Friday, November 23, 2007

Public schools - a Gordian Knot or a Sisyphean activity?

As I mentioned before I am afraid public schools have become a Gordian Knot. As they are currently structured it is almost impossible for students to receive an excellent education, let alone a good education. I don't think public schools can be fixed without major changes.

Reading Jay Mathews' recent column on How to Fix Struggling High Schools I had a different image. I was reminded of Sisyphus. From Wikipedia is this summary:


In Greek mythology, Sisyphus was a king punished in the Tartarus by being cursed to roll a huge boulder up a hill, only to watch it roll down again, and repeat this throughout eternity.

Today, Sisyphean can be used as an adjective meaning that an activity is unending and/or repetitive. It could also be used to refer to tasks that are pointless and unrewarding.


Jay Mathews writes about Jonathan Lewis, a senior at a Washington D.C. high school. Jay says everyone wants Jonathan to graduate, even Jonathan wants to graduate. "But every step on his journey exposed another failure of the educators, parents and students on whom the public school system depends."

Jay goes on to list several problems with this high school and then says we need to fix this problem. Many of these problems are hard problems, for example one teacher didn't even know Jonathan was in his class, because "the school's scheduling and information system fail to inform the teacher that he is supposed to be there."

It is my analysis that we can not "FIX" public schools they way they are currently structured. For decades tens of thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands, of dedicated and smart people have worked to improve public schools. Every year they try to roll the rock up the hill, but like Sisyphus, the rock slips past them and rolls back down. In many ways the hill is getting bigger and the rock is slipping down sooner.

Albert Einstein is reported to have said that "Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results." It seems like the frequent attempts to "fix" public schools have become insane.

To improve public schools we need to fundamentally change them. One big improvement would be to get the federal government out of public education. This would allow parents more influence and teachers more autonomy. Each state could try finding what is best for their students. Our current system forces all 50 states to follow the same basic, sometimes broken, pattern.

Another good change would be to have a true voucher system. Every voucher system I've read about has too many rules and laws. For example vouchers are often only available to a few students, and the vouchers are often good for half, or less, of the money the public schools get. Vouchers would allow parents to find schools best for their children.

Jay Mathews is looking for suggestions on how to improve public schools. If you have some ideas you can send him email at I will send him an email encouraging him to consider fundamental changes.

Until we do some major changes, the insane efforts to improve public school system will be as productive as pushing a boulder up a hill and watching it roll back down. I have enjoyed reading Greek Tragedies. It is not much fun to see it repeated in our society.

Technorati tags: public school, public education, children, education

1 comment:

Hanley Family said...

Good thoughts. And you are right, public education is institutionally flawed, making solutions difficult. Most plans focus on throwing more money at making sure the same initiatives reach every child rather than just some of the children.

It starts with parents, but even when they want to be involved, if often seems the district sets up more barriers than anything.