National Public Education

Charter Schools as Models of Innovation

Recently I read two expressions of support for charter schools written by African Americans, one by Rev. Percy Hunter of Memphis, and the other by Cheryl Brown Henderson, the CEO of the Brown Foundation in Atlanta.  Both writers are associated with charter school organizations.  They argue for an expansion of the charter school movement, telling how a Stanford study shows that students gain the equivalent of some 40 or 50 extra days of learning at these schools.  Of course they are also critical of the NAACP's call for a moratorium on charter school expansion.

I can see why they feel this way.  As I have said elsewhere, of course the people in the charter schools love them, since they get an essentially private school experience at a public school cost.  And, I was impressed with some of Ms Henderson's comments.  At the end of her piece, she berates the NAACP for wanting to "close off an important path to learning," regardless of whether this is the only path we take or not.  She feels we should be "taking the lessons of successful schools of all models and applying them to under-performing schools."

I quite agree that this would be a good idea.  As the Obama administration often argued, charter schools should be used as models for how to improve the entire school system. They are like a kind of research and development cell in a large corporation, experimenting with new ideas and trying them out before putting them into regular practice.  They ought to be engines of innovation, or some such concept.

The problem is, though, that implementing this is not the task of the charter schools; it's the task of the regular school system.  It's not the charter school's job to see that their innovations are then used by the "under-performing schools," it's the task of the regular school boards and the state department of education.  In a way, the charter schools themselves are the last people who should be doing this; they are to come up with the ideas, not apply them.  The whole point is to keep them separate from the regular work so that they can come up with some totally new ideas.  You don't want them getting involved in fixing the regular schools.

So this means that making more charter schools is not going to solve the problem of how to get their work into the traditional schools.  More schools would actually have no effect on that part of the problem at all.  What we need to do is get the regular bureaucracy to do this better.  In a way, what the NAACP should have recommended is not a moratorium on charters, but an increase in regular state and local efforts to use the charters to improve the regular schools.

But, of course, they didn't.  Why not?  Because nothing would have happened.  Calling for the schools to fix their own problems is a non-starter.  They have been trying this for 50 years and nothing has changed.

The reason for this is clear when you think of the parallel situation in a business setting. If the Boeing Corporation set up a small autonomous unit to come up with innovations, they then would carefully use those innovations in the rest of the company.  The corporate administration is in charge of both the innovative group and the rest of the company, so they make sure that the two are helpful to each other.

But as many have noted, neither the states nor the local districts are "in charge" of public education.  They all see themselves as just bit players in a much larger operation, the national level of education.  They don't think of themselves as in control of the success of failure of that national operation.  So, they don't want to control the situation.  They let the charters go off and do whatever they want, and still pay them.

It's as if someone got into the Boeing company and killed off, or infected the minds of, all the corporate administrators so that they no longer cared about the overall success of the company. Then they would let the innovative units do whatever they wanted, and some people, no doubt, would look to these units as the ultimate answer to the company's problems, since the regular administration was so out of it.  And, of course, the only people reasonably happy in such a situation would be the people who were part of the innovative units, since they, being somewhat separate from the overall administration, would be less affected by its incompetence.

Notice that although everyone says that we don't want a national school organization, that is exactly what the charter school movement is.  All the charter organizations are national.  Of course they are, since that is where the problem we want solved resides. We have a national public school problem and will only solve this by turning to a national school organization.  The state system doesn't work.

Peter Dodington

January 14, 2017





The Essence of Public Education

When I was teaching at Park West High School in Manhattan some years ago, I came across a good idea for my remedial reading class.  We had a contract with the "Ramp Up" program from the "America's Choice" company, and they suggested that I get my students to read to elementary school children at a nearby school.  My kids were in the ninth grade but had about a fourth grade reading level.  The problem was that they had gotten so good at "faking" it that now they categorically refused to read any "remedial" texts; they only wanted the "real" thing, like Shakespeare or Twain.  Then they would rely on what they could pick up from class discussion, their girl-friends, and the helpful hints from their teacher to get them through the book.

Since this meant that I was hardly teaching them anything at all I wanted to get them into books they could actually read.  Having them read to young children would not only accomplish this, but would also get them to discuss the reading, an excellent way to improve one's reading level.  And, of course, the little ones would benefit, too.

It took me several months, though, to set this up.  I went around to one grade school after another.  Time after time the grade school principal would say something like, "I spend all day trying to keep my kids away from kids like yours."  Finally I found one principal who let me talk to one third-grade teacher who agreed to let me come one day a week.

