Thursday, January 12, 2017

Tofu Schools

The repeated claim is that charters and choice are necessary in order for students to have options and to be able to select from many different educational programs, which makes me wonder-- are public schools made out of tofu or some other featureless, uniform substance. When you slice a public school, do you uncover the same bland surface, the same unvaried material, no matter which way you slice? Is it true that the only way to find variety, choice, or selections is to set up charter schools?

I teach in a relatively rural high school, so we're not loaded with resources or money, and yet a student at my school can choose to emphasize music or the arts or attend our vocational technical school to learn welding or home health care. You can take a yearbook class to learn photography and design, or theater, or public speaking, or business technology. If you're interested in 3D printing or working in a basic-but-fun mass media lab, we can hook you up. In my department alone, we have a variety of pedagogical and personal styles; a student who passes through our building is bound to find one teacher in our department that she really clicks with.

We are most definitely built our of tofu.

In fact, I would think that our school, like most public schools, actually provides better access to variety and choice than a so-called choice system, because to switch gears ("I think I'd like to stop playing trumpet and start learning auto body repair!") doesn't require a student to withdraw, then enroll in a whole new school and start over again. Want to switch your emphasis? Go see your guidance counselor. You can keep your friends and your locker and your lunch table-- you just get some different classes.

Sometimes the choices have to do with the community, and sometimes with a singular vision of one individual in the system (just up the road is a school that for years had an awesome steel drum band because they had a teacher who was knowledgeable and interested in steel drum bands). The particular constellation of choices under one roof will vary from roof to roof-- that's what gives a school its distinctive flavor (and one more reason it's a lousy idea to try to make all schools taste like Common Core Test Prep). But you don't have to move out from under that roof to find different choices. 

I would suspect that in the larger urban districts schools become more "specialized" in a number of ways, like specializing in the arts or specializing in technology or specializing in making do with far fewer resources than they ought to have. But I will still bet you that nowhere in this country will you find a public school made of tofu.


  1. So true. This is what I have always said.

  2. Just out of curiosity, what are your natural science and especially your mathematics course offering like?

    I ask because a talented student might well produce professional quality writing or art in response to an assignment in a class and have the quality of the work be recognized by the teacher. My guess is that would not happen in response to an assignment in a mathematics class in your high school.

    1. Long talks with some of the 12,000 students I have taught over the last three decades is part of it, personal experience another part of why I guess this to be true. Why do you doubt it?

      Head over to the math teachers at your school and ask what they would do if a student did an exam or turned in a homework using the 10-adic number system. Would your fellow teachers applaud the student? Would they even know what the 10-adic number system is? (if your interested, here is the Wikipedia entry on it:

      Could you report the courses in mathematics that are offered at your high school?

    2. TE, are you implying that math teachers in a specialized charter school *would* be well-versed in the arts and able to recognize talent a public school math teacher would not? That seems like a silly assumption. And if that's not your point, then what is?

    3. Every public school I've worked in or heard of, rural or urban, in my area has offered math through calculus. Is that not good enough for high school?

      Also, good point, Laurie.

    4. Laurie,

      Yes, I think that teachers in a specialized charter school would be better able to recognize and nurture mathematical talent than a public school math teacher.

      To see what is possible in a specialized charter school, head over to the on line charter school Art of Problem Solving ( If you look at the staff of this school, you will find mathematics PhDs from MIT, University of Chicago, University of Illinois, and UC San Diego. Others on the staff have PhD's in physics, electrical engineering, material science, mathematics education, anthropology, and cinema studies. Staff members without PhDs have undergraduate degrees in mathematics, physics, or engineering from Dartmouth, UT Austin, MIT, UT Knoxville, Mount Allison University, Harvey Mudd College, Arizona State, UCLA, Pomona College, UC Berkley, University of Toronto, and Stanford. No public high school can match the staff of AoPS in the depth of mathematical understanding.


      Most of the high schools in my state do not offer calculus, but in any case that is certainly not good enough for some students. K-12 math education teaches computation, not mathematics. Again I would point to a mathematicians lament:

  3. You have a beef with tofu, do you? You think it is too bland, stiff, unvaried in texture and just plain blah? I strongly disagree with your tofu metaphor. Tofu, as you pictured it, is a block of potential. It is smooth, fries well, absorb lots of fantastic flavors (like curry, coconut milk......) and has a wonderfully satisfying texture which fills you up with out the after effects of meat. Tofu in a spring roll is also satisfying, especially with a quality dipping sauce.

    So you see, the tofu metaphor is actually better suited to talk about the positives of public education: what may look bland and run-of-the-mill on the outside is in reality a chunk of potential, which can become varied and wonderful things in the hands of knowing and experienced cooks...or teachers.

    Of course, I am totally joking in my tone here. But I really do like tofu. I don't care if you use it as a disparaging metaphor. I just can't resist tofu in food and I will always defend tofu! ; )

    1. 10-adic is p-adic.

      ten-adic is what we normally use.