National Public Education

The Immigrant Advantage

In an article in the New York Times last month, Anand Giridharadas  notes that a recent study has shown that immigrants “study further, earn more, marry at higher rates and divorce at lower rates, fall out of the work force less frequently, and dodge poverty” more than native-born Americans.  (The Immigrant Advantage, May 22, 2014, in the Sunday Review section, p.1)  He adds that this occurs to a greater degree in the poorer states in the middle of the country than in the wealthier states on the coasts.  In general, a native-born resident in the 10 poorest states earns only 84 cents to every dollar earned by an immigrant, compared to 97 cents for the native residents of the 10 wealthiest states.  Giridharadas feels that this has to do with the sense of community and the support structures immigrants bring with them from their countries of origin, enabling them to deal with the inevitable frustrations and defeats associated with a successful career better than our native born.
But surely this is also a function of the weakness in our public school system.  Here we have two groups, those who have newly arrived in this country and so have been educated, at least to some degree, in another country, and those who have only been educated here.  That one group earns more, divorces less, and gets more advanced degrees than the other has to be related to the education each group has received.  If public education is not about getting a good job and living a stable and successful life what is it about?  You can even argue that one of the main goals of the schools is the kind of cooperation and community-building that Giridharadas sees at the core of these differences.  Even if we say that culturally some countries are more “community-minded” than individualistic America, we have to admit that if we ever want to do something about this difference, rather than just moan about it, it is the public school system here that has the best chance of changing that cultural difference for the better.  And the fact that this immigrant advantage occurs most in our weakest states, which, quite logically, should have the weakest school systems, supports this interpretation.
There are two conclusions I would like to draw from this.  The first is that it shows quite clearly that other countries educate their children better than we do.  Even if you allow for some cultural differences, it is hard to deny that there must be an educational component to the differences in success.  After all, our native residents also were from immigrant families at some point in the past, and so presumably have some of these beneficial differences in their genes that the recent immigrants have.  What is clearly different between the two groups, and not just the subject of speculation, is the education they both received.
Many immigrants clearly have a better education, in general, than the children they meet here.  They succeed, it can be said, in spite of the weak education they receive from us.
And this weakness in our school system, as the data show, is not just in the usual culprits, the troubled urban schools.  It is the normal, mostly white, mostly middle-class regions in the middle of our country that are the most behind the immigrants.  It may well be that urban areas have some of the lowest-performing schools in the country, but, one way or the other, these coastal regions are managing to do better than the seemingly less-problematic heartland.  Everyone likes to talk about what we need to do about urban problems, but the core of our overall weaknesses in public education is rather in the central, average schools that no one sees as a problem.    Our public education problems are not just in the urban schools, but are spread throughout the system.  It is the average ordinary child who is not getting as good an education as those in other countries.

The second point is that no one wants to talk about this.  Education is not mentioned in this article at all.  Giridharadas brings up all the usual reasons why immigrants do better than natives, such as the increased “energy” they bring to the task, as well as their built-in community, but never gets around to the most obvious difference, that they went to different schools.  Yet this is the one difference we can actually do something about.  Better schools can produce graduates with more energy, community-spirit, and all the other components of a good immigrant, and we can achieve this right here.  We can't change our national characteristics, at least in the near future, but we can improve our schools right now.   Yet none of this seems to be a topic of discussion.   Why is that?  I would say that it is because the solution to our public school problems involves precisely the kind of fundamental, and difficult, changes that I am proposing in these essays.  The fact that no one wants to talk about our public school problems is indirect evidence that the only real solution is to do away with our decentralized state-run system, something we naturally shy away from.  The rewards of such a change, though, would far outweigh the costs.

Peter Dodington

June 12, 2014



With Charity Towards None

Part of the problem with the way we look at public education is that many of us think of it as a kind of charitable institution.  This impedes our understanding of how it can be improved.

If you ask the man on the street why he doesn't agree that our current system has a  problem with the demonstration of public benefit, he might well reply that he himself does not need to see a public benefit from his support for the schools; he just wants to support them because they are a good thing.  People will say that they do not expect a "return" from their tax dollars for public education; they just want to support a program that they approve of.  In essence, they are saying that they support the schools as a kind of charity, something they give their money to but do not expect a return from.  The fact that this is a common view of the public schools is at the core of the entire problem of public education, for there are several serious problems with thinking about it as a charity.

For one, it fosters a tacit acceptance of the status quo, and undermines attempts to change the schools for the better.  Charity is not a good model for growth; it actually is a kind of reinforcement of the current situation.  After all, the "good" that you see in the recipient, the reason why you are giving to them, is the "good" of the present moment. It is what the schools are now, today, that you are rewarding, not what they might become.  You may tell yourself that you want change, but if you are giving as a true charity, without expectation of a return, you are reinforcing the current situation, not working for change.  The minute you say, "No, I want them to get better" you have to say how you will see this, and that will involve a return of some sort.  If you don't want a return you also don't want a positive return, so don't want improvements.  Giving a quarter to a beggar is not a way to get him out of poverty; its a way to make his life easier as a beggar -- to make him a better beggar.  I am not saying that there is no place for charity in this world, and that gifts are not wonderful things, but only that this mode of thought about the schools is part of the problem facing public education improvements, not part of the solution.

