National Public Education

What Dr. Peterson Gets Right, and Wrong

I have always admired the work of Paul E. Peterson.  He is a thorough, conscientious researcher who takes seriously the core issues of funding and reform in public education. He knows a lot about the field and is not shy about letting us know what he has figured out.  All the more reason, then, to point out the parts of the school system he has not figured out.  He is so close to a solution that would actually improve the schools throughout the country that I really want him to “drill down” (his term, and a good one) just a bit more.  Much of what follows is a response to his 9/21/14 article in the Wall Street Journal: “How the Education Spendthrifts Get Away With It.”

What Peterson knows is that funding is the key to school improvement.  This, in itself, puts him two or three steps ahead of most commentators, who seem to feel that newer, better, and stronger educational programs can be produced out of thin air.  In spite of its title, his WSJ article is not about money wasted, but rather the “cloud of confusion and inconsistency” that surrounds educational funding.  He knows that money does matter, so wants to find out why we are unable to figure out how to spend it correctly on public education.
In the article he points out that most Americans want to spend more on public education, but that when they are reminded that this will raise taxes, the percentage in favor drops precipitously.  He then goes on to report on how the public also overvalues their local schools compared to other schools in general.  He attributes this to a general confusion about how the public schools are funded, and speculates that the public suffers from a kind of “buyer’s delight,” which gives them the impression that the education they have purchased is automatically better than that which others have purchased.

But if this is so, why doesn’t the public have the same problem with other public programs?  Why don’t they automatically feel that they have the best police force, or the best public hospital?  There must be some particular problem with public education that is causing this confusion.  That is what I would like to examine.  Let’s take the first problem first; why is it that we have trouble understanding that educational improvements have to be paid for by new taxes?
It cannot be that Americans in general don’t understand that better social services cost money.  Everyone knows that a new fire truck will be expensive, or that well-trained, effective policemen don’t work for peanuts.  Nor are they unwilling, in certain situations, to support their local schools effectively.  A resident from the New Jersey suburb where I grew up, where the high school usually ranks in the top 50 schools in the country, recently told me that she pays a property tax that is close to 6 figures, per year, in order to live there and send their kids to that school.  So it is not the residents of the high-end suburbs that have this funding misunderstanding, but the average, overall population.  Why is that?

The answer is simple: people pay for results they can see.  The fire truck, the well-trained police officer, and that high-end school all produce results that a taxpayer can see with his or her own eyes.  The benefits are obvious, so there’s a good reason to fund the program with higher taxes.
But why, then, don’t the average taxpayers want to pay more for these benefits?  Because they cannot see these.  We have a problem with the demonstration of the public benefit from public education in this country.  This is what Peterson doesn’t know, or at least does not want to talk about.
The key concept here is that there is a difference between why parents fund the schools and why everybody else does.  Parents get an immediate benefit from the quality of their school, and a long-term benefit, too, from the success of their child.  This benefit they can readily see and understand.

The non-parent taxpayers, though, who actually account for three-quarters of the support for the schools, overall, (since parents only make up about a quarter of the population) get just a long term benefit from public education, namely the general increases in productivity, civility, good health, unity, etc. for our country.  A non-parent is not paying for good students, he or she is paying for good graduates; the good adults who eventually will know how to solve an insurance problem, run a business, or understand that you might want to sleep after 11 p.m. on a weekday.
The problem is that the non-parents have no way to see how their contributions to the schools, at either the local or state level, are contributing to this benefit.  There is no data on this kind of outcome.  No one keeps track of how the schools lower crime or raise the GDP.  Yet surely they schools do, there is no doubt about this.  The problem is that this is not demonstrated to the general non-parent public.
Without this kind of information, the general public has to treat the schools as a kind of charity.  They may like the idea of supporting something that they sense is beneficial to them, but in the absence of any hard data on actually how this happens, they are not going to open up their wallets.  It’s not that they are confused, as Peterson argues; they are the ones who have thought it through and realized that it is not, apparently, in their interest to support improvements to the schools, since they will never see any results from this.
This is why school funding only works in the high-end suburbs.  There are no non-parents there.  The entire population is usually just parents. They can see how they directly benefit so have no trouble with the costs.  Our current system, then, works for that kind of a school program, but obviously cannot work in general, since the three-quarters of the population who are non-parents has to live somewhere.  The average, overall population has to be full of non-parents.  Since they cannot see how they benefit from the schools, they will always tend to balk at higher taxes.
This is why, too, the public has such a biased focus on their local schools.  As Peterson reports, they overvalue their own school by a factor of two.  This is simply because they don’t get any information about the success of other schools.  That is, success that matters to them, such as less crime or a better economy.  At their local school they can see that at least someone is benefitting, namely the local parents whom they know and care about, but cannot see anything about who is benefitting from a distant school.  It’s not some kind of “buyer’s delight” that gives them this impression, as Peterson posits, but a simple result from the way we have structured our school system.  For those other schools they are, by definition, non-parents, and we don’t have any good way to demonstrate the public benefit to non-parents.

But, you will say, my local school cannot track that kind of public benefit; the graduates move all over the country.  A reunion from my little suburban high school brings adults from 20 or 30 different states.  Quite so; this is not a task for the local school.  Other countries do it by having a national school system that can keep track of such matters.  In our country, though, we have given that job to the states, since that is the way we interpret our constitution.
But clearly the states can’t do this much better than the local schools.  Of those graduates at my reunion less than half were still living in New Jersey.  This is a double problem for the states.  Not only do they not have a simple way to track these out-of-state graduates, but they don’t want to track them, since the benefits those graduates are providing is mostly going to out-of-state residents, not the residents of the state which paid for their education.  Tracking them would just emphasize how much their own state taxpayers were losing by funding good schools.  The better the schools, they more they lose by the out-of-state migration of the graduates.  So the states leave the whole topic alone. Hence, no tracking of graduates, no demonstration of public benefit, and no incentives for the non-parents to fund good school.