It was an instant success.  The little kids gathered around my students the minute they came in the door, holding on to them and snuggling up as they went off to a corner to read.  It made no difference at all what the academic level was of the students, on either side of the group.  If anything, it was my biggest, toughest, and least educated students who were most popular with the little ones.  Everyone seemed involved.  And my students rose to the occasion.  I heard comments about plot and character that had never been uttered in my regular class.  The grade school teacher and I went around handing out books, but mostly we just stood there and smiled.

In those days we didn't keep very accurate records of such things, but I did get some feedback from an interesting source.  One day in my regular class I noticed a new student in the back.  I talked with him and realized that he had been registered for the class from the start but had never attended.  I had sent the usual notices home and to the attendance office but to no avail.  But here he was doing the work.

Then I didn't see him again until we went to the grade school, and then not again until a week later when we went again.  Then I remembered that on that first day we had planned to go but had cancelled at the last minute.  He was only coming on the days we went to the grade school.  It was only the chance to read to the little ones that was getting him to school at all.

This, it seems to me, is the essence of public education.  There is no private solution for that young man's problems, or at least none that anyone can afford.  One can argue that there are some private programs that could bring him back to school, but they are very few and far between, and quite expensive.  But when we pool our resources in a public program we can reach a good number of such students, and sometimes this does work. Here was the proof.  Who knows how much good we were bringing into that child's life by getting back into school, at least for one day a week?  And how much good we were producing for ourselves by keeping him less involved in anti-social activities?

Why, then, aren't there more success stories like this?  It wasn't that complicated; the ideas are out there, we just have to use them.  Why was it, though, that this program lasted all of one semester?  My school was closed at the start of the next term and I moved on, perforce, to a totally different school.

Was it that I didn't promote it enough?  But how?  Who was I supposed to go to?  True, the teachers' union does pay attention to such things, but who in the school administration does?  Whose job is it to see that a classroom success becomes a district or state-wide success?  Who was going to help the next teacher contact a grade school and set up a similar program?  Why aren't there any such people in the schools?

The short answer is, I think, because that's the way the public wants it.  The public keeps saying that what they want is an emphasis on the classroom.  They don't want any "outsiders" coming in and messing up the relationship between the children and the teachers.  Fine; so that is what we get.  Good classrooms.  And that is what I got.  A classroom success.  But nothing more; and consequently, a fairly short-term success.

In fact, what we needed was precisely those "outsiders" to come in and help the teachers set up such a program.  This kind of program involves things "outside" the classroom, such as the little kids, and so needs help from an "outside" source.  But we don't have people working on that aspect of education, and no one seems to want us to.

So my remedial program was, in fact, the "essence" of our public education system; it showed me how much we could accomplish, and also, how unlikely it was that this would happen, given what the public says they want from the schools.  A locally focused program gets local success, but only that.  It is incapable of changing the overall system for the better.

Peter Dodington

January 7, 2017


A Fourfold Increase in Teachers’ Salaries

In Paul Auster's novel Man in the Dark, a civil war has started in America;  New York and most of New England have broken away from the rest of the country and set up their own government.  Among the restrictions in this new nation are, as Auster puts it, "universal health insurance, no more oil, no more cars or planes, a fourfold increase in teachers' salaries (to attract the brightest students to the profession), [and] strict gun control."

Leaving aside just how these other  ideas would work, let's consider the plan to pay teachers four times as much.  Would that work?  Would it attract better teachers to the profession and get them to educate our children better?  Much as I like Mr Auster's work, and am pleased that he wants to improve the schools, I don't think so.  The idea is not only impractical and based on faulty assumptions, but shows us just how far off even quite intelligent and well-meaning people are on this topic.

We already have schools that pay their teacher quite a bit.  When I worked at a suburban school in Westchester County north of New York I was getting about twice as much as I would in the city.  Did that mean that the education was twice as good?  Probably not. The teachers there were good, but by no means especially excellent.  The best teachers I ever encountered, in my 40-some years of teaching, were in the New York City schools. There I met people who had truly devoted their lives to the education of the students.  It only stands to reason that a difficult situation brings out the best in people. It has been shown time and time again that simply paying people more, whether in a helping profession or in any business, does not guarantee that they will succeed.

But what about the idea that this would attract better students to the profession?  Would that work?  We certainly need better students entering the teaching profession.  In some countries the top students become teachers; here in American, it is more like the average students.  Everyone says that one of the best ways to improve the public schools would be to get better teachers into the system.  Wouldn't better pay help that?

