National Public Education

Great Ideas, not Implemented

Elizabeth Green has written a wonderful book about how to teach well: Building a Better Teacher.  She narrates story after story about dedicated teachers who are finding more and more about how to get our students to learn.  I loved her comments about how teachers are focusing on the “why” of wrong answers – how did it come about that a student got that answer and not the right one?  To do this they have to create situations where the children are not afraid to try out an answer; to say what they are thinking it might be; to explain their thoughts.  This was so good it got me thinking of ways to improve my own classes – for both the 10-year-olds in Sunday school and my college students.

From the start, though, Ms Green says she wants to do more than just prescribe better classroom techniques; she wants to improve public education.  Half of her Prologue is about the problem of raising the overall level of education in America.  Here she has less to say.  She dutifully recounts all the horror stories of the “incoherence” of the “three-headed monster” of our local, state, and federally-run system, which results in “mass confusion.”  She recounts how a Japanese teacher, who came to America hopeing to learn from the land of John Dewey, was horrified to see that in our classrooms “they don’t do anything like that.”  She comments, “The Americans produced wonderful intellectual work on what teaching could look like, but they had failed to implement any of it” (p. 124).

For this problem, apparently, she feels there is no solution.  After running through the various reform movements such as Teach for America, charter schools, vouchers, and Common Core, and noting that these have made little difference to the vast majority of teachers, she falls back to a resigned acceptance of the status quo.  She notes that those who want to work with “a larger group of teachers”, such as Deborah and Francesca, her two best reformers, “had to work with the patchwork [of government control] that did exist – incoherence and all”  (p. 310).  The best we can hope for, she has Deborah say, is gradual change over at least ten years.  The implication is, though, that this may be impossible; Ms Green’s last quote is from the Red Queen in Alice in Wonderland, who recommends doing “six impossible things before breadfast” (p. 313).  Her last chapter is called “A Profession of Hope.”

Is that it, then?  There is no way to improve the schools overall?  Better teaching is the key to better schools, and we know a lot about how to do this, but is there no way to implement these practices into more than a handful of classrooms?  Is it really true that there is nothing we can do about this except “hope” for the best and mumble "This, too, shall pass?"  I can’t believe it.   The wise men who founded this country did not set up a school system that could never be improved.  Something has gone wrong over the years; somehow we have gotten off track in the way we organize public education in this country.  Finding out what that might be is our task, not an acceptance of the “mass confusion.”

So Ms Green has come up with the wrong answer to the question of how we can implement these great teaching practices.  Let’s try to see how that came about.  Let’s apply her own technique of delving into the thought processes that led to an incorrect answer.

One starting point might be that she, like almost all commentators on the public schools, is ready to take criticism of any politically-based school reform at face value.  When discussing Common Core, for example, she quotes, with no comment, an observation from unnamed “critics” that CC is an “unwanted federal intrusion or even . . . Communism” (p. 311).   It is assumed, apparently, that every voice from the man-in-the-street is a reasonable comment that ought to be heard.  She has already argued that Common Core is a logical first step in general educational reform, but then turns around and quotes all sorts of contrary opinions.

Is this anything like how she approaches the issues of how to teach well?  Would she ever quote some uninformed math teacher who thinks that simply memorizing the multiplication tables is the best way to teach math?  Isn't her whole point that teaching is a complex topic that most people do not understand, so we will never get anywhere if we just listen to un-informed general public opinion?  Would she ever say that there is nothing we can do about good teaching since there is such a diversity of opinion about it?  Concerning the classroom she is intent on creating something new; something most people don’t know much about.  Why doesn't she do that concerning these implementation issues?

The obvious answer is that she does not feel she knows enough about the political issues involved in implementation, so does not want to take a stand.  But I would say that she could find out.  She probably did not know all that much about classroom techniques before this book, but did an excellent job of researching the topic.  Why not turn her attention now to implementation?

