National Public Education

A Country or a Colony?

Whenever I bring up the idea of a national school system, one of the first critiques is always that this would result in more emphasis on the “dominant culture” in our country, and that this is not a good thing.  The argument is that by centralizing our school system, so that there would be only one source for the curriculum and methods, instead of the 50 states, we would have to make the schools more homogeneous and less diverse.  A recent gallop poll notes that 80% of Americans do not want the schools to emphasize “one dominant culture.”  Our diversity and openness has always been seen as one of our essential strengths.  Wouldn’t a national system weaken or even do away with these attributes?
But is it possible to have a strong school system that does not represent a certain point of view?  A teacher has to teach something; he can’t teach everything.  Can we really teach all the different points of view possible?  Wouldn’t it be better just to teach the best ones?  Of course a weak school system can be said to not teach any one dominant culture, since it doesn’t really teach anything, but can a strong one?  It may be that diversity is a cardinal concept in our culture, but that does not mean that the teaching itself has to be diverse.
These arguments against any strong central beliefs seem to me to be part of a nostalgia for our past rather than any clear thinking about our future.  In the past we were intent on filling up this country and needed all the new people we could find.  On the frontier it had to be that all were welcome, all were equal, all were left to their own devices to come up with as many solutions to a problem as possible.  Any centralized culture would work against the kind of varied and energetic immigrants we needed.    We wanted everyone to feel at home, so it was essential that there was only a very loose definition of what was our dominant culture.
But what of the future?  What will this country be remembered for a millennium hence?  What have we done that others haven’t?  Were we a refuge for the “tired and poor” of the rest of the world?  But the statue of liberty faces away from our shores.  It is a monument for the rest of the world, not for us.  We helped them solve their problems; what have we ourselves done?  Innovations?  Yes, but these, by definition, come and go quickly.  Who still honors the inventor of the tape recorder?  Democracy?  But most of the world now does this, and many better than we do.  Wealth and power; is anyone remembered for this?  Personal freedom; which the most backward, violent, countries have more of than we do?
We haven’t accomplished much that is lasting because we have never settled on who we are.  We have not yet agreed on what makes us unique.  In a sense, we still think of ourselves as a young, evolving country; teenagers in a world of adults.  We haven’t grown up into the kind of mature stable country that we should be.  Adults have to choose the one thing they want to be; you can’t be both the physicist and concert pianist that you hoped to be when young.
In many ways, what we have done is kept the characteristics of a colony: a place where anyone can arrive and feel at home, no matter what their beliefs; where money is to be made, and innovations, and stunning achievements in technology and science, but little of lasting value.  A colony is a service to the rest of the world; a refuge, a land of new opportunity.  All are welcome; all have a chance to succeed.  But the whole operation is based on change; little is done that is ever remembered.
Nor is a colony a good place for our young.  A child needs a stable society, one where the ideals of the culture are clear and will remain so on into the future; where work today on those ideals will lead to success tomorrow.  A colony, where the adults all think of themselves as young, is hard on those who actually are young.  Children need some real adults around to guide them.   We need to consider how we might educate our own, interior, newcomers, the ones we have produced ourselves, our children.  They can be just as valuable to us.  They can be our future.
So I am not worried that a national school system would run counter to who we really are.  We don’t know who we are.  We have chosen to ignore that question so that we may continue to attract outsiders.  It is time, though, to grow up into the mature country we ought to be.  This means starting the process of deciding on stable and consistent ideals.  That process would be aided by a national school system, not hurt by it.

Peter Dodington

August 7, 2013



Contra Friedman

Milton Friedman is justly honored as one of the leading economists of the 20th century.  He won the Noble Prize in Economics in 1976 and has been called by Robert J. Samuelson, the author of what must be the most widely used textbook on the subject, “the most influential living economist since World War II.”  On matters of education reform, though, he is remarkably short-sighted and confused.

In his 1962 book Capitalism and Freedom, Friedman devotes a chapter on “The Role of Government in Education.”  He starts out by noting that government “intervention” is needed in education, instead of the free-market exchange of goods and services, because of what are called “neighborhood effects.”  These are “circumstances under which the action of one individual imposes significant costs…or gains to other individuals for which it is not feasible to make [appropriate compensation]—circumstances that make voluntary exchange impossible”  (pp.85-86 in the 2002 U. of Chicago Press edition).  As he says, “the gain from the education of the child accrues not only to the child or to his parents but also to other members of society” (p. 86).  Since everyone is society benefits from education, it is reasonable to share the cost for that education among all through government taxes.  He goes on to say that the details of this government involvement “must be decided by the judgment of the community expressed through its accepted political channels” (p. 89).  Well and good.

