The criticisms of public schools are incessant:
- School is a waste of time.
- School discipline leads to a “school-to-prison pipeline.”
- Schools aren’t preparing kids for the future.
- Not enough kids are “college and career-ready.”
- Too many kids don’t go to college.
- Those that do need remedial classes.
- The kids are bored.
- Too many don’t graduate.
- School hasn’t changed in 100 years
- There are achievement gaps between various sub-groups.
- Other developed countries outperform us on international tests.
- The future of America is in the balance, and it’s an ugly fate thanks to our shitty public schools.
We have an image problem.
Not so long ago, so did chocolate milk. In 2011, celebrity chef Jamie Oliver (along with other health food advocates) was able to persuade The Los Angeles Unified School District to remove chocolate milk from school cafeterias. News articles from that time reported that other large districts were considering doing the same. The kids were fat, and the schools were making them fatter by offering chocolate milk. In some districts, the answer to the question “Got Milk?” was, “Sure, but not chocolate.”
Chocolate Milk — It’s Actually Good For You!!
A few studies existed that touted the regenerative characteristics of chocolate milk for elite athletes. The fact that these studies had all sorts of problems and that, at best, chocolate milk was comparable to other supplements when it came to replenishing glycogen in elite athletes who needed a quick recovery for additional intense workouts didn’t matter much. Big Milk ran with it.
A self-interested, well-funded group called the Milk Processors Education Program has spent millions of dollars on a campaign to defend chocolate milk from attack. It took those far-from-conclusive studies, exaggerated the studies’ claims, and extrapolated the benefits to the casual athlete and the public at large. You’ll now see chocolate milk handed out at virtually every road race, even though glycogen stores will replenish through regular diet within 24 hours. There are TV ads, YouTube videos with celebrity athletes extolling the virtues of the drink, and print ads that feature NBA stars lauding its recuperative qualities. The message was clear: Chocolate milk doesn’t make people fat! The fittest people in the world drink it! It’s good for you!
It’s been successful. In the year following the start of the ad campaign, chocolate milk consumption rose from 10% to 12% among 18-24- year-olds. Runners demand it at marathons. Coaches give it to their athletes. Perhaps most importantly for the milk people, LAUSD and other school districts reversed course. The L.A. schoolkids can drink chocolate milk again, just like Olympic swimmers!
Public Education — It’s Good For You!
Meanwhile, public education does nothing but cower in the face of ceaseless, well-financed attacks. It stands there like an out-of-shape boxer, winded, taking blow after blow, flinching, holding up its hands, whining to the refs, and hoping its opponent will get tired or distracted and leave it alone.
It’s not as if there aren’t things worth bragging about. Public education has a lot more going for it than chocolate milk (although admittedly we can’t compete on flavor).
In 2014-2015 (the most recent year with available data), graduation rates in the US reached an all-time high for the fifth straight year. In spite of more demanding standards, relentless attacks, and state budgets that have not returned to pre-recession levels, public schools are preparing more kids for success. A higher percentage of students graduate now than ever before.
Haven’t you seen the billboards?
High school GPAs strongly predict future incomes. A recent study by researchers at the University of Miami found that a one-point increase in high school GPA raises annual earnings in adulthood by around 12 percent for men and 14 percent for women. The study also shows that even a one-point increase in GPA doubles the likelihood of students completing college—from 21 percent to 42 percent—for both men and women.
A researcher at Boston College followed 81 high school valedictorians and salutatorians from graduation onward. 95 percent graduated from college. Their average GPA was 3.6. By 1994, 60 percent had received a graduate degree. Nearly 90 percent are now in professional careers with 40 percent in the highest tier jobs. They are reliable, consistent, well-adjusted, and by just about any measure, the majority have good lives.
Schools do what they’re supposed to do.
If you do well in school, you do well in life. That’s worth bragging about.
It’s Time to Fight Back
Despite its obvious benefits, hardly anyone is trumpeting the value of a public education. It doesn’t seem difficult to throw money at a few celebrities and have them talk about the importance of public schools. Such a campaign should fall to the Department of Education. Tax money should be used to promote an educational system that exists to serve all. Instead of tearing down the institution, the DOE ought to be building it up. In fact, it’s difficult to imagine other federal departments acting like the DOE does. The Department of Justice doesn’t go around publicly bitching about the recidivism rate or blaming cops and judges for failing to curtail crime. The Department of Agriculture doesn’t badmouth farmers.
Since the Department of Ed seems more intent on destroying public education than promoting it, we have to rely on other people. The only groups who consistently attempt to defend public ed are the nation’s teachers’ unions. They do what they can, but their motives will always be questioned because their primary job is to look out for their members and because they give almost all of their money to one political party, making enemies of half the country. When it comes to public relations, union support is a liability because half of the country doesn’t trust them and never will.
Public education needs a PR department, funded by wealthy benefactors who understand its importance to a democratic society and who are frankly willing to lose money to save it. We need rich idealists who will put their money where their mouths are to stand up to corporate reformers, whose mission is to destroy public schools so they can replace them with private options that will line their pockets.
There are legions of famous successful people who attended public schools. You’d never know it. Other than a handful of celebrities like John Stewart and Matt Damon, most people, even those who’ve had phenomenal success in life, don’t do much to support public schools. Pressure should be put on them. Public education needs their money and influence. And it needs to use it to fight back.
I look forward to a day when I turn on my TV and see the latest pop star, billion-dollar athlete, or TV personality look into the camera and say the words, “Public school worked for me, it works for this country, and it will work for your kids.”
Note: If you’d like to know more about the chocolate milk research, I found this site informative.