National Public Education

Betsy DeVos’ Private Game off in Right Field

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Peter Dodington

February 25, 2017


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


A Fourfold Increase in Teachers’ Salaries

In Paul Auster's novel Man in the Dark, a civil war has started in America;  New York and most of New England have broken away from the rest of the country and set up their own government.  Among the restrictions in this new nation are, as Auster puts it, "universal health insurance, no more oil, no more cars or planes, a fourfold increase in teachers' salaries (to attract the brightest students to the profession), [and] strict gun control."

Leaving aside just how these other  ideas would work, let's consider the plan to pay teachers four times as much.  Would that work?  Would it attract better teachers to the profession and get them to educate our children better?  Much as I like Mr Auster's work, and am pleased that he wants to improve the schools, I don't think so.  The idea is not only impractical and based on faulty assumptions, but shows us just how far off even quite intelligent and well-meaning people are on this topic.

We already have schools that pay their teacher quite a bit.  When I worked at a suburban school in Westchester County north of New York I was getting about twice as much as I would in the city.  Did that mean that the education was twice as good?  Probably not. The teachers there were good, but by no means especially excellent.  The best teachers I ever encountered, in my 40-some years of teaching, were in the New York City schools. There I met people who had truly devoted their lives to the education of the students.  It only stands to reason that a difficult situation brings out the best in people. It has been shown time and time again that simply paying people more, whether in a helping profession or in any business, does not guarantee that they will succeed.

But what about the idea that this would attract better students to the profession?  Would that work?  We certainly need better students entering the teaching profession.  In some countries the top students become teachers; here in American, it is more like the average students.  Everyone says that one of the best ways to improve the public schools would be to get better teachers into the system.  Wouldn't better pay help that?

Perhaps, but that is not the way the other countries do it.  Those countries that attract the top students don't necessarily pay the highest salaries.  Rather, they just have high admissions standards in their teacher training programs.  They only take the best.  They control the application process very carefully, only allowing top students to even start the process, and so end up with excellent candidates.  It's not a matter of money; it's that the organization in charge has figured out how to make the process work well.

That is why we have this problem of low-level candidates in America.  It's the control of the process that is the problem, not the amount of money involved.  Here we allow the states to control the situation, and they have little interest in making it work well.  How could they?  The candidates don't stay in the states where the training takes place.  They move all over the country.  You don't have to end up teaching in Montana if you get your training there.  Yet it is the state of Montana which is totally in charge of that training. There is no such thing as a national teacher training program.  Or, for that matter, a locally organized one.  It is all done by the states.  And since there is nothing to keep the graduates of these programs in the state that set up the training, there is no incentive for the state to do it well.

The reason these other countries organize their teacher training programs so carefully is that it benefits them.  They can see that they need a good education system if they want their economy to grow and their citizens to be peaceful and united, and that to do that they need good teachers, and that this requires a carefully structured training program. None of this works, though, for our decentralized state-run system.  The states don't benefit from the quality of their teacher training program, since many, if not most, of the graduates will go to other states.  At best, they can just hope to produce average graduates and so not lose more than the other states when they leave.  Hence, average training programs all around.

So money is not the problem; it is not even a factor in the problem.  We have a decentralized system that will never produce good training programs for our teachers no matter what we do.  It's the decentralization itself that locks in the mediocrity.

And notice what has also happened in that passage in the Auster book.  We all claim that America has this decentralized state-run school system and that this can never be changed; it is who we are.  Yet, the minute Auster imagines a break-away group of rebels who want a new and better country, that idea flies out the window.  It's going to be a centralized system from the start.  The break-away states get together and decide among themselves what joint action they should take.  They don't let each state decide for themselves. That wouldn't work.  If you want to improve things for the whole group you have to take some kind of collective action.  This is so obvious that we don't even notice that Auster is changing the rules on us and positing a centralized school system in this new country.  It just seems the logical thing to do.

So that is also part of the problem.  Here is this level-headed intellectual forgetting that we have said that we always want a decentralized system. This is why our school problems are so difficult.   We all act as if, in fact, we had a centralized system, and could change things like the rate of pay for the whole program.  But we can't.  And that is not even the main problem.  The main problem is that if we won't ever admit to ourselves what we have, then there is not much chance of changing it for the better.

Peter Dodington

December 31, 2016





On this Christmas Eve I want to tell you a story about a Christmas morning many years ago, and what it says about the need to improve our schools.

My first teaching job was at a public high school on the Fort Peck Indian Reservation, high up on the northern plains of eastern Montana, where it always snowed sideways.   I was living alone, but had been invited, at the last minute, to my girl-friend's house for Christmas dinner.  She lived on the western side of the state, though, about 400 miles away, so I was up at 3 am to drive to the train that would take me there.

As I slowly drove through the snow-covered town, I came across one of my students, Mitty. He had been drinking, I could see, and was wandering around in the night.  He stopped and we chatted some.  He was a big, good-looking Indian kid, about 15, who always seemed to be in trouble of one kind or another -- fights, petty crime, some jail time, spotty attendance at school -- but who was always friendly to everyone and had a great smile.  We wished each other a Merry Christmas and I went on my way.