The problems with charity are also at the core of the problems with private donations, particularly from business leaders, to the public schools.  The most common way these donations occur these days is through charter schools.  A good example of this issue is found in the problems of school reform in Newark, NJ, as documented by Dale Russakoff in an article in the New Yorker on May 19, 2014.   Russakoff recounts how the $100 million donation by Mark Zuckerberg to the charter schools of Newark resulted in little real change and lots of opposition from the local community.  The next mayor of Newark ran on an anti-charter campaign and was elected.  One of the criticisms of the way the gift was handled was that it seemed "colonial" in its high-handed way of treating the general population.

Charity doesn't work very well as a way to change a public program like education because that public program is based on the idea of total equality for all.  That is what makes it "public."  So from the average citizen of Newark's point of view, they had every bit as much right to decide how that money would be spent as Zuckerberg or his appointees.  The public education law doesn't say that the rich people get to make the decisions; it says that everyone will have an equal part in the process.  So when someone comes in with a bunch of private money and gives it to the schools, that doesn't give them the right to decide how it should be spent.  It's a public program, so everyone should decide.  When this does not happen, as is usually the case, it does seem like the donors are acting like some colonial power -- sure of what will help the natives, and ready to implement this as quickly as possible.  The charity sets up a kind of two-tier system of the haves and the have-nots, and this is directly in conflict with the ideal of equality in the public education system.  The gift itself implies that the people are something less than the donors, but in a public program the people are the ones in charge, so the whole process is not going to work well.

What public education needs is not donations.  These often cause more trouble than they are worth, and in general just perpetuate the current, problematic, situation.  What the schools need is a serious attempt to fix the school system, the public system, the one run by the school officials we elect.  That is a lot harder than just giving money, but is the only way to improve the schools.

Peter Dodington

May 28, 2014


Common Core Thoughts

Much as I agree in general with Common Core, and wholly back any attempts to unify the curriculum and get straight what we really want to teach, there are several aspects of the project that are worrisome.
First, from a philosophical point of view, the whole project is somewhat self-contradictory.  Common Core came into being because it was thought up and implemented by the states themselves, not the federal government, and so conformed to our state-centered form of school governance.  Yet the project is all about making those state programs similar.  Isn’t the whole point of the state system that it allows us to make each state program different?  Isn’t it the freedom for each state to choose what local conditions call for that is at the core of the rationale for a state-centered program?  Everyone says that they don’t want one national standard forced upon them; that’s why we cling to this state-run program.  Now here come the states themselves saying that what they want is one national standard.  The implication of this internal contradiction is that this situation is unstable.  Either CC will not work and be tossed out, and we will stay with our state system, or we will move closer to a national system.
Secondly, I never thought that it was the curriculum that was the main problem in our schools.  Every state has a reasonably strong set of standards, and at least some schools that adhere to them.  After all, they all have to compete with everyone else to get their students into Harvard, so are not going to take themselves out of the running with a curriculum that cannot ever get them to this goal.
The problem is, of course, how it is taught and how the schools that teach this are run.  And, who teaches it.  What I would have liked to see, for example, is some uniformity on the requirements to be a teacher, such as a college degree in the subject you are teaching, and a passing grade on some test of that content.  Including middle school teachers.  How many 7th grade math teachers have anything close to a degree in math?  Yet how much better would the entire system be if we required this?  It is those who have really studied math, and had some of the best college teachers in this subject, who know enough about it to come up with creative ways to reach 7th graders.  How about some common standards on that topic?  That would make a difference.
Or what about the way schools traditionally treat first-year teachers, often giving them some of the hardest classes and a full load?  Does any other profession work like this?  Hardly any states pay attention to this at all, so each school is free to make up its own work rules, which usually means that the worst jobs are left for the least successful.  Or restructuring the teachers’ day so that there is more time to compare notes with each other about what works and what doesn’t.  Everyone knows that this leads to better student outcomes, yet few state regulations touch on it.  These things would be a much more fruitful area to regularize than the curriculum, which is already fairly uniform.
And thirdly, speaking of outcomes, I don’t see that the outcome of the CC process will be the kind of excellence we all want.  To me, it looks like it will reinforce an average level of success.  Isn’t that what uniformity does?  It moves everyone to the middle, not the top end of the scale.  If you don’t have any outside force pulling you up to that top end, but just the units themselves making the rules, it seems most likely that uniformity will just move everyone closer to that mediocre status quo that I have been yelling about all these years.  So that’s a problem.
Still, I don’t want to say that CC is not valuable.  Any discussion about the public schools is valuable.  It’s just that I feel like someone who is trying to adjust the electronic ignition on his BMW and a friend shows up with a hammer and an old blunt-edged screw-driver saying he wants to help.  You don’t want to hurt his feelings, but you are pretty sure he is not going to help that much, and in fact may cause some serious harm.  It’s a situation that needs tact and patience.

Peter Dodington




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