National Public Education

Our Need for Public Education

Some time ago, my brother sent me an article from the Wall Street Journal ridiculing the excessive, the author felt, interest in the DeVos nomination to be head of the Department of Education.  Here she is, he said, in charge of one of the smallest cabinet posts, with a budget that amounts to just 3% of federal spending, and yet she is on the front page of every liberal newspaper and website in the country, and is the subject of a massive campaign to block her nomination.  Why is that?

Her position is not even that important to public education in general, since federal programs make up only about 10% of the total amount spent on the schools.  There are probably some individual states that have just about as large an educational budget.  But who knows the name of their state superintendent of public instruction?  Why is there such a fuss about this relatively unimportant federal position?

I may differ with the tone of this article, but it does have some truth to it.  There is no doubt that the general public does care more about public education than would seem reasonable.  The DeVos story is just one aspect of this.  Hardly a day goes by without some story about the schools making headlines.

This isn’t just because the schools deal with children.  You don’t see a similar level of interest in other programs for children, such as youth leagues or well-child programs.  America, in fact, is well behind most other countries in providing social programs for children.

Nor is this interest in the schools related to education in general.  If that were the case, wouldn’t there also be an interest in the private schools?  But where is this?  Do you ever see an article about a private school in the paper?  Fully 10% of our children attend these schools, but there seems to be little overall interest in them.

Rather the public is fixated on the public education aspects of these issues.  And this explains why they are so fascinated by Ms DeVos.  She is as close as we can come to having a leader of this program.  True, she is only in charge of 10% of the overall program, but who is in charge of more?  The state superintendents?  Each of them is only in charge of his or her own state, one of 50 different autonomous entities.  They have absolutely no influence on the other 49, by law.  At least there is some possibility that Ms DeVos might influence several states, not just one.  She is the best we can do in terms of the leadership of our public school system.

Putting aside for now the obvious question of why we don't have a leader for our public school system, let’s look at a more basic question:  Why do we care so much about this issue in general?  What is it about public education, in contrast to other kinds of education, and other programs for children, that makes us worry about it so?  Why do we all seem to want a better public school system?  Does it satisfy some basic need in us?

Thinking about this issue, I was reminded of a quote by Benjamin Rush, the famous Philadelphia physician and signer of the Declaration of Independence:

"Our schools of learning, by producing one general and uniform system of education, will render the mass of the people more homogenous and thereby fit them more easily for uniform and peaceable government"  (A Plan for the Establishment of Public Schools and Thoughts upon the Mode of Education Proper in a Republic (1786) p. 14).

As many have pointed out, Americans came here to accomplish their own personal goals.  They have a built-in mistrust of government programs that will tell them what to do.  They want to be free to develop their own ideas, their own way of doing things.  As Rush notes, though, they then need some help in finding ways to join together in collective activities. They don't do this naturally.  They need to find out how they agree on things; how they are similar.  Public education can do this.  It has been a way, from the start, of smoothing out all those differences that the immigrants brought with them.  It has helped make them "amenable to peaceable government."  Perhaps that is why we worry about it so much.  We can see, to some extent, that we Americans need it.

This would also help to explain why we are somewhat irrational in the intensity of our interest in public education.  We know it’s a problem for us, something we haven’t yet solved, and so are concerned with that problem; it bothers us.  But we’re not even sure there is a solution.  We like that independent and individualistic way of doing things.  Perhaps we will never find a way to join together as one homogenous country.

All the more reason, then, to worry so about it, even in a somewhat irrational way.  That, at least, is one way to deal with it.  It gives us something to do.  Maybe if we think about it long enough some solution will turn up.  That is one way to look at it.

But, of course, it is not the best way.  A better way would be to try to think through what the problem really is and then take steps to solve it.  We might start with that question of who ought to be in charge.

What this all implies, it seems to me, is that it is crucial that we solve our public school problems.  The whole issue is an integral part of our American heritage.  It’s not just a problem for the children or the parents or the teachers; it affects us all.  We really do need working public schools.

Peter Dodington

July 8, 2017






There is an interesting paradox concerning the efforts to improve the public education system in America.  The people most interested in this effort, the intellectuals and other people most concerned with learning and education, are precisely the people least interested in having the government solve this problem.  We are all revolutionaries, fighting the good fight against big government and other agencies that will squash intellectual freedom.  The last things we want to do is turn this problem over to Washington.

