National Public Education

“None of the Above” on Educational Reform

Who is going to lead educational reform in America?  To answer this question, let's look at some successful reform efforts for other public programs in this country.

When I first moved to New York City with my wife and small children in the early 1980's, my father-in-law told me that he thought there was "no hope" for the city.  He had just seen a subway train rumble by, all covered with graffiti and dirt, and the sight of that train convinced him that the city as a whole was incapable of succeeding.

But ten years later the subways were doing well, with new cars, new track, and increased ridership.  What happened?  Several things, to be sure, but one major improvement was that the city hired some administrators who knew what to do.  David Gunn, Richard Kiley, and others, knew how to fix the system.  They got rid of the graffiti, fixed the track, and got new state laws passed which enabled them to hire better workers and managers.

Up to that point, no one had worked very hard on the graffiti, for example, because they didn't think it was their job.  The entire system was run by people who had come up through the ranks as trainmen and conductors, and they didn't see how graffiti made that much difference.  After all, it didn't slow down the trains.

What Gunn et al. realized was that if you want to make new improvements, you needed to have new sources of revenue, and that this could only come from the people who were not currently taking the trains: new passengers out there in the general public.  People like my father-in-law.  And, for those people, the graffiti was all they knew about the trains. It was what they saw, period.  So if you wanted to access their funds, you had to fix the graffiti.  And it wasn't that hard; you just had to hire more cleaners.  Once the trains simply "looked" better, people started to think that the system now knew how to solve its problems and so started having more confidence in it, and thus were more willing to support it through fares and taxes.

The same strategy could work for public education.  New improvements have to come from the support of the general public, not the people who already have children in the school system.  How does one influence them?  Perhaps by showing them how they benefit from their support of the schools: the better workers, less crime, and better public health that public education does provide us all.  Where is this data currently?  It doesn't exist.  Solving that problem, like the graffiti, would go a long way towards improving support from the general public.

But here's the problem for the public schools.  Who is going to do this?  Unlike the subway system, there is no one person who is the director of the system.  There is no job title that is set up to solve this kind of a problem.  We can't just hire someone good for that job; it doesn't exist.

We have a decentralized, state-run public school system.  The leaders of that system are the 50 governors and 50 state superintendents of instruction.  Each of them is only in charge of 1/50 of the problem.  They don't have the authority to do any more than make a few minor adjustments.  And the local school leaders have even less power.  They control a tiny fraction of the problem.

And what about the national leaders, the ones that everyone seems too think are calling the shots?  They are forbidden by law from doing almost anything.  All their laws and edicts have to be worded as "recommendations" for the states, since we have a decentralized system.  Even when they threaten to take away federal funding from a state that doesn't follow their recommendations, they are only talking about 10% of any state's education budget.  90% of the system is run by state and local funds raised by the states themselves, not the federal government.

So there is no job title, currently, which we could fill with some excellent leader who would bring about the kind of reforms that improved the subways.  None of the current options would work.  There is no one, actually, fully in charge of our public school system.  So, of course, it is going to be quite difficult to improve it.

The solution, then, is to change that system.  We have to create, first, a position for a leader of the entire school system.  Someone whom we all agree will be in charge of the program.  Someone like the head of a national school board.  Then we would at least have the chance at improving the schools.

People say that they don't want a national leader for their school; they want local control. But such a position would not be a leader of the schools, but a leader of the school system.  It's a bureaucratic position; a way to make the much-maligned bureaucracy work better, not a management position for the schools themselves.  Gunn didn't worry about what was happening in the trains; he worried about the relationship between those trains and the general public, the source of their support. This is what the schools need.  A leader for improvements in the school system, not the schools themselves.  Then the schools will be able to improve.

Peter Dodington

March 25, 2017



Average and Excellent Schools

When you read about plans to improve our schools, they almost always focus on the local community.  In the list of "stakeholders" for the schools, that is, the people involved in their support and operation, just about every group mentioned is local: the teachers, children, parents, school board, community business leaders, etc.  Only at the vary end, usually, come the state taxpayers.

Unfortunately, though, local communities cannot usually afford good schools all by themselves.  They need money from the state.  As everyone knows, the states pay at least as much as all the local communities combined for the public school system, with the federal government providing a small amount.  The states are actually the largest "stakeholder" of all.  Let's go against the grain, then, and look at how we might get the states to improve the schools.

