National Public Education
7Oct/170

Education and the Commercial Mindset by Samuel E. Abrams

 

In this 2016 book, Abrams, a former teacher who now is a professor at Teacher’s College in New York, sets out to sort through all the various attempts to run public schools as private businesses in the past 30 years.  As he says at the end of his opening chapter, some business practices work well, and others do not.  He looks at just about every business scheme tried in US public education, starting with Chris Whittle’s “Channel One” TV segment back in the early 90’s (which I remember having to sit through each morning as a young homeroom teacher), and ending with a look at programs in Sweden and Finland.  Although Abrams finds that just about every one of these attempts have had limited, at best, success, he still remains sanguine about the concept.  From my point of view, though, he misses several major points that should have been addressed.

For example, he introduces the book by telling about how he was given the task of programing his school’s schedule one year, and found that a private company could help him do this better than the company used by the board of education.  It seemed that a private business was simply better than a public approach.  He then goes on to talk about Milton Friedman’s argument that parents should have the ability to choose private ways to educate their children, at public expense, and Myron Lieberman’s ideas in Privatization and Educational Choice.  He quotes Lieberman as saying that if a public school can contract with a private custodial service to clean its floors, they also ought to be allowed to do this for instructional services.

The problem is that this view totally ignores the fundamental difference between public and private goods and services.  There is no public benefit from cleaning a floor, but there is from educating a child. That’s why, then, we have public schools, but private cleaning companies. So, yes, you can use a private business to clean floors, or program schedules, or manage an office, but education itself is something quite different.

Ironically, it was Milton Friedman, himself, who spelled this out clearly.  In his chapter on education in Capitalism and Freedom he admits that education has to run by the government, not a private organization, since it always produces a public benefit to the general public, not just to the children and parents in the school, and there is no way to get that general public to pay for that benefit other than through taxes paid to the government.  As he says, the education of a child improves society, not just the child.

This whole idea seems lost on Abrams.  The words “public benefit” do not occur in this book.  He devotes one paragraph to the differences between public and private goods, but seems to think this a minor matter.  In the same way, he ignores the differences between the needs of the general public, who are the primary supporters of the schools, and the needs of the parents of school-age children.  In his view the customer of the public schools is the child and his family, not the general taxpayer, even though there are four times as many of the latter.  The schools are paid for primarily by non-parents.

This means that Abrams has no way to see why these private schemes so often failed.  They were dealing only with a quarter of the funding stream for the entire operation, that of the parents and children.  They forgot, or didn't realize, that the rest of the money was coming from public funding, and that had to mean public oversight concerning such things as equality, and the bureaucracy that goes with the assurance of that equality; concepts that are antithetical to private business.  As such he can only list these failures, not explain them.

This curious blindness to the public nature of public education comes out in the last chapter on the success of the schools in Finland.  Here he seems to admit that a government-run, non-private approach is the best of all.  He specifically mentions that the Finns have rejected all efforts to privatize their schools, and have thrived.  He runs through all the wise things they have done, such as having ex-teachers in almost all their high administrative positions, and replacing mass testing efforts with selective sampling techniques, and serving a good hot lunch to every child, and always going outside for recess.  He clearly puts this chapter at the end because it sums up the right way to run a school system.

Yet he never makes the connection with this success and the fact that this is a fully public, government-run program, not a private one.  He simply tries to show that the Finns do use good “business” techniques in their school system.  What that seems to come down to, then, is that perhaps there is a role for “business” practices in public schools, but only as a handmaid to the fully public nature of the school system.  Yes, the schools can hire private companies to clean the floors, but not to run the schools.

Peter Dodington

October 7, 2017

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

9Sep/170

“Endangering Prosperity” by Eric Hanushek

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Peter Dodington

September 9, 2017

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

1Jul/170

North Carolina’s School “Choice” Plan

I see that North Carolina’s state legislature has just approved a school “choice” scheme that will refund $9,000 to the parents of children with disabilities, foster children, recently adopted, or children of military personnel.  These families can then use the funds to purchase other private ways to educate their child.

No doubt many will see this as an excellent idea.  Here is the state helping those who need help the most; those with disabilities and special needs, and those, such as foster and adopted children, who often need various kinds of special services.  How magnanimous, how caring.  But as we have discussed in last-week’s blog, these plans are anything but beneficial for either the families involved or the general public.  They are simply a way for the state to save money.

The problem is not just the lack of oversight.  Most of the criticism for these plans has focused on how parents spend the money they receive.  Interesting stories are told about people buying school books and then turning these back in to the stores for credit on a new TV.  People wonder why the state isn’t watching over these purchases more carefully.

But how could we expect anything different?  The main difference between a public and a private system is surely one of “oversight.” We set up this public program in the first place because we wanted a way to monitor how people educated their children.  The whole point was that, left to their own devices, private families often tend to consult their own needs, not the needs of society in general.  So we have created a public program that would “oversee” how this was done, and so benefit the entire society.