If she does, here are some ideas.  First, approach the problem as unique to public education.  The issue, as she points out, is not how to teach, but how to make a public school system that works.  That is a political policy issue, not an educational one.  It won’t help much, then, to keep talking only to teachers or school of education professors.  Their focus is the classroom.  That’s not where the problem is; it’s outside the school, in the state legislatures and the U.S. Congress.  It’s the “public” part of “public education” that has to be fixed.

Secondly, watch out for confusions between local and state issues.  No one is really complaining about our local school system.  That works pretty much as it is supposed to.  It’s the next level up, the states, where the problem is.  The states are the entity that ought to implement teaching reform in our decentralized system.  They are in charge, so they are the crux of the problem.

And thirdly, distinguish carefully between parents and the public.  In a classroom it is easy to focus on the parents and how we can best get them to support the school, but in reality it is the public we need to impress.  Most of the money for that classroom, and for reforms in that classroom, will come from the non-parent public, since they make up most of the population.  We do need good a parent-teacher relationship, but even more we need a good public-teacher relationship.  And that is very hard to come by in a state-run school system, as I discuss elsewhere.

So, I will wait for that second volume.  Ms Green has all the right ideas; she just needs to follow them on to their logical conclusions.  Then she will see that the schools can be improved.

Peter Dodington

Jan. 28, 2015



Private Homeschooling

Last week the New York Times had a front-page article on the rise of homeschooling in America.  It said that not only is the number of home-schooled students rising, but the regulation of this practice by the states is becoming less effective.  Not all states have clear regulations on what constitutes a proper home-schooled education, and some that do are not enforcing these.   The article notes that it is generally agreed that homeschooling typically teaches math and science less well than traditional schools.

Proponents of homeschooling, though, do not see why they should have any state regulation at all.  They are spending their own money, not the state’s, and are still paying state taxes for the education of everyone else’s children, so why shouldn't they be allowed to educate their own children as they see fit?  In general, they argue, home-schooled children do about as well as others.

The problem is, though, that they are still part of the public school system.  Long ago the general public decided that it wanted to impose minimum standards on evey child’s education, since this would benefit society in general.  This meant that the school system would not only govern the public schools, but would also check up on the private ones, making sure that they met various requirements.  Obviously such a system could only work well if it were applied uniformly across the entire population.

The question, then, that we, as the public, need to ask about home-schooling is not whether it benefits the families involved, or even whether it saves the state money, but whether it benefits all our families.  Does it help or hinder the effort to create a better, more educated, society?  I don’t think there can be any doubt about the answer to that question.

Home-schooling is, after all, a private form of education.  It is not some special form of a public school; it’s a private school run by, and paid for by, private individuals.  There’s nothing public about it.  The whole point is that the parents have rejected the public schools. Logically, then, it ought to be treated the same way any other private school, and so regulated by the same general restrictions states place on their normal private schools.  It’s not some new and innovative way to do public education; it’s a private school.  By definition, then, it does not help the public school system.

Nor could homeschooling ever be applied to the population in general.  The cost per year, when you figure in the lost wages for the family member who stays home, has to be around the same as the cost of a regular private school, that is, well into the 5-figures.  This means that homeschooling can never become the normal way for the general population to educate their children.  Only a small percentage can afford it.

So why is the public school system even involved with these programs at all?  A good question.  Perhaps it is because the home-schooling families want it that way.  They don’t want to be seen as private-school patrons, since that would cut them off from whatever general public benefits might be still available to them.  If the state is willing to treat them as a special part of the public school population and so give them at least some support, and a public school diploma at the end, why not take it?

But this should make no sense to the public, who are paying for this public program and so should have control over it, not give that control away to anyone who asks for it. How can we agree to a policy that lets anyone reject the school system we have set up, yet still claim to be part of it?

The core of this problem, then, as with many of these issues, is not with the families that are practicing homeschooling, but rather with the state government that allows them to do this. It is the state legislatures that are not doing their job; not representing the wishes of the public.  Their inability to define and regulate homeschooling correctly is just one more example of why we should replace state control of education with a national school system.

