose her handicapped child but the public school district provides services starting at age 3. The school my brother was not permitted to attend does now have special needs program and the parochial high school eleven of us graduated does now have a program. So, there has been progress. But, there is no accommodation for wheel chair bound students. A temporarily immobilized student will be provided for a period of time with accommodations but a permanently disabled student must rely on the county provided services for disabled. A parent of a wheel chair bound child cannot “choose” for their child to receive full services in the school. In my state the parochial and private schools can receive voucher funds given to the parents to supplement the tuition but they are still not required to admit any student whose parent “chooses” that school. Parochial and private schools who are receiving tax funding via voucher still may choose to exclude a student whose physical or mental conditions they choose not to accommodate, legally.


  6. Hi Steven,

    Like you, I am a strong proponent of public schools. Like you, I have many concerns about charter schools generally – and some charter school chains quite specifically. And, like you, I have grave concerns about many schools’ heavy emphasis on so-called ‘personalized,’ computer-driven, adaptive learning software. But I’m struggling to connect Big Picture Learning to the picture that you paint in this blog post.

    Have you ever been to a BPL school or talked to the folks in the BPL network? Here’s what I’ve seen from my school visits, conversations with the founders and numerous BPL educators, and attendance at BPL’s ‘Big Bang’ annual conference: BPL has a strong emphasis on serving traditionally-marginalized students and families but they do it by honoring student agency and inquiry, connecting students to their communities and asking them to do authentic real-world work, and fostering deeper thinking through engagement in robust, student-driven, project-based learning. I have yet to see any of the ‘privatized and computerized’ education that you excoriate here. As such, it feels like you’re painting BPL with the wrong brush.

    Some of the most wonderful teaching and learning and student support I’ve seen is happening in BPL (for instance, at New Village Girls Academy in L.A.). In the grand scheme of things, I think BPL is one of the ‘good guys.’ Not sure BPL deserves the scorn you heap on it here…


    • Scott,

      I’ve never visited a BPL charter school, but they made the video I’m referencing. And in the video they tout competency based education and Khan Academy. They are spreading these lies about traditional public schools to sell their brand. That alone makes them not one of the good guys in my book.


      • I appreciate your passion and of course it’s easy to rail against others (goodness knows I’ve done my own share in 11 years of blogging). I would encourage you to keep an open mind and become more familiar with BPL and how their schools serves youth. You might be pleasantly surprised at their student-centered practices and how they are attempting to foster deeper learning, greater student agency, and authentic work.

        All my best.



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