Another late afternoon at Druids, the bar across the street from my school. Two English teachers, their department head, and a special ed. teacher sit together talking about public education.
Pedro: What is so strange about the problems of public education is that we constantly talk about something that simply is not true: that everyone wants a state-based system.
Limato: But of course we do. We all want a decentralized state system. It’s the American way. American exceptionalism! No one wants anything but.
Tom: Do we? Then why don’t we do anything about it? Everyone says the bureaucracy is the problem. So why don’t we fix the bureaucracy? When was the last time you saw a demonstration on the steps of any state capital for education reform?
Bob: Exactly, we all complain about the bureaucrats, but forget that there are ways to change government. People do this all the time for things they care about, like civil rights or religious issues. Everyone agrees that education is important, and that it needs reform, yet no one is out there working for this at the state level, the level we say we want.
Limato: So is everyone lying? They don’t really care about it? Why else would nothing get done?
Pedro: Be…c…a..u…s…e they can see that it's impossible to improve the state programs. The benefits will just move away. It’s a losing game. And the better you get, the more you lose. It doesn’t make sense to try to make your state really good.
Limato: So you’re saying we’re not lying, we do care, but we also actually know that the state system will never work. We’re twisted. So that’s why it’s so hard to fix. We’ve already decided we can’t.
Tom: Or won’t.
Pedro: Right. Look at it this way. What would the state system look like if it really worked? Wouldn’t there still be some states with poor systems? Isn’t that the whole point of letting the states do it themselves – some would succeed and some wouldn’t? But that’s what we already have. They say that Massachusetts has a school system as good as almost any in the world. But does that solve the problem? Not at all. We still want the national level to go up. We don’t actually want the kind of success that the state system would bring, even if it worked. We don’t want 50 different success stories; we want one story – national success.
Bob: But wait a minute. Don’t graduates also leave the country, as well as the states? Why isn’t that a problem?
Pedro: Because it’s so much less. The percent of those leaving this country in their life-time is down in the single digits, as it is for most countries. So, something like 95% of the benefits you create from a public program in your own country will come back to you. For leaving a state, though, it’s around 40%. That means you will lose almost half the benefits you create in that state. That makes a huge difference. Mobility between states in American is about twice as high as between provinces in Australia, and three times as between provinces in Canada, or any other political divisions within any other country.
Tom: Yeah, there is no real reason why someone should stay in one state or another. There may have been at one time, when Massachusetts was Puritan and Maryland Catholic, or Texas an independent country, but those days are long gone. There is no advantage to one state or another any more.
Limato: And there are laws against treating new residents from out-of-state differently than in-state in matters like property ownership or taxation. We want it to be easy for people to move from state to state. No one actually wants Nebraska to be all that much better than South Dakota. We all want to be able to move to any state easily, which means they all should be about the same.
Pedro: And these kinds of weak state programs seem to us quite natural, since what we really want is a strong nation. The reality is that we have a de facto national education system. Look at the way we talk about the problem. No one ever says that Ohio is doing worse than Germany. All the data, all the news, is about the national level of education. Yet there is no such thing. There is actually no “American” public education.
Tom: Right, when you think about it, “American” education should be something like “European” education, a collection of different programs, each run independently. Well, no one ever worries about “European” education, since there is nothing you can do about it. No one ever looks at that data, or tries to change it, since no one is in charge of it. Each European country goes its own way. But for some reason we ignore this little bit of reality. We continue to talk about American education as if it actually existed.
Bob: That’s what has always intrigued me about this whole Common Core brouhaha. We have this decentralized state system that allows each state to make its own curriculum in any way it wants. So what do the states themselves decide to do? Make them all the same! I’m not arguing whether this is good or bad – it’s just that it’s not logical, given our state system.
Tom: Well, the curricula never were all that different from the start. No state has ever bothered to create its own unique way of educating its young, though theoretically that’s the whole point of having a decentralized state system.
Pedro: How could they, since all the colleges are national in scope. If Yale wants the Congress of Vienna on the curriculum you had better teach it, or no one in your state will be a Bulldog.
Limato: Yeah, every college is national, even the ones run by the states! They all take kids from the entire country. So since we have what amounts to a national system of higher education, the high schools have to fall in line and produce a similarly national course of study.
Pedro: In the end, what we all care about is our country, not our state. People don’t admit that, but it’s true. We are Americans, not Delawarians or Nebraskans. We don’t even have words for it. The state, per se, is a pleasing fiction.
