National Public Education

The Druids Dialogues 1: Too Big, Too Diverse


When I taught at Park West High School in Manhattan, in the early 2000's, a group of us teachers used to walk across Tenth Avenue after work to “Druids”, a local bar, where we would drink Guinness and complain about the school system.  We didn’t talk much about national public education, but if we had it might have sounded something like this.

Pedro: There’s one thing still bothering me.  Why is it, exactly, that we have a decentralized, state-run school system in this country?

Bob:     (A bored sigh)  You know the answer; this country is too big, and too diverse, to be run by a centralized bureaucracy.  No country our size has a really good education program.  And don’t tell me about Canada.  They have only a tenth of our population.  We have to divide up the problem to make it work.

Limato: Sort of like a big corporation dividing the work up into divisions. Then each division is closer to the problems and can solve them better than a central office.

Pedro:  So the problem was the size and diversity of the country, and the solution was state control?

Limato: You got it.

Pedro:  Doesn’t anyone see the problem with that solution?  It’s the solution to a different problem, not the one we started with.

Limato: What.  Make some sense.

Pedro:  When we say “We had to divide up the problem to make it work,” who is the “we” in that sentence?  It’s “we” in a national sense, right?  It’s a national problem that we are trying to solve, not a state one.  It has to be.  After all, the problem is that it’s too big, so we must be talking about the national situation.

Limato: Okay.

Pedro:  But the solution doesn’t solve that problem at all.  We have given the states total control to deal with their own problems in their own way.  So they aren’t working on a national problem, the one about being too big, etc., they are working on their own problems, their state problems.  They’re totally independent state entities, not part of a national system, so they can only work on their own state problems, not the national one we set out to solve.

Tom:    Maybe, but they are still helping the country by working on their own problems. Their focus may be on their own issues, but by solving these they also help solve the overall issue of the “too big” and “too diverse” national problem.

Pedro:  But it makes a difference.  It’s the difference between a mediocre solution to that national problem, and a good solution.

When a corporation divides its work up into divisions, it still retains control of those divisions; it doesn’t let them just do whatever they please.  The Produce Section of the A & P doesn’t get to set its own rules for how it will run its division.  If it did, the results would have to be mediocre.  Each division going its own way would just produce a variety of so-so results and no real progress.  The key to a successful division of a problem into smaller parts is that the central authority still retains some control over those parts, so it can coordinate their efforts.  If it doesn’t do that it just ends up with a number of smaller problems, not a solution to the big one.

Tom:    Alright, I see your point. By giving the states total autonomy we haven’t really solved the “too big, too diverse” problem; we’ve solved another problem, the need for local state control in general.  If we had wanted to solve that first, national problem, we should have made the states into sort of divisions of a national school system, not totally independent states.

Pedro:  Tom is so good at this.

Limato: Yeah, I see.  The key difference is the cooperation between the states.  Currently they can’t do that, since no one could be said to be in charge of that cooperation, since they have total autonomy, so they are not really solving the “too big” national problem.  As Tom says, they may be solving some other issues, but not that one.

Pedro:  Or, we could say that they are trying to solve that national problem, but are restricted to doing this poorly, since they cannot cooperate on it.  All they can do is re-invent the wheel in each of their own states, and so never get to a good solution to the overall problem.

Bob:     But there are other good reasons why we have state control, such as the need to be close to the problem.

Pedro:  Quite so, but that is a different issue.  I just want to prove, like Euclid, that the statement “we have a decentralized, state-run, school system because this helps us deal with the size and diversity of our country” is false.  That can’t be the reason we put the states in charge, since their autonomy makes it impossible for them to solve that particular problem effectively. It may seem like having the states in charge would help solve it, but that’s because we have let ourselves slip into considering a different problem, not the one we set out to solve.

Limato: Yeah, yeah.  But that and a dollar will get you on the subway.  It’s not going to change those Cretins in Albany.

Pedro:  We’ll see.


