Item one: Abraham Lincoln was not a product of public education.
Item two: Adolph Hitler was.
Hitler dropped out of high school and wandered aimlessly until he found a home in the military during WWI.
Abraham Lincoln educated himself in the ways of the world and became a Congressman from Illinois.
The difference between these two individuals, however, was not that one was subjected to public education while the other was not; the problem was that public education, which found its origins in Prussia, was never intended to educate. The intent of the Prussian model of public education was then, as now, to separate wheat from chaff; to protect society from its lesser and lower impulses that it might survive beyond the bloody upheavals caused by malcontents.
The public education model I was raised up and through was relatively expansive. There was experimentation with forms; there were curricula that stimulated the technician, the fine artisan, the athlete and the student. My education was well-rounded and if it lacked anything, it lacked in its ability to build a self esteem that would allow me to overcome the problems with which I was faced, the problems with which many children have been faced before and since. Had my education not failed me where it did, I would have become a physician, perhaps even a surgeon. Instead, I became a computer programmer, technician and graphic designer. Not a poor fate, but there have been times when I feel my skillsets have not been fully utilized.
But rather than improving the public education model, rather than making what works well work better, Proposition 13 in California began a three decade long decline in the funding of public education. Teachers pointed their fingers at administrators, administrators at teachers; both parties were right and both parties were wrong. The problem was that there was not a systemic problem, just a focused contempt by the American South over the success educational systems were having at educating black Americans and the multigenerational poor.
What was fascinating about American education was that we were able to export our successes overseas to Africa and Indonesia once we demonstrated their efficacy with our own illiterate numbers. Within six months one educational consultant from CORE was able to transform an entire school district of poor, illiterate black American children and have them reading and writing at or above their grade level. JFK exported this success to Africa. The Johnson Administration and its southern gentry hired people like Donald Rumsfeld to kill CORE and to kill public education in the process. Gone was what was best about the work of CORE and, in its place, a bastardized right-wing version of what made CORE great.
This pattern of infiltration by southern right-wingers of progressive, forward-looking initiatives is a pattern that continues to this day. If the program or initiative benefits the poor or the uneducated, the program is infiltrated and destroyed to further the agenda of right-wing southerners and their ideological cousins in the north.
In other words, the destruction of American public education has been an intentional and vicious assault on the body politic by right-wing southerners whose latest "contribution" has been the adoption of fascism and fascist policies designed to keep poor people disempowered and rich people their de facto slaveowners.
This is not to suggest that everything about American public education has been perfectly adapted forever and ever, amen. To the contrary, American public education has the same problem that any bureaucracy must contend with: how do we keep the administrators from absorbing and expanding their budgets and their compensation at the expense of qualified teachers, their programs and our children?
Accountability, accountability, accountability.
High stakes testing programs do not provide accountability; what they provide is a systemwide capacity for test-taking. The proof in the pudding of American public education is not the capacity for children to score well on tests; the proof in the pudding is far more holistic and more far reaching.
A well educated population allows for the creation and endurance of a healthy democracy. Civic engagement is the result of quality public education.
Another marker of a quality public education is the widespread engagement of teachers with their students. Educational professionals are not babysitters and they are not professional diplomats. The only way to ensure that professional educators do not end up in the role of babysitter or under the thumb of administrators whose job is inherently political, is to keep teachers insulated from the poisonous impact of dysfunctional parents and dysfunctional administrators. Tenure protects professional educators to a certain degree, but tenure is not the only solution. Teachers need to be certified and they need to be licensed to work with children, and this licensure needs to be maintained to guarantee that any failures in the teacher-student-parent-administrator quad are not due to a failing of the professional educator.
Yes, administrators need to earn their keep by handling, managing and interacting directly with parents. Teachers need to know that by the time a parent arrives at their conference, it will be with hat-in-hand. Too often parents are permitted the upper-hand, perhaps rightly so, in their dealings with teachers. The professional educator needs to be the expert in the educational process, not the parent. Like a physician, a licensed, professional educator is the first line of defense against parents whose only qualification for their role has been the donation of DNA. If a child is writing about what goes on in their home and those events seem abusive or mentally ill, then the professional educator needs to be a trusted advocate for the best interests of the child.