Now, though, we want to do away with that public program, and go back to a private way of education.  But that also has to do away with the oversight.  You can’t have both “free choice” and “oversight;” there is no such thing as a private program regulated by the state.  If we want oversight we need to keep the public program.

The more serious problem is that this program will not actually help the families who use it.  To see this, you just have to do the math.

What is the cost of the education and treatment of a disabled child?  I don’t mean how much a family usually spends, but the actual cost.  Let’s just start with the educational cost.  What is the cost of tuition, for example, at a private school that specializes in students with disabilities?  A bit more than $9,000, or even the $20,000 mentioned in other programs, wouldn't you say?  Isn't this a good indication of the actual cost of such a program?

And then what about the medical costs that public schools provide, through their own services?  Who will pay for these once the child is no longer enrolled in the public school system?  Just how much is that public school nurse worth, somebody who is fully licensed, experienced, and knows the child? Are the parents of these children who "opt out" really going to be able to afford anything like a similar level of care for their children?

In reality, most parents know that they benefit from public schools programs.  Everyone likes to complain about government bureaucracy, except the parents of children who actually need those services.  They may be quite willing to sit in some dingy office all day so they can walk out with payments worth a small fortune.  No one says they want to be “told” what to do for their child, except when this means that an expensive treatment will be paid for.  Then it all seems to make sense.

When the Kappan magazine does their annual poll of attitudes on the schools, they always find that almost everyone thinks their local school is doing well (but that schools in general are not).  That includes, then, the parents at urban schools, and the like, that supposedly are such “failures.”  These people are in those polls, too, and so must also be mostly in favor of their schools.  That makes sense to me.  These parents can see that the schools are trying to help them, in contrast to almost everyone else, regardless of what kind of “data” is reported about their outcomes.  They are not going to be easily lured away from the public schools.

But, you might say, it’s a fair trade; they are getting the cost of that child’s education and so ought to be able to provide a similar education themselves.  But it is nowhere near the true cost.  It’s the parents’ share of what the entire population paid for the schooling of all the children, which is considerably less than the cost for that particular child.  There are many more taxpayers than children.  The schools give back only the per-taxpayer cost, not the per-child cost.  The individual cost of educating and treating that child, especially a disabled child, is a lot more than $9,000.

(This is why private schools seem to cost so much.  That's the true cost of educating a child.  It costs the state that much, too, but they are able to spread it over many taxpayers, so the cost per taxpayer is considerably less.  They only publicize the tax-payer cost, though, not the actual cost per child.)

This cost difference, of course, is why the state legislature wants the "choice" program.  It saves them money.  And, this is why the focus is on those children with disabilities and other conditions, such as adoption and foster care, which tend to involve children with more than the average number of problems, all of which cost something to fix.  Taking these children off the rolls saves the most.

Am I being too cynical?  Perhaps.  State legislatures do have their own problems, and, no doubt, some good reasons for trying to save a buck now and then.  It’s just that parents need to remember that most such schemes do not work in their favor.

 

Peter Dodington

July 1, 2017

 

 

 

 

24Jun/170

Hey, Parents, It’s My Money, Too

 

There is a fundamental problem with what are called “Educational Savings Accounts,” the plan to give parents back the money they have spent on their child’s public school education (in taxes) so they can spend this on other “choices”, such as a private school.  Aside from the fact that such a scheme weakens the public schools by taking money away from them, the plan just doesn’t make sense.  The math doesn’t work.

If the schools were private, it would make sense to pay back the parents of a child who “opts out.”  They paid that money into the school, and now should get it back if they take the child out.  But the schools are not private, they are public.  The cost of that child’s education was borne by the entire community, not just the parents.  If you are going to give back the money spent on that child, shouldn’t you also give some back to the general taxpayer, who also shared in that cost?  The money came into the program from all the taxpayers, not just the parents, so why is it going back only to the parents?

I realize that this way of looking at it seems odd to us, but that is only because we are so used to thinking of the public schools as if they were private.  We assume that the true “clients” of the system are the parents of the children in the schools, so their concerns should guide policy.  In reality, though, the system is paid for primarily by the non-parent general public (who outnumber parents by about four to one).  They are the true “clients” of the system, since it is their taxes which actually pay for the schools.

So it doesn't make sense to give back the cost of the child's education to only the parents. This says nothing about the value of parents or the need to support them as much as possible.  It's just simple logic.  As my father used to say, "put the numbers into the equation."  We need to remember that we have a public school system, not a private one.

Why do non-parent taxpayers, after all, pay for most of the support for the schools?  Isn’t it so that the children involved will grow up and become good citizens and benefit us all?  Don’t they lose something, then, when these children “opt out”?  Each time a child leaves the school system that goal becomes that much harder to realize.  The general, non-parent public do not benefit from these opt-out schemes.

