National Public Education
3Jun/170

On-line Learning Problems

One of the selling points for the new schemes to privatize the public schools is that the new “choices” available to one and all will include the ability to learn things on-line, without having to bother with expensive teachers, classrooms and textbooks.  One often hears from the advocates for “opting out” of the public school system, and using “our” tax dollars for private education schemes, that this will enable us to access all the riches of on-line education and other “disruptive” ways to learn.  Examples are given of on-line courses with enrollments in the hundreds of thousands.

The problem is that using your computer to get educated doesn't work very well.  It may help you figure out a whole lot of interesting topics, but it is not a very good tool for actually making you better at something, which seems to me to be what education is all about.

I have seen this in my work in Latin.  Latin, it turns out, has always been a kind of on-line course.  The entire curriculum has been unchanged for millennia, and has always been available to all, whether in libraries or on computers.  There is nothing in the course that is not fully explained in some tome or program somewhere.

So, of course, people do try to learn it on their own.  I remember sitting in my Latin teacher’s office at U. of Montana in the 1970’s, listening to a student say that he had to drop the course, but would keep at it on his own, and check back in with the professor now and then.  Dr. Hay, the teacher, always agreed to help them with this.  After the student left I asked him why he agreed to this, since it would obviously mean more work for him.  He replied, “They never come back.”  Not once, in all his long career.  It just doesn’t work.

The problem is that there are simply too many ways to make errors in Latin, or in just about any reasonably complex subject.  A simple sentence might have five words, each with several definitions, and maybe ten different grammar points to figure out, and then several matters of syntax.  It is very hard to see, on your own, whether you are on the right track as you work through all these possible combinations.  Of course you could theoretically just keep trying each different one, but most students give up after about ten or so attempts, far below the total number of possibilities.

I have students tell me all the time that they understand the vocabulary and the grammar of the sentence perfectly and it still doesn’t make sense.  A simple matter of a definition taken in the wrong sense can totally mess up the meaning.  Then, once you are unsure of the meaning of one sentence, it is quite hard to figure out the meaning of the next.  You really don’t know, then, whether you are making any progress at all.

This whole problem is aggravated, it seems, by the use of modern computers.  At least with a dictionary and a grammar book that you can hold in your hands you can come at these problems with a method of approximation.  You can have some idea of what the problem is, and then go to that part of the book and just hunt around until you hit on the answer.  Maybe you chose the wrong word, or the wrong grammar rule.  Other related words and rules are clustered around in the same area of the book, so you might well find the right one.

With a computer program, though, everything has to be entered exactly right, and when that doesn’t work, there is no other option than to just try another word or topic that seems to you, in your ignorance, to be similar.  You don’t get to see the cluster of similar words or topics.  You have to come up with them yourself.  This often means, in my experience, that you don’t ever find the right answer.

The entire idea that teaching is all about presenting information is the wrong way to look at it.  The point is not what the teacher does; it’s what the student does.  What happens in his or her mind is the goal.  Of course it is interesting to make good presentations to students, but this is nothing compared to actually changing them for the better.

When I used to teach both mythology and Latin in college, at the end of the mythology classes, after all my lovely slides and analogies to poetry and art, students would come up and thank me for such a good class.  After Latin class, though, no one ever said that.  All they ever said was, “I think I’m starting to get this.”  The class wasn’t about me; it was about them.

But what is so odd about this, and, of course, the source of the confusion about the value of on-line learning, is that they need the “me” in that room to get a class about “them.”  It would seem that a class all about the students ought to be one that only has students in it, but for some reason this doesn’t work.  We evidently need someone else to help us become who we are and who we can be.  That is really the core problem with on-line learning.

Peter Dodington

June 3, 2017

 

6May/170

The Fallacy of “Choice” in Public Education

 

One of the arguments one often hears for the privatization of public education is that we ought to have a “choice” as to what kinds of schools we attend.  In a world where, it is said, there is so much choice already, such as on the internet, why should we have to put up with this “one size fits all” government-run school system?  “Choice” is an American right, they say; it is what makes us “exceptional.”  We should naturally have the right, then, to choose from several different kinds of education for our children, such as charter schools, voucher plans, home schooling, religious schools, etc.

But this view doesn’t make sense.  It ignores the distinction between public and private programs.  “Choice” is a valid concept for a private, market-based transaction, such as when you are buying a new pair of shoes, but does not have a similar validity in a public program like public education.  The whole point of a public program is that we are making a collective project; we are sharing our resources so that we can produce something better than what we could do individually.  In that shared, government-run program, the concept of “choice” will never have the importance that it has in a private transaction.  How this works in public education is fairly clear.

If you get to choose something, and so have a “choice,” you also get to pay for it.  Why would anyone else pay for it?  It’s your decision; you are getting the benefit from it.  So if we really did have “choice” for individuals in public education, what would that mean?  Can you, alone, afford to build a school?  Or a gym, or labs, or hire a calculus teacher? Schools are expensive, like fire engines, power plants, and other things we collectively pay for through public programs.  If we want to treat them like simple consumer goods, like shoes, and so have complete “choice” over how we buy them, we would then also have to pay for them all by ourselves, and so would have to settle for a much lower level of quality.

If we want good schools, we need the help of other taxpayers.  But once you involve these other people you are going to have to let them in, so to speak, on the project. If it’s a cooperative effort, the choices have to be made cooperatively, not individually.  There is no way around this.  Of course we would all like to be able to afford our own private way of educating our children, and the “choice” that goes with this, but most of us can’t afford it.

