National Public Education
25Nov/170

A Conversation about National Public Education

I was sitting in La Rana, my favorite bar in Decorah, Iowa, when I spied a friend whom I had just met a few days before at the bar.  He had moved to Decorah from the East Coast to work for a local non-profit, and had an interesting take on Mid-West and US problems in general.  He asked me what I was up to, and I said I was writing a book on public education.  His eyes lit up and he asked me to explain.

Me: When I was teaching in the public schools, I started wondering why we had a state-run, diversified, school system.  Was this really better than the national systems almost every other country had?  Could there be some kind of a link between this system and the poor performance of our schools?

He: But there are all sorts of reasons why our schools do poorly.  Half the students in the public schools are from low-income families; many of these families have serious problems that interfere with the kids' learning, not to mention that there has always been a strain of anti-intellectualism in this country.  Many people simply don't want good schools, or just don't care about the education of those poor minority kids.

Me: Perhaps so, but none of that negates the fact that we might improve the schools overall by having a different structure for the system.  Perhaps some of those outcomes you mention are, in fact, linked to our state-run structure.

He: How could that be?

Me: Well, for one, our state system works against providing an incentive for the public to support the schools.  At the state level, that is, not the local level.  The local schools work fine, but local taxes provide only about half the cost of the schools.  The rest comes from state taxes.  Federal support is negligible.

At the state level, it turns out, you are stuck with paying for the cost of the schools with your own state taxes, but then have to share the benefits from the schools, such as less crime, better productivity, better public health, etc., with the rest of the country.  The graduates don't stay in your state; they move to other states.  This means that there is little incentive to produce really good schools.  The only level of schooling you will ever want is the average level of all the other states, since then you don't lose anything when your graduates move away and are replaced by graduates from other states.  The better your graduates, the more you lose when they move away, so you will never want to fund really good schools.

The states are trying to fund a collective good, which spreads over the whole country, with individual, autonomous, payments.  As many economists have pointed out, this will always lead to mediocre outcomes.   The system itself could be the main reason why the schools stay mediocre.

He: So what's the solution?

Me: A national school system, where your taxes are applied to all the kids in the country, the same ones who provide the benefits.  Then it would make sense to make the schools as good as possible, since each improvement will come back directly to the national taxpayer in the form of national benefits.  You would be sharing the benefits with everyone in the country, but also sharing the costs with them, so it would work.

He: That would never work.  The real problem is that we aren't teaching the kids correctly.  The schools are too rigid; they don't emphasize creativity enough.  They are run by a huge bureaucracy.  And you want to make that bureaucracy even bigger! How could that ever lead to better schools?

Me: A bigger bureaucracy is not necessarily a worse one.  Look at your state tax forms; are they better than the federal tax forms?  Look at the military.  There's a huge bureaucracy that runs the best army in the world.  Of course it's bureaucratic; all large public programs have a certain amount of bureaucracy.

He: Fine, but where's the evidence that a federal program would work?  You need to go back and get more data.  It seems to me that the federal programs haven't worked very well in the past.

Me: There is no data on a new idea.  There's just a logical argument that it would work. And, of course the federal programs currently don't work; they are not in charge, the states are.   I'm not proposing that the feds take over more of the current system.  I want to change the system.

He: I still don't see how the feds would do better than the states.

Me: That's not the point.  I'm not saying they would do better, but that they could do better.  That's all.  Whether they actually do this is still up to them.  The point is that the states can never, ever, do better.  They are locked in to mediocrity by the structure of the state system itself.

Your state can make their own schools as good as they want, and still end up with mediocre schools in the long run, because the public will not fund the schools at any other level. It's simply not in their interest to fund really good schools when all the other states are mediocre, and those graduates migrate into your state as adults.  So you can make good schools, but no one will fund them, so they will eventually revert back to the mediocre status quo.

There is no guarantee that a federal program will be better, but at least this is possible, which is a step in the right direction.

He: I'm not sure most people will be able to understand all this.

Me: But you do; why not others?

 

Peter Dodington

November 25, 2017

 

22Jul/170

Local and Distant Public Schools

Todd Kominiak, in his blog at TrustEDk-12.com, has written that the schools are doing better than is generally thought, since most people report that their own public school is doing well.  He quotes an article in the Atlantic by Jack Schneider (7/17/17) who notes that the yearly poll in the Kappan magazine always shows that people give their local schools an A or B rating, but grades of a C or D to distant schools.  Everyone thinks their local school is fine, but that the schools in general need work.

From this Mr. Kominiak concludes that that the schools are doing better than we think.  Much as I agree with that sentiment, there are some problems with that specific claim.  First, there are many more distant schools for any one person than their one local school, so the evidence is still that, overall, the schools are getting a low grade.  Everyone is still saying that there is one good school and lots of lousy ones.

Secondly, the fact that the public is confused on this issue, (since obviously they are misjudging those distant schools, which are rated well by their own residents, the ones who ought to know them best) means that this “data” on the schools should not be relied on too heavily.  The question is not whether the ill-informed public thinks some schools are doing well, but whether they actually are doing well.  That has not been decided by this data.