Who does benefit is the state school system.  They save money every time a child leaves.  They do give back an amount equal to the average cost each taxpayer pays for that child’s education, but this is considerably less than the amount they save by not educating that child.  It is not hard to see how this works.

There are more taxpayers than students, so the per-taxpayer cost for the entire program is considerably less than the per-student cost.  The state doesn’t give back to the parents the full cost of the child’s education (as they would if the schools were private), but only the parents’ portion of that cost, which has been shared with all the rest of the population.  They give back the per-taxpayer cost, not the per-child cost.  This is logical, since you don’t want the parents getting back more than they paid in, but it also means that the state is coming out ahead each time they let a student leave.

Where, then, does that money come from that the state is “making” on each opt-out?  From the general taxpayer’s pocket.  They’re the ones who are still paying the same tax each year but are now getting fewer and fewer educated students.  The money that they paid into the school system in order to educate a certain number of students is now being used to educate a lower number.  The difference is then just expropriated by the state.  This is why the state legislatures agree to such schemes; they benefit from them. Who doesn't benefit, though, are the rest of us, the general taxpayers.

I am a parent; I have nothing against this group of people.  I would just like to see some logic to how we run our school system.  It is not funded just by parents; it is funded by the general population.  If we don’t pay attention to that fact we will not have any public school system for long.

Peter Dodington

June 24, 2017

 

 

3Jun/170

On-line Learning Problems

One of the selling points for the new schemes to privatize the public schools is that the new “choices” available to one and all will include the ability to learn things on-line, without having to bother with expensive teachers, classrooms and textbooks.  One often hears from the advocates for “opting out” of the public school system, and using “our” tax dollars for private education schemes, that this will enable us to access all the riches of on-line education and other “disruptive” ways to learn.  Examples are given of on-line courses with enrollments in the hundreds of thousands.

The problem is that using your computer to get educated doesn't work very well.  It may help you figure out a whole lot of interesting topics, but it is not a very good tool for actually making you better at something, which seems to me to be what education is all about.

I have seen this in my work in Latin.  Latin, it turns out, has always been a kind of on-line course.  The entire curriculum has been unchanged for millennia, and has always been available to all, whether in libraries or on computers.  There is nothing in the course that is not fully explained in some tome or program somewhere.

So, of course, people do try to learn it on their own.  I remember sitting in my Latin teacher’s office at U. of Montana in the 1970’s, listening to a student say that he had to drop the course, but would keep at it on his own, and check back in with the professor now and then.  Dr. Hay, the teacher, always agreed to help them with this.  After the student left I asked him why he agreed to this, since it would obviously mean more work for him.  He replied, “They never come back.”  Not once, in all his long career.  It just doesn’t work.

The problem is that there are simply too many ways to make errors in Latin, or in just about any reasonably complex subject.  A simple sentence might have five words, each with several definitions, and maybe ten different grammar points to figure out, and then several matters of syntax.  It is very hard to see, on your own, whether you are on the right track as you work through all these possible combinations.  Of course you could theoretically just keep trying each different one, but most students give up after about ten or so attempts, far below the total number of possibilities.

I have students tell me all the time that they understand the vocabulary and the grammar of the sentence perfectly and it still doesn’t make sense.  A simple matter of a definition taken in the wrong sense can totally mess up the meaning.  Then, once you are unsure of the meaning of one sentence, it is quite hard to figure out the meaning of the next.  You really don’t know, then, whether you are making any progress at all.

This whole problem is aggravated, it seems, by the use of modern computers.  At least with a dictionary and a grammar book that you can hold in your hands you can come at these problems with a method of approximation.  You can have some idea of what the problem is, and then go to that part of the book and just hunt around until you hit on the answer.  Maybe you chose the wrong word, or the wrong grammar rule.  Other related words and rules are clustered around in the same area of the book, so you might well find the right one.

With a computer program, though, everything has to be entered exactly right, and when that doesn’t work, there is no other option than to just try another word or topic that seems to you, in your ignorance, to be similar.  You don’t get to see the cluster of similar words or topics.  You have to come up with them yourself.  This often means, in my experience, that you don’t ever find the right answer.

The entire idea that teaching is all about presenting information is the wrong way to look at it.  The point is not what the teacher does; it’s what the student does.  What happens in his or her mind is the goal.  Of course it is interesting to make good presentations to students, but this is nothing compared to actually changing them for the better.

When I used to teach both mythology and Latin in college, at the end of the mythology classes, after all my lovely slides and analogies to poetry and art, students would come up and thank me for such a good class.  After Latin class, though, no one ever said that.  All they ever said was, “I think I’m starting to get this.”  The class wasn’t about me; it was about them.

But what is so odd about this, and, of course, the source of the confusion about the value of on-line learning, is that they need the “me” in that room to get a class about “them.”  It would seem that a class all about the students ought to be one that only has students in it, but for some reason this doesn’t work.  We evidently need someone else to help us become who we are and who we can be.  That is really the core problem with on-line learning.

Peter Dodington

June 3, 2017