National Public Education
8Jul/170

Our Need for Public Education

Some time ago, my brother sent me an article from the Wall Street Journal ridiculing the excessive, the author felt, interest in the DeVos nomination to be head of the Department of Education.  Here she is, he said, in charge of one of the smallest cabinet posts, with a budget that amounts to just 3% of federal spending, and yet she is on the front page of every liberal newspaper and website in the country, and is the subject of a massive campaign to block her nomination.  Why is that?

Her position is not even that important to public education in general, since federal programs make up only about 10% of the total amount spent on the schools.  There are probably some individual states that have just about as large an educational budget.  But who knows the name of their state superintendent of public instruction?  Why is there such a fuss about this relatively unimportant federal position?

I may differ with the tone of this article, but it does have some truth to it.  There is no doubt that the general public does care more about public education than would seem reasonable.  The DeVos story is just one aspect of this.  Hardly a day goes by without some story about the schools making headlines.

This isn’t just because the schools deal with children.  You don’t see a similar level of interest in other programs for children, such as youth leagues or well-child programs.  America, in fact, is well behind most other countries in providing social programs for children.

Nor is this interest in the schools related to education in general.  If that were the case, wouldn’t there also be an interest in the private schools?  But where is this?  Do you ever see an article about a private school in the paper?  Fully 10% of our children attend these schools, but there seems to be little overall interest in them.

Rather the public is fixated on the public education aspects of these issues.  And this explains why they are so fascinated by Ms DeVos.  She is as close as we can come to having a leader of this program.  True, she is only in charge of 10% of the overall program, but who is in charge of more?  The state superintendents?  Each of them is only in charge of his or her own state, one of 50 different autonomous entities.  They have absolutely no influence on the other 49, by law.  At least there is some possibility that Ms DeVos might influence several states, not just one.  She is the best we can do in terms of the leadership of our public school system.

Putting aside for now the obvious question of why we don't have a leader for our public school system, let’s look at a more basic question:  Why do we care so much about this issue in general?  What is it about public education, in contrast to other kinds of education, and other programs for children, that makes us worry about it so?  Why do we all seem to want a better public school system?  Does it satisfy some basic need in us?

Thinking about this issue, I was reminded of a quote by Benjamin Rush, the famous Philadelphia physician and signer of the Declaration of Independence:

"Our schools of learning, by producing one general and uniform system of education, will render the mass of the people more homogenous and thereby fit them more easily for uniform and peaceable government"  (A Plan for the Establishment of Public Schools and Thoughts upon the Mode of Education Proper in a Republic (1786) p. 14).

As many have pointed out, Americans came here to accomplish their own personal goals.  They have a built-in mistrust of government programs that will tell them what to do.  They want to be free to develop their own ideas, their own way of doing things.  As Rush notes, though, they then need some help in finding ways to join together in collective activities. They don't do this naturally.  They need to find out how they agree on things; how they are similar.  Public education can do this.  It has been a way, from the start, of smoothing out all those differences that the immigrants brought with them.  It has helped make them "amenable to peaceable government."  Perhaps that is why we worry about it so much.  We can see, to some extent, that we Americans need it.

This would also help to explain why we are somewhat irrational in the intensity of our interest in public education.  We know it’s a problem for us, something we haven’t yet solved, and so are concerned with that problem; it bothers us.  But we’re not even sure there is a solution.  We like that independent and individualistic way of doing things.  Perhaps we will never find a way to join together as one homogenous country.

All the more reason, then, to worry so about it, even in a somewhat irrational way.  That, at least, is one way to deal with it.  It gives us something to do.  Maybe if we think about it long enough some solution will turn up.  That is one way to look at it.

But, of course, it is not the best way.  A better way would be to try to think through what the problem really is and then take steps to solve it.  We might start with that question of who ought to be in charge.

What this all implies, it seems to me, is that it is crucial that we solve our public school problems.  The whole issue is an integral part of our American heritage.  It’s not just a problem for the children or the parents or the teachers; it affects us all.  We really do need working public schools.

Peter Dodington

July 8, 2017

 

 

1Jul/170

North Carolina’s School “Choice” Plan

I see that North Carolina’s state legislature has just approved a school “choice” scheme that will refund $9,000 to the parents of children with disabilities, foster children, recently adopted, or children of military personnel.  These families can then use the funds to purchase other private ways to educate their child.

No doubt many will see this as an excellent idea.  Here is the state helping those who need help the most; those with disabilities and special needs, and those, such as foster and adopted children, who often need various kinds of special services.  How magnanimous, how caring.  But as we have discussed in last-week’s blog, these plans are anything but beneficial for either the families involved or the general public.  They are simply a way for the state to save money.

