National Public Education
12Aug/170

Equity Versus Improvement in the School System

Recently there have been many articles in the press about how Secretary of Education DeVos will "destroy" the public schools if she is allowed to continue her privatization efforts.  I fully agree with this point of view.  It seems that she is intent on doing away with public education as we know it; replacing it with a private school system. However, this doesn't mean that I think these comments are the best way to address this issue. This approach only deals with half the problem: it points out how her plans are inequitable and unfair, but does nothing to solve the overall problem of how to improve the schools.

The schools do need to be improved.  Don't we all know this?  All the data has been flat for a generation.  No matter how we have tried to improve the schools, through better curriculum, better ways to judge the teachers, smaller schools, better pay, etc., nothing has worked.  Of course there are scattered successes, as I myself have been a part of, but no one would say that we now know how to solve our public school problems.

People try to excuse this by saying we have a diverse population, which makes overall success harder, but, for one, there are other countries, such as Canada, which are quite diverse and educate their entire population well, and, for another, diversity is what we do here in America.  Are we going to solve the problem by becoming less diverse?  Is that the solution we want?  If we are diverse then we have to find a diverse way to educate our children well.  Is there any other way to look at it?

People also argue that our top end, our best students, are doing as well as anyone.  Well, duh.  Everyone's top end is doing reasonably well.  It's the entire American system, though, that we want to fix, not the schools in a few select towns or even states.  The central, average level of education in this country is not improving, and hasn't been for a very long time.  That is a problem.  And that is why, of course, the conservatives have turned to their privatization schemes.  They want to find a way to improve at least some of the schools.

This problem of school improvement, though, is ignored in the liberal criticism of Ms DeVos and her friends. Instead, all the focus is on how unfair her privatization schemes would be to the average, non-wealthy, child.  Everyone wants to stop her efforts because they would destroy the equity inherent in a truly public school system.  Her plans would be unfair, and, in a certain sense, immoral.

All this may well be true, but then what?  Does this mean that we want to go back to the public school system we always had, the one whose problems started this whole discussion?  Is it the status quo that we want to return to?  That "status quo" is the problem!  We can't simply argue that the conservatives are wrong.  We also have to come up with what would be right.

This is why the conservative press is more or less laughing at the criticism of Ms DeVos. Quite rightly they find it amusing that no one on the left seems to have the slightest idea of how to improve the schools in a fully public form.  They realize that this "moral" argument about the fairness of her policies is not the main issue.   They at least have one way to improve the schools. That this method only improves some of the schools is problematic, but this still puts them ahead of the opposing liberal view, which has not way to improve any of the schools.  When the liberals say that their policies will "destroy" public education they agree; the public system is not, in fact, working.  It clearly does need to be changed.  They will continue to take this line of argument until the liberals come up with a plan for how to improve public education and keep it public.

It is not enough, then, to show that the conservative efforts to privatize the public schools would be unfair to the majority of students.  Even it that is true, it just gets us back to square one, the question of how to improve the public schools while keeping them public and equitable.  That question, as I never tire of pointing out, is religiously avoided by all, since it is clear that solving it would involve a major revision of our country, let alone of our school system.  That we are afraid to do that implies that we are never going to solve this problem of the public schools, and that the conservative agenda of privatization is going to succeed.

There is a way to make a working, equitable, public school system that would be fair for everyone, through a national school program.  Everyone knows that this would work. We just have to be brave enough to make such a fundamental change.

 

Peter Dodington

8/12/17

 

 

 

5Aug/170

The NAACP and Charter Schools

Some time ago the NAACP called for, with good reason, a moratorium on the creation of new charter schools so that, as they said, we might examine these programs more closely in three areas: 1. the governance of these schools, 2. their relationship to the public schools, and 3. their effect on the public schools.  Let's look more closely at each area.

1. The governance of charter schools.  Who, exactly, is in charge of these schools?  The answer out there on the street is "no one," it's just the parents who send their kids there. "That's the whole point; they are run by the people who use them."  But is that possible? Do the parents hire the staff, fire the staff, choose the books?  Aren't there administrators and bureaucrats who actually organize these things?  Who are these people, and who are their bosses?

And is there any way to affect them?  The traditional schools may be bureaucratic, but there is a way to vote the leaders out of office.  There is nothing like an elected school board in charge of a charter school.  So what happens if there are problems?  It would seem that by doing away with public school bureaucracy the charters have also done away with the democratic process, replacing a cumbersome but transparent administrative structure with a sleek but secretive one.

Given that there is no obvious way to change the policies of a charter school through any kind of democratic process, wouldn't it be wise to get a clear picture of the rationale behind those policies?   Who benefits from these schools?  Are they just a gift to the parents?  That doesn't seem likely.  Aren't there some people in charge who are also benefitting?  Who are these people, and how are they benefitting from these programs? It's our public money; where is it going?

2. The relationship to the public schools.  These schools are still funded by the public school system, even though they are administratively separate from them.  Doesn't that funding imply a relationship?  Can a charter school, then, change its funding?  Will it be able to fund new programs with new funds if that seems best?  And will it ever be able to increase the funding for programs that are doing well?  If not, what will be the incentive to do well?  If yes, how does that match up with the separation from the public schools?

How, then, does the public school system decide on that funding?  Is it according to the overall per pupil cost, or just the per pupil cost for each taxpayer?  There are many more taxpayers than pupils, so the latter will always be much less.  It may actually cost about $20,000 to educate a child these days, but each taxpayer might only pay about $10,000, since they get to divide that cost up between all the taxpayers.  If the state only funds the charter school according to the second amount, won't they be profiting on each child that attends a charter school?  Is that why they are so much in favor of such programs? The state no longer has to pay out that $20K for the child, but then only gives $10K to the charter school and pockets the rest.

But how are the charter schools supposed to educate a child on $10K?  Can they build a new science lab?  Create a football program?  Sponsor trips to Europe?  Won't they always be relying on the public school structure for such things?  But what will happen when the charters start replacing the public school structure, as they seem intent on doing?  Who then will build the science labs?

3. The effect on the public schools.  People argue that charter schools are better than the public schools they replace.  They are a good deal for the parents.  They are almost like a private school education but at a public school price. What a deal!

What the NAACP has realized, though, is that even if there is nothing wrong with this logic, it is starting from the wrong place.  It's looking at the issue of charter schools merely from the perspective of a consumer of this education, not that of the creators of a sound public educational policy.  There may be no conclusive argument against the idea that charters are good schools; the question is, though, are they good school policy?  Are they a way to improve the education of the entire population?  This is the "effect on the public schools" that one has to analyze.

The public schools do educate the entire population (or 90% of it).  If we are really going to replace them with these charter schools, we have to ask whether this new program will also educate everyone.  Is it the right way to replace a program that educates us all? I don't see how we could say this.  Charters are built on the idea of turning away from a general, collective, public approach to education.  They don't help the traditional public schools. How could they?  They are founded on the idea of separation from the public school structure; they are a rejection of the public schools, not an aid to them.  Where is a public school that has benefitted from a nearby charter school?  They don't exist.

So my hat is off to the NAACP.  They have seen that this is a public policy issue, not simply a matter of whether some parents will get a good deal on their child's education. We live in a democracy.  We get to create the public policies that run our public programs like public education, health, and the military.  This is the task we have to focus on.

Peter Dodington

August 5, 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

 

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

 

4Mar/170

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