Perhaps, but that is not the way the other countries do it.  Those countries that attract the top students don't necessarily pay the highest salaries.  Rather, they just have high admissions standards in their teacher training programs.  They only take the best.  They control the application process very carefully, only allowing top students to even start the process, and so end up with excellent candidates.  It's not a matter of money; it's that the organization in charge has figured out how to make the process work well.

That is why we have this problem of low-level candidates in America.  It's the control of the process that is the problem, not the amount of money involved.  Here we allow the states to control the situation, and they have little interest in making it work well.  How could they?  The candidates don't stay in the states where the training takes place.  They move all over the country.  You don't have to end up teaching in Montana if you get your training there.  Yet it is the state of Montana which is totally in charge of that training. There is no such thing as a national teacher training program.  Or, for that matter, a locally organized one.  It is all done by the states.  And since there is nothing to keep the graduates of these programs in the state that set up the training, there is no incentive for the state to do it well.

The reason these other countries organize their teacher training programs so carefully is that it benefits them.  They can see that they need a good education system if they want their economy to grow and their citizens to be peaceful and united, and that to do that they need good teachers, and that this requires a carefully structured training program. None of this works, though, for our decentralized state-run system.  The states don't benefit from the quality of their teacher training program, since many, if not most, of the graduates will go to other states.  At best, they can just hope to produce average graduates and so not lose more than the other states when they leave.  Hence, average training programs all around.

So money is not the problem; it is not even a factor in the problem.  We have a decentralized system that will never produce good training programs for our teachers no matter what we do.  It's the decentralization itself that locks in the mediocrity.

And notice what has also happened in that passage in the Auster book.  We all claim that America has this decentralized state-run school system and that this can never be changed; it is who we are.  Yet, the minute Auster imagines a break-away group of rebels who want a new and better country, that idea flies out the window.  It's going to be a centralized system from the start.  The break-away states get together and decide among themselves what joint action they should take.  They don't let each state decide for themselves. That wouldn't work.  If you want to improve things for the whole group you have to take some kind of collective action.  This is so obvious that we don't even notice that Auster is changing the rules on us and positing a centralized school system in this new country.  It just seems the logical thing to do.

So that is also part of the problem.  Here is this level-headed intellectual forgetting that we have said that we always want a decentralized system. This is why our school problems are so difficult.   We all act as if, in fact, we had a centralized system, and could change things like the rate of pay for the whole program.  But we can't.  And that is not even the main problem.  The main problem is that if we won't ever admit to ourselves what we have, then there is not much chance of changing it for the better.

Peter Dodington

December 31, 2016





On this Christmas Eve I want to tell you a story about a Christmas morning many years ago, and what it says about the need to improve our schools.

My first teaching job was at a public high school on the Fort Peck Indian Reservation, high up on the northern plains of eastern Montana, where it always snowed sideways.   I was living alone, but had been invited, at the last minute, to my girl-friend's house for Christmas dinner.  She lived on the western side of the state, though, about 400 miles away, so I was up at 3 am to drive to the train that would take me there.

As I slowly drove through the snow-covered town, I came across one of my students, Mitty. He had been drinking, I could see, and was wandering around in the night.  He stopped and we chatted some.  He was a big, good-looking Indian kid, about 15, who always seemed to be in trouble of one kind or another -- fights, petty crime, some jail time, spotty attendance at school -- but who was always friendly to everyone and had a great smile.  We wished each other a Merry Christmas and I went on my way.

To him, Christmas was just another day.  I was pretty sure there were not many presents waiting for him.  I don't think his parents were in the picture at all, so he stayed with various relatives.  Holidays were actually a difficult time for most of those kids from broken families, since emotions ran high and there were often more problems than usual.  I knew that he often got into fights with the men who were supposed to be taking care of him.  No one had jobs; everyone drank a lot.

I was living alone, too, and had a hard time dealing with holidays myself, but at least there was one family that wanted to take care of me this particular day.  I don't think Mitty could say that.  There was no one, really, who was watching over him.  That was why, in part, he got into so much trouble.  As teachers often figure out about the troublesome kids, they act up because they so want to connect with someone, even if this has to be in a negative way.  He was very lonely.

I think of scenes like this when I hear people say that the central problem in education is the poverty of the children.  You hear the comment, from quite intelligent people, that we will never solve the problems of our schools until we solve the problems of poverty.  That is it not the schools, per se, that need to be fixed, but our society in general.