Peter Dodington

July 2, 2015



Samuelson on Competition in Public Programs

As you may know, Paul Samuelson wrote the standard textbook on economics in the second half of the 20th century.  I myself used it  in the “Econ. 1” course I took at Stanford in the ‘60’s.  (The only course I ever took in economics, I have to admit.)  So he knows what he is talking about.  Back in 1954 he wrote a short paper entitled “The Pure Theory of Public Expenditure,” in which he lays out how public programs, (like public education, though he doesn’t mention this) differ from private programs in fundamental ways.  These comments help clarify some of the misconceptions that are being tossed around concerning our current public school programs, particularly concerning the value of charter schools, vouchers, and the whole notion that competition will benefit the public school system.

Near the end of this article (in The Review of Economics and Statistics, Vol. 36, No. 4 (November, 1954), he sums up his main point:

But there is still this fundamental technical difference going to the heart of the whole problem of social economy: . . (namely that) the “external economies” and “jointness of demand” intrinsic to the very concept of collective goods and governmental activities makes it impossible for the grand ensemble of optimizing equations to have that special pattern of zeroes which makes laissez-faire competition even theoretically possible . . .

We need to unpack this a bit.  He is talking about how we fund public programs, which, as he says, produce “collective goods” and are run by the government.  These public programs produce “external” benefits to those outside, or external, to that program.  All public programs benefit not only the people who are paying for them, but everybody else in the community.  You still get the benefit of the streetlights whether you paid your taxes or not.

And there is a shared, or “jointness of demand” for these benefits, too.  Since everyone shares in the benefits, everyone also shares in the desire to have the program.  So there is a shared demand.  A policeman is not working for one person, but for the shared collective needs of the entire community.

Keeping that in mind, let’s look at what the situation is with private goods.  With private goods, the market sets the proper price for the good.  If you just leave the market alone the competition involved will find the best price for the good; best for both the consumer and the producer of the good.  If you don’t like the quality of a private good, you go to a different producer and this solves the problem.  The competition in the private market forces the producers to find the right level of both quality and price.  As he says, all the factors, in the private goods market, that might hinder this process cancel each other out, giving equations with a nice pattern of zeroes, and the whole private, market-run system works for the betterment of all if we just leave it alone.  (Or, as he says, at least this is theoretically possible.)

But this beneficial way that competition brings about the best goods for the best price doesn’t work with public goods.  As he says elsewhere in this article, “No decentralized pricing system can serve to determine optimally these levels of collective consumption.”  By “decentralized” I gather he means leaving the market alone and not trying to impose controls  from above.  This doesn’t work in a public program or what he calls “collective consumption”.  If you try this with a public program, you do not get the proper price for the good, nor the proper quality of the product.  So when we complain about the quality of, say, the schools, but will not able to fix this, he implies, by simply letting the market act freely on the situation.  Market solutions, such as allowing more free competition, will not work in the public sector.

This is because both the “externalities” and the “jointness of demand” interfere with that market process.  The fact that there are externalities means that a whole group of people are involved in the process other than just the buyer and the seller of the good, and this throws the market’s calculations off.  We can’t then just take these external benefitters out of the process because, as Samuelson says, they are “intrinsic to the very concept of collective goods,” their needs are why you have a public rather than a private program in the first place.  The whole point of a public police force rather than a private one is that it will affect the entire community, including the criminals themselves, and their parents, and all the other factors involved, and that this will probably lead to a more just and ultimately more successful outcome.

And the shared demand causes trouble because there is no way to pin down how much that demand is.  We all want a police department, but for varying reasons and with varying intensity.  When we share this need, then, there is not way to accurately determine this collective demand and so no way for the market to work out the proper parameters of the transaction.

This, as Samuelson says, is at the “heart of the whole problem of social economy” by which I gather he means the problem of how to create public programs that produce the right product for the right amount of money.  The reasons for having open and competitive markets simply don’t work for public programs.

This means, then, that all the arguments for increasing the “competition” for the public schools, such as through publicly funded vouchers for more private schools, or by introducing charter schools, won’t ever work.  Competition is not a way to get better public schools.  Samuelson knew this two generations ago but we seem to have forgotten it.

The only solution he suggests is to just look at how other countries run their successful public programs and copy the best ones.  So much for "American Exceptionalism."

