A Reflection on the Success of Public Schools

By Brian E. Cleary

As we move into a new era of public educational administration, we will all be asked to look at ways to change how public schools are run. That request will come with long lists of all the thing we are doing wrong and all the students we have failed. The lists of our success, however, are far less prevalent. That imbalance suggests a completely broken system rather than one that needs to be improved. The failing aspect of any structure always make the news, there is always more interest and debate over what is failing than over what is working.  No one cares about the coaches that keep their jobs, the celebrities that don’t go into rehab, or the schools that send their students on to success.

It is worth our time to look carefully at the success and failures of our past. Change is ignited by failure, but it is fueled by ideas that have worked in the past. While our educational system has had more than enough failure to light the blazing rationale for change, that same system has also had more than enough success to know where success can be found.

According to the National Center for Educational Statistics

  • The literacy rate in the US is 99% for those over the age of 15.
  • Our dropout rate has dropped consistently for the last 40 years.

  • More students than ever before (22 million, or 69%) will go on to some kind of secondary degree this year.
  • Public School graduates annually make up between 55 and 70% of the matriculating freshmen as Harvard, Yale, Princeton, MIT, Stanford, Brown, and Cornell.

Those are not shabby data point for a system that this year will educate 50 million students (33% more than any other PISA tested country.) The shine of those points is brighter still if you remember that more than two-thirds of those students live below the poverty line.

As a teacher, I have learned that my classroom is filled not with a data point, but with individuals, and the list of success there is worth noting as well.

  • 9 of the last 13 Presidents have gone through the Public School system.
  • More than a third of 338 Nobel Prizes won by US citizens have been brought home by public school graduates, more than any other educational system.



  • Every Chair of the Federal Reserve for the last 50 years started out as a public school student,
  • Six of our Supreme Court Justice are the products of public education.


For all the work and progress we desperately need in public education, we should not forget that our work has changed every aspect of our culture from our entry into the digital age to our perceptions of art.

Steve Jobs, Larry Page, Sergey Brin, and Mark Zuckerberg all attended Public schools, before they digitally changed our world, and each of those minds has advocated for improvements that should be considered.


As a collective system our public schools have always struggled to support the arts, yet with that limited and sporadic support, we have still managed to foster the growth of many graduates from the public school system before going on to refine their various mediums.

Wynton Marsalis, Carlos Santana, Maya Angelou, Andy Warhol, Steven Spielberg, Alvin Ailey, Robin Williams, Meryl Streep, Denzel Washington, and Annie Leibovitz.


Make no mistake.  The public education system is in need of reform. We need to jettison the tools and tests we recognized as outdated back in a different century and adopt methods and modalities that prepare our students for this one. We have failed on many fronts and need to learn from those mistakes. We have also succeeded.  Whether or not those wins, or the millions of others that have not made the news, they are as important to an honest appraisal of how to improve a system that is fundament to the making and keeping our country great.

Brian Cleary is an Instructional Coach in the Evergreen School District in Vancouver, Washington.


National Center for Educational Statistics


PISA score by population:


Chair of the Federal Reserve:

Janet Yellen


Ben Bernanke

http://www.forbes.com/sites/investopedia/2013/10/22/the-legacy-of-ben-bernanke/ – 4d7ce985605b

Alen Greenspan


Paul Vilcker


Supreme Court:

Anthony Kennedy


Ruth Bader Gingsburg


Stephen Beyer


Samuel A. Alito


Sonia Sotomayor


Clarence Thomas



Dartmouth, Yale, Princeton, Cornell








Individual bio stats:



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