National Public Education
16Sep/170

“The War on Public Schools”


Erika Christakis has written a good piece in this month’s (October, 2017) Atlantic magazine on how public education helps to bring us all together in a stable, workable, democracy.  She points out that what we need is more civics education, more emphasis on the social, cooperative, values taught in school, and a realization that the “privatization” of the schools will destroy something valuable.  All this is great, but, of course, I also wish she had pursued some of her points more thoroughly.

There is much to like; for one, simply the term “public” in the title.  That, in itself, is a big step in the right direction.  Only a few years ago this very same magazine did a large survey on “American Education.”  As I wrote then, this is not the problem.  We already know how to “educate” people quite well.  What we don’t know how to do is run a public program that does this well.  The main problem is the “public” part of public education.

Secondly, she brings up the topic of the “public benefit” from public education.  Finally someone is talking about this.  She points out that one of the key “stakeholders” in public education is the public itself, i.e. the nation as a whole, and that the emphasis on individual rights and choices ignores the importance of this aspect of the public schools.

She also reminds us that America has never been at the top of the world in terms of student achievement.  We have been the best at getting more of our population into school, but we have never been the best academically.  That, too, is an important point to remember, since it implies that if we want to get to that high level now, we probably need to make some major changes in the entire program.  Simply going back to what we have always done will not get us to the top academically.  We need to do something new. (Of course, this is exactly why people argue that we need to privatize the schools; what I would like to point out is that we could also simply build a new, and better, public school system, one that, for example, had a more centralized structure.)

And finally, and best of all, she explains how illogical it is to want to have a “choice” in how we educate our children in a public school system.  She points out that of course everyone likes this idea of having more control over their child’s schooling, but that the whole idea really doesn’t make sense.  It would be like choosing to get, as she says, a free gym membership for oneself by using funds allocated for better parks; getting an essentially private benefit from something that was supposed to be for the public, for everyone.

This is a great argument.  It brings out exactly the central problem with the whole privatization movement; that these plans are a misuse of the intent of the people who are actually funding these schemes, the public taxpayers.  In her example, these people paid for a park, not gym memberships.  A public program is, by definition, for everyone, so it will always be more or less uniform for all.  In such a system, "choice" doesn't make sense.

My only problem with Ms Christakis is that she doesn’t stress this point enough.  She turns away from it in the next sentence, saying that she doesn’t want to discuss school choice, since, as she says, the evidence for these schemes is “mixed.”  By this I gather she means that some charter and voucher programs do produce better results than the traditional schools.

But this is the same mistake everyone makes about the issue of charter schools and the like.  The point is not whether they are better than the traditional schools or not. There’s a deeper problem. The whole concept is wrong; it’s a misuse of public funds.  Looking at whether charter schools do a good job would be like, in Ms Christakis’ example, looking at whether the gym memberships were “better” for us than the park program.  You see, that’s not the point.  Even if the gym memberships were better, that would not negate the central problem with such a scheme; it would still be wrong to use public funds for a private benefit.

So, she is well on her way to making a valuable contribution to the debate on public education, but still has a way to go.  She sees the outlines of the central problems, but is not quite ready to address these core issues yet, or, perhaps, is not quite ready to try to get such controversial issues into print.  What is great, though, is that she brings up the “public” nature of the public school problem, for that is the key to its eventual solution.

 

Peter Dodington

September 16, 2017

9Sep/170

“Endangering Prosperity” by Eric Hanushek

Eric Hanushek et al. have written an excellent book on the economic implications of our weak public education system.  The authors put to rest many of the popular misconceptions about the schools.

First, just to review what everyone knows, on an international test of student achievement, such as the PISA exams (Program for International Student Assessment), the US ranks 32nd out of the 68 countries tested in math in 2011, in other words, just about at the bottom of the list of developed European and Asian countries.  The results are only slightly better for English skills.  All this is well known.

What is not so well known is that this poor showing is not caused by our diverse population.  All our students do poorly, rich and poor.  Among white students whose parents are college educated, less than half are at a proficient level in math, putting them below all the students, minorities included, in 16 other countries.  Our best students are nowhere near as good as the best students in many other counties.  Among white students in the US, only 9% performed at an advanced level, putting us, again, at the bottom of the developed world.  The problems of our educational system are not limited to our poor and minority communities.

As Hanushek points out, the US is not the only diverse country.  Canada, for example, has a similar level of diversity, but does much better than us educationally.  They also are a big country spread over a wide area, yet still seem to find a way to educate everyone.  It is not just the small homogenous countries that do well.

