National Public Education

Public Attitudes on Education, cont.

As we saw in the previous blog, for some reason the public has the wrong attitude towards distant, non-local public schools; they consistently underrate them, as reported in the Kappan/Gallup Poll.  This also means, then, that the public is less willing to support public education in general, since most of the schools in the country are distant, rather than local, for any one taxpayer.  If we could find out, then, why they are underrating those schools, we ought to be able to help revive support for the public schools in general, and so help them improve.

You will agree that this is a state-level problem.  It is not the job of the local school system to find ways to make sure that distant taxpayers understand how well the school is doing.  That would be very difficult, and, besides, we want the local school to focus on local, not distant, problems.  The state, though, is in charge of schools throughout the state, so it is their responsibility to correct any errors in perception in this wide area.  As we will see, however, the states have always had little interest in providing useful information on distant schools to the public.

To understand how this came about we need to go back to the origins of our school system.  From the start there were plans to create what we might call the “traditional” kind of school system, organized by a central government.  George Washington wanted to create a national university, and Jefferson made plans for a unified school system throughout Virginia.  None of these schemes were adopted, though, since no one, it turned out, wanted a centralized school system.  Our new settlers were literally creating their own towns; they naturally also wanted to create their own schools.  Big, centrally organized school systems were what they had left behind in the old country.  Here they would do it themselves, according to their own ideals and beliefs.  Besides, the towns were too small, and too far apart, to be governed effectively from some distant capital.

This worked.  America developed one of the best school systems in the world by letting each small town or district fund, create, and run its own schools.  Well into the 20th century almost all support for the schools came from just the local districts, not the states or the federal government.  I worked in one of these schools in the small, dirt-street town of Brockton, Montana at my first teaching job.  That school system had about 100 students, 10 teachers, a principal, a superintendent, and their own 3-person school board.  When it was built all support came just from the local residents.

These schools enjoyed the full support of the local population because they directly benefited that population.  The newly educated graduates made the town stronger and more successful and so repaid the entire community for their support.  The system was totally local, but was totally public, too.  Everyone, whether they had children in the schools or not, benefited from the schools and so fully supported them.

As time went on, though, conditions changed.  The towns grew, transportation improved, and it made sense to integrate businesses from many different towns.  Everyone praises the son who stays to run his dad’s store, but no one would say this is the best way to make money.  Expansion into different markets is the key to growth and profits.  This meant that young people moved away from these small towns more and more.  By 1940 about a third of the population was living in a town different from the one they grew up in, and by 2010, two-thirds.  The majority of the population was no longer staying to benefit the town that educated them.

When the graduates moved to other towns, they took the public benefit from the schools with them.  This undermined the benefit the community was receiving from the school.  The school itself didn’t necessarily get worse, but the return on the public’s investment in the school got worse, and this meant that support lessened and the schools stopped improving.

And the better the school was, the worse the loss.  It was one thing to lose a few average graduates to other towns, and maybe get some average ones back; but it was quite another to create excellent grads but only get average ones back from the other towns.  It didn’t make sense, then, to create a really good school.  The mobility of the graduates forced the towns to aim for an average level of school success.

There was no solution for this problem at the local level.  You could make your school as good as you wanted and still end up with that average, mediocre support in the long run, since that was the level of benefit the general community was going to get once the grads moved away.  The districts turned to the states for help, but they had their own mobility problems as well.  Only a bit more than half of state residents today live in the state in which they were educated.  For both local and state taxpayers, then, it didn’t make sense to fully support a system that returned only a partial benefit from their investment in public education.

Faced with these problems, the schools turned to the part of the system that still worked; the education of the children.  They could still fully benefit the families currently in the school, so they focused on that.  As for the public benefit to the general community, the non-parents, this would have to be ignored, since any attempt to show how either the district or the state taxes were benefiting these taxpayers would also have to show that a good part of this benefit was going to people in distant places who had not paid a dime for it.

This meant that neither the districts not the state published data on the graduates.  They only kept data on the students because this was the part of the system that worked.  The part that concerned the public benefit to the rest of the community didn’t work, so they ignored it.  Hence, no data on graduates, that is, on the public benefit from the schools.  Any attempt to show that the schools were benefiting the general public by, say, lowering the crime rate, would also have to show that about half of this benefit was going to people in other states who hadn’t paid for it.