In my lifetime I have seen many states work out plans to improve their school systems. Tennessee was one of the standouts, and of course the success of Texas' schools was one of the reasons the younger George Bush was elected.  A concerted effort, with strong leadership, usually worked.  Why, then, has this not continued?  If, as everyone agrees, the schools need to improve, and the states seem capable of doing this, what's the problem?

For one, it's that almost all those states that improved were in the lower half of the distribution of schools.  (Massachusetts being the current exception) They brought their schools from a low level to somewhere around the middle of the pack.  Once they got that far, though, they had more difficulty improving into the excellent range. Consequently, the country as a whole has been stuck at that middle level; some states do improve, but only the low-scoring ones, and some deteriorate, so the overall average stays about the same.

We don't have to look far for the reasons for this aspect of state improvement.  If you are a state taxpayer, and someone tells you that your state is below average, you probably will decide to remedy that.  You will agree to more and better programs, all of which cost money.  (I remember how, in my first teaching job, I talked the local school board into giving us all a raise simply by pointing out that all the nearby schools paid their teachers more than we did.  I was amazed.  All you had to do was point out that we were not up to the level of those other little towns in eastern Montana and the money appeared.)

Once you get to that average level, though, your standards have to become more strict. You no longer are being pushed forward simply by a perception of your inferiority.  The question you now start to ask is: what am I getting out of this?  Now that I'm just like everyone else, more or less, why should I get better?  What are the benefits to doing that?  If, as in fictional Lake Wobegon, we now are all somewhat above average, why should we continue to improve?

What you need, at that point, is some demonstration of the public benefit that your state is providing you from these better schools.  When they were below average, that, in itself, was enough to open your wallet, but now that they are moving into above-average territory, you need something more.  You need some evidence that the schools are benefitting the entire state community.

As we have noted, though, the states don't do this.  They tell us nothing about the overall benefit to the community from their school programs.  All their data is about the children in the schools, not the graduates who benefit the community.  The graduates probably do benefit the general state community, through better workers, less crime, better health, more unity, etc., but no state tells anyone about this.

This is because, as we have said often in this blog, the states have no way to find out about this public benefit, since it scatters all across the country.  About half the students they educate leave the state.  They have no way to track how their graduates are lowering the crime rate, since a good portion of that benefit is happening in other states.  Nor, in fact, do they want to do this, since it also implies that their own state taxpayers are only getting about half the public benefit they paid for.  The rest has gone out of state.

This means that we will never get excellent public schools as long as we have a state-run system.  Improving the schools to that level requires some indication of how the taxpayers benefit from them, and we cannot ever get this from the states.  (Nor, of course, from the local districts either, who also cannot track their graduates, almost all of whom move away, nor the federal government, who are forbidden to do this by our commitment to a decentralized system.)  Having state-run schools guarantees that we will always have an average level of public school success; we will never move up to an excellent level.  That is, of course, why people keep turning to a more private-like way to educate our children.  The state-run public system doesn't work, and never will.

Peter Dodington

March 18, 2017





The Origins of Public Education Despair

Despair is a major modern problem.  There is a reason why one of the first barriers to Christian's "progress", in Bunyan's tale, is the "Slough of Despond," a bog where he wallows in the mud and cannot free himself. Despair is one of the most powerful forces working against solving one's problems and making progress.

Emily Dickinson, in a poem about how bad writing can affect us down through the ages, calls it a kind of disease, like malaria.  It infects us.

Infection in the sentence breeds

We may inhale Despair

At distances of Centuries

From the Malaria.

Of all the evils that "a word dropped careless on a page" may bring, it is despair that Dickinson emphasizes.  It is, she seems to be saying, the most important modern problem.

When we look at commentators on public education today, though, we find despair everywhere.  As readers of this blog know, almost every writer today either has given up on making any major changes in the success of our schools, and suggests that all we can do is "Hope" for a change for the better (Elizabeth Green), or that nothing can be done until we do away with such things as poverty (Ed Boland), which is saying the same thing. No one sees a path through this swamp.  The best we can do is try to find some other way out, perhaps through a more private approach to education.

But that doesn't get us out of the despair.  We know that private education won't work for everyone; we can't afford it, and, of course, it runs contrary to our founding principles of equality and justice for all.  We don't want to educate people according to the wealth of their parents.  So we are stuck in the swamp, it seems, of public education; unable to go forward to making it work, and unwilling to go back to some different system.