The whole concept is illogical.  Who is, after all, making this choice?  Obviously, the parents of the children involved.  It’s not a “choice” for the general public, but for the parents with school-aged children.  But who is paying for these schools?  Parents only make up a quarter of our taxpayers.  By far the main supporters of the public schools are the non-parent general public.  So why don’t they get a “choice” about how to spend their money?  Why is a quarter of the population allowed to choose what they want, but the rest of us don’t?  It might make sense for the parents to have “choice” if, in fact, the parents were paying the full cost of the schools, but they aren’t.  The whole concept, then, is illogical and unstable, and the general public will eventually refuse to support it.

Furthermore, we like collective projects.  Let’s look at a middle-school playground, the source of much wisdom.  There, the lonely kid standing off by himself has the “choice” of what game to play that day.  He is free to choose.  Great.  But all the rest of the kids, the ones in the games and other collective activities, no longer have that “choice.”  They have already agreed to play by the rules of the game they are playing, and that’s fine with them.  They don’t have “choice;” they have collective, shared action.  They are doing something together with each other and that is more fun than being alone and having total “choice”.

Collective, shared activities produce better outcomes and are more enjoyable.  But once you are in them, you don’t get “choice.”  You have to abide by the collective decisions that were made when the program was set up. We did “choose” the public school system, a long time ago, and we chose the government to run it.  It didn’t just happen; people voted for it, since it was a good way to share the costs with the entire population and so produce a much better education for our children.  And, yes, that decision does limit how much free choice we now have in that system, but it is well worth it.   The collective, shared benefits far outweigh the value of any individual “choice.”

Peter Dodington

May 6, 2017

 

24Sep/160

Homeschooling and Truancy

Secretary of Education John King

John King, the new Secretary of Education, recently said that he had some reservations about the value of homeschooling.  He commented that he felt that these students did not have the “range of options” that were best for all students, and that they sometimes did not get the kind of “rapid instructional experience” that students in schools received.  (I gather he means that home-schooled students often are allowed to learn at their own pace, so do not practice the ability to learn quickly very often.)  As always, these comments brought forth outrage from the fans of homeschooling, who point out how well home-schooled students do on academic tests and the like.

Readers of this column will know that I find both sides of this argument problematic. Secretary King may be right or wrong on the educational experience of home-schooled students, but that is not the main problem with homeschooling.  As I have discussed recently concerning Charters, the issue with these government-supported semi-private schemes is not the success of failure of the individual students, but the overall success of the public program.  Looking just at how well students do on tests or other aspects of their education would be like looking just at the individual success of some baseball players on a team.  That they may be doing well is not the same as whether the team is doing well.  It is quite possible that you can have a star player on a weak team, or vice versa.  What we want to know in public education policy is whether the entire program is succeeding or not, since that is what we are paying for, not just whether some students are doing well.

A good way to approach the topic of how we should determine that overall success of the public school system is to think back to other laws that we set up over the years to regulate the schools, such as the truancy laws.  Every state has had rules and regulations about the compulsory nature of public education for quite a while.  When I was a child I remember being told that the truant officer would catch me if I played hooky and would bring me back to school or even to jail, and when I first started teaching I knew of several families that were frequently in trouble with the local truant authorities.  Punishments often involved fines, the loss of the student’s driver’s license, and referrals to juvenile court.

Why do we have such laws?  Clearly it is because the goal of the school system is not just to teach some students well, but to teach them all well.  That is the only way we are going to create a better society, and that is the ultimate goal of the entire school system.  The reason everyone, not just the parents of school-age children, pays for the schools is that we all benefit from this program through its effect on such matters as crime, health and worker productivity.  As I never tire of saying, public education is not just about the education of the students, but the effect of that education on the population in general, the ones who are paying for it.  To measure that effect you clearly have to look at all the children, not just the ones in school.  You have to count the ones not in school, too.  So it only makes sense to try to get everyone into school so you can maximize the good educational outcomes.  Hence we have laws that require everyone to attend school.

In the past, then, we seem to have fully understood that the goal of public school is not just good test scores for individuals, but the overall effect of the program on our society.  The truancy laws demonstrate that we once understood these fundamental attributes of public education.  What has happened today, though, is that we seem to have forgotten this.  We now argue only about those test scores, or other aspects of the learning experience, and ignore the public benefit that we ought to be worried about.

There is no doubt that home schooling is very similar to truancy.  True, it is a form of truancy that is now acceptable in many states, but it is still essentially the same as the truancy of years past.  When I would talk with parents who kept their kids home 40 years ago they would say the same things that home-schooling parents say today – that their kids do better at home.  Why, then, is this acceptable now but wasn’t then?

You cannot argue that it is acceptable now because the results for each child are better.  That’s like saying that certain players on a team are doing well; it doesn’t address the overall success of the team or the program.  That certain individuals do well can never be the reason we adopt a public program.  If it’s public, it has to be judged by its effect on the entire population; that’s who is paying for it, so that’s who has to benefit from it.  The question should not be how those home-schooled students are doing; it should be how all the other students are doing.  That’s the question that public education seeks to answer.

Just to clarify – I have no problem with families wanting to educate their children outside of the public school system.  They are free to choose this.  We have to accept, though, that this means they are choosing a private system of education.  That’s their whole point.  It’s their own private needs that they are satisfying.  There is nothing public about it.  There are many good