Peter Dodington

January 14, 2015


Sam Walton, Charter Schools, and State Legislatures

In a recent Wall Street Journal article, Luisa Kroll writes about the success of Carrie Walton Penner, a grand-daughter of Sam Walton, at setting up successful charter schools throughout the country, such as the YES Prep North Central School in northern Houston, where the student body is 96% Hispanic and the school is ranked the fourth best in Texas.  The Walton family has contributed over $350 million to 1,600 charter schools throughout the country, mostly in poor urban areas.  All this is seen by the WSJ as “the future of education.”

There is no doubt that this school, and many like it, are doing better than the schools they replaced and so can, in some sense, be said to be improving American “education.” The question I want to raise, though, is whether they are improving American “public education,” and, if not, why exactly are we supporting them?

To answer these questions we have to go back and look at what we get out of public education in the first place.  There are two main reasons why we set up the pubic schools. The first is that they provide a public benefit to our society.  By making sure that everyone is educated up to a minimum level we lower the crime rate, increase productivity, produce good citizens, and help unify the country.  We all know that.

The second reason, though, is that we cannot afford a decent private-school education for everyone.  Private schools are paid for by parents, but parents of school-age children make up less than a third of the tax-paying population, so relying only on them to fund our schools would mean that the schools would be only about a third as good, overall. And no amount of private donations, even from the Waltons, could make up the difference.  The overall public school budget is in the hundreds of billions of dollars, much, much more than any donors can give.  The only way to fund such an expensive enterprise is to charge the non-parents as well as the parents.  This means having a public program.

So if charter schools and other privatization schemes are truly “the future of education,” it’s a pretty grim future: schools that are three-times worse, more crime, less productivity, and a generally less civilized society.

But, say the charter advocates, the general public will help fund these schools, too, since they will want to support the successful schools that charters provide.  As long as these private-like schools are producing good students, they say, the general public will open up their wallets.  We all benefit, the argument goes, from good schools, public or private, so we all will support the programs that produce these.

But this is not how support for education actually works.  We don’t support private programs simply because they produce good students.  There are plenty of good private schools out there, but that does not mean that I, or any other member of the public, regularly send them $100.  Yes, I benefit from them to some degree, but their own people, their own community, benefit much more than I do.  This means that I don’t get back a benefit at all comparable to my donation, since so much of it goes to these other people. So I have little incentive to support them.  It is not enough that a school produces good students; if they want public donations they also have to have a connection to that public. If they don’t, it will never make sense for the public to support them.

We support the public schools because they return to us a benefit exactly comparable to our support; we all share equally in the cost and the benefits of a public program.  They are “our” schools in many ways.  We set them up, we completely control the election of the officials who run them, and we all, by law, share equally in the benefits from them. There is an instrinsic logic to supporting them.

None of this is true about any private program.  There the logic of support only applies to those who are part of their own private community; for the rest of the public, support is a losing proposition.

So the argument that what the public wants is simply “good schools” is false.  What they want is the benefit from good schools, distributed fairly to those who support them. Charter schools can never provide this.  They are run by private programs, separate, as much as possible, from the dreaded public bureaucracy.  But that means that they are separate from us, too, the public supporters.  We don’t elect their leaders; we have no say over their operations.  They can never benefit us in the same way that traditional public programs can.

It’s interesting that the charter school concept is fully backed by the business world, but no corporate board would ever agree to give away part of its operation to an independent entity, perhaps writing a “charter” for this transfer of control, and so give up any chance to benefit from that part of their operation.

Would the Walton family themselves ever agree to let some other company run, say, their produce section, in the Walton’s buildings, using the Walton’s staff, but getting all the profit for themselves?  It wouldn’t be a question, then, of whether that entity could succeed, would it?  Of course they would succeed, given the good deal they had.  That’s not the point.  The point is that any Walmart executive who agreed to such a scheme would be fired, since he was wasting the Walton’s money, giving it away to someone else and getting little in return.