This is our answer, then,as to why we have an erroneous opinion of distant public schools.  We don’t have any data on them, and we don’t have this data because it is not in the state’s interest to tell us such things.  To do so would be to emphasize how much we were losing through this combination of state funding and out-of-state migration, and this information would lessen our interest in funding state education programs.  Since the states are in charge, and they don’t want this to happen, it doesn’t happen.

And, this has given us an answer to why the schools are not improving.  If we don’t approve of all those distant schools (since we don’t have the data), we don’t think they should be supported, and hence we are not willing to pay for that support and for improvements to the school system in general.

It’s all very logical.  At heart, the problem for our public education system is that we have always wanted two incompatible ideals related to education in this country: the independence to run our own local schools the way we want to, separate from the larger community; and an economic and business success that requires interaction with that larger community.  The one creates small local schools, but the other sends the graduates of those schools away and so undermines support for those small local schools.  The result has to be a perpetually mediocre school system.

Peter Dodington

December 10, 2016



Schools and American “Anti-Intellectualism”

Emily Dickinson

In my discussions with friends about how to improve our public schools, I have often heard the argument that the real cause of our low-performing schools is “American anti-intellectualism.”  In the end, the thought is, we don’t have a good educational system because that is not “who we are.”  We’re a practical people, intent on solving simple practical problems in our own back yard, so to speak, and don’t have time for the niceties of deep intellectual thought.  We may be good at some of the physical sciences, and, of course, business, but French paintings bore us.

By this argument, then, there is no solution to our weak school system; it is what we want.  Perhaps this is unfortunate, but it’s in our DNA; it’s part of our “American exceptionalism.”   All we really want is a kind of mediocre, local, success.  Our finest schools, like the ones in our top suburbs, are not the best in the world, or even in the country.  We don’t even keep track of this.  We only care whether they are the best in their local area.  The Old World may have emphasized academic excellence, but here in the New World we do things differently.

But there are several problems with this view.  Why, for one, are we then so upset about our school system?  Why are we so intent on improving it through these privatization schemes if, indeed, its achievements are not a matter of concern to us?  If what we want is a kind of local, but not national or international, success, isn’t that what we already have?  In reality, isn’t it clear that we do want better schools, and that we all assume we are quite capable of achieving this?

And secondly, where is the actual evidence that our children are not capable, or not interested, in achieving intellectual excellence?  In my Latin classes I used the same British textbook, The Cambridge Latin Series, that is used throughout the world. This was never a problem.  The kids from Prospect Avenue in the Bronx could memorize the forms of the Dative as well as anyone. They didn’t think there was something holding them back.  Of course there were difficulties: kids dropped out, or missed school, or gave up, but this was not because of academic ability.  It was because they had to work late, or take care of their sisters, or their mother.  Once they put their minds to it, all my students, no matter where they were from, could do “world class” academic work.

So where is the problem?  Where is the anti-intellectualism?   If our children can learn an intellectual subject like Latin as well as anyone else in the world, they can learn other subjects, too.  We don’t have children who have trouble learning.

It’s perfectly logical that we might shy away from some high-end academic subjects because we don’t feel that they are “ours” in some sense.  Academic subjects which represent the ideals of the old country may not seem suited to our ideals in the new.  Perhaps we don’t teach Shakespeare well not because we can’t, but because we want to focus on our own writers; we want to be a new country, not just a colony of the old.  So this kind of “anti-intellectualism” is actually an indication of an interest in intellectual subjects, on our own terms, not a rejection of them.  We just need to work more, then, on Emily Dickinson, Faulkner, Lincoln, et al.  That would not be impossible.

We don’t have weak schools because we have some built-in aversion to intellectual matters; it’s the other way around.  We have chosen to make a mediocre school system, for a variety of shortsighted and emotional, it seems to me, reasons, and this had led us to a feeling that we must have some innate intellectual antipathy.  Why else should such a clever nation do so poorly?  But we have it backwards, as our world-class children show us.  All the skills and interests are there; it’s in our DNA.  We just have to fix the schools so that we can let these bloom.

Peter Dodington

November 14, 2016



Subways and School Reform

When I used to walk to my teaching job at Park West High School on West 50th Street in New York, almost everyone I met on the sidewalk was paying part of my salary.   Why was that?  I wasn’t teaching their children.