The problem is not just the lack of oversight.  Most of the criticism for these plans has focused on how parents spend the money they receive.  Interesting stories are told about people buying school books and then turning these back in to the stores for credit on a new TV.  People wonder why the state isn’t watching over these purchases more carefully.

But how could we expect anything different?  The main difference between a public and a private system is surely one of “oversight.” We set up this public program in the first place because we wanted a way to monitor how people educated their children.  The whole point was that, left to their own devices, private families often tend to consult their own needs, not the needs of society in general.  So we have created a public program that would “oversee” how this was done, and so benefit the entire society.

Now, though, we want to do away with that public program, and go back to a private way of education.  But that also has to do away with the oversight.  You can’t have both “free choice” and “oversight;” there is no such thing as a private program regulated by the state.  If we want oversight we need to keep the public program.

The more serious problem is that this program will not actually help the families who use it.  To see this, you just have to do the math.

What is the cost of the education and treatment of a disabled child?  I don’t mean how much a family usually spends, but the actual cost.  Let’s just start with the educational cost.  What is the cost of tuition, for example, at a private school that specializes in students with disabilities?  A bit more than $9,000, or even the $20,000 mentioned in other programs, wouldn't you say?  Isn't this a good indication of the actual cost of such a program?

And then what about the medical costs that public schools provide, through their own services?  Who will pay for these once the child is no longer enrolled in the public school system?  Just how much is that public school nurse worth, somebody who is fully licensed, experienced, and knows the child? Are the parents of these children who "opt out" really going to be able to afford anything like a similar level of care for their children?

In reality, most parents know that they benefit from public schools programs.  Everyone likes to complain about government bureaucracy, except the parents of children who actually need those services.  They may be quite willing to sit in some dingy office all day so they can walk out with payments worth a small fortune.  No one says they want to be “told” what to do for their child, except when this means that an expensive treatment will be paid for.  Then it all seems to make sense.

When the Kappan magazine does their annual poll of attitudes on the schools, they always find that almost everyone thinks their local school is doing well (but that schools in general are not).  That includes, then, the parents at urban schools, and the like, that supposedly are such “failures.”  These people are in those polls, too, and so must also be mostly in favor of their schools.  That makes sense to me.  These parents can see that the schools are trying to help them, in contrast to almost everyone else, regardless of what kind of “data” is reported about their outcomes.  They are not going to be easily lured away from the public schools.

But, you might say, it’s a fair trade; they are getting the cost of that child’s education and so ought to be able to provide a similar education themselves.  But it is nowhere near the true cost.  It’s the parents’ share of what the entire population paid for the schooling of all the children, which is considerably less than the cost for that particular child.  There are many more taxpayers than children.  The schools give back only the per-taxpayer cost, not the per-child cost.  The individual cost of educating and treating that child, especially a disabled child, is a lot more than $9,000.

(This is why private schools seem to cost so much.  That's the true cost of educating a child.  It costs the state that much, too, but they are able to spread it over many taxpayers, so the cost per taxpayer is considerably less.  They only publicize the tax-payer cost, though, not the actual cost per child.)

This cost difference, of course, is why the state legislature wants the "choice" program.  It saves them money.  And, this is why the focus is on those children with disabilities and other conditions, such as adoption and foster care, which tend to involve children with more than the average number of problems, all of which cost something to fix.  Taking these children off the rolls saves the most.

Am I being too cynical?  Perhaps.  State legislatures do have their own problems, and, no doubt, some good reasons for trying to save a buck now and then.  It’s just that parents need to remember that most such schemes do not work in their favor.

 

Peter Dodington

July 1, 2017

 

 

 

 

24Jun/170

Hey, Parents, It’s My Money, Too

 

There is a fundamental problem with what are called “Educational Savings Accounts,” the plan to give parents back the money they have spent on their child’s public school education (in taxes) so they can spend this on other “choices”, such as a private school.  Aside from the fact that such a scheme weakens the public schools by taking money away from them, the plan just doesn’t make sense.  The math doesn’t work.

If the schools were private, it would make sense to pay back the parents of a child who “opts out.”  They paid that money into the school, and now should get it back if they take the child out.  But the schools are not private, they are public.  The cost of that child’s education was borne by the entire community, not just the parents.  If you are going to give back the money spent on that child, shouldn’t you also give some back to the general taxpayer, who also shared in that cost?  The money came into the program from all the taxpayers, not just the parents, so why is it going back only to the parents?

