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Back to the Future – America’s Public Education

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Robert Brescia
August 14, 2015

It used to be so straightforward and predictable to be a student in my day. We were taught what our communities and, to a certain degree, what the nation felt that we needed to know. Tests were meaningful and fair and we took them seriously.

Individual merit was prevalent as a value. We did not work much in teams or group projects. When we were on a team, everyone pulled his/her own weight and felt responsible to the team so that we all got a good grade. We were very much attached to our high schools in particular. Extracurricular activities, such as like football, baseball and drama club, reinforced those attachments.

Teachers stayed in the same school for many years. They really knew their students well. They were able to tell the next grade’s teachers all about the foibles and idiosyncrasies of every student as they moved through the system. The primary and secondary school systems prepared us well if subsequently we decided to go to college. Property taxes paid for all of this quite nicely.

Brescia aug 15Does that description of America’s schools 50 years ago get your blood flowing? Does it sound like something to aspire to? It sounds great to me. What happened to our beloved public school system in these great United States?

I think we have tinkered with the machine so much that its parts are not able to withstand the whole. This machine that we call public education is structurally unsound. The independent school districts are faced with initiative after initiative on all sorts of learning techniques and theories. There is no comprehensive strategy that will tame complexity and seek simplicity.

Teachers are paid miserably and are expected to rejoice in their career choice. Parents have largely abdicated their responsibilities to teach their children, relinquishing control and responsibility to the teacher. This needs to stop.

With respect to politics, public education is being held hostage by politics. That is bad news for the children. Politicians on both sides are using education as a weapon against each other instead of arriving at workable solutions. This needs to stop.

Imagine the school system as one big virtual machine with many moving parts. The machine is highly dependent on the fit and functioning of these parts so that the whole can deliver what it needs to. To tinker with the parts, remove some of them, replace with untested parts, or any other deviation is often a recipe for disaster. This is occurring now in many of our public school systems – and it must stop.

Early literacy is at the heart of school effectiveness and simplicity. I heard Wendy Davis, a 2014 Texas Democratic gubernatorial candidate, as a recent guest speaker. Davis stated,

“It’s time for a movement, my friends, and that movement should make some important demands. Perhaps the most crucial of all – we’ve got to make some real investments in early childhood education and that starts with full-day pre-K for every single child in this state.”

In October, we will host a visit from former first lady Laura Bush on the topic, “The Power of Early Literacy: Foundations of Learning.” While we continue to differ on the means, we seem to concur on the ends.

Conservatives might say that the description of the school system at the beginning of this article is a compelling one and that we should strive to return to it. Liberals might offer that those days will never return due to the complexities that exist today. Yes, I did paint a desirable picture of schools “back in the day.” Perhaps we should just make a short list of what made them great: empowered and well-paid teachers, effective civic education, individual prowess and achievement, affordability and student safety. These should be the overarching, non-violable common core of all public schools.

Before we agree that all was well in the 1950s and 1960s, consider the words of our Institute’s namesake, former Texas Attorney General John Ben Shepperd, writing in the late 1950s:

“Many parents and teachers have thrown up their hands and lamented that civics, history, government and related subjects have to be taught in school before children are old enough to be interested in such things. That isn’t altogether true. When the City Council passes an ordinance requiring all dogs to be chained or fenced in, my children want to know all about the City Council. When Election Day is coming and long-winded candidates have pushed the Lone Ranger off television, that’s the time to bring sample ballots to school and hold a mock election, letting the children choose which candidate they like best—or resent least. At every election hundreds of ballots are voided because people were never taught the extremely simple procedure of marking them correctly.”

It is time to go “back to the future” and build ourselves a public education landscape that makes us proud.


 Author: Bob Brescia serves as the executive director of the John Ben Shepperd Public Leadership Institute in Odessa, Texas. He has a doctoral degree with distinction in executive leadership from The George Washington University. His experience includes top leadership team roles in education, business, government and defense sectors. Bob’s passion is to teach young Texans about leadership, ethics and public service. Please contact him at [email protected].

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The American Society for Public Administration is the largest and most prominent professional association for public administration. It is dedicated to advancing the art, science, teaching and practice of public and non-profit administration.

2 Responses to Back to the Future – America’s Public Education

  1. Robert Brescia Reply

    August 19, 2015 at 3:46 pm

    Hi James – appreciate your comment but disagree. I’ve been a public and private school teacher, a Superintendent and a COO candidate for a very large district, President of a 7-12 grade academy and I currently teach civics to public school children as part of my job here at JBS and I’m a Doctor of Education. It’s probably better to spend less time comparing pedigrees though, and use that time constructively to attend school board meetings and other venues where we can influence what is going on in our schools. The beauty of our country is that anyone can have a “full opinion” about anything and we welcome that. I suspect you’ll agree. Bob

  2. James Butt Reply

    August 15, 2015 at 1:02 pm

    Nice words, but before anyone can have a full opinion on public education, they need to sit on their local school board (like I did).

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