In the end, then, the problem is not just Carrie Walton Penner and  other donors; it is the people in charge of our public schools, the state legislatures.  They have taken the tax-dollars of their constituents and given these away to an entity that does not directly benefit those constituents.  That entity is providing a benefit to its own private program, so that even if it does provide some benefit to the general public, it does not do so to the degree that a truly public program would.  The states have turned away from trying to make the current program work; they are looking elsewhere for improvements.  But there is no “elsewhere” that will work for the schools.  The only solution is a fully public program, run by the elected representatives of the parents and non-parents and benefiting just them.

If private schools are such a good idea, let the Waltons and other donors fund real private schools. That would be fine, and would improve the overall level of education in the country.  That these corporate donors don’t do this shows that they have something else in mind other than simply improving education.  What that might be is hard to assess, but might well have something to do with access to the 50 million children who attend public schools and may someday shop at Walmart.

Peter Dodington

December 9, 2014



Janet Yellen on Public Education, Part II

Much as I like Janet Yellen’s comments on how our “subnational” public education program contributes to inequality in this country (see my previous blog), I have to point out some of the problems in her interpretation of the situation.  Her job, of course, is not to know everything about the details of educational reform, but, still, a few “words to the wise” might be appropriate.

It is not, also, that Ms Yellen is wrong about these matters, but rather that, at times, she is putting the emphasis on the wrong part of the problem.  If we truly want to improve the public schools, and so, as she says, help solve the problem of inequality, there are certain ways of approaching this issue that will produce results, and certain ways that probably will not.  I would like to discuss the differences between these two approaches.

Ms Yellen says, twice, that the variations in funding from state to state is an essential part of the problem.  She notes that both pre-school programs and K-12 funding vary widely from state to state, and that “this unevenness limits public education’s equalizing effect.”  But surely it is the level of funding that matters, not the variation.  It would be quite possible to have a high degree of variation between the various states or districts and still have excellent programs.  The private schools certainly vary a good deal between themselves yet still manage to produce an adequate level of funding for their schools.  It is not the variation, itself, that is the problem.

The system we use in this country, a decentralized state-run program, is supposed to vary from one state to the other.  That is supposedly why we like it.  Each state has the ability to raise its own funds and spend them as it sees fit.  Of course this may mean that some states end up with low levels of support for the poor, as Yellen notes, but we can hardly say that the variation itself caused the low support.

One often hears that “a student’s Zip Code ought not to determine their level of education,” or other similar critiques of a wide variation in levels of schooling.  True enough, but this is not where we should attack the problem.  Simply making all the states, or zip codes, similar will not necessarily make their schools better.  It’s the level of support that needs our attention, not the variation per se.

A second problem is her emphasis on the federal and the local programs, but not the proverbial elephant in the living room, the state programs.  This is an error that just about everybody makes when talking about public education.  Everyone wants to praise their own local schools, true enough, but we soon realize that these do not solve very well the larger problems concerning things like equality and productivity.  We don’t elect our local school board and superintenent to improve the economy and the level of equality.  But then the conversation invariably turns to the problems of having some national program come in and “run my school from Washington.”  We forget that it is the states that we have appointed to be the solution to problems like equality, and that they, not the local schools nor the Federal government, ought to be the ones we should be addressing on these matters.

Yellen notes, quite correctly, that the U.S. provides more resources to the rich than the poor in education, unlike the rest of the world, and that one of the causes of this is our local system of school funding through property taxes.  When almost half your funding comes from a tax that is directly related to the wealth of the citizens, obviously the wealthier communities are going to have more funding and better schools than the poorer communities.

But going after this part of the problem, I feel, is not the best strategy.  Local property taxes are in place because that is what the local communities want, and they are in charge of this part of the program.  It’s a local program, so should be run by the locals.  A better point of entry to this problem would be the other half of the funding for the schools: the funding from the states.