But let's look at that swamp a bit more closely.  What makes it so hard to move forward? Isn't it that there seems to be no way to improve the schools for the general population? We are able to see progress in our own local schools, with the success of our own children and our neighbors', but, overall, there is nothing but a mediocre status quo. The "private" part of the system, our own local school, seems to be working, but the "public" part, throughout the rest of the country, seems mired in failure.  The only solution, then, seems to be to work with just that part that is making progress, the local, private-like part.  Hence the emphasis on local control and all those efforts to privatize public education.

But, you have to admit, turning aside to the individual, "private-like" part of this public system is not going to solve that "public" part of the problem.  If anything, it will make it worse.  If the problem is with overall, collective program, the part that deals with other peoples' children, then we have to work on that public part.  Pulling back to just working on our own problems, not those of collective society, is a hallmark of despair.  It's that lonely life of "one against all", rather than cooperation and sharing, that leads to all sorts of problems, including despair.

So let's see how we might fix the public part of the program.  Once we focus on that, it becomes quite clear that we have a major problem with our state-run decentralized school system.  The states have no way to determine the "public" success of their schools, since this comes from the success of the graduates, and the states have no way of tracking them since they scatter all across the country.  It isn't that we have evidence that the schools don't benefit us; it's rather that since we don't have any evidence about this kind of public benefit at all, we assume that the schools are failing.  Since it is so easy to see the private benefit, we assume that when we don't see any public benefit there must not be any.  (It is only teachers who get to see this benefit, as they get to know the kids and keep track of how they benefit society.  This is why teachers, in general, are against privatization.)

The problem for the schools, then, is not that they are doing poorly, but that there is no way to see how they are doing at all.  There is no CDC, as there is for public health, or an FBI or other crime-data organizations, for the police, that is in charge of the overall data on the success of the schools.  The federal government is forbidden to gather such data by our decentralized system.  The only source for that kind of data would be the states, and they are incapable of collecting it.

That, then, is the nature of this swamp of despair.  It is our ignorance about the results of our schools in general, the "public" results, that keeps us focused just on our local "private" results, even when we know that this will never solve the problems we want solved, the public ones.  The only way to drain it is to change to a national system of public education.

Peter Dodington

March 11, 2017



A Review of “The Battle for Room 314″

Ed Boland has written a good book about the trials and tribulations of a new teacher in the New York City Schools.  He tells a good story, with engaging anecdotes about the many interesting and problematic children he meets in his classroom.  He's honest, hardworking, and clearly cares about the kids.  And, by the end of the year, he gets it; he knows what to do: be consistent, plan thoroughly, set up routines that work and keep at them, find mentors, ask questions.  The fact that he probably knew all along that he would write this book must have helped him teach, since it forced him to watch the kids carefully, (since he was going to write about them) and this is the key to good teaching. (That might actually be good advice to a young teacher: pretend you are going to write a book about each one of the children in your class.)

Where I, another ex-NYC teacher, differ from Mr Boland, though, is where he talks about what we should do about these school problems.  He has a lot of good ideas: that we should do something about integration, and teacher training, and the out-of-school challenges of the students (such as their medical needs) and the level of funding for schools in poor areas, and the overall level of poverty, but leaves it at that, the naming of the problems.  This is not enough; it leaves the door open to the kind of despair and sadness that so many have about these problems.  At a minimum, we need to figure out which of these areas we should focus on; which have the best chance of succeeding and so improving the schools.

Using that rubric, we should probably toss out the first issue he mentions, integration. Of course it is a problem, and could be worked on through bussing or other ways to zone the schools, but you have to admit that the time is not ripe for this.  Too many people remember the problems we had when we worked on this issue the last time around.  It is simply not going to happen in the near future.

The next is funding.  I agree, this is one of the crucial needs for the public schools -- more attention to how they are funded.  The problem I have with Mr. Boland's view is that he talks mostly about the need to "equalize" funding between the rich and poor.  Wouldn't it be more logical simply to work on getting more funding? Everyone talks about the need to make the funding more equal, but is this the way any other business would go about fixing this problem?  Would Mr Boland himself ever say that the problem in his fund-raising business is that the donors are not equal?  Is this really an issue?  Don't we simply want more funding for the low-end schools, and need better ways of getting this?  Trying to get equality seems to me to raise all sorts of problems that we don't really need to raise.  Just get more money.

I also agree that teacher training needs to be improved, and that the key would be to tie it more directly, as he says,  to "real-world scenarios about how to teach and manage kids."  But wouldn't this then have to be arranged by the school districts themselves, or the states, since it would involve actual in-school activities?  But have they ever shown any interest in this?  Do they even keep track of which teachers are doing well and which aren't, and why?  That is the first problem to be solved if you want better teacher training; why don't the people in charge, at the district and state level, seem to care about it?  And, as readers of this blog know, I think this is because the outcomes from public education, good and bad, leave the district and the state, and so do not provide a benefit to these organizations, or at least only a partial benefit, and that means they have little incentive to improve the schools, or the teacher training that would lead to this. That problem does have a solution, a national one.