Friedman then argues, though, that the best way for the government to be involved in that subsidy of education is to give direct payments to parents in the form of “vouchers” that can be used at any school, public or private, rather than to rely on the government to administer the program.  He spends the rest of the chapter touting the virtues of “competition” among the schools that would result, and the rights of parents to freely choose from a wide variety of educational alternatives.  Such a scheme would, he says, “reward merit” and ensure the highest possible level of education in our schools.

But what happened to the findings about “neighborhood effects”?  If these are the essential feature of educational programs, why, then, are we suddenly talking only about how to compensate parents?  The whole point of the “neighborhood effects” argument was that it is the non-parents, the “other members of society,” who are at the center of the issue; it is their fair compensation, their costs and benefits, that brings about the need for government intervention.  Instead of talking about this core problem, though,  Friedman shifts the argument to the needs of the parents.  He establishes the public, governmental, nature of education, and then ignores this for the rest of the chapter.

By looking at only the needs of parents, Friedman is essentially classifying education as a straight “market” transaction.  Parents “buy” education for their child, and gain their own private benefit from this transaction.   Of course, from this angle it does seem quite right to get the government out of the picture and let the parents decide for themselves how to fund education.  Why pay for the government bureaucracy if all that matters are the needs of the individuals involved, the parents?  Let them have the “choice” of which school to use, let the schools compete for their support, and let as diverse a mixture of schools serve them, both private and public.  Let them have vouchers, and charter schools that avoid the bureaucracy, and  home schooling.  Free choice works in other market situations; why not let it work for education?

Because, as Friedman himself has already established, that this is not the right way to look at education.  The market does not work for them, since the “neighborhood effects” interfere with that market.  Parents are in fact only one part of the picture.  Most of the support for public schools has to come from the non-parents who are getting all those neighborhood effects, such as a better economy and less crime, from the education program.  The government has to be involved, since this is the only way those non-parents can be involved in the funding.

Once we look at vouchers and other ways to avoid government “interference” from the point of view of the needs of the general public, we can readily see why they cannot succeed.  Why should a general public taxpayer want to pay to give someone a private education?  This would mean that he no longer had any control over the educational outcomes that he was paying for.  Private education is, by definition, free from government control.  But that control is the way the people paying for it, the public, are able to regulate how their money is spent, as Friedman himself notes in his comments on the community control of government.  Take it away and you take away, eventually, that support.  Then you are left with only the support of the parents, which, as any private school will tell you, is never enough to run a school.  Schools that are supported only by the tuition of parents, like a start-up nursery school, meet in church basements, not block-long buildings.  The economics of support for public education  by parents alone doesn’t work.

So even though he is an economist, Friedman has ignored the central economic issue of public school funding: how to get the general public, including but not limited to the parents, to fund improvements.  This involves such matters as the demonstration of educational public benefit to that public, and the various strengths and weaknesses of the local, state, and national government agencies involved.  Since the free market doesn’t work here, you need to examine the governmental economics, not the free-market economics, of the situation.

Yes, cutting the government out of the funding for public education would result in a “freer” and “more competitive” program, but it’s all wrong from an economic standpoint.   Ironically, it is the economists who don’t seem to realize this.

Peter Dodington

March 26, 2013


The Department of Public Education


The title of this post refers to something that does not exist.  There are no Departments of “Public Education,” either in our governments or colleges.  Instead, we have Departments of “Education.”  Yet we do have Departments of Public Health, Public Safety, Public Works, etc.  Why not in the field of education?  A small difference, you may say, but one that reveals a lot about our core problems in this field.

When we call these departments simply “education,” we imply that the core problems they deal with involve how to teach children well – the curriculum, the methods, the quality of the teachers, the level of test scores, etc.  Getting a degree in “education,” then, is similar to getting a degree in medicine; it deals with the whole range of issues in that general field.

Contrast this with a degree in Public Health.  Here it is understood that the courses deal with how this program needs to be run.  It is assumed that topics such as the government’s role in the program and how much public support it has will be a large part of the curriculum.  No one expects to solve public health issues by simply doing medicine better.  A new drug for cancer does not necessarily mean better care for the elderly.  It’s the application of this knowledge to a working public program that is the goal.