About 75% of the money for public schooling comes from the general, non-parent public, since parents with school-age children make up only about a quarter of the tax-paying population  (about 50 million out of some 200 million).  The schools are not primarily supported by the current group of parents; they are paid for, and so essentially controlled by, those non-parents on the street.   Those public taxpayers, then, are the key to solving the problems of our public schools.

If we want to improve all of our schools, getting our achievement scores up off their traditional perch near the bottom of the industrialized world, and also keep them public and open to all, we need to look at what makes this public program “public.”  How does public support for the schools work?  Why do we pay for our schools?  If we can’t answer this, we have an excellent reason right there for why the schools are not doing well.  If three-quarters of your supporters don’t know why they are funding your program, you have a problem.


I remember having a conversation about this one evening with a special ed. teacher in Brooklyn.  I was leaving the school one evening when I ran into him, the last ones out of those dark and humid halls.  He wanted to tell me about his day; how he had spent hours trying to get the computers to work in a room where bits of paint from a crumbling ceiling were constantly drifting down onto the keyboards and his students.

How could this be happening, he wanted to know, in one of the richest cities in the world?  Even if we have a problematic bureaucracy, don’t the people behind those city agencies, the taxpayers who actually provide the money for the schools, realize how much they are losing if they only paint ceilings once a generation?  Don’t they see how they benefit from the work we do with these students; how these kids will grow up to have good jobs and be leaders of their communities in ways that will benefit all of us, and that they are not going to do this unless we teach them in decent classrooms?  I had no answer for him other than that I, too, had taught in similar rooms.

I went home, though, and realized that I did know the answer to his question, and it was “No, they don’t see how they benefit from our work.”  He could see it, and I could see it, and the kids and their parents, but that was about it.  No one else had the faintest idea how we were benefitting the general public.  There was no data on this, no publicity, and, of course, no one ever came to see for themselves.  All the data on the schools is about the kids while they are students: their attendance, test scores, awards, etc.  Once they graduate no one pays any attention to them.

But it is their success as adult graduates that matters to the general public.  It’s their adult lives that provide the public benefit from the schools, not their student success.  You don’t actually benefit when a kid gets an “A;” it’s when he comes to work for you, or invents a new process, or moves in next door, that you obtain what you have been paying the public schools for:  intelligent, creative, civil, and hard-working adults.

There is no doubt that these benefits from education do occur.  Study after study has shown that better-educated students grow up to be more law-abiding, wealthier, healthier, and more tolerant than their less-educated peers, and that this success benefits everyone in their community.  The problem is that just how this happens is not clear to the taxpayers who support the schools.  It is not the benefit itself, but the demonstration of the benefit that is lacking.

Perhaps there is some correlation between school test scores and adult success, but it’s not strong enough to convince the public that they are getting all the benefit they have paid for.  They need to see evidence of the actual public benefit before they will spend their money.  You don’t buy a car because you have seen the parts in a factory.  You have to see the completed car itself before you will open your wallet.

Simply put, what we want for the non-parent majority is just what parents of school-age children already get automatically.  Parents do see how they benefit from the schools.  They see their children learning, and, more importantly, can see how the school will benefit their children, and the parents, after they graduate.

If I want to know whether a good algebra class helped my son become an architect, I can just ask him when he shows up at Thanksgiving dinner as an adult.  Parents keep in touch with their children their whole lives, so have an automatic way to assess the adult benefits they got from the schools.  This gives them an incentive to support improvements in the schools.  They want to fund better math programs because they know they will be able to see the results of that learning in their children’s adult lives.

But none of this works for the supporters who don’t have school-age children, the non-parents.  They have no direct connection to the children in the schools, so have no way of tracking their adult success or failure.  They have to rely on the schools to provide data on that adult benefit, and the schools don’t do this.  Unlike the parents, they have no way to see the long-term public benefits from the school programs they are now supporting, so they tend not to fund them very well.


This is why that ceiling was not getting painted.  Only the parents of the children in the school were interested in paying for a new ceiling, and they, it turned out, did not have enough money or influence.  The rest of the population, the ones on the street, had the money, collectively, but they had no way to see why they should use it.

And this must be true for most schools, not just urban ones in poor areas.  If three-quarters of the support comes from non-parents, the average school must be funded mostly by supporters who cannot see how they benefit from the schools very clearly.  Of course there are schools, particularly in the suburbs, where most of the supporters are parents, but these must be far in the minority.  All those non-parents have to live somewhere.