What Hanushek is worried about is that there is no doubt that these educational problems will affect our economy.  There can be no argument that educational level does not have an effect on economic growth.  The chart is right there on page 24 of this book.  All the countries with high test scores also have high rates of economic growth from 1960 to 2009.  And those with low test scores have low rates of growth.  The US is, again, about in the middle, below most of the wealthy countries in the world.

The authors also show that it is not simply the amount of money spent on education, or even the number of years of schooling offered, that makes a difference.  Strangely enough, it is how much the students actually learn that matters.  This is what is correlated with economic growth.

All this bodes ill for the future of US prosperity.  We are in trouble.  As Hanushek points out, many of our economic gains over the past two centuries have been linked to non-educational factors, such as our natural resources and our traditional support for new and innovative businesses.  And we also had an educational system that included a higher percentage of our population than any other country.  But none of this is still true today.  The rest of the world has caught up with us, and they have done so by educating their children to a higher level.  That is what we need to do if we want to continue to grow.

All this needs to be read by a wider audience.  The data in a book like this, written by professional economists, ought to be read by every state legislator and every member of the state departments of education, not to mention the federal Secretary of Education.  They are the ones in charge of our schools; it is up to them to find a way to improve them.  If they cannot do this, they need to be replaced by someone who can.

The only problem I have with this book is that Hanushek then blames teachers and particularly the teachers’ unions for these problems, saying that teachers have uniformly opposed innovations in public education, such as vouchers and charter schools.

This may be true, but they oppose them for good reason.  Is there any evidence that these quasi-private schemes will ever improve the public school system?  Can we really make a public program better by making it more private?   Does that make sense?  Regardless of how well each one does, these schemes cannot solve the overall problem, since they have no way to address the entire public program.  They only work because they are separate from the rest of the program.  That is not a viable solution.

Still, I am thankful that Mr. Hanushek has written such a good book on the realities of the link between public education and economic prosperity.

Peter Dodington

September 9, 2017

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

12Aug/170

Equity Versus Improvement in the School System

Recently there have been many articles in the press about how Secretary of Education DeVos will "destroy" the public schools if she is allowed to continue her privatization efforts.  I fully agree with this point of view.  It seems that she is intent on doing away with public education as we know it; replacing it with a private school system. However, this doesn't mean that I think these comments are the best way to address this issue. This approach only deals with half the problem: it points out how her plans are inequitable and unfair, but does nothing to solve the overall problem of how to improve the schools.

The schools do need to be improved.  Don't we all know this?  All the data has been flat for a generation.  No matter how we have tried to improve the schools, through better curriculum, better ways to judge the teachers, smaller schools, better pay, etc., nothing has worked.  Of course there are scattered successes, as I myself have been a part of, but no one would say that we now know how to solve our public school problems.

People try to excuse this by saying we have a diverse population, which makes overall success harder, but, for one, there are other countries, such as Canada, which are quite diverse and educate their entire population well, and, for another, diversity is what we do here in America.  Are we going to solve the problem by becoming less diverse?  Is that the solution we want?  If we are diverse then we have to find a diverse way to educate our children well.  Is there any other way to look at it?

People also argue that our top end, our best students, are doing as well as anyone.  Well, duh.  Everyone's top end is doing reasonably well.  It's the entire American system, though, that we want to fix, not the schools in a few select towns or even states.  The central, average level of education in this country is not improving, and hasn't been for a very long time.  That is a problem.  And that is why, of course, the conservatives have turned to their privatization schemes.  They want to find a way to improve at least some of the schools.

This problem of school improvement, though, is ignored in the liberal criticism of Ms DeVos and her friends. Instead, all the focus is on how unfair her privatization schemes would be to the average, non-wealthy, child.  Everyone wants to stop her efforts because they would destroy the equity inherent in a truly public school system.  Her plans would be unfair, and, in a certain sense, immoral.

All this may well be true, but then what?  Does this mean that we want to go back to the public school system we always had, the one whose problems started this whole discussion?  Is it the status quo that we want to return to?  That "status quo" is the problem!  We can't simply argue that the conservatives are wrong.  We also have to come up with what would be right.

This is why the conservative press is more or less laughing at the criticism of Ms DeVos. Quite rightly they find it amusing that no one on the left seems to have the slightest idea of how to improve the schools in a fully public form.  They realize that this "moral" argument about the fairness of her policies is not the main issue.   They at least have one way to improve the schools. That this method only improves some of the schools is problematic, but this still puts them ahead of the opposing liberal view, which has not way to improve any of the schools.  When the liberals say that their policies will "destroy" public education they agree; the public system is not, in fact, working.  It clearly does need to be changed.  They will continue to take this line of argument until the liberals come up with a plan for how to improve public education and keep it public.