Peter Dodington

June 10, 2015


Great Ideas, not Implemented

Elizabeth Green has written a wonderful book about how to teach well: Building a Better Teacher.  She narrates story after story about dedicated teachers who are finding more and more about how to get our students to learn.  I loved her comments about how teachers are focusing on the “why” of wrong answers – how did it come about that a student got that answer and not the right one?  To do this they have to create situations where the children are not afraid to try out an answer; to say what they are thinking it might be; to explain their thoughts.  This was so good it got me thinking of ways to improve my own classes – for both the 10-year-olds in Sunday school and my college students.

From the start, though, Ms Green says she wants to do more than just prescribe better classroom techniques; she wants to improve public education.  Half of her Prologue is about the problem of raising the overall level of education in America.  Here she has less to say.  She dutifully recounts all the horror stories of the “incoherence” of the “three-headed monster” of our local, state, and federally-run system, which results in “mass confusion.”  She recounts how a Japanese teacher, who came to America hopeing to learn from the land of John Dewey, was horrified to see that in our classrooms “they don’t do anything like that.”  She comments, “The Americans produced wonderful intellectual work on what teaching could look like, but they had failed to implement any of it” (p. 124).

For this problem, apparently, she feels there is no solution.  After running through the various reform movements such as Teach for America, charter schools, vouchers, and Common Core, and noting that these have made little difference to the vast majority of teachers, she falls back to a resigned acceptance of the status quo.  She notes that those who want to work with “a larger group of teachers”, such as Deborah and Francesca, her two best reformers, “had to work with the patchwork [of government control] that did exist – incoherence and all”  (p. 310).  The best we can hope for, she has Deborah say, is gradual change over at least ten years.  The implication is, though, that this may be impossible; Ms Green’s last quote is from the Red Queen in Alice in Wonderland, who recommends doing “six impossible things before breadfast” (p. 313).  Her last chapter is called “A Profession of Hope.”

Is that it, then?  There is no way to improve the schools overall?  Better teaching is the key to better schools, and we know a lot about how to do this, but is there no way to implement these practices into more than a handful of classrooms?  Is it really true that there is nothing we can do about this except “hope” for the best and mumble "This, too, shall pass?"  I can’t believe it.   The wise men who founded this country did not set up a school system that could never be improved.  Something has gone wrong over the years; somehow we have gotten off track in the way we organize public education in this country.  Finding out what that might be is our task, not an acceptance of the “mass confusion.”

So Ms Green has come up with the wrong answer to the question of how we can implement these great teaching practices.  Let’s try to see how that came about.  Let’s apply her own technique of delving into the thought processes that led to an incorrect answer.

One starting point might be that she, like almost all commentators on the public schools, is ready to take criticism of any politically-based school reform at face value.  When discussing Common Core, for example, she quotes, with no comment, an observation from unnamed “critics” that CC is an “unwanted federal intrusion or even . . . Communism” (p. 311).   It is assumed, apparently, that every voice from the man-in-the-street is a reasonable comment that ought to be heard.  She has already argued that Common Core is a logical first step in general educational reform, but then turns around and quotes all sorts of contrary opinions.

Is this anything like how she approaches the issues of how to teach well?  Would she ever quote some uninformed math teacher who thinks that simply memorizing the multiplication tables is the best way to teach math?  Isn't her whole point that teaching is a complex topic that most people do not understand, so we will never get anywhere if we just listen to un-informed general public opinion?  Would she ever say that there is nothing we can do about good teaching since there is such a diversity of opinion about it?  Concerning the classroom she is intent on creating something new; something most people don’t know much about.  Why doesn't she do that concerning these implementation issues?

The obvious answer is that she does not feel she knows enough about the political issues involved in implementation, so does not want to take a stand.  But I would say that she could find out.  She probably did not know all that much about classroom techniques before this book, but did an excellent job of researching the topic.  Why not turn her attention now to implementation?

If she does, here are some ideas.  First, approach the problem as unique to public education.  The issue, as she points out, is not how to teach, but how to make a public school system that works.  That is a political policy issue, not an educational one.  It won’t help much, then, to keep talking only to teachers or school of education professors.  Their focus is the classroom.  That’s not where the problem is; it’s outside the school, in the state legislatures and the U.S. Congress.  It’s the “public” part of “public education” that has to be fixed.