But then what are we going to do?  What, then, is the plan?  Everyone is quite sure that the privatization of the schools is all wrong, and that it harms the public schools and should not be allowed, but then what?  Is the goal simply to leave these wonderful schools as they are?  Is that going to work?  Isn’t there a problem with the schools?  Aren’t the data flat for the last 50 years or so?  Don’t we need to have our own plan for how to deal with this?  We need an offense, not just a defense.

But that has to mean dealing with a government solution.  The public schools are a government program.  If you don’t want that, fine, but then you’re reading the wrong blog.  I want to talk about how we might fix the schools within their current structure, since I think that is the only structure that will work if we want to educate the entire population.  We can’t afford a private school for everyone.  So let’s fix the public school system, the one run by the various state, local and national governments.

I know, my intellectual friend, you feel that you have never learned anything through a government program.  All your learning has come from teachers who, it seemed, were quite anti-government.  Revolutionaries, like yourself.  It doesn’t seem that the government is in any way a good source of education.

But, you see, “education”, per se,  is not the problem, here.  It’s not the classroom that needs to be fixed, but the government that is organizing the classrooms.  We know how to educate; what we don’t know how to do is organize an educational system.

Suppose you want to open a restaurant.  And you say, good, let’s get in a great chef and open up.  And your friends say, wait, there’s a lot more to it than that.  You have to design the place, and figure out what the kitchen will be like, and who will be in charge, and all that stuff.  You, who have been a customer, are focused on the food, but the people actually running a restaurant have to think about much more.  There’s a structure to the whole business that has to be worked out.

That structure is the part that is not doing well in public education.  Not what’s going on in the classrooms, but what’s going on in the state legislatures, and congress, and the school boards.  We have to fix the way these governments run the schools, not the schools themselves.

But the government has never been a solution, in your experience.  They do nothing but interfere with your business or college or freedom.  And I say, that’s different.  These were private businesses or operations.  Public education, by definition, is a government-run operation.  There is no way to privately run a public school.  The only way to fix public education is to fix the government that runs it.  Government is often a problem for a private business, but it has to be the solution for a public program.

But you say, “Well, I don’t know much about these governments, especially the state ones.  They seem to be purposely set up to confuse us.”  So, is the answer then to give up?  Or should we find out more about how state governments work, since they are in charge of the school system?

When this country was founded, certainly Washington, Jefferson, et al. were true revolutionaries; they were fighting, with their lives, for freedom from big, bureaucratic, England.  But that did not mean that they were not interested in government.  The members of the Constitutional Convention thought that government was the solution, not the problem.  They firmly believed that the best way to acquire “public happiness” is through good government.  Is there something wrong with this idea?  Isn’t it still true today?

Public education is worth the trouble.  If we could do it better, not only would we find that our economy was stronger, and our health better, and the crime rate lower, but the entire level of civility throughout the country would improve.  We would be a more unified and less angry people.  That would be good.

Peter Dodington

June 10, 2017



“My Father Taught Me to Be the Best”

In Homer’s Iliad, the Greek warrior Diomedes meets the Trojan prince Glaucus on the battlefield.  Diomedes, who has been killing Trojans right and left, is amazed to find one more young man coming out to fight him, and demands to know who he is.  Glaucus responds by first noting that such questions matter little in the general scheme of things, since we are "but leaves, born to die and be scattered by the wind", but, if he wishes, he will tell about himself.

He is a grandson of Bellerophon, the famous warrior who tamed Pegasus, the flying horse, and who killed the monster Chimaera and defeated the Amazons.  He then sums up who he is by saying, “My father told me over and over to always be the best, and to hold my head high so as to not disgrace my noble ancestors” (Book 6, lines 207 ff).

Today we pull back from saying we are “best” at anything.  It seems so self-centered, so haughty.  But this is not quite what Glaucus is saying.  He does not say he is the best, but that his father taught him to be the best.  He says nothing about his achievements; it’s only his attitude, his goals, that he mentions.  He’s not talking about himself as much as he is  about his relationship with his father and his relatives.  The point is not what he has done, but what his family has taught him to do, through their actions and their words.  This is how he defines himself; not by his achievements, but by his connections to his loved ones; by the aspirations and goals that his family has taught him.

Isn’t this what we want for our own children?  Not that they say “We’re number one,” but that they feel they should always try be the best at what they do; to always aim for the top and never settle for less.  This will enable them to find their own personal satisfaction, regardless of whether this involves wealth, or fame, or whatever kind of success they want.  In the words of another of my favorite authors, Thomas Jefferson, it will show them “how to work out their own greatest happiness, by showing them that it does not depend on the condition of life which chance has placed them” (Jefferson’s comments on the value of education in his Notes on Virginia).  It will lead them to the kind of internal happiness that we want for them.