It is not enough, then, to show that the conservative efforts to privatize the public schools would be unfair to the majority of students.  Even it that is true, it just gets us back to square one, the question of how to improve the public schools while keeping them public and equitable.  That question, as I never tire of pointing out, is religiously avoided by all, since it is clear that solving it would involve a major revision of our country, let alone of our school system.  That we are afraid to do that implies that we are never going to solve this problem of the public schools, and that the conservative agenda of privatization is going to succeed.

There is a way to make a working, equitable, public school system that would be fair for everyone, through a national school program.  Everyone knows that this would work. We just have to be brave enough to make such a fundamental change.

 

Peter Dodington

8/12/17

 

 

 

5Aug/170

The NAACP and Charter Schools

Some time ago the NAACP called for, with good reason, a moratorium on the creation of new charter schools so that, as they said, we might examine these programs more closely in three areas: 1. the governance of these schools, 2. their relationship to the public schools, and 3. their effect on the public schools.  Let's look more closely at each area.

1. The governance of charter schools.  Who, exactly, is in charge of these schools?  The answer out there on the street is "no one," it's just the parents who send their kids there. "That's the whole point; they are run by the people who use them."  But is that possible? Do the parents hire the staff, fire the staff, choose the books?  Aren't there administrators and bureaucrats who actually organize these things?  Who are these people, and who are their bosses?

And is there any way to affect them?  The traditional schools may be bureaucratic, but there is a way to vote the leaders out of office.  There is nothing like an elected school board in charge of a charter school.  So what happens if there are problems?  It would seem that by doing away with public school bureaucracy the charters have also done away with the democratic process, replacing a cumbersome but transparent administrative structure with a sleek but secretive one.

Given that there is no obvious way to change the policies of a charter school through any kind of democratic process, wouldn't it be wise to get a clear picture of the rationale behind those policies?   Who benefits from these schools?  Are they just a gift to the parents?  That doesn't seem likely.  Aren't there some people in charge who are also benefitting?  Who are these people, and how are they benefitting from these programs? It's our public money; where is it going?

2. The relationship to the public schools.  These schools are still funded by the public school system, even though they are administratively separate from them.  Doesn't that funding imply a relationship?  Can a charter school, then, change its funding?  Will it be able to fund new programs with new funds if that seems best?  And will it ever be able to increase the funding for programs that are doing well?  If not, what will be the incentive to do well?  If yes, how does that match up with the separation from the public schools?

How, then, does the public school system decide on that funding?  Is it according to the overall per pupil cost, or just the per pupil cost for each taxpayer?  There are many more taxpayers than pupils, so the latter will always be much less.  It may actually cost about $20,000 to educate a child these days, but each taxpayer might only pay about $10,000, since they get to divide that cost up between all the taxpayers.  If the state only funds the charter school according to the second amount, won't they be profiting on each child that attends a charter school?  Is that why they are so much in favor of such programs? The state no longer has to pay out that $20K for the child, but then only gives $10K to the charter school and pockets the rest.

But how are the charter schools supposed to educate a child on $10K?  Can they build a new science lab?  Create a football program?  Sponsor trips to Europe?  Won't they always be relying on the public school structure for such things?  But what will happen when the charters start replacing the public school structure, as they seem intent on doing?  Who then will build the science labs?

3. The effect on the public schools.  People argue that charter schools are better than the public schools they replace.  They are a good deal for the parents.  They are almost like a private school education but at a public school price. What a deal!

What the NAACP has realized, though, is that even if there is nothing wrong with this logic, it is starting from the wrong place.  It's looking at the issue of charter schools merely from the perspective of a consumer of this education, not that of the creators of a sound public educational policy.  There may be no conclusive argument against the idea that charters are good schools; the question is, though, are they good school policy?  Are they a way to improve the education of the entire population?  This is the "effect on the public schools" that one has to analyze.

The public schools do educate the entire population (or 90% of it).  If we are really going to replace them with these charter schools, we have to ask whether this new program will also educate everyone.  Is it the right way to replace a program that educates us all? I don't see how we could say this.  Charters are built on the idea of turning away from a general, collective, public approach to education.  They don't help the traditional public schools. How could they?  They are founded on the idea of separation from the public school structure; they are a rejection of the public schools, not an aid to them.  Where is a public school that has benefitted from a nearby charter school?  They don't exist.