The result has to be a continuation of the status quo.  Teachers and parents push forward for new programs and initiatives, but the general public, with no evidence that any of this will matter, pulls back.  The schools don’t fail, but they don’t get any better, either.  This is why all our statistics have been flat for so long.  Our schools don’t improve because we don’t have a good way to show most of our supporters why they should fund improvements.

This stagnation is a crucial problem for our schools.  A good argument could be made that our trouble today is not that the school system is doing poorly but that it seems that it cannot do any better.  It would be one thing if the schools were at a low level and were slowly getting better.  It’s quite another that it seems we cannot get them ever to improve.  It’s not the level of our success that is bothering us but the stagnation.

This is why we have turned to completely different methods of school organization, such as charter schools, vouchers, or home schooling, instead of trying to fix the public school system we already have.    If we felt we could move the current system forward we would want to keep working on public school problems, but if these issues seem unsolvable the only thing to do is try a completely different approach, such as a more private-like school system.  A machine that cannot be fixed or improved will eventually be replaced.


Not all public programs have these problems. The police, for example, report on the crime rate in our neighborhoods.  They don’t just tell us about what happens in their police stations, such as how they solve crimes or meet the needs of those who are using their services, but the effect of that work on the rest of us, the general public.  What we, the public, want to know is whether our street is getting more dangerous or not, so that’s what they tell us about.  That’s the public benefit their work produces.

In the same way the Centers for Disease Control keeps track of the rates of various diseases and disorders in the country, not just what happens in their clinics and hospitals.  They may do a wonderful job with their patients, but that’s not what they report to us.  It’s the effect of their work that they publicize -- how this makes our lives safer and disease free.  Similarly, the sanitation department tells us how clean the streets are, not just how many bags of garbage they pick up, and the army tells us whether they achieved the objectives of their campaigns, not just how well their soldiers are fighting.  It is the results that affect us that are publicized, not the internal workings of the program.

But the schools do none of this.  They only tell us about the results that occur within their own buildings; the data on the students, not the effect of this work on the public.  Even though they are a public program, they report results that only matter to the people who are currently using their services, the parents and children involved, not the general public who are actually supporting them.

There is no solution to this problem at the school level.  We can make each school as good as we want, winning awards and setting new standards of excellence, and still end up with exactly the same stagnant level overall, because this is the only level the general public will support.  Each new and better program, funded and supported by its own group of parents and teachers, slowly dies as the parents move on to become non-parents.  Without any indication of how these improvements benefit them, the non-parent majority sees no point in continuing to fund them, so the program dies and we are back to square one.

This means that we are currently wasting a good amount of time and effort.  We keep trying to make the schools better, one by one, and then are frustrated that this does not improve the overall results.  We fail to see that what we need is not better schools, per se, but a better school system; not just a way to educate the children better, but a better way to govern the entire process.  We actually know how to teach children pretty well.  What we don’t know is how to run a successful public school system.


To borrow a phrase from James Baldwin, by now you are saying, “No, no; you go too far.  It’s not that bad.  There are other factors that are causing these problems.”  Perhaps, but let’s look more closely at these.

First, there is the general belief that public programs can never really succeed.  They seem to be a kind of compromise that will always produce mediocre results.  Our best workers don’t set their sights on working for public programs; they work in the private sector where the path to success is so much clearer.  The typical public worker seems to be some clock-watching bureaucrat who will never produce the excellence we want.

But I’m not arguing that public education should be similar to a successful start-up company, but that it could be similar to a successful public program.  There are such things.  Our military is a public program which is certainly one of the best in the world.  And what about our fire departments, roads, or water systems?  No one is complaining about them.  Most of our public programs are better than public programs in other countries.

The argument that the public schools are too bureaucratic cannot be the whole story.  All public programs are bureaucratic.  They are paid for jointly by the entire population, so have very complex bookkeeping needs.  When a policeman enters an apartment to settle a domestic dispute he has to be careful to meet the needs of everyone there: the grandmother, the children, the cousins and the neighbors, not just the ones causing the trouble, since everyone in that room is his boss, in a sense.  They all are paying him, as are all the other members of that community.  Keeping track of this so that everyone can see, at least to some extent, how their funding is being used, is a very complicated, and bureaucratic, problem.  That doesn’t mean it doesn’t have a solution.