Secondly, watch out for confusions between local and state issues.  No one is really complaining about our local school system.  That works pretty much as it is supposed to.  It’s the next level up, the states, where the problem is.  The states are the entity that ought to implement teaching reform in our decentralized system.  They are in charge, so they are the crux of the problem.

And thirdly, distinguish carefully between parents and the public.  In a classroom it is easy to focus on the parents and how we can best get them to support the school, but in reality it is the public we need to impress.  Most of the money for that classroom, and for reforms in that classroom, will come from the non-parent public, since they make up most of the population.  We do need good a parent-teacher relationship, but even more we need a good public-teacher relationship.  And that is very hard to come by in a state-run school system, as I discuss elsewhere.

So, I will wait for that second volume.  Ms Green has all the right ideas; she just needs to follow them on to their logical conclusions.  Then she will see that the schools can be improved.

Peter Dodington

Jan. 28, 2015



Private Homeschooling

Last week the New York Times had a front-page article on the rise of homeschooling in America.  It said that not only is the number of home-schooled students rising, but the regulation of this practice by the states is becoming less effective.  Not all states have clear regulations on what constitutes a proper home-schooled education, and some that do are not enforcing these.   The article notes that it is generally agreed that homeschooling typically teaches math and science less well than traditional schools.

Proponents of homeschooling, though, do not see why they should have any state regulation at all.  They are spending their own money, not the state’s, and are still paying state taxes for the education of everyone else’s children, so why shouldn't they be allowed to educate their own children as they see fit?  In general, they argue, home-schooled children do about as well as others.

The problem is, though, that they are still part of the public school system.  Long ago the general public decided that it wanted to impose minimum standards on evey child’s education, since this would benefit society in general.  This meant that the school system would not only govern the public schools, but would also check up on the private ones, making sure that they met various requirements.  Obviously such a system could only work well if it were applied uniformly across the entire population.

The question, then, that we, as the public, need to ask about home-schooling is not whether it benefits the families involved, or even whether it saves the state money, but whether it benefits all our families.  Does it help or hinder the effort to create a better, more educated, society?  I don’t think there can be any doubt about the answer to that question.

Home-schooling is, after all, a private form of education.  It is not some special form of a public school; it’s a private school run by, and paid for by, private individuals.  There’s nothing public about it.  The whole point is that the parents have rejected the public schools. Logically, then, it ought to be treated the same way any other private school, and so regulated by the same general restrictions states place on their normal private schools.  It’s not some new and innovative way to do public education; it’s a private school.  By definition, then, it does not help the public school system.

Nor could homeschooling ever be applied to the population in general.  The cost per year, when you figure in the lost wages for the family member who stays home, has to be around the same as the cost of a regular private school, that is, well into the 5-figures.  This means that homeschooling can never become the normal way for the general population to educate their children.  Only a small percentage can afford it.

So why is the public school system even involved with these programs at all?  A good question.  Perhaps it is because the home-schooling families want it that way.  They don’t want to be seen as private-school patrons, since that would cut them off from whatever general public benefits might be still available to them.  If the state is willing to treat them as a special part of the public school population and so give them at least some support, and a public school diploma at the end, why not take it?

But this should make no sense to the public, who are paying for this public program and so should have control over it, not give that control away to anyone who asks for it. How can we agree to a policy that lets anyone reject the school system we have set up, yet still claim to be part of it?

The core of this problem, then, as with many of these issues, is not with the families that are practicing homeschooling, but rather with the state government that allows them to do this. It is the state legislatures that are not doing their job; not representing the wishes of the public.  Their inability to define and regulate homeschooling correctly is just one more example of why we should replace state control of education with a national school system.

Peter Dodington

January 14, 2015


Sam Walton, Charter Schools, and State Legislatures

In a recent Wall Street Journal article, Luisa Kroll writes about the success of Carrie Walton Penner, a grand-daughter of Sam Walton, at setting up successful charter schools throughout the country, such as the YES Prep North Central School in northern Houston, where the student body is 96% Hispanic and the school is ranked the fourth best in Texas.  The Walton family has contributed over $350 million to 1,600 charter schools throughout the country, mostly in poor urban areas.  All this is seen by the WSJ as “the future of education.”