I realize that this way of looking at it seems odd to us, but that is only because we are so used to thinking of the public schools as if they were private.  We assume that the true “clients” of the system are the parents of the children in the schools, so their concerns should guide policy.  In reality, though, the system is paid for primarily by the non-parent general public (who outnumber parents by about four to one).  They are the true “clients” of the system, since it is their taxes which actually pay for the schools.

So it doesn't make sense to give back the cost of the child's education to only the parents. This says nothing about the value of parents or the need to support them as much as possible.  It's just simple logic.  As my father used to say, "put the numbers into the equation."  We need to remember that we have a public school system, not a private one.

Why do non-parent taxpayers, after all, pay for most of the support for the schools?  Isn’t it so that the children involved will grow up and become good citizens and benefit us all?  Don’t they lose something, then, when these children “opt out”?  Each time a child leaves the school system that goal becomes that much harder to realize.  The general, non-parent public do not benefit from these opt-out schemes.

Who does benefit is the state school system.  They save money every time a child leaves.  They do give back an amount equal to the average cost each taxpayer pays for that child’s education, but this is considerably less than the amount they save by not educating that child.  It is not hard to see how this works.

There are more taxpayers than students, so the per-taxpayer cost for the entire program is considerably less than the per-student cost.  The state doesn’t give back to the parents the full cost of the child’s education (as they would if the schools were private), but only the parents’ portion of that cost, which has been shared with all the rest of the population.  They give back the per-taxpayer cost, not the per-child cost.  This is logical, since you don’t want the parents getting back more than they paid in, but it also means that the state is coming out ahead each time they let a student leave.

Where, then, does that money come from that the state is “making” on each opt-out?  From the general taxpayer’s pocket.  They’re the ones who are still paying the same tax each year but are now getting fewer and fewer educated students.  The money that they paid into the school system in order to educate a certain number of students is now being used to educate a lower number.  The difference is then just expropriated by the state.  This is why the state legislatures agree to such schemes; they benefit from them. Who doesn't benefit, though, are the rest of us, the general taxpayers.

I am a parent; I have nothing against this group of people.  I would just like to see some logic to how we run our school system.  It is not funded just by parents; it is funded by the general population.  If we don’t pay attention to that fact we will not have any public school system for long.

Peter Dodington

June 24, 2017

 

 

17Jun/170

Measuring School Success

I recently read a good article by NPR on whether money matters in public education.  Much as I respect National Public Radio, and am very pleased that they set out to show that it does matter, I would like to say a few things about their approach.  They seem to pass right over what I think is the main reason there is so much confusion about this topic.

The article starts with the findings of researchers, like James Coleman and Eric Hanushek, that, in general, increasing the amount of money available to a school has little effect on student outcomes such as test scores and graduation rates.  This is true.  There is ample evidence that, particularly in low-performing schools, increases in funding have produced almost no changes in these outcomes.

But, there’s a problem with the kinds of outcomes we are looking at, those test scores and graduation rates.  They are not a good indication of what the school is all about.  As a teacher, I never felt my job was to raise test scores or graduation rates.  I had more important things to think about, such as educating the kids.  It was their lives that I wanted to change, not their scores.  I wanted them to find themselves; to grow up and discover ways to work hard and be happy doing this.  I really believed that learning my subject would help them do this.  As Thomas Jefferson said, education can show students that “their own happiness does not depend on the condition of life which chance has placed them.”  That's what education is all about.

And besides, what teacher ever set out to have every student pass a test?  That’s not the point of testing.  You give the tests so you can find out who is having trouble.  It’s the failures that you are interested in, not the “A’s”.   And my goal wasn't that what they learned in my class would somehow help them in other classes, or on some standardized test of general knowledge.  I just wanted them to learn what I was teaching them.  That was hard enough.

Well, you might say, you should have been more concerned with their test scores.  Should I?  Is that what you would want for your own child?  A teacher whose main emphasis was on the data produced by the child rather than the child himself; some kind of classroom bureaucrat who was focused on whether he, the teacher, was succeeding?

So it is perfectly logical that more money doesn’t change those test scores.  The teachers don’t want it to.  They want to use the money to help make the kids more mature, more self-confident, more successful as adults.  And this often does work.  There are studies, as the NPR article noted,  that better resources in a grade-school classroom do affect things like adult earnings, even though they don’t raise test scores.  Of course, though, such things are rarely measured by the schools, since they have no way to track the kids into their adult lives.