Nor is the argument valid that money cannot solve these bureaucratic problems; that we continue to spend more on the schools every year but get no improvements, so money must not be the answer.  In the everyday world, if your washing machine doesn’t work, and you pay for a repair, and it still doesn’t work, and you pay for a repair again, and it still doesn’t work, you don’t then say, “money can’t fix washing machines.”  You say, “There must be some other problem that we are not considering.”  That is my point.  The fact that money has not solved the public schools’ problems simply means that we have not yet figured out what is wrong with them.  Perhaps, then, we should look more closely at the structure of the public benefits from the school system.

In my own backyard, New York, I have seen the subway system steadily improve over the past 30 years.  I remember my father-in-law, from Iowa, looking at the 1-Train rumbling by back in the early ‘80’s, covered with graffiti and dirt, commenting that he didn’t think there was any hope for New York (where I had just moved with his daughter and two grandsons).  But the subway system solved the graffiti problem, by just hiring more car-cleaners, and slowly rebuilt the tracks and trains.  That fully public program found a way to solve its problems.

There are some interesting parallels in that story for the schools.  In those days everyone said that there was no solution to the graffiti problem and the general lack of upkeep.  The kids broke through all the fences they put up around the trains at night and marked up the cars to their hearts’ content.  There was no way to stop this, it seemed.

But new management came in and hired people to clean and repaint each car each night and the graffiti went away.  It turned out that you didn’t need to fence in the cars; just clean them.  The problem was not unsolvable; it was just that the people in charge had not thought it through.

And this was quite logical, since the people in charge, at first, were the ones who ran the trains.  The whole system was led by people who had once been conductors and trainmen.  Now graffiti doesn’t actually interfere with the running of the trains.  It doesn’t slow them down.  So to all those ex-conductors it didn’t seem like that big a problem.  It wasn’t their job.  They were supposed to make the trains run, not look good.  And the customers in the trains agreed; they also were not bothered by what was happening on the outside of the cars.  So the problem festered.

New management, though, saw that the key to the problem was not what was happening inside the cars, but outside them.  The people with the money, new money to pay for new improvements, were outside the cars.  They were the ones you needed to influence if you wanted more customers and more money.  And for them the graffiti was very important.  It was all they knew about the trains; all they saw.  They, the general public, weren’t likely to pay for improvements to the trains unless they could see that this problem had been taken care of.

Similarly, what the schools need to do is influence the people outside the school, the general public, not just those inside them, the parents and children.  The ones outside are the ones with the money for improvements, so they are the ones you need to pay attention to.  We want to show them that the schools can solve their public problems the way the subways did.  For the schools this would mean demonstrating that they are providing a public educational benefit to the general public.


But, then, is it really possible that our school system has always had some deep flaw?  Can we have had this problem for some 200 years and never noticed it?  Is this the way the Founding Fathers set it up; a program that could never improve?  Is that likely?

No, that is not likely.  But it could be that the school system was set up in a way that worked well 200 years ago and has developed problems over time.  Perhaps conditions have changed but the schools have not, and that is causing the problem.

It certainly seems that Washington, Jefferson, et al. wanted schools that worked as fully public programs.  They were always talking about how the public, not just the parents and children, would benefit from schools.  As Washington said in his first State of the Union address, “Knowledge is in every country the surest basis of public happiness.”  It is the general public benefit, the overall level of “happiness” that the entire population gets from public education, that is important.

It is the adult graduates of the schools, the citizens that the schools will produce, that concern the Founding Fathers, not just what happens in the classrooms.  No one talks about test scores in the 18th century.  What they wanted, from the start, was precisely the kind of public benefit from the schools that I am saying we need to pay attention to today.  They had it right; they wanted a public program that benefited the whole community.  The schools they set up must have worked as successful public programs.  Somehow, though, we have gotten off track.


There are logical reasons, then, why the public schools are not improving, and these have more to do with the overall structure of the school system than any individual problems of teachers, schools, or students.  Once we focus just on that school system structure it is clear that it does not work the way a public program should, since it has no way to demonstrate its public benefit to its public supporters.  Those pedestrians on West 50th Street didn’t, in fact, know why they were paying my salary, and that is the central problem of our current school system.

Peter Dodington

July 25, 2016



The Druids Dialogues VIII: State Aid to Public Education

The Setting: Druids Bar on 10th Avenue, across the street from our school.

Tom:    So when the grads moved away from the local districts, why did the districts turn to the state for help rather than the federal government?  Surely they could see that the nation could have helped them more than the state.