Yet in education, we ignore these differences and lump everything under the general term “education.”  We say we have an “education” problem in America, not a “public education” problem, and name our departments accordingly.  But this is not quite true.  We actually do education, per se, pretty well.  No one is complaining about our private schools or colleges, and there are numerous small public schools that do very well.  There are even whole state programs, such as in Massachusetts, which are among the best in the world.  We know how to teach every child well.

What we don’t know is how to run a viable public education program for everyone that is capable of improvement.  There are pockets of success, but the overall data for general public education is at best flat.  It is the public program that is not improving, not our knowledge of how to teach children or run a school.  Our problem is “public education,” not “education."

That we don’t have any departments of public education at either the federal or the state level, or our colleges, implies that these organizations do not feel that it is their job to address these public program issues.  There are several reasons why they feel this way.

The federal government would seem to be the logical agency to develop a working public education program for the entire country.  Yet the federal department of education has always restricted itself to merely suggesting voluntary measures for the various school districts and state programs.  The feeling has been that the 10th amendment to the Constitution, which reserves to the states all powers not specifically mentioned in the Constitution (such as education), mandates that the states control public education.

Consequently the federal program restricts itself to matters of general educational theory and practice, not the actual creation and control of public education program. They feel that the best they can do is make suggestions about the general topic of education and leave the job of controlling public education up to the states.

But the states, too, have their own reasons for shying away from the topic of public education, as I have argued in other posts.  The combination of the mobility of state residents and the long-term nature of educational public benefits make it impossible for states to improve their programs beyond an average level.  Why should state residents pay for a better program if so many graduates move to other states, taking the public benefit with them?  So the states, too, don’t want to emphasize the “public” nature of their work in education.  They, too, want to work on general educational topics such as how to teach the children and build new gyms.  If they called their programs “The Department of Public Education,” someone might reasonably want to know how the public was benefiting from this program, and the states know they cannot, given the mobility of their graduates, answer this question.  So they pull back to calling their program just “education.”

There are four states that do use the word “public” in the name of their departments, but these, too, illustrate the nature of the problem.  For these states (Wisconsin, North Carolina, New Mexico and North Dakota), all have departments of “public instruction,” not “public education.”  They agree, then, that they have a role in the creation of a public program, but it is a program of instruction, not education.  They want to deal with what the teachers and schools do, not what the children and the public receive.

Contrast this with the names for other government departments, such as” public health,” “public safety,” etc.  These titles emphasize the effect of these programs on the public.  It is the health and safety of the people out there in the public that will be improved, not simply the quality of the delivery system: the hospitals, doctors, police forces, etc., or, in the case of education, the instruction in the schools.  These other programs emphasize the effect of their work on the public; they put the public benefit from their program, the “health” or “safety” that will happen to the general public, right in their names.

A department of “public instruction” does mention the public, then, but in a way that keeps the emphasis away from the actual results the public will see, and puts it back on the quality of the schools and teachers, as the other departments of education do.  It, too, is not concerned with the actual creation of a working public education program.

For the colleges the question is a bit more complex.  Obviously they could make departments or even schools of public education if they wanted to, along the lines of their programs in public health and public safety.  That they don’t must simply mean that they, too, see no solution to the problems we have noted at the federal and state level.  Since there is no way to create a working public school program in this country, given our constitution and our mobility, there is not much point in creating a program to study it.

No wonder, then, we have a public education problem in this country. No one is working on it.  All the agencies in our governments and colleges have essentially given up on this problem before even trying to solve it.  As the names of their departments and programs indicate, they have all pulled back to working on the theoretical and most general levels of the problem, that is, how to “educate,” and left the problems of how to make a working “public education” program unsolved and unexamined.

How depressing, one might say.  But I don’t bring up these conclusions with that in mind.  Rather I want to urge that the current situation calls for what have always been considered “drastic” measures, such as the control of the schools by the federal government.  There is no other choice.  As the very names of our programs indicate, everyone already agrees that there is no solution to "public education" under our current system.   If we want improvements, we will actually have to change that system in ways that have always seemed impossible up to now.

Peter Dodington

Jan. 16, 2013


Soccer Scores and Test Scores

The other day (8/5/12) the New York Times ran an editorial entitled "Carrots and Sticks for School Systems."  In it they urge the states to:

create rigorous teacher evaluation systems that not only judge teachers by how well their students perform but also -- when the results are in -- reward good teachers while easing chronic low performers out of the system.

They argue that the best teachers, those who scored in the top fifth of teachers, judged by the improvement of their students' test scores in a recent survey of 20,000 teachers, were no more likely to be given more pay, promotion, or even recognition than their low-scoring peers.  The "costs" of such practices, they say, are that many good teachers leave the profession each year.