Limato: Mundus vult decipi: the world wants to be deceived, as Augustine said.
Pedro: Quod erat demonstrandum. QED. We don’t actually want the state school system; we want something else, but are unwilling to work for it. We’d rather be deceived.
August 28, 2015
The Setting: Druids Bar on 10th Avenue, across the street from our school.
Tom: So when the grads moved away from the local districts, why did the districts turn to the state for help rather than the federal government? Surely they could see that the nation could have helped them more than the state.
Pedro: Good question; it didn’t make sense. The problem was that their taxpayers were paying for benefits that they were not fully receiving, so they needed a way for the taxpayers to access those benefits. That should have meant finding a way to share in the benefits being produced throughout the country, since that is where the benefits had gone to. Their graduates didn’t just move within the state, they moved all over the country. The solution, then, ought to have been to make some kind of national system where everyone could share equally in both the costs and the benefits from the schools.
Limato: Right. The state could only solve part of the problem from the start, no matter what.
Tom: And a national system would not necessarily have affected the operation of their local districts; they could still continue to provide local services to the local community, and local benefits to the parents and children, as always. It’s just that the benefits to the non-parent part of their supporters would now be part of a national system, since that is where their benefits, the benefits provided by the mobile grads, took place. The local system would serve the needs of the local parents, and the national system the needs of the rest of the population.
Limato: And this wouldn't harm the local districts. Just like a baseball team isn’t weakened simply because it is part of a league. You want the league to be strong enough to set up rules and policies that involve all the teams and the overall economic health of the teams. That doesn’t mean that the teams themselves have to be any weaker. You could actually argue that strong leagues make for strong teams.
Bob: But, as we all know, logic was not in the offing for this situation. The local districts were running the show, and they evidently felt that getting the feds involved would somehow be detrimental to their efforts. So they turned to the states instead.
Tom: You could even say that the states were chosen because they were weaker than the national government. There’s a scary thought. The districts wanted help, but not too much, since they still wanted to run the show all by themselves. So they picked the states, since they knew they would always be fairly weak.
Pedro: Yes. The rationale for the entire system was still centered on the ideal of local control. Even though it was clear that this couldn’t work economically, as long as the grads moved about, no one wanted to give up on that ideal. With that in mind, the only acceptable solution was just a continuation of the status quo, or as close to that as possible, and the states could provide that, since they were really not strong enough to change much of anything.
Bob: And this is clear from the fact that the state contribution was always called state “aid” to public education, as if the center of the program was still the local districts and the state was just helping them out in a secondary role.
Pedro: Also, part of the problem was that at the time it seemed as if the schools were doing about as well as they ought. We were, after all, the most successful country in the world, by far, so how could it be that our school system needed much help? No one in the early 20th century did any serious comparisons of test scores between various countries. So there was no need, it seemed, to make any dramatic changes in the local-control system.
Limato: You could say that the goal of state aid was not actually to improve the schools, but just to allow them to continue in their current local-control mode. From the start it was not about better schools. There actually is no good reason to involve the state in public education more than the districts or the nation. There's a rationale for having districts -- the whole small is better argument, and there's a rationale for having a national system, since this takes care of the mobile grads problem, but there is no real reason to have the states involved. There is nothing they do better than any other entity.
Pedro: So they brought in the state to help with this problem of the mobile grads undercutting the support from the non-parents, but the state had the exact same problem with their own grads. About a third of all residents in our country no longer live in the state they grew up in. That means, in effect, that state residents are losing a third of the public benefit from the schools that they paid for. (It’s actually more like a half, since you also have to factor in that the taxpayers move.) And, yes, this loss is replaced by the benefit from grads from other states who move in, but these are, again, of an average level, so it brings the whole program down to an average level. Any success over and above that average then is wasted money.
Tom: So you can see why the states don't want to track the public benefit from the schools, since to do so would make clear just how much they were losing to other states. If they wanted to show that their schools had, for example, lowered the crime rate by educating the kids, they would also have to show that about half of this was benefiting residents of other states, not their own residents, the ones who paid for it.
Limato: Ergo, no data on the public benefit from the schools, so no demonstration of the benefit to the non-parents, so no incentive for them to support improvements, so the schools have to stay as they are: average and mediocre.