How, then, could we accomplish this in today’s world?  Primarily, of course, through our own personal excellence and our interactions with our children, just as Glaucus’ father did for him.  But we also have a more communal way to foster that excellence in our children, and that is through our public school system.  It, too, can say to our children, “always be the best and hold your head up high.”

But clearly our American public school system is not saying this right now to our children.  There are isolated pockets of excellence, but overall there is a pervasive tone of of mediocre status quo throughout the schools.  All the data for a generation has put us at or near the bottom of the developed world.  The achievement scores of our students, particularly in the upper grades, have been unchanged for 50 years.

And it seems we have decided that there is little we can do to change this.   We are no longer trying to make our public schools engines of excellence.  All the new ideas are about how to make private schools for a few, not public schools for all.  We are content, it seems, to settle for something reasonably good, since we cannot find a way to make the schools excellent.  We are no longer telling, or showing, our children that they can be the best.  Rather we are saying to our children in the public schools, collectively, that we are "teaching you to be average."

I say this with all due respect for the teaching profession.  I myself taught in public schools for 40 years and certainly did not try to settle for anything like an average level of success.  But the data is there; this is where we have ended up.

My point is that our neglect of our public schools is an affront to our own beliefs of how best to raise children.  We know what we want for our children, and it is certainly not that they should go through life thinking that they are somehow average.  Why, then, settle for this in a public program?  It's our program.  We control it; it's our money, through our taxes, and its our leaders, whom we have elected, who run it.  Why not show all our children, through that program, that they can be "the best"?


Peter Dodington

May 27, 2017





The Early Colonists vs.The Founding Fathers on Education

In the debate about how we should structure our school system, we keep forgetting that our views on the importance of high academic achievement have changed over the years.  It may be that our schools have deteriorated to some degree, but the main difference between today and 100 years ago is that we now expect a higher level of academic excellence from them.  Keeping this in mind would help us see more clearly how to improve the schools.

When this country was founded there were many plans for what we would now call a “centralized” public education system.  George Washington wanted to create a national university in Washington, (which would have resulted in a de facto national system of public education) and Jefferson devised an elaborate plan for every school in Virginia.  The Founding Fathers believed strongly in universal, uniform, public education for everyone.  Madison suggested that provisions for the support of public schools be put into the Constitution.

As we know, though, none of these proposals were adopted.  The early settlers didn't want this kind of centralized, top-down, educational system.  That was what they had left in the old country.  They wanted everything funded and controlled through small local districts, most no larger than a town.  The settlers were creating their own towns and cities; of course they also wanted to create their own schools.  Up through the beginning of the 20th century almost all funding for our schools came through the small local districts, not the states or the nation.

And these schools were very successful.  Who wouldn’t choose to study subjects decided on by one’s friends and neighbors rather than the dictates of some national bureaucracy?  When all the school decisions were made locally it was only natural that everyone took part.  America was soon enrolling a larger percentage of its population than any other country, with concomitant economic gains.

But it helps to remember, in our current debate, that these schools were still not as “academic” as the ones planned by Washington and Jefferson.  I realize that it is heresy to say this, but if someone had done an international comparison of academic achievement throughout the world at that time, surely we would have come out somewhere near the middle.  It is wonderful that some of these small town schools taught Latin and Shakespeare, but that is not necessarily the same kind of academic level Jefferson was talking about.  Really great teachers, the kind that have a graduate-school level of knowledge but can relate this to the lowest student, these people are rare.  They don’t show up in every small town.  People did become more educated, but that didn't mean that now they fully understood sine curves and relative pronouns.

Well, you’ll say, that is what we wanted, and it worked for us.  Quite so.  And the proof of this is that we had absolutely no interest in those international studies.  Rich people sent their children to Europe for their education, but they were seen as an anomaly.  We were successful; our school system worked; it was what we wanted.

The problem now is, though, that we seem to have changed our minds.  Now we do care about those international studies, and everyone seems convinced that the schools are “failing” since we are near the middle of the developed world.  One can argue that there has been some overall decline in the schools, but the real change has been that we are no longer satisfied with the academic level we once thought was reasonable.  Now we do want a “world class” level of academic achievement.

