John Taylor Gatto — Insight into the public school

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John Taylor Gatto – on Education and the current system

All his books are great.  John Taylor Gatto was a public school teacher in NYC for many years.  He was so good at it, that he was named NYC School Teacher of the Year in 1989, 1990, 1991 and New York state School Teacher of the Year 1991.  He wanted to work within the system to make education better for everybody, but eventually embraced homeschooling as a way to bring about change in education.  He gave a scathing acceptance speech for his award in 1990.  Here’s a copy of it and a link to his website.

Those at the bottom in schools suffer

His insight into the public school system, how it works and how it affects students is awesome.  Basically, the students most at risk of being harmed by the public schools is those on the bottom and those on the top.  The ones on the bottom- you can probably guess why they are at risk— it’s because they feel inferior. The way the public schools are set up, there is a definite rating system among students.  If you are at the top, then you get lots of accolades.  If you are at the bottom, you don’t get those and instead you may get reprimanded and told that you need to work harder and do better.  It’s no wonder those on the bottom often feel there is no hope for them, these are the ones who eventually may drop out and settle for very low expectations of themselves their entire lives.

Those at the top in schools suffer too

Surprisingly, it’s almost as bad for those at the top.  They are the “good”, “smart” kids and they have a reputation to uphold.  I was in this group and it is probably one of the reasons Gatto’s books resonated so much with me.  I was able to understand myself a little better.  Basically, the kids at the top work very hard to stay there.  There is little sleep and there is real stress.  I remember my brother laughing at me for crying over an A- in one of my classes.  Perfection was what I was trained to want.  But in the end, when I got to college, I felt betrayed, because I could see clearly that there had been a lot of information- especially in the realm of history, economics and government that I just had no idea about.  For those who never realize that there are a lot of things they never learned, they may think that they know it all.  They are at the top, they have always been at the top, and why would they need to listen to anyone below them?  This is why many doctors, nurses and teacher develop an annoying know it all attitude and become unapproachable.  They aren’t open to new ideas or often even able to have empathy or compassion for those on the bottom or even just a little “lower” than themselves.  “You’re on the bottom? Too bad for you, it’s probably your own fault.”  It does affect their ability to interact with others, to have true compassion and empathy, and to break out of the nicely painted lines, even when it would be in their best interest.

Dumbing Us Down

Dumbing Us Down is a quick and easy read which I believe every parent should read whether they choose to homeschool or not.  Perhaps if you child is in the middle, neither an over achiever or an under achiever, public school will be fine for them.  Many people survive public school just fine.  If an alternative type of school is not possible for your situation, I think that understanding the system will help you do things for your child to offset the negative impact the public schools may have on them.  Knowledge really is power.

A Different Kind of Teacher is a collection of his essays.  In them he goes into more depth on the problems with the current system and what the solutions are.  It’s a longer book, and really the one that clicked for me and helped me let go of some of the expectations I was placing on my kids.  It also freed me from some of the guilt I carried for not taking any math in college and not going into a “harder”, “better” more “superior” majors and careers (being a stay at home mom isn’t particularly glamorous in this day and age, lol).

It looks like he has another more recent book out, published in 2017, I’m going to have to get it.  He spoke at a homeschool conference in Utah when we lived there and I got to hear him speak, I got to shake his hand and talk to him too.  He had a lot of good insight, and has definitely helped me in those early years as I shaped my ideas of education.

Solutions and Philosophy

Some of the things John Taylor Gatto would have his students do is work on projects in which they had an interest.  By following their interest, they would learn all kinds of things.  At the conference where I got to hear him speak, he talked about a girl who did awful in school, but when she was older, she had the opportunity to go sailing around the world, I think by herself, but I don’t remember the details for sure.  He talked about how suddenly she learned all kinds of science necessary for piloting her boat and planning her route, geography, math, etc.  She had no problem with it and accomplished her sailing trip no problem, plus gained a lot of confidence.  

John Taylor Gatto pointed out that every person is really amazing.  And the proof is that most every person in our society learns how to drive.  Driver’s licenses are not kept for the elites, it is a necessity to drive in our society.  And the skills needed to do are amazing- knowing the rules, being aware, being able to operate the vehicle, etc.  So his argument was that any person given an environment in which they could learn, would do so if they had a compelling reason and hope that they would be able to do it.

He would also assign the kids to do things where they may have to walk somewhere alone to interview someone or to pick up something for the school project.  This would give the students much needed alone time to just be, think and reflect.  He also talked about the importance of kids interacting with people of all ages especially those who are older and more experienced.  He talked about his childhood along a river where he and his friends would talk to fishermen, boat men and many others along river about their lives, how things worked etc.  So it is important to get the kids out in the real world and interacting with all different sorts of people.

Check Out His Books

His books are gems of wisdom on education in general and very clear about the current system as it is.  I read these books 20 years ago- and we thought it was bad then.  So far there hasn’t been much improvement.  And the bottom line is that we can’t leave the education of our children up to anyone else.  We as parents are responsible- that doesn’t mean that homeschooling will work for everyone, or private school, but we do need to understand what we’re up against so we can help our kids come out happy, confident and able to function and contribute to society.

I hope this was interesting to you, let me know!  Find me on the socials, sign up for the newsletter!  

Happy Learning!


PS- there are affiliate links, but these are my real opinions and I have really read these books or plan to in the case of the one I just learned about by writing this article!


Amber is the mother of 8 kids ages 19 - 6 including 6 boys in a row and a set of twins. She has a lot of experience with homeschooling, parenting, getting kids to do their chores, cleaning and keeping it all organized. She currently lives in France with the 6 boys- the oldest is on a mission for their church in Tahiti, and the next daughter is headed to college in January!