I have been a fan of this newspaper most of my life, so it is particularly distressing to see them support such a flawed policy.  Tying student scores to teacher evaluation is wrong on so many levels that it is hard to know where to begin.

First, we might note that, at least according to the editorial, the authors of the original survey did not recommend such a link between test scores and teacher evaluations.  As quoted by the Times, they simple say that "School systems need to create explicit policies aimed at retaining high performers...[and] offer higher earning potential to excellent teachers."  Just how these good teachers will be identified is not specified. They might well use the standard methods common all over the world, such as classroom observations, student comments, word of mouth, etc., not the test scores of the students.

The Times tries to argue that judging teachers by their students' test scores most be right because the kids agree.  They rate these better scoring teachers as more caring, fun, demanding, etc.  But the problem is not that the test scores are inaccurate; there is no doubt that they do identify teachers who are good at what they do.  The problem is that linking these scores to teacher evaluations causes more problems than it solves.

As I have frequently noted elsewhere, the best evidence of these other problems is in the practices of the private schools.  Where is there a private school that links students scores to teacher evaluation or pay?  There are none.  How can this be, though, if this is such an accurate way to judge the teachers?  The answer is that the parents who are paying a small fortune to the schools would never put up with a scheme that is obviously so harmful to their children.  They are not going to pay the school so that the teachers can, in effect, use their child to get a certain pay level or promotion.  The whole concept undermines the trust and caring that has to be at the heart of everything to do with education.  Yes, test scores can find out which teachers have succeeded at certain aspects of their job, but they are absolutely toxic to the overall education process.

A good comparison can be made with the "scores" students get in athletic events, such as soccer.  We all know that kids and coaches take these scores very seriously, but most parents realize that the point of the whole process, the reason why we have soccer teams at schools in the first place, has to do not with the scores, but what else is happening on that field.  These goals include the learning of such concepts as teamwork, how to deal  with defeat, the fact that what you do in practice does matter in the game, and other such indications that steady work eventually pays off.

In order to get the kids to buy into these goals, then, we allow them to think that the score of the game is what it really is all about, since that makes it fun for them.  That's fine, and everyone benefits.

The scores on tests in the classroom, then, are like these soccer scores.  They are a necessary part of the process, but by no means the most important part.  What the kids are there for is not to get high scores.  We put them into schools to show them how the world works and what they can do about this, so that they can go out into that world and succeed.  The goal is not scores; these are just the means we use to implement the other, more serious, goals.

So where is the New York Times is all this?  They are down there with the kids, believing in the value of the number of points scored, blissfully ignorant of the deeper goals of the process.  They are the children; we are the adults who have to help them understand what is really going on.

Peter Dodington

August 16, 2012


Is Education a Natural Right?

The other day Renee Moore on the TransformED blog wrote that the State Supreme Court of Rhode Island has determined that this state need not equalize educational levels at its various schools because there is no inherent right to an education.  Quoting from the decision, she writes:

...the court rejected the plaintiffs’ claims that the funding formula violated their substantive due process and equal protection rights under the state constitution because there is no fundamental right to an education.[Emphasis added]

Is this true?  Do we, in fact, have a constitutional right to an education?  A good question, and one that is at the heart of much of the controversy over our public education system.

A good place to go for a better understanding of this, and many other philosophical issues in education, is Eva T. H. Brann's small book, Paradoxes of Education in a Republic.  On this issue she points out that we are guaranteed "life, liberty, an the pursuit of happiness,"  and that a liberal education is "as nearly necessary as anything can be shown to be for the pursuit of happiness" (p.63). So, yes, education is a fundamental aspect of the rights we are guaranteed by our constitution.

My favorite comment on the link between happiness and education is a quote by Thomas Jefferson in his "Notes on Virginia."  He says:

[Education]... may teach them how to work out their own greatest happiness, by showing them that it does not depend on the condition of life which chance has placed them.

Here is an understanding of what true happiness is all about.  Here is a method for producing happiness that works for everyone every time.  And it won't work without education.  We are all far too ready to say that we can't be happy because of some factor or other that is restricting us, some chance condition of life; we have to be taught that this is not true; that nothing, in fact, holds us back from finding contentment and joy in all aspects of life.

So we do, in this country, have a natural right to happiness, and true happiness will not be found without education.  Therefore, education is an integral part of our right to happiness.

Peter Dodington

July 31, 2012