Pedro:  Good question; it didn’t make sense.  The problem was that their taxpayers were paying for benefits that they were not fully receiving, so they needed a way for the taxpayers to access those benefits.  That should have meant finding a way to share in the benefits being produced throughout the country, since that is where the benefits had gone to.  Their graduates didn’t just move within the state, they moved all over the country.  The solution, then, ought to have been to make some kind of national system where everyone could share equally in both the costs and the benefits from the schools.

Limato: Right.  The state could only solve part of the problem from the start, no matter what.

Tom:    And a national system would not necessarily have affected the operation of their local districts; they could still continue to provide local services to the local community, and local benefits to the parents and children, as always.  It’s just that the benefits to the non-parent part of their supporters would now be part of a national system, since that is where their benefits, the benefits provided by the mobile grads, took place.  The local system would serve the needs of the local parents, and the national system the needs of the rest of the population.

Limato: And this wouldn't harm the local districts.  Just like a baseball team isn’t weakened simply because it is part of a league.  You want the league to be strong enough to set up rules and policies that involve all the teams and the overall economic health of the teams.   That doesn’t mean that the teams themselves have to be any weaker.  You could actually argue that strong leagues make for strong teams.

Bob:     But, as we all know, logic was not in the offing for this situation.  The local districts were running the show, and they evidently felt that getting the feds involved would somehow be detrimental to their efforts.  So they turned to the states instead.

Tom:    You could even say that the states were chosen because they were weaker than the national government.  There’s a scary thought.  The districts wanted help, but not too much, since they still wanted to run the show all by themselves.  So they picked the states, since they knew they would always be fairly weak.

Pedro:  Yes. The rationale for the entire system was still centered on the ideal of local control.  Even though it was clear that this couldn’t work economically, as long as the grads moved about, no one wanted to give up on that ideal.  With that in mind, the only acceptable solution was just a continuation of the status quo, or as close to that as possible, and the states could provide that, since they were really not strong enough to change much of anything.

Bob:     And this is clear from the fact that the state contribution was always called state “aid” to public education, as if the center of the program was still the local districts and the state was just helping them out in a secondary role.

Pedro:  Also, part of the problem was that at the time it seemed as if the schools were doing about as well as they ought.  We were, after all, the most successful country in the world, by far, so how could it be that our school system needed much help?  No one in the early 20th century did any serious comparisons of test scores between various countries.  So there was no need, it seemed, to make any dramatic changes in the local-control system.

Limato: You could say that the goal of state aid was not actually to improve the schools, but just to allow them to continue in their current local-control mode.  From the start it was not about better schools.  There actually is no good reason to involve the state in public education more than the districts or the nation.  There's a rationale for having districts -- the whole small is better argument, and there's a rationale for having a national system, since this takes care of the mobile grads problem, but there is no real reason to have the states involved.  There is nothing they do better than any other entity.

Pedro:  So they brought in the state to help with this problem of the mobile grads undercutting the support from the non-parents, but the state had the exact same problem with their own grads.  About a third of all residents in our country no longer live in the state they grew up in.  That means, in effect, that state residents are losing a third of the public benefit from the schools that they paid for.  (It’s actually more like a half, since you also have to factor in that the taxpayers move.)  And, yes, this loss is replaced by the benefit from grads from other states who move in, but these are, again, of an average level, so it brings the whole program down to an average level.  Any success over and above that average then is wasted money.

Tom:    So you can see why the states don't want to track the public benefit from the schools, since to do so would make clear just how much they were losing to other states.  If they wanted to show that their schools had, for example, lowered the crime rate by educating the kids, they would also have to show that about half of this was benefiting residents of other states, not their own residents, the ones who paid for it.

Limato: Ergo, no data on the public benefit from the schools, so no demonstration of the benefit to the non-parents, so no incentive for them to support improvements, so the schools have to stay as they are: average and mediocre.

Bob:     Just what we all, in a way, chose from the start.  We valued so much this ideal that we could do it all by ourselves in our own little districts that we turned away from any plan that might actually improve the schools on a large scale.  We chose independence over success.

Tom:    But we still can’t see this even today; everyone still wants the schools to be more independent, more “free.”

Limato: What can you do?


Peter Dodington

August 20, 2015





Druid Dialogues VI: Jefferson’s Plans


Druids Bar, on Tenth Avenue, was across the street from our school.  English and Special Ed. teachers were attending “9th period”, as we called it, on a Friday several years ago.