But what does that mean?  That children like Mitty cannot ever learn?  That there is something intrinsically wrong with him, since he is poor, that prevents him from learning algebra?  Does that make sense?  Is there really something in his poverty that keeps him from learning?  Of course his poverty affects his schooling, but does it actually define it?  I don't think so.

My son is a doctor at a pediatric emergency room in New Haven, CT.  Most of the children he sees are Black or Hispanic, and many are quite poor.  Does that mean that he can't fix their wounds?  Of course their poverty makes it more likely that they will get sick or injured, but that doesn't mean that we have to wait until they are middle class before we can help them.  Medicine and income are two different problems; you don't have to solve both at the same time.  The same is true of education.  It is quite possible to teach someone like Mitty quite a bit, regardless of his poverty.

And we should teach him.  Whose fault is it that this child is wandering around at 3 am on Christmas eve?  Not, mostly, his.  He didn't create the poverty in his family.  He just has to put up with it.  I know, there is injustice all over the world, but near the top of the list, I would think, is the injustice to children born into problematic families.  What have they done to deserve this?  The least we can do is reach out to them and try to help them as much as we can, and for a teacher, that means teaching them.  There was nothing wrong with Mitty's mind.  He was making quite rational choices given the options he had before him.  That snowy street was probably actually a better place than the angry home he was avoiding.  There is no reason not to try to teach him as best we can.

Peter Dodington

December 24, 2016



Public Attitudes towards Education, Part III

The other day I was talking with a friend about his experiences as a band teacher in small towns in Iowa.  On finding that I had taught in New York City, he asserted that he would quit rather than teach in one of those "urban" schools.  He couldn't believe that I actually enjoyed working in such "terrible" places.

Well, maybe I am a bit odd, but look at what the data from that Kappan/Gallup poll tells us about those urban schools.  As you may recall, we saw that about half the people in the country think their local school is good, and well more than half think that distant schools are not good.  At first glance this seems logical, since we middle-class types, with our good schools, naturally think they are fine, and the rest of the population, such as the people in cities, have to put up with less good schools.  The general belief is that our overall school system is made up of a bunch of good schools, no doubt in middle class places, and a bunch of weaker schools, probably in the urban areas.

Leaving aside the inconsistencies in that view, which I discussed in the last two blogs, let's just look at what it says about exactly who it is who is favoring their own local schools, and what this says about those "terrible" urban schools.   Now, in the data, 50% gave their local school and A or B, and another 31% gave them a C.  So fully 81% of the population thinks their local school is either okay or good.

But wait, doesn't that include a good number of urban families, ones who attend those "terrible" schools?  About 62% of our US population lives in cities, and the Kappan/Gallup people are very careful to weight their sampling methods to accurately reflect this.  If the majority of the people sampled live in cities, then, and the majority of their opinions are in favor of their local school, there have to be a good number of urban families who actually think that these "terrible" schools are in the decent to good range. So what is going on?

First, let me say that such a finding is in keeping with my own experiences teaching at low-level urban schools.  No one was complaining to us about how bad the school was. On the contrary, the parents seemed to be very grateful for what we were doing.  And I probably had fewer complaints from parents than I had  in more affluent areas or private schools.  These parents had other things to worry about, such as poverty, crime, and the job of raising children in a poor area.  For them, as they often told me, the school, for all its low-performing data, was one of the few places around that was actually helping them.   For even particularly good students, whom you might think would do much better at a "good" school, the outcomes are often quite good.  The teachers, after all, are not all that different from teachers in general, and so are educated and caring, and particularly interested in paying special attention to those excellent students.  Strangely enough, a good number of really successful adults come out of those urban schools where they had spent their days doing special projects with teachers who loved them.

So, in fact, these urban schools in low-income areas are not "terrible" for most of the people who go there.  Yes, they have low scores on various measures, but for the people there they seem to be doing okay.  People seem to realize that although there are families with problems in that neighborhood, and this pulls down the scores, overall the schools are doing more or less what they should.

So, what conclusion can we draw from this?  Why does my band-teaching friend think he would hate teaching there?  The answer must be that there is some kind of bias in the way we are getting our information about these urban schools.  I'm not talking about racism, though no doubt that, too, exists.  A more powerful bias, it seems to me, is just that we would prefer to talk about the problems of someone else's children rather than our own. So this means that the TV commentator who has the choice of doing a story on drug use in his own, suburban school, or in a city school, chooses the latter.

I don't see that this kind of bias will change any time soon, and I am not going to "blame the media" as so many do.  I just want to remind all that we need to pay attention to this kind of bias in our perceptions about schools, particularly ones in urban areas.

Peter Dodington

December 17, 2016