Still, I am glad Mr. Kominiak brings up this issue.  It indicates several important factors about the public schools.  For one, it reminds us that all the schools, not just ones in affluent suburbs, have their supporters.  The Kappan people are very careful to sample all parts of the population, including the urban and rural poor, who make up a significant portion of the school-age population.  These people also think that their local school is doing well.  In other words, a school with low scores in a big city, which is classified by many outsiders as “failing,” is actually seen as a success by the parents who send their children there.

This sounds about right to me from my own experience.  When I worked at low-performing schools I always found that our parents loved us.  They obviously knew that there were problems, but, what else was new?  Of course they had problems; that’s why they were in the South Bronx.  At least the schools were trying to help.  The parents knew that the scores were low, but understood that this was because we were working with kids who came to us with low scores, and they respected us for working with them.  As I have noted elsewhere, it is quite possible to be a good school with low scores.

Secondly, these articles bring up a question we need to answer: why this is happening? What is going wrong in the public’s perception of these distant schools?  Why are we underrating them?  Mr. Schneider, in the Atlantic,  argues that our critique of distant schools might be due to such factors as the negative publicity he says that the federal government puts out about public education in general, or that the efforts of “civil rights activists” to blame public education for segregation makes us underrate them, but these arguments do not make sense.  Why would such broad influences affect only the public’s attitudes towards distant schools and not their own local school?  They should have the same effect on all the public schools, not just the distant ones.  The question is why the public has different attitudes towards these two groups of schools, and this is not answered by such general factors which affect all schools equally.

Well, you might say, maybe these general factors do matter, but the public has reasons to discount the negative influences on their local schools, since they can see with their own eyes that their local schools are succeeding.

Exactly.  It's that difference in perception that is crucial.  That’s where the real difference between the two groups lies.  At your local school you can see with your own eyes how the schools are succeeding at their various projects – the kids are learning, they are happy, they seem to be getting along with each other.  Your 10-year-old now knows where India is.  This is what you base your opinion on.

But at the distant schools you get none of this information.  You don’t know the kids, or their families, or anyone in the town.  You have to rely, then, on test score “data,” and that doesn’t work very well.  As Mr. Schneider notes, test scores don't tell taxpayers what they want to know about a distant school.  It’s data on the kids, not the graduates, and that’s a problem.

After all, why do we support those distant schools?  They aren’t teaching our own kids.  It's because public education produces social goods that we value: a lower crime rate, better health, more intelligent workers.  Education is related to all those outcomes.  It’s a public program, like the police or public health, that benefits our society, not just our own private needs such as the education of our own children.

But, the question is, where is the data on those benefits?  That is the real problem.  It doesn’t exist.  There are no indications at all that the public is getting those social benefits.  All the data from the school system is about the students, not the graduates who provide these public benefits such as better workers and less crime.  So that is why the public rates these distant schools so low.  They get no information on whether they are providing a benefit to them, regardless of whether they actually are or not.

This is a serious problem.  It is one of the reasons we need to make changes in the entire system, but that is another story.  These two articles don’t yet see the whole picture, but at least they are asking the right questions.

Peter Dodington

July 22, 2017

 

17Jun/170

Measuring School Success

I recently read a good article by NPR on whether money matters in public education.  Much as I respect National Public Radio, and am very pleased that they set out to show that it does matter, I would like to say a few things about their approach.  They seem to pass right over what I think is the main reason there is so much confusion about this topic.

The article starts with the findings of researchers, like James Coleman and Eric Hanushek, that, in general, increasing the amount of money available to a school has little effect on student outcomes such as test scores and graduation rates.  This is true.  There is ample evidence that, particularly in low-performing schools, increases in funding have produced almost no changes in these outcomes.

But, there’s a problem with the kinds of outcomes we are looking at, those test scores and graduation rates.  They are not a good indication of what the school is all about.  As a teacher, I never felt my job was to raise test scores or graduation rates.  I had more important things to think about, such as educating the kids.  It was their lives that I wanted to change, not their scores.  I wanted them to find themselves; to grow up and discover ways to work hard and be happy doing this.  I really believed that learning my subject would help them do this.  As Thomas Jefferson said, education can show students that “their own happiness does not depend on the condition of life which chance has placed them.”  That's what education is all about.

And besides, what teacher ever set out to have every student pass a test?  That’s not the point of testing.  You give the tests so you can find out who is having trouble.  It’s the failures that you are interested in, not the “A’s”.   And my goal wasn't that what they learned in my class would somehow help them in other classes, or on some standardized test of general knowledge.  I just wanted them to learn what I was teaching them.  That was hard enough.

Well, you might say, you should have been more concerned with their test scores.  Should I?  Is that what you would want for your own child?  A teacher whose main emphasis was on the data produced by the child rather than the child himself; some kind of classroom bureaucrat who was focused on whether he, the teacher, was succeeding?

