The Downward Spiral of Public Education

Thoughts posted by John T. Lowry to the discussion group PHYSHARE, during a thread stimulated by the April 20, 1999 tragedy at the Columbine School in Littleton, Colorado. Posted here with John's permission.

Public Education. As Charley said, of leaches, in The African Queen: What a thing! There are two qualifiers to the broad brush indictment below: 1) There are plenty (well, some) positive pockets of public education; and 2) No administrative skill, policy, or action can prevent every single sad incident or individual failure. However...

In flying airplanes there is the well-known SPIN, a downward spiral which, unless properly checked (throttle closed, full opposite rudder, forward stick) will end sadly. Technically the "spin" is called "autorotation," a rotation which keeps itself going. Something like that is going on in far too many of the nations' school districts.

Taking say a ninth grade mathematics class as the example, What is the proper job of education? Putting aside the side issues and frills, it is for a student (who is willing and able to learn the subject) to get together with a teacher (who understands the subject and knows how to teach it) in such a way that the student comes out knowing the subject. The student knows arithmetic and wants to learn algebra. The teacher knows algebra and how to teach it (the second is easy if the first is there, in this mathematics case). Voila! The student comes out the far end, in May, knowing quite a bit about elementary algebra. That's the theory.

How does it typically go wrong? Look back at the previous paragraph. The student can be unwilling or unable (for any one of several reasons) to learn. The teacher can be too ignorant of the subject or even, if knowledgeable, unable or unwilling to teach it. The student fails the subject or, more likely these days, is processed on, to the next grade or next course, without understanding the subject. Setting up a further cycle of failure.

There are other aspects. The willing but perhaps less able student in that class was unable to attract the slight extra attention she needed and didn't learn much. Disaffected, off she goes to private school (if parents can afford it) or she gets stultified and drops out (if parents can't afford private school). In either case, the average level of willingness-to-learn, in that school, drops. Autorotation has set in.

And, next go round, there will likely be more discipline problems in the class, a greater proportion of unwilling students. If the teacher, or the administration, is too weak to enforce reasonable discipline, disruption grows into modified chaos, perhaps even bedlam. Now no reasonable teacher will put up with this for long, so the teacher leaves to become a shoe salesman, run a Dairy Queen, be a cop. The teachers who are trapped in the education establishment want out of the classroom, want to become administrators. Less money for able teachers. Autorotation is exacerbated.

Even among my generally very knowledgeable and enthusiastic confreres in PhyShare (the physics teachers mailing list on the Internet), I far too often detect a willingness to change the educational subject away from basic considerations. It IS nice to be the students' friend, to have occasional purely entertaining class sessions, to take up the slack for dysfunctional families and callous society, to be in loco parentis, to attempt to socialize the kids, to discuss current events, to ask everyone's opinion of various matters, to.... But, in my opinion, those laudable activities do not constitute the basic job for which free universal public education was established. It was established to take the child who cannot read, cannot do his mathematics, cannot find Kosovo on the globe, does not know how daylight savings time or latitude and longitude work, etc., and have him come out the far end with a set of self-perpertuating intellectual skills.

"Learning never ends," as was said on a commemorative postage stamp of octagenarian artist Josef Albers. (The framed poster version of that old 15-cent stamp is on my office wall.) Well, that's the way it is for some, the way it should be for many. But the current truth in too many classes nowadays is closer to "Learning never starts." Too often, what starts instead is "autorotation" down to the sad end. Courage and conviction are needed to end the downward spiral. Those, it seems to me, are in very short supply in the public education establishment.

John T. Lowry, PhD
Flight Physics

Input and suggestions are welcome at When commenting on a specific document, please reference it by name or content.