A good way to understand this whole topic is to consider what we do in other public programs.  Suppose we wanted to see whether more money for the fire department was producing better results.  But the results we chose were those we could easily measure, such as response time to the fire, or the amount of water used, or the cost of the property damage.  But are these things what firemen care about?  Aren’t they in this profession because they want to save lives, and actually do this regularly?  Wouldn’t they spend the money, then, on how to save those lives, not on how to improve water use?  So it might well happen that more money did not change the kind of outcomes we were measuring, but not because money didn’t matter, but just because we were trying to measure the wrong outcomes.

To its credit, the NPR story does raise this question of whether we are looking at the right outcomes, but only at the very end, and only then as one of many issues to be resolved.  They miss the importance of this issue.   We are all using the wrong metric to evaluate school success; a metric that no one in the schools takes very seriously, and that we don’t want them to take seriously.  We want them to improve the kids, not the testing data.

If we did want to evaluate the schools more seriously, I would suggest: a) longitudinal data on the students on into their adult years, and b) data on the growth of individual students, not average scores.  Many schools get in new kids with low scores every day, and we want them to; someone has to educate those kids.  But their average scores, then, stay low no matter how well they raise the scores of each kid.  It is quite possible to be a very good school with low average scores.

Peter Dodington

June 17, 2017

 

10Jun/170

Revolutionaries

 

There is an interesting paradox concerning the efforts to improve the public education system in America.  The people most interested in this effort, the intellectuals and other people most concerned with learning and education, are precisely the people least interested in having the government solve this problem.  We are all revolutionaries, fighting the good fight against big government and other agencies that will squash intellectual freedom.  The last things we want to do is turn this problem over to Washington.

But then what are we going to do?  What, then, is the plan?  Everyone is quite sure that the privatization of the schools is all wrong, and that it harms the public schools and should not be allowed, but then what?  Is the goal simply to leave these wonderful schools as they are?  Is that going to work?  Isn’t there a problem with the schools?  Aren’t the data flat for the last 50 years or so?  Don’t we need to have our own plan for how to deal with this?  We need an offense, not just a defense.

But that has to mean dealing with a government solution.  The public schools are a government program.  If you don’t want that, fine, but then you’re reading the wrong blog.  I want to talk about how we might fix the schools within their current structure, since I think that is the only structure that will work if we want to educate the entire population.  We can’t afford a private school for everyone.  So let’s fix the public school system, the one run by the various state, local and national governments.

I know, my intellectual friend, you feel that you have never learned anything through a government program.  All your learning has come from teachers who, it seemed, were quite anti-government.  Revolutionaries, like yourself.  It doesn’t seem that the government is in any way a good source of education.

But, you see, “education”, per se,  is not the problem, here.  It’s not the classroom that needs to be fixed, but the government that is organizing the classrooms.  We know how to educate; what we don’t know how to do is organize an educational system.

Suppose you want to open a restaurant.  And you say, good, let’s get in a great chef and open up.  And your friends say, wait, there’s a lot more to it than that.  You have to design the place, and figure out what the kitchen will be like, and who will be in charge, and all that stuff.  You, who have been a customer, are focused on the food, but the people actually running a restaurant have to think about much more.  There’s a structure to the whole business that has to be worked out.

That structure is the part that is not doing well in public education.  Not what’s going on in the classrooms, but what’s going on in the state legislatures, and congress, and the school boards.  We have to fix the way these governments run the schools, not the schools themselves.

But the government has never been a solution, in your experience.  They do nothing but interfere with your business or college or freedom.  And I say, that’s different.  These were private businesses or operations.  Public education, by definition, is a government-run operation.  There is no way to privately run a public school.  The only way to fix public education is to fix the government that runs it.  Government is often a problem for a private business, but it has to be the solution for a public program.

But you say, “Well, I don’t know much about these governments, especially the state ones.  They seem to be purposely set up to confuse us.”  So, is the answer then to give up?  Or should we find out more about how state governments work, since they are in charge of the school system?

When this country was founded, certainly Washington, Jefferson, et al. were true revolutionaries; they were fighting, with their lives, for freedom from big, bureaucratic, England.  But that did not mean that they were not interested in government.  The members of the Constitutional Convention thought that government was the solution, not the problem.  They firmly believed that the best way to acquire “public happiness” is through good government.  Is there something wrong with this idea?  Isn’t it still true today?

Public education is worth the trouble.  If we could do it better, not only would we find that our economy was stronger, and our health better, and the crime rate lower, but the entire level of civility throughout the country would improve.  We would be a more unified and less angry people.  That would be good.

Peter Dodington

June 10, 2017