To him, Christmas was just another day.  I was pretty sure there were not many presents waiting for him.  I don't think his parents were in the picture at all, so he stayed with various relatives.  Holidays were actually a difficult time for most of those kids from broken families, since emotions ran high and there were often more problems than usual.  I knew that he often got into fights with the men who were supposed to be taking care of him.  No one had jobs; everyone drank a lot.

I was living alone, too, and had a hard time dealing with holidays myself, but at least there was one family that wanted to take care of me this particular day.  I don't think Mitty could say that.  There was no one, really, who was watching over him.  That was why, in part, he got into so much trouble.  As teachers often figure out about the troublesome kids, they act up because they so want to connect with someone, even if this has to be in a negative way.  He was very lonely.

I think of scenes like this when I hear people say that the central problem in education is the poverty of the children.  You hear the comment, from quite intelligent people, that we will never solve the problems of our schools until we solve the problems of poverty.  That is it not the schools, per se, that need to be fixed, but our society in general.

But what does that mean?  That children like Mitty cannot ever learn?  That there is something intrinsically wrong with him, since he is poor, that prevents him from learning algebra?  Does that make sense?  Is there really something in his poverty that keeps him from learning?  Of course his poverty affects his schooling, but does it actually define it?  I don't think so.

My son is a doctor at a pediatric emergency room in New Haven, CT.  Most of the children he sees are Black or Hispanic, and many are quite poor.  Does that mean that he can't fix their wounds?  Of course their poverty makes it more likely that they will get sick or injured, but that doesn't mean that we have to wait until they are middle class before we can help them.  Medicine and income are two different problems; you don't have to solve both at the same time.  The same is true of education.  It is quite possible to teach someone like Mitty quite a bit, regardless of his poverty.

And we should teach him.  Whose fault is it that this child is wandering around at 3 am on Christmas eve?  Not, mostly, his.  He didn't create the poverty in his family.  He just has to put up with it.  I know, there is injustice all over the world, but near the top of the list, I would think, is the injustice to children born into problematic families.  What have they done to deserve this?  The least we can do is reach out to them and try to help them as much as we can, and for a teacher, that means teaching them.  There was nothing wrong with Mitty's mind.  He was making quite rational choices given the options he had before him.  That snowy street was probably actually a better place than the angry home he was avoiding.  There is no reason not to try to teach him as best we can.

Peter Dodington

December 24, 2016



The Civil Rights Movement and Educational Reform

Many would agree that the civil rights movements over the last 50 years has succeeded quite well in changing the way we all look at such issues as racism, homophobia, and equal rights for women.   Could we look to them, then, for ideas on how to improve public education?

There is no doubt there are many similarities between these two kinds of public problems.  Both are about the need to treat all people equally and provide them with an equal level of services, rights, and justice.  We are opposed to the privatization of the schools for the same reasons we have been opposed to racism, sexism and homophobia – it is based on the assumption that certain people are intrinsically better than others, and so think they should be allowed to have more of whatever is in question.  Parents, teachers and students have been holding sit-ins, rallies, and marches to protest these violations of their educational rights just as people did in the past for infractions concerning their other civil rights.

But there are differences between the two efforts, especially concerning the efficacy of using simply local efforts.  In the educational movement the thought seems to be that if we can only get all the local players working together – the parents, teachers and other community leaders – we will be able to fashion excellent “community schools” that will restore an equity of resource allocation.  The goal of the marches and demonstrations is not so much to broadcast the problem to the rest of the country, but rather to unify and strengthen the local constituents. There are specific restrictions to bringing in “outside” help.  No one wants some federal or state authority coming in to “interfere” with this local problem.  Everyone knows that the best schools are run by their local community, just as the best private schools are, so there is no need to appeal to those outside that community.  Parents, teachers, and their friends and neighbors are the solution, they say.

But this emphasis on local success is quite different from the strategy used by the civil rights movements.  Take, for example, efforts by Black people to get a local café to serve them.  Yes, they could boycott the store, or put up picket lines around it, or try some other way to convince them to change their policy, but there were always clear limits to what such practices could accomplish.  For one, it would usually lead simply to the imprisonment of the demonstrators and the continuation of the racist practices of the store.  The law was on their side.  The forces in favor of those racist practices had the power of the local, state, and national governments behind them.

Instead, the civil-rights demonstrators sought to influence the rest of the population.  They would demonstrate, but try to stay within the law as much as possible.  In that way they could continue indefinitely to influence the overall population of the state and nation, not just their local community.  This is where the solution lay; in the hearts and minds of the people outside their community, the ones who could vote to change those racist laws.

What this comparison shows is that perhaps our educational reformers are underestimating the power of the forces arrayed against them, the forces in favor of privatization.  These forces are not going to be affected by simply making changes in the local pro-education community.  The problem is not in that community, it’s in the wealthy forces outside it.  Just as you couldn’t fight racism by simply organizing the local Black community and leaving it at that, so also you cannot fight efforts to privatize the schools by simply organizing the local parents.  They, by themselves, are not in a position to solve the problem.