Bob: Just what we all, in a way, chose from the start. We valued so much this ideal that we could do it all by ourselves in our own little districts that we turned away from any plan that might actually improve the schools on a large scale. We chose independence over success.
Tom: But we still can’t see this even today; everyone still wants the schools to be more independent, more “free.”
Limato: What can you do?
August 20, 2015
Druids Bar on 10th Avenue in New York is quiet on a Friday afternoon some years ago, as four teachers sit with their Guinness.
Limato: So tell me about how the state would solve the problem of the mobile graduates and the local funding, back in the day.
Pedro: In time, but first let’s get straight what was going on in those local districts before the state got involved. One of the problems in understanding all this is that the parents were not affected by this flaw in the system, the flaw that the graduates moved away, taking their educational benefits with them. From their point of view everything was still working fine. Their kids were being educated, and they were still also getting the long-term benefits from the education.
Limato: How’s that?
Pedro: Because they were their own kids, so of course they stayed in touch with them, and so shared in whatever success and benefit the kids achieved because of their schooling. If a parent wants to know how his child’s algebra class affected his work as an adult, he can just ask the adult kid over the Thanksgiving table, no matter where the kid lives. The parents have a built-in way to access, so to speak, the benefits from the education they have paid for. In terms of their own kids, anyway. Their part of the system is still working; they will always keep a connection to the graduates no matter where they go. So they will see the long-term benefits of the education they support.
Tom: And the non-parents don't. They have no way to see how their support for education will help the kids as they grow up. There’s no data on this, and they don’t personally know more than just a few of their neighbors’ kids. So they have no incentive like the parents to support the current school program, since they won’t ever see the benefits from it.
Bob: But the parents don’t support the schools simply to get a future benefit from their kid. They support the schools so the kid will be happy and live well. The benefit they themselves get is secondary.
Pedro: True enough, but they still do want long-term benefits for the child. Whether we should say they benefit from this or not is just a matter of what we mean by “benefit.” Aren’t they happy when their kid succeeds? Isn’t that a benefit? And, of course, there is no doubt that their lives are simpler, and “better” in some sense, if the kid gets a job, has a family, has grandkids, etc.
Tom: You could actually argue that what we all want for all the kids in our schools is the same thing: that they become “happy” and successful. It’s just that it is very hard to measure these things in the general population, so we have to look at things like the crime rate, or income levels, or marriage rates, to get any indication. The point is that parents get to see some of this and the rest of the population doesn’t.
Limato: And it only affects their relationship with the school during the time their kids are in school; those 10 to 15 years or so. During that time they have a strong incentive to support the educational goals of the schools since they know they will see how this helps the kids in the long run. Once their kids graduate, though, they become like the rest of us, with no clear way to see the results of their school support.
Pedro: True, and that brings up another reason why a lot of this gets ignored. We all, or most of us, have been parents at some point. (With a laugh, turning to Limato) And some without even knowing it.
Limato: (laughing) Why you lookin’ at me?
Pedro: So we tend to remember how we felt about the schools at that time, since it was such an intense time of love for our kids. So even after the kids are gone we still act like parents and treat the schools as if they were providing us with that same kind of parental benefit that they used to. We forget that now, as non-parents and members of the general population, we need something different. We need to make the connection to those grads whom we are educating – it won’t just come to us as it did with our own kids. But we forget that. We’ve been both parents and non-parents, but we let the parent mode dominate.
Tom: So then we don’t realize that we need to do something about this lack of connection to the grads. We think like a parent even though we aren’t, and this lets the problem fester.
Limato: So why can’t we just let the parents support the schools? They have the incentive.
Bob: Because, my dim-witted friend, they can’t afford it. Didn’t we just go through all this? There are too few of them. They need the money from the rest of the population. That’s why we have public schools in the first place. Parents are only a quarter of the population; they can’t do it alone.
Pedro: And even if they could afford it, as sometimes does happen in suburban schools, they really are not all that good at supporting what the schools need, which are long-term solutions.
For example: suppose we decide we want better 7th grade math teachers. So we set up a program to find these, and pay for their high quality, and train them well, and get them into the classroom. This all costs money and time, spread out over many years, but will be well worth it in the long run. But who will pay for this? Not usually the parents. Are they going to start paying extra when their kid is in the third grade? Even then they wouldn’t probably get the full benefit from the better 7th grade teachers, since it will take years to find and train them, and then a few more for them to reach their peak. Their kid will be long gone by then.