There is no doubt that this school, and many like it, are doing better than the schools they replaced and so can, in some sense, be said to be improving American “education.” The question I want to raise, though, is whether they are improving American “public education,” and, if not, why exactly are we supporting them?

To answer these questions we have to go back and look at what we get out of public education in the first place.  There are two main reasons why we set up the pubic schools. The first is that they provide a public benefit to our society.  By making sure that everyone is educated up to a minimum level we lower the crime rate, increase productivity, produce good citizens, and help unify the country.  We all know that.

The second reason, though, is that we cannot afford a decent private-school education for everyone.  Private schools are paid for by parents, but parents of school-age children make up less than a third of the tax-paying population, so relying only on them to fund our schools would mean that the schools would be only about a third as good, overall. And no amount of private donations, even from the Waltons, could make up the difference.  The overall public school budget is in the hundreds of billions of dollars, much, much more than any donors can give.  The only way to fund such an expensive enterprise is to charge the non-parents as well as the parents.  This means having a public program.

So if charter schools and other privatization schemes are truly “the future of education,” it’s a pretty grim future: schools that are three-times worse, more crime, less productivity, and a generally less civilized society.

But, say the charter advocates, the general public will help fund these schools, too, since they will want to support the successful schools that charters provide.  As long as these private-like schools are producing good students, they say, the general public will open up their wallets.  We all benefit, the argument goes, from good schools, public or private, so we all will support the programs that produce these.

But this is not how support for education actually works.  We don’t support private programs simply because they produce good students.  There are plenty of good private schools out there, but that does not mean that I, or any other member of the public, regularly send them $100.  Yes, I benefit from them to some degree, but their own people, their own community, benefit much more than I do.  This means that I don’t get back a benefit at all comparable to my donation, since so much of it goes to these other people. So I have little incentive to support them.  It is not enough that a school produces good students; if they want public donations they also have to have a connection to that public. If they don’t, it will never make sense for the public to support them.

We support the public schools because they return to us a benefit exactly comparable to our support; we all share equally in the cost and the benefits of a public program.  They are “our” schools in many ways.  We set them up, we completely control the election of the officials who run them, and we all, by law, share equally in the benefits from them. There is an instrinsic logic to supporting them.

None of this is true about any private program.  There the logic of support only applies to those who are part of their own private community; for the rest of the public, support is a losing proposition.

So the argument that what the public wants is simply “good schools” is false.  What they want is the benefit from good schools, distributed fairly to those who support them. Charter schools can never provide this.  They are run by private programs, separate, as much as possible, from the dreaded public bureaucracy.  But that means that they are separate from us, too, the public supporters.  We don’t elect their leaders; we have no say over their operations.  They can never benefit us in the same way that traditional public programs can.

It’s interesting that the charter school concept is fully backed by the business world, but no corporate board would ever agree to give away part of its operation to an independent entity, perhaps writing a “charter” for this transfer of control, and so give up any chance to benefit from that part of their operation.

Would the Walton family themselves ever agree to let some other company run, say, their produce section, in the Walton’s buildings, using the Walton’s staff, but getting all the profit for themselves?  It wouldn’t be a question, then, of whether that entity could succeed, would it?  Of course they would succeed, given the good deal they had.  That’s not the point.  The point is that any Walmart executive who agreed to such a scheme would be fired, since he was wasting the Walton’s money, giving it away to someone else and getting little in return.

In the end, then, the problem is not just Carrie Walton Penner and  other donors; it is the people in charge of our public schools, the state legislatures.  They have taken the tax-dollars of their constituents and given these away to an entity that does not directly benefit those constituents.  That entity is providing a benefit to its own private program, so that even if it does provide some benefit to the general public, it does not do so to the degree that a truly public program would.  The states have turned away from trying to make the current program work; they are looking elsewhere for improvements.  But there is no “elsewhere” that will work for the schools.  The only solution is a fully public program, run by the elected representatives of the parents and non-parents and benefiting just them.

If private schools are such a good idea, let the Waltons and other donors fund real private schools. That would be fine, and would improve the overall level of education in the country.  That these corporate donors don’t do this shows that they have something else in mind other than simply improving education.  What that might be is hard to assess, but might well have something to do with access to the 50 million children who attend public schools and may someday shop at Walmart.

Peter Dodington

December 9, 2014