Public Education: Start Again

If you could start from zero, what would public education look like?

Mission: Gather the best minds, ponder the responses to starting over, decide a course, begin.

Posted by Stephen Dill on December 23, 2007

The idea for this forum has been a long time in coming. It began with an observation from the spouse of a preschool director. After hearing so many stories of what some parents called parenting, the following goal was penned in a journal: “to teach people to parent as well as we teach them to give birth.”

That spark began to smolder when I learned that 75% of our town’s budget belonged to the School Department. Nothing against our School Department, a similar number was everywhere I looked. At that point I began asking educators my question, “If you could start over, what would it look like?” and took note of the reactions. No one dismissed the question, and no one had a ready answer. After an appropriate pause I would run my idea of a new public education by them and again, no one shut me down. As with most concepts, the challenges appeared in everyone’s mind long before the solutions, so most conversations never progressed to tangible benefit. I knew I needed a different scenario. But not being known to the world of education theorists and visionaries, at best I could assemble two or three – not enough to yield the weight and momentum I know such change will need behind it to get the flywheel moving. The idea of a blog only recently dawned on me.

Invitations are being extended to those who have established their expertise in public education strategy. The structure of the site will evolve to address the needs of those who want to contribute. For now, let us begin with answers to the primary question: if you could start a new public education system from square one – with no preconceived ideas of what it used to look like, what it has to conform to, even what its metrics of success are – what would it look like?

Stephen Dill

9 Responses to “Mission: Gather the best minds, ponder the responses to starting over, decide a course, begin.”

  1. John Holt said something like: if our founding fathers came back today, the only institution they would recognize is our public schools. Interesting that with systems change abounding, we have allowed the status quo to rule in public education.

  2. winchou said

    Hi Stephen — thanks for letting me know about this blog. And while I am not currently in the public education system (I’ve been an administrator and teacher in private schools for the last few years), I did start out there. Sad to say, that it is a boom time for private schools: the economic and regulatory advantages provided by the current Presidential Administration have thrown huge leverage toward the wealthiest Americans. This is particularly frightening given the function of education in a “true democracy”, which is the empowerment of the citizenry. So why independent private schools? Well, it is the one last outpost on the educational map where innovation, in scale, is actually taking place. I have these ideas in my head, and independent private schools is the only place I have found where I can test them out. IMHO, and generally, charter schools have proven to be colorful distractions rather than true incubators for forward thinking. I think you are correct to point to the funding and accountability mechanisms as two of the the top-level issues with public education, and I also think you are justified in comparing this educational mission to the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s. The stakes for the individuals and the nation are similar: justice, equality, independence. I’ve worked in private day schools that are largely free of the financial and regulatory impositions placed on public schools; though technology is not always readily embraced (ahem), it is readily available and used to great advantage. And not just because technology enhances communications and productivity, but because it is technology that is often at the root of our new civic discourse: access to first-hand information, and expressions of true critical thinking is more in evidence on blogs and social networks than in the main-stream media. This doesn’t just *suggest*, but rather *demands* the kind of participatory educational models you’ve outlined. The kids know it, I’m sure of it. It’s really the teachers and parents that need to get in on it — that’s the participation that may trigger the sea-change I think we both agree is needed.

  3. Great idea. You might ask Angela Maiers @ for her input. She teaches very popular workshops for public school educators that are focused on learning, not just teaching.

  4. Carole Brown said

    Stephen, I just found a Cambridge organization that looks very interesting …but you may know them already ….
    Cheers, Carole

  5. For example the first person listed at sprout ( says …
    “My name is Alec Resnick, and a few years ago I got fed up with school and decided to change it. The fundamental problems with education were the first domino for me in a long line of realizations about what was broken in society. I left MIT my last term to start sprout.”

  6. fifthgrade said

    If you could start a new public education system from square one –with no preconceived ideas of what it used to look like, what it has to conform to, even what its metrics of success are – what would it look like?”

    Stephen, like the vast majority of educators, I could rattle on with numerous examples of what the education system should look like… and I would argue that we should also be concerned what it sounds, and in particular, feels like too. The problem ansering this question is it seems to solicit an inorganic response to an organic entity… schools shouldn’t be defined by what they have been, or even what they ‘should’ be… they should be defined daily by the desire to improve holistically on a perpetual basis.

    Times change, schools don’t. By defining our “prefered” school, we’re really just defining what we think it should look like today, and some time in the future we’re taking on the same task all over again. Every element in every school system should be open to formative, transformational scrutiny at all times… that’s how we’ll get the schools we need now, and forever.

    I invite you to read my latest post at, and while you’re there, please check out the rest of… We have similar interests in the ed world, and my blog is where I like to share my perspective on your question about improving schools.

    A pleasure reading your blog.

  7. fifthgrade said

    Your WordPress blog logged me in automatically under my classroom blog’s ID… I’m much more reachable at, or through

  8. […] at conception” was driven by one of the two observations explained in the first post (the Mission Statement) that spawned the whole idea of starting public education over: “Teach people to parent as […]

  9. […] premise of this site is the idea that the system we call public education is broken. In the years since its launch, I […]

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