This is why good private schools don’t pay for these long-term improvements out of tuition. The parents don’t want to pay for something that won’t usually benefit them. The schools have to set up some kind of “campaign” and get outside donors for things like better teachers. Parents have too short a window to want to spend money on this. They will pay for better lunches, or a new rec. program that starts in the spring – things that will happen soon, but not long-term substantial changes in the structure of the whole school.
Tom: We already have parent-only supported schools all around – day-care centers, for example. They meet in church basements and pay their teachers less than the minimum wage. That’s what true parent-only local control looks like.
Limato: So why does everyone keep talking about this?
Pedro: Good question.
August 14, 2015
Druids Bar, on Tenth Avenue, was across the street from our school. English and Special Ed. teachers were attending “9th period”, as we called it, on a Friday several years ago.
Limato: But Pedro, how can these problems with our state-run school system be true? Shouldn’t someone have seen this long ago? I mean, is this the way we set up the system – so that it could never succeed?
Tom: Yeah; didn’t Jefferson figure this all out back then, telling us how to set up a public school system? It can’t be that he was blind to these problems.
Pedro: Quite so; Jefferson knew what he was doing. In fact there were several plans in the late 18th century for state-wide, or even national, school programs. Washington himself argued for a national university, which would have set up national standards for the secondary schools and a national curriculum. And of course Jefferson proposed a full range of K - 12 public schools for the state of Virginia.
Bob: But none of that got passed, did it, at least in their life-times. It turned out that no one wanted any kind of “top-down” structure in the schools. They had left all that behind in the old country. Now they were going to create their own new towns, their own communities, with their own schools run their own way.
Pedro: So the only schools that got set up were funded totally through the small, local districts. Local control was all there was. In fact, up through the early part of the 20th century some 90% of all public school funding in this country came through the local districts, not the state or the national level.
Limato: But that worked, right?
Pedro: It must have been great. The townspeople banded together and created their own school districts and ran them totally by themselves. The little, dirt-street town where I first taught in Montana had its own district, own superintendent, and own school board for its 100-student system, and still does. This system worked because everyone contributed to the schools, since everyone, not just the parents, benefitted. They were educating the next generation of town workers and leaders. They paid for someone to teach algebra so the town would have someone who could figure out corn prices and investments. It was a locally run system, but totally public. Everyone shared the costs and everyone shared the benefits. It worked.
Limato: So what went wrong?
Pedro: Well, the trouble with education is that it takes so long to realize the benefits from it. A whole generation, just about. So, to make it work, you have to have a really stable community. It’s not like a public road, where you get to use it a few months after you pay for it. Education produces a terrific benefit, but it is a long way in the future. This means that the program only works if the graduates from the school stay in the town, where they can pay back, so to speak, those who funded their education.
But not everyone wants to spend their lives in a small town. New opportunities come up, new interests. You know, people didn’t come to America just so they could live in a small town. They came to succeed, and that usually meant moving on to bigger and better places. Everyone loves the guy who stays and runs his dad’s store, but we all know, too, that this is not the way to make some serious money.
Tom: So the grads took their skills and education off to some other town; some place that had not paid for their education, which meant that the people who paid for their education were losing out. They were only getting a partial return on their investment in those kids, so tended to only want to support the schools now in a partial manner.
Pedro: The data on mobility is that well more than half the residents of the average town leave for other places. In my New Jersey suburb only a few of my childhood friends still live there; many less than half.
Limato: But the ones that leave are replaced by educated people from other towns. Doesn’t that matter?
Pedro: Yes, but that’s why our problem is an unrelenting mediocrity and not total failure. The ones that come in are from all over, right, so have to be at about an average level of education, in general. That’s fine unless you want to improve the schools above that average, mediocre, level. If you try that, you will be producing excellent students but only getting back, from the other towns, average ones. You would be cheating your taxpayers. The only level of education that makes sense is the average level of all the other schools. That’s what you’re going to end up with anyway, after everyone moves around, so you might as well only aim for that level from the start. If the costs are bourn individually, by the town, but the profits shared, throughout the country, there is not much point in making excellent students. The better you get at this the more you lose.
Bob: So it was our own individualism, our belief that we could do it all by ourselves, in our own little towns with no outside help, that led us down this unworkable path. Our hubris that we could create it all by ourselves.