So my hat is off to the NAACP.  They have seen that this is a public policy issue, not simply a matter of whether some parents will get a good deal on their child's education. We live in a democracy.  We get to create the public policies that run our public programs like public education, health, and the military.  This is the task we have to focus on.

Peter Dodington

August 5, 2017

22Jul/170

Local and Distant Public Schools

Todd Kominiak, in his blog at TrustEDk-12.com, has written that the schools are doing better than is generally thought, since most people report that their own public school is doing well.  He quotes an article in the Atlantic by Jack Schneider (7/17/17) who notes that the yearly poll in the Kappan magazine always shows that people give their local schools an A or B rating, but grades of a C or D to distant schools.  Everyone thinks their local school is fine, but that the schools in general need work.

From this Mr. Kominiak concludes that that the schools are doing better than we think.  Much as I agree with that sentiment, there are some problems with that specific claim.  First, there are many more distant schools for any one person than their one local school, so the evidence is still that, overall, the schools are getting a low grade.  Everyone is still saying that there is one good school and lots of lousy ones.

Secondly, the fact that the public is confused on this issue, (since obviously they are misjudging those distant schools, which are rated well by their own residents, the ones who ought to know them best) means that this “data” on the schools should not be relied on too heavily.  The question is not whether the ill-informed public thinks some schools are doing well, but whether they actually are doing well.  That has not been decided by this data.

Still, I am glad Mr. Kominiak brings up this issue.  It indicates several important factors about the public schools.  For one, it reminds us that all the schools, not just ones in affluent suburbs, have their supporters.  The Kappan people are very careful to sample all parts of the population, including the urban and rural poor, who make up a significant portion of the school-age population.  These people also think that their local school is doing well.  In other words, a school with low scores in a big city, which is classified by many outsiders as “failing,” is actually seen as a success by the parents who send their children there.

This sounds about right to me from my own experience.  When I worked at low-performing schools I always found that our parents loved us.  They obviously knew that there were problems, but, what else was new?  Of course they had problems; that’s why they were in the South Bronx.  At least the schools were trying to help.  The parents knew that the scores were low, but understood that this was because we were working with kids who came to us with low scores, and they respected us for working with them.  As I have noted elsewhere, it is quite possible to be a good school with low scores.

Secondly, these articles bring up a question we need to answer: why this is happening? What is going wrong in the public’s perception of these distant schools?  Why are we underrating them?  Mr. Schneider, in the Atlantic,  argues that our critique of distant schools might be due to such factors as the negative publicity he says that the federal government puts out about public education in general, or that the efforts of “civil rights activists” to blame public education for segregation makes us underrate them, but these arguments do not make sense.  Why would such broad influences affect only the public’s attitudes towards distant schools and not their own local school?  They should have the same effect on all the public schools, not just the distant ones.  The question is why the public has different attitudes towards these two groups of schools, and this is not answered by such general factors which affect all schools equally.

Well, you might say, maybe these general factors do matter, but the public has reasons to discount the negative influences on their local schools, since they can see with their own eyes that their local schools are succeeding.

Exactly.  It's that difference in perception that is crucial.  That’s where the real difference between the two groups lies.  At your local school you can see with your own eyes how the schools are succeeding at their various projects – the kids are learning, they are happy, they seem to be getting along with each other.  Your 10-year-old now knows where India is.  This is what you base your opinion on.

But at the distant schools you get none of this information.  You don’t know the kids, or their families, or anyone in the town.  You have to rely, then, on test score “data,” and that doesn’t work very well.  As Mr. Schneider notes, test scores don't tell taxpayers what they want to know about a distant school.  It’s data on the kids, not the graduates, and that’s a problem.

After all, why do we support those distant schools?  They aren’t teaching our own kids.  It's because public education produces social goods that we value: a lower crime rate, better health, more intelligent workers.  Education is related to all those outcomes.  It’s a public program, like the police or public health, that benefits our society, not just our own private needs such as the education of our own children.

But, the question is, where is the data on those benefits?  That is the real problem.  It doesn’t exist.  There are no indications at all that the public is getting those social benefits.  All the data from the school system is about the students, not the graduates who provide these public benefits such as better workers and less crime.  So that is why the public rates these distant schools so low.  They get no information on whether they are providing a benefit to them, regardless of whether they actually are or not.

This is a serious problem.  It is one of the reasons we need to make changes in the entire system, but that is another story.  These two articles don’t yet see the whole picture, but at least they are asking the right questions.

Peter Dodington

July 22, 2017