Local control, as in such things like local property taxes, can be a problem, but it also has to be part of the solution.   As Andreas Schleicher of the OECD has noted, all the best education systems in the world allow for a good deal of local control.  Countries like Finland clearly improved their education program by increasing the level of local control and decreasing the control by the centralized bureaucracy.  As Schleicher notes, the best programs combine strong local programs with efficient centralized oversight.

The problem in our country, then, is that even if we may have too much local control, the center of our problem is that we have too little, and, in fact, hardly any, “centralized oversight."  We leave this to the states, and they clearly are not doing it well.  Where we should start to work on our public education problems, then, are the states, not the local districts.

So instead of talking about how bad local property taxes are for issues like equality, we should be talking about how bad the state taxation programs are in this regard.  What are we getting from these?  Do they help in any way to solve the problems of inequality?  And could they?  Could an effective system of state taxation, no matter how well done, actually have much effect on the overall inequality in this country?  Would it help for Nebraska to solve its own educational inequality problems?  Is that ever going to work as a way to lessen inequality overall?  These are the questions we need to ask if we ever want to lessen inequality by improving the public schools.

Peter Dodington

Nov. 4, 2014



Janet Yellen on the Problems of “Subnational” Education

Janet Yellen, Chairman of the Federal Reserve, has come out, bless her heart, for something close to a national way to fund our public schools.  This is not quite the same as saying that she wants national public education, but it surely is gratifying to see her at least nod in that direction.  Her argument is that our current local and state system for funding public education is a contributing factor to the rise in inequality in the U.S.

In her speech on October 17th on inequality, Yellen notes that inequality is rapidly increasing, as everyone knows, and that one solution to this problem would be adequate and fair funding of public programs.  She devotes a sizable portion of her speech to the problems of low-income families with children, and specifically mentioned how the public school system could help them (All citations are from

For families with children in the lower half of the wealth distribution, she reports, median wealth fell from $13,000 in 2007 to $8,000 in 2013, adjusted for inflation; a drop of 40%.  These are incredible numbers for one of the wealthiest countries in the world.  Clearly there is a concentration of our inequality problem amoung low-income families with children.  And just as clearly, it is rapidly getting worse.

One thing we can do to slow the growth of this problem, she says, is to fairly fund public programs.  As Ms Yellen says, “For families below the top, public funding plays an important role in providing resouces to children that influence future levels of income and wealth.”  As I have been arguing all these years, it is the long-term public benefit, such as the future success and wealth of all the children, that is the reason we set up programs like public education in the first place.

Yellen then devotes several paragraphs to the problems of our public education system. She starts off by saying that “[t]he United States is one of the few advanced economies in which public education spending is often lower for students in lower-income households than for students in higher-income households,” quoting a 2013 OECD report.  In most countries government school spending on low-income children is higher than it is for wealthy children, since they need more resources.

She then goes on to note that the “major reason” for this in the U.S. is the way we fund our public education programs.  The problem is, she says, that the United States is “one of the few advanced nations that funds primary and secondary public education mainly through subnational taxation.”  By relying on property taxes and other forms of “subnational” taxation, which must mean local and state taxes, we enhance (her word) rather than lessen the problem of inequality.  It stands to reason that if our school funding is linked to the property and wealth of families, then the better schools are always going to be available to the wealthier communities, and the wealthy families in them, and the worse schools for the low-income families.  In other words, having local and state taxation rather than a national system is one of the major causes of unequal public funding of our schools.

That word “subnational” is as close as Yellen (or anyone else these days) will come to an open criticism of our state-run school system, but I’ll take it.  At least she, a high public official, sees that there is a problem in the overall way we have set up our public school funding, and that the core of the problem is in our “subnational,” state-run, decentralized system.  She can’t quite name this problem directly, since this would bring down on her a storm of criticism, but she clearly realizes the nature of the problem.  It gives me hope that we might actually be able to at least start working on this issue some day.

Peter Dodington

October 29, 2014