If schools were like a community garden on a vacant lot, they could be improved by simply getting all the local people to support this effort.  But schools are much more complex and expensive.  They cannot be built with only local money.  If you do that you end up with store-front schools, as any locally funded daycare center will tell you.  Good private schools are not overcharging you when they ask for all that tuition money; that’s what good education costs.  There is no way this can be raised simply through the efforts of a local community that is not particularly wealthy.  You have to use state and national funds.

This means that, like the civil rights movement, you have to appeal to those who control those laws, policies, and funds, namely the general population -- the taxpayers who provide the money for those state and national funds, and vote for the laws which regulate them.

Furthermore, if you want to equalize the resources of the public schools throughout the country, as educational reform leaders say they do, then you cannot logically work only with one half of that equalization problem, your own community.  It’s the relationship between your community and the wealthy communities that matters, so you have to work on both.  If you try to solve this problem by just making your own community better, the wealthy communities will just do the same thing and make their own communities better, so the relationship between the two will stay the same.  You have to move to the next higher level of organization to solve the relationship problem, namely the state or national laws that are controlling the situation.

This means that even though there may be a host of reasons why you do not want to deal with government agencies outside of your local educational community, you are going to have to find a way to do this if you ever want to substantially improve the local schools.  These “outsiders” are not the problem, they are the solution.  They are the only way to affect the practices of the wealthy communities and so provide more equal public school resources for all.

I am well aware that working with the state and national educational agencies is not easy, and that it is hard to figure out how to influence them through public opinion, but that does not change the validity of the argument.  Of the two approaches to educational reform, the local on the one hand, and the state and national on the other, the latter may be difficult, but the former is impossible.  There simply is no way, ever, to substantially improve the schools through just local efforts.  You have to get the state and national forces involved at some point, so you might as well work on that problem from the start.

Peter Dodington

October 11, 2016



Thoughts on The Journey for Justice Alliance

Recently an organization for grass-roots support for strong community-based public schools, The Journey for Justice Alliance, organized a rally to protest against public school policies that harm local public schools, policies such as charters schools and other privatization schemes that foster inequality.  Needless to say, I am all in favor of this organization and have nothing but praise for their efforts to strengthen the schools.  However, I still would to add my two cents to this debate, hoping that these thoughts are taken as an indication of good will, not criticism.

The first issue I want to discuss is the whole emphasis on control by the “community schools.”  J4J bases much of their argument for justice and equality on the need for strong local schools having complete control over their own resources.  Well and good; we want strong local schools.  The trouble is that this emphasis on local community control does not combat the dominance by the wealthy school districts and the privatization movement.  It actually helps them.

I have taught both in the South Bronx and in Scarsdale, NY, about 30 miles north.  Those folks in Scarsdale would like nothing better than to develop their own “community school” with their own wealthy resources and privileges.  Local control is not in general a force for equality; it is the opposite.  It does nothing to even out the differences between school districts.  It encourages these differences.  If you say that district 12 in the South Bronx should have total control over its own resources, you then also have to say that Scarsdale should likewise have total control over their own wealth, which, of course, is so much greater.  There is a “community” in Scarsdale, too.  Simply saying you want community control is not, by itself, going to solve the problem of the differences between the districts.

What you want is some kind of organization that can deal with those differences; that can lessen them.  Something like an alliance between all the local groups, such as J4J is doing.  That kind of alliance has the ability to even out the differences between the districts, not just develop them individually.  It can create equality and justice, not just point out where these qualities are lacking.

But that alliance would have to include the wealthy districts, too, if we ever want to bring the districts closer together in their wealth and power.  What kind of alliance could do that?

The answer is the government.  So, my second point is that government is not a dirty word.  It is actually one of the ways we can help create better community schools.  There are three governments that control the public schools: local, state, and federal.  If what you want is to lessen the control of the local districts in general, so that the wealthy districts won’t always dominate, then you have to turn to either the state or national governments for help.

One of the reasons we have state and federal involvement in the schools at all is to equalize the differences between the districts.  O course, readers of this column know that I think the federal government could help much more than the states can, but if you want to start with the states, that’s fine, too.  The first step is just to realize that you can’t solve these problems of equality with just local organizations.

But, you will say, you don’t want such a “top down” solution imposed from above.  You want the voice of the people to be heard.  Fine.  That is right.  But once you organize those voices, and get them all to agree on what collective action they want to take, you then have to turn this collective agreement into some kind of “top down” action.  How else could you implement it?

A public problem that affects everybody, like inequality in the public schools, cannot be solved simply from the bottom up.  It’s a public, collective, problem, and so needs a public solution that affects everyone in the same way.  That means, by definition, that the solution has to look somewhat “top-down.”  So my third point is that arbitrary top down solutions are bad, but ones that are based on the collective will of the people are good.  These are the government solutions that  work.

As J4J says, the public schools are a public program, one we all support and benefit from.  Turning it into private-like programs such as charters and vouchers undermines that benefit and subverts the founding principles of this country.  When we seek to solve these public problems, though, we have to use public methods, which is to say, collective, governmental methods.  There are no other solutions.

Peter Dodington

October 1, 2016