And there are many good reasons for this.  In a world market, advanced technology makes a huge difference in economic growth.  Sine curves matter more than ever.  We need more people with the highest level of education, not just a good one.  And other conditions have changed.  Towns are no longer far apart and isolated; we are a much more unified and connected country.   All our new ideas about education are for the entire country, not just the town or even the state.  We seem to want the kind of national, uniform, excellent system of education that the Founding Father once suggested.

So, one might say, what’s the problem?  Our own leaders once suggested such a plan.  We turned away from it 200 years ago, with good reason, but those conditions no longer apply.  Now we need the kind of academic excellence that people like Jefferson proposed.  So, let's do it.  Yes, this might involve some changes in our interpretation of the Constitution, but this has been done before.  It’s what we want.


Peter Dodington

May 20, 2017





James Meredith and Education Reform

James Meredith, the first Black man to graduate from the University of Mississippi, and someone who was shot and wounded while demonstrating for civil rights, is one of the heroes of our modern age.  I have nothing but respect for his courage and grit.  That said, I have to speak up about his views on how to improve our public schools, as they are expressed in a recent blog by Valerie Strauss of the Washington Post.  Mr Meredith is precisely the kind of man we need to influence if we ever want to fix our school system.  He has all the right ideas, but does not clearly see, I think, how to implement them.

Mr Meredith is totally against President Trump's views on public education, and is particularly annoyed that Trump has called his brand of education reform, "the civil rights issue of our time."  Mr Meredith points out that the policies the President favors actually harm most low-income people and so can hardly be called a "civil rights" issue. He says that what we need is a way to educate well all the people in this country, and that this can only be done with an all-embracing public school system, not these one-shot special programs that the President favors.  With all this I agree whole-heartedly.

Where I differ with Mr Meredith is his insistence that this can only be done through a locally-based effort; that the bureaucrats and politicians who are outside the local community are anathema.  He wants a system that is "driven by parents and teachers." At one point he says that he wants "well resourced and locally governed neighborhood public schools."  This is the problem.

You can't have both "well-resourced" and "locally governed" schools.  The two don't go together.  Of course there are some wealthy suburbs that are both, but that's the problem.  They're the only ones this works for.  For the rest of us it doesn't make sense. Almost all local district are not "well-resourced" and never can be if they rely totally on themselves.  They need outside money.  If you just rely on local funds you will always end up with the the kind of wide differences in the quality of the schools that we see today.  Isn't that obvious?

Local control works on an educational level, but it doesn't work financially.  You need outside money if you want all the schools for all the children to be excellent.  But you can't rely on that outside help and then tell them that they have no say in how it is used. If you do that they will stop helping you.  The "governing" part of the plan has to include the "resource" part if you want a long-term solution.

People say, "Well, they should just give us the money to make our local schools better." So, you want charity?  You think that will help you create excellent schools?  I've worked in church schools that were mostly supported just by local charitable contributions. They were nice, pleasant places, but they didn't teach any calculus, or anything else at that level.  People don't just give away something that valuable.

Mr Meredith knows this from his own work on civil rights.  He didn't march in order to create a local way to solve civil rights problems; the whole point was to influence the rest of the country; to draw distant supporters into the struggle so that together they could fight for justice.  The only people who were against outsiders were the local bigots. They're the ones who wanted a "local only" approach to these issues.  The marchers looked beyond the local situation and appealed to the general public, who then agreed with them and set about to change the laws for the entire country.  Then things changed for the better.

That's the kind of solution we need for public education.  We need to influence the entire population to get on board with support for the schools.  I, for one, believe that this population is in fact fully in favor of better schools for every child, just as they were for equal justice for minorities, and would be willing to change our laws to help bring this about.  But we can't do this if we keep saying that this is a "local only" problem.  We need to make it a national problem, with a national solution.

But, you will say, you just said that local control does work on an educational level. Won't we be harming the schools, then, if we make national laws to run them?  The answer is to emphasize both the local aspect of the schools and their national aspects.  This is, in fact, the way the rest of the world works.  Every other country has a strong emphasis on the local control of their schools as well as a national way to raise money and fund them well.  There is no reason we could not do this as well.

Mr Meredith, then, does know how to solve our educational problems; he has seen how to do it in his own lifetime.  The civil rights movement showed us.  As Dr. King said, it's a matter of improving conditions for "all God's children;" not just the one's in our own local school.  I know this is a difficult concept for many, but it is the only way to make all the public schools better.

Peter Dodington

April 29, 2017