It is interesting that Mr. Boland says that a Harvard education professor helped him write this last chapter.  But he has already said that our schools of education are "an industry of mediocrity."  He would have done better to ponder these issues on his own. He, himself, has had the experience in the classroom; he is the one closest to the problems, and so most able to see them clearly.  With that knowledge he is more qualified to figure these issues out.

The most disappointing aspect of this book are the last paragraphs, where Mr Boland suggests that the best solution to our school problems would be to "end poverty."  Isn't this what ever young teacher comes up with, usually sometime around Christmas of their first year, when they realize that everything would be great if these kids were more middle class?  And don't most teachers eventually realize that education, hello, is one of the best ways to accomplish this, so he might as well get to work and do that, and stop worrying about something he has no control over?

And besides, let him look around his own classroom, and think about the relationship between wealth and academic success.  Is it really that strong?  Aren't there all sorts of bad rich kids and good poor ones? The worst kid I ever taught was one of the richest; he didn't even notice I was in the classroom.  I know there is data that shows this link, but does it really show that money is the main difference?  Isn't it more that a stable family and loving parents makes the difference, and that these people tend also to do better in their jobs, so end up being better off than those without these qualities?  Are we going to fix, then, that parent problem?  Not quickly.  The best we, as teachers, can do is teach well and create a new generation of loving parents.  That would work.

Peter Dodington

March 4, 2017






Betsy DeVos’ Private Game off in Right Field

When I was in middle school, every day after school a group of us would get on our bikes and head for a vacant lot where we would organize a baseball game.  Each day we would pick sides, divide up the equipment, and figure out who was playing where.  This was so much fun that we did it for several years.

What would have happened if someone had then organized their own, private game off in right field, using some of our players and equipment, saying that they knew better how to play?  Would we have allowed that?  It wouldn’t have mattered that they might claim to be better players than we were, getting more hits or whatever, or that they included more of the poor kids or the less-skilled players.  The whole concept was wrong.  They had agreed to play the game together with all of us; setting up their own, private, game was a violation of that agreement.  We wouldn’t have allowed it, and we certainly wouldn’t have  let them expand these private games on to other parts of the playing field.

This is what Betsy DeVos is trying to do with public education.  She wants to take a group activity, something organized by the entire population, that is, public education, and break off a small part of it to play her own game with her own private equipment and people.  She claims that this works better, and is even more democratic, since she makes sure she includes people from a wide range of backgrounds.  But that is not the point.  She is breaking the agreement that we had from the start, that we all would work collectively for the success of that original program, the public schools.

Well, she would say, she is doing this because those public schools are not doing well; they need a new approach.  The original game was not producing the results we wanted.
But is her private game a way to fix this?  Back on that playground, would that private game in right field ever be seen as a way to improve the original game?  How could it do that?  It has turned away from that game and gone off on its own.  It may do well, but it is clearly not going to help the original game do well.  If we want to fix that original, collective activity, we have to work on that, not some separate edition of a private game.

Okay, she might admit, my game is probably not helping fix the big collective game, but that’s okay, because no one wants that game, anyway.  People want these small, private programs that seem to work so much better.  They produce results, and that’s what people want.

But if that is so, why didn’t we start out with these private programs from the start, since they work so well?  There are plenty of other countries in the world where the only good schools are private; why didn’t America take that path?  Isn’t it because we set this country up on the basis of equality and justice for all, not just for some?  We opted, then, for a large, collective educational program because we wanted to educate everyone to roughly the same level; that’s not possible with small private schools.  They will always produce a wide variety of outcomes, not equality.

The public schools were set up to solve a problem that could not be solved through private means: the education of the entire population up to a common level.  There is no way private schools can do this, regardless of how well they do, or whether they have access to private or public funds.  They solve some problems, but they don’t solve that one.  They are a rejection of the idea that everyone can be educated equally.

I would be the first to admit that the public schools have problems.  So let’s work on these, and not waste our time trying to create a parallel private system that we have never wanted, and never will want.  Let’s run that private game off the playing field, or, better still, talk them into rejoining the main group effort.

Peter Dodington

February 25, 2017


ollective, group efforts, like the public schools or that afternoon ballgame, are worth