There is no solution to this problem through better individual schools, better teachers, or a national curriculum, let alone such ideas as vouchers or charters.  It is a structural problem built in to the fabric of our state-run system.  The only solution is to join the rest of the world and set up a national school system, not a state-run one.  Then all these “confusions” would get cleared up and we could start improving the schools.

Peter Dodington




A Review of “The Teacher Wars” by Dana Goldstein

I have always been impressed by Ms Goldstein’s understanding of the problems of public education.  She often is one of the few commentators who thinks through how a certain reform or critique of the schools will play out in an actual classroom.  She’s rooting for the public schools; she sees that there is a value in public education, for the entire population, that supersedes whatever value individuals get from private schools, charters, or home schooling.

Her book is essentially a history of the problems of teachers in public schools, and she does a good job of this.  She has many good recommendations, such as the need to pay attention to the good teachers who already are in the system.  Why re-invent the wheel when there are currently many excellent teachers and schools?  And she is right to point out that teachers’ pay matters, and that principals should be included in reforms, and that teachers need to watch each other’s work more often, and then have time to talk about it.  Overall, it’s a very useful and thoughtful book.

Of course, though, I want to argue with her on the subject of national public education. She only gets to this in the very last two paragraphs in the book, where she does have some good things to say, and some not so good.

On the plus side, she points out that, for all the vague talk about a larger national role in public education, this is not going to happen under our current state-run system.  The states control the schools by law, and are not going to let the federal government do anything to lessen that control.  At best, as she says, Washington can currently “encourage” the states.  They have “zero oversight” over what the states do.  The federal government has no inspectors, no laws to enforce, and not even any way to put good text books, tests, or, we might add, good teachers, into the state-run schools.  As she notes in several places in the book, the federal government has no “bridging instruments” by which they can bring about the implementation of the policies they want to see adopted.  They have no power over the states in the area of public education. All this is true and needs to be remembered.

It is the implications of these facts, though, that I want to discuss.  Is this the whole story?  Is there really nothing we can do about this dysfunctional situation?  In a book that constantly talks about what works in public education, Ms Goldstein is remarkably tentative when it comes to dealing with the question of who should be in charge of the entire system.

For one, she takes at face value the often-heard admonition that, since education is not mentioned in the constitution, it has to be governed by the states, under the tenth amendment.  But are interstate roads mentioned in the constitution, or air traffic control, or  health care?  Yet all of these are now governed, at least in part, by the federal government.  Well, you will say, that’s because these areas are inherently national in scope.  You can’t have Iowa regulating planes if they all fly over the state at 39,000 feet and never land there.

But isn’t it possible that public education is in this class of national activities, too?  As I’ve tried to show elsewhere, public education, funded by the population in general, only works on a national scale, since the graduates move all over the country and so benefit the country in general, not any one state or town.  The graduates are even somewhat like airplanes: traveling across the country, never staying under the care of one local group.  This graduate mobility means that state funding and oversight will never produce really good schools, since there is no incentive for state residents to control, or fund, a program that ultimately does not benefit them.  Is it possible, then, that absolutely everyone has been wrong all these years about the constitutionality of a federal public school program?  Yes.

Secondly, Goldstein ends her comments on federal control with the admonition that there will continue to be “profound disappointment in teachers,” since not much can be done about these issues.  But she has just shown, throughout the book, that it is not the teachers who are causing the problems.  They are generally doing the best they can.  So this kind of "disapointment" is wrong, and needs to be fought against, not just repeated as if it were common knowledge.  She knows this, but for some reason is unwilling to take a stand on this issue.

This tone is despair is continued with the “solution” she suggests at the end, that we can solve these problems by working “from the ground up” rather than from the top down; that good teachers can, by themselves, create a good educational system in this country. This is an idea, mentioned earlier in the book, that we should “let 1,000 flowers bloom;” that local, limited, grass-roots excellence will move us up to a world-class educational system.

But this doesn’t work.  It didn’t work in China back in the cultural revolution days, when this phrase was coined, and it won’t work now.  Yes, you can make steel in your back yard, but it will be expensive, low quality, and unusable.  The same is true of teaching calculus.  There are times, such as at the beginning of a new concept or business, when we have to work out of our garages, and that’s as it should be.  But once a new idea gets going, you are crazy if you don’t take advantage of the efficiency of a larger operation. It’s quite possible to produce a mediocre school system using simply local, grass-roots methods, but not an excellent one.  For that you need a larger, more organized, more professional organization.

Will an effort from the ground up "win the teacher wars?"   Can the soldiers win the battle all by themselves if the generals are clueless?  Not likely.  They may win some battles, and Goldstein tells of some excellent success stories in various places, but the teachers aren’t going to win the overall war without any leaders.  The only way to do that would be to become the leaders themselves.  Now, that’s possible, but that is a revolution, not a thousand flowers blooming.  And why would these new leaders be any better than the old, since no one seems to know how to run the overall program?  The whole idea is just a retreat to a lower, easier goal that probably won't work but seems better than nothing.  It’s the product of frustration, apathy, and despair.

So I want to say to Ms Goldstein, don’t give up so easily.  You know so much; you are so close to understanding the core of our problems, the state-run system.  Don’t turn away from this to posit some weak, partial solution at the local level.  There is an effective, long-term, do-able, way to improve the school system, the schools, the teachers, and the lives of our children: a national school system.  We just have to have the courage to start working on it.

Peter Dodington

September 12, 2014



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