Limato: But Pedro, how can these problems with our state-run school system be true?  Shouldn’t someone have seen this long ago?  I mean, is this the way we set up the system – so that it could never succeed?

Tom:    Yeah; didn’t Jefferson figure this all out back then, telling us how to set up a public school system?  It can’t be that he was blind to these problems.

Pedro:  Quite so; Jefferson knew what he was doing.  In fact there were several plans in the late 18th century for state-wide, or even national, school programs.  Washington himself argued for a national university, which would have set up national standards for the secondary schools and a national curriculum.  And of course Jefferson proposed a full range of K - 12 public schools for the state of Virginia.

Bob:     But none of that got passed, did it, at least in their life-times.  It turned out that no one wanted any kind of “top-down” structure in the schools.  They had left all that behind in the old country.  Now they were going to create their own new towns, their own communities, with their own schools run their own way.

Pedro:  So the only schools that got set up were funded totally through the small, local districts.  Local control was all there was.  In fact, up through the early part of the 20th century some 90% of all public school funding in this country came through the local districts, not the state or the national level.

Limato: But that worked, right?

Pedro:  It must have been great.  The townspeople banded together and created their own school districts and ran them totally by themselves.  The little, dirt-street town where I first taught in Montana had its own district, own superintendent, and own school board for its 100-student system, and still does.  This system worked because everyone contributed to the schools, since everyone, not just the parents, benefitted. They were educating the next generation of town workers and leaders.  They paid for someone to teach algebra so the town would have someone who could figure out corn prices and investments.  It was a locally run system, but totally public.  Everyone shared the costs and everyone shared the benefits.  It worked.

Limato: So what went wrong?

Pedro:  Well, the trouble with education is that it takes so long to realize the benefits from it.  A whole generation, just about.  So, to make it work, you have to have a really stable community.  It’s not like a public road, where you get to use it a few months after you pay for it.  Education produces a terrific benefit, but it is a long way in the future.  This means that the program only works if the graduates from the school stay in the town, where they can pay back, so to speak, those who funded their education.

But not everyone wants to spend their lives in a small town.  New opportunities come up, new interests.  You know, people didn’t come to America just so they could live in a small town.  They came to succeed, and that usually meant moving on to bigger and better places.  Everyone loves the guy who stays and runs his dad’s store, but we all know, too, that this is not the way to make some serious money.

Tom:    So the grads took their skills and education off to some other town; some place that had not paid for their education, which meant that the people who paid for their education were losing out.  They were only getting a partial return on their investment in those kids, so tended to only want to support the schools now in a partial manner.

Pedro:  The data on mobility is that well more than half the residents of the average town leave for other places.  In my New Jersey suburb only a few of my childhood friends still live there; many less than half.

Limato: But the ones that leave are replaced by educated people from other towns.  Doesn’t that matter?

Pedro:  Yes, but that’s why our problem is an unrelenting mediocrity and not total failure.  The ones that come in are from all over, right, so have to be at about an average level of education, in general.  That’s fine unless you want to improve the schools above that average, mediocre, level.  If you try that, you will be producing excellent students but only getting back, from the other towns, average ones.  You would be cheating your taxpayers.  The only level of education that makes sense is the average level of all the other schools.  That’s what you’re going to end up with anyway, after everyone moves around, so you might as well only aim for that level from the start.  If the costs are bourn individually, by the town, but the profits shared, throughout the country, there is not much point in making excellent students.  The better you get at this the more you lose.

Bob:     So it was our own individualism, our belief that we could do it all by ourselves, in our own little towns with no outside help, that led us down this unworkable path.  Our hubris that we could create it all by ourselves.

Limato: The best we could do, ever, is just recreate the average level of all the other schools. The combination of autonomous small districts and mobile graduates forces the system to stay mediocre.

Pedro:  But we can’t be too hard on those early pioneers.  They thought everyone would stay in the towns, just as people had stayed in the towns they came from in Europe.  They didn’t see that they had brought over with them a kind of restlessness; a drive to move on.  It’s one of our strengths, right?  But it makes it difficult to build a public program like public education that relies on stability, at least on a local level.

The real problem, though, is why, once we realized this scheme wasn’t working, we haven’t done anything about it.

Limato: But didn’t they get the state involved then?  Didn’t that help?

Pedro:  Sort of, but that’s another story.


Peter Dodington

August 6, 2015