Limato: The best we could do, ever, is just recreate the average level of all the other schools. The combination of autonomous small districts and mobile graduates forces the system to stay mediocre.
Pedro: But we can’t be too hard on those early pioneers. They thought everyone would stay in the towns, just as people had stayed in the towns they came from in Europe. They didn’t see that they had brought over with them a kind of restlessness; a drive to move on. It’s one of our strengths, right? But it makes it difficult to build a public program like public education that relies on stability, at least on a local level.
The real problem, though, is why, once we realized this scheme wasn’t working, we haven’t done anything about it.
Limato: But didn’t they get the state involved then? Didn’t that help?
Pedro: Sort of, but that’s another story.
August 6, 2015
Pedro and Limato are sitting by the window, looking out on a winter rain.
Limato: Well and good, but I was talking about these things with some friends -- yes, my middle-class homies in conservative Staten Island -- and they said our original premise was all wrong. They don’t pay their ed. taxes to get any kind of “benefit” from the schools; they just want to support a good thing and help the families that have kids in the schools. They don’t look for any kind of personal gain from this, any more than they would from the Red Cross or an animal shelter. So they don’t need some evidence of this so-called benefit, and certainly not from the federal government!
Pedro watches the rain in the empty street, then, with a sigh, turns to his friend:
Let’s start with the difference between local and state taxes. Our problem has never been with the local system, but the state system, right, and their taxes. Of course the local taxes help the friends and neighbors, but what about the state?
Limato: They also help the local schools. You yourself said that about half the school budget comes from the state. So state taxes also help their neighbors and friends, and their own community.
Pedro: To what degree? How many local districts are there in New York State? A few hundred? So I give the state $100, and about 30 cents comes back to my own local district? That’s why they support the state education tax?
Limato: All right; so that’s not a good reason. Most of the money does go to distant schools. But they would say that they still want to support this, since they believe in the value of public education. It’s a donation to a good cause. They believe good schools help everyone so they want to give to them, as a gift.
Pedro: So it’s like a charity. As you say, like the Red Cross. They give with no expectation of benefit.
Pedro: Okay, but, there are several problems with that. First, those charities you mention do publish a good deal of data on how they provide public benefits to their donors. There’s plenty of data out there on how helping disaster victims, for example, keeps the economy healthy as well as just relieving suffering. You do benefit from this kind of donation.
Limato: All right, then, but take something like an animal shelter. Maybe they just like saving kittens. It makes them feel good.
Pedro: Right; it’s your own pleasure you’re talking about. You don’t need any benefit or return from this kind of donation because you are already getting one from your own feelings. You like it. It’s like giving a quarter to a homeless guy on the subway.
Limato: Which I rarely do; but yeah, same idea.
Pedro: And does that help the guy?
Limato: Of course.
Pedro: To do what? To change his life and get back on his feet? Not likely. You’re helping him be a better bum. That quarter helps him get through the day and be there again tomorrow with his cup out. It doesn’t change him; it helps him stay the same.
Pedro: Wasn’t the whole point of this discussion from the start that we need to improve the schools? You see, charity doesn’t do that. It’s really a force for the status quo, not for change.
Limato: But people say all the time that they are giving to a program to make it better.
Pedro: But not if they never see any results. You can’t have it both ways. Either you want to improve things and so need to see some results so you can judge whether this is happening or not, or you don’t, and so don’t need any kind of results or benefits. The minute you say you don’t need results, you are also saying you are not interested in changes for the better, since results are the only way you could ever know about those improvements.
Pedro: You can just look at who gets the benefit. Is it you, and you are the one who now is feeling so good about those kittens, or is it the program and the people in it, not you? If it’s the former, then you don’t need any overt benefit, since your’re already getting your own, but if it’s the latter, you need some. It’s the evidence for what you trying to do; it’s an integral part of the whole effort.
When we say the goal is to improve the schools we have to ask ourselves who is working on this problem. Of course, the parents, teachers and kids, but what about the public? Among them it’s only the ones who want results who can be said to be taking this task seriously. The rest, the ones who see the schools as a charity, are just some lukewarm supporters of the status quo. They're part of the problem, not the solution.
Limato: (smiling) Jeez, you get a bit twisted about this, don’t you. (He drains his beer.) I will let my magnanimous friends know of their error. I’m sure that will change their minds.
Pedro: (shaking his head with a smile) No doubt, no doubt.
July 30, 2015