So it is perfectly logical that more money doesn’t change those test scores.  The teachers don’t want it to.  They want to use the money to help make the kids more mature, more self-confident, more successful as adults.  And this often does work.  There are studies, as the NPR article noted,  that better resources in a grade-school classroom do affect things like adult earnings, even though they don’t raise test scores.  Of course, though, such things are rarely measured by the schools, since they have no way to track the kids into their adult lives.

A good way to understand this whole topic is to consider what we do in other public programs.  Suppose we wanted to see whether more money for the fire department was producing better results.  But the results we chose were those we could easily measure, such as response time to the fire, or the amount of water used, or the cost of the property damage.  But are these things what firemen care about?  Aren’t they in this profession because they want to save lives, and actually do this regularly?  Wouldn’t they spend the money, then, on how to save those lives, not on how to improve water use?  So it might well happen that more money did not change the kind of outcomes we were measuring, but not because money didn’t matter, but just because we were trying to measure the wrong outcomes.

To its credit, the NPR story does raise this question of whether we are looking at the right outcomes, but only at the very end, and only then as one of many issues to be resolved.  They miss the importance of this issue.   We are all using the wrong metric to evaluate school success; a metric that no one in the schools takes very seriously, and that we don’t want them to take seriously.  We want them to improve the kids, not the testing data.

If we did want to evaluate the schools more seriously, I would suggest: a) longitudinal data on the students on into their adult years, and b) data on the growth of individual students, not average scores.  Many schools get in new kids with low scores every day, and we want them to; someone has to educate those kids.  But their average scores, then, stay low no matter how well they raise the scores of each kid.  It is quite possible to be a very good school with low average scores.

Peter Dodington

June 17, 2017

 

15Apr/170

Three Facts About Improving Public Education

Some thoughts about how to improve the schools, boiled down to three facts.

1) It takes money, new money, to bring about improvements to a program.

This is so obvious that people often look right past it in the debate about the schools.  Of course schools deal with complex, hard-to-define issue like "intelligence" or "learning," but that does not mean that the structure of the program that provides those things is also hard to define.  If you want to change something for the better, that means that you have to put some new resources into it, like better ideas or better people.  These things cost money.  If they work, you will get the money back and then some, but at first you have to come up with new sources of funds.

In education, this is hard to see because people often want to just "fix" the schools, not "improve" them.  They want to make them less dysfunctional, or more like they used to be, or more equal.  That's fine, but it's not the same as wanting to improve them. Fixing them might be done by just moving the parts around some, and that might not cost much, and certainly the efforts to equalize them ought to be just a matter of shifting the funds around, not providing more funds.  But if we say, from the start, that what we want is better schools, not just schools that have solved their problems, then we will need more money.

A good defense is important in any sport, but in the end, it won't help much if you don't have an offense.  Let's score some points, one's we have made ourselves, rather than just answering our critics.  To do that we need more funds.

2) Funding has to come from the general public, not just the parents.

There simply aren't enough parents of school-age children to do the job.  Only about a quarter of the tax-paying population has children in school.  If we tried to rely on just their contribution to the schools, the schools would have to be four times worse! (Or the parents would have to pay four times as much, which is about what they do if they switch to a private school.) . Schools funded only by parents, such as a new day-care center, meet in church basements.

Private schools and colleges have known this all along.  They don't rely on just the tuition of the parents, as any alumnus can attest.  They are funded primarily by the rest of the population: wealthy donors, graduates and the government.

Of course there are suburban public schools that rely primarily on parent funding, but they educate a very small percentage of the population.  If we want to improve the entire system, we have to rely on funds from the general public.

3) The general public will not fund improvements unless they can see that these provide a public benefit to them.

Parents get a clear benefit from the education of their children.  They can see how this improves their lives now, and how, in the long run, it will improve their adult lives when they grow up.  That is why they are willing to support the schools.

The rest of the population also gets a benefit from the schools, a public benefit.  By educating our children we lower the amount of crime in our society, lessen disease, create better workers, foster innovations, create better voters, and make a more unified country, to name a few.  All this has been proven over and over.  We don't have public schools because we like government-run programs; we have them because they provide benefits that we can't get any other way.

But, you will say, I don't support my schools because I get a benefit from them; I just support them because I like them.  They are like the United Way or such; something good that I want to support.

But, you see, that will never lead to improvements.  Charity does not work as a way to fund growth.  It is actually a way to keep the status quo.  As you say, "You like them," that is, you like what they are, not what they could be.  Charity in general helps people become better at what they are; not at changing to something different, and better.  If we want to improve the schools we can't treat them as a charity.

If we want to fund improvements we need to show the general public how those improvements benefit them.  No one is going to put up new money, an increase in their educational taxes, unless they can see how that investment will make their own lives better.  We know that better schools do make our own lives better; the problem is how to show this to the taxpayers.

Once we get these three facts straight, and agree that they are valid, we can see why the public schools are not improving.  Our decentralized school system, run by the districts and the states, has no way to demonstrate the public benefit from the schools to the taxpayers.  Those benefits occur outside of these local and state entities, as the graduates move away, and so cannot be tracked and tabulated. The only way to improve the schools, then, is to switch to a national school system.

Peter Dodington

April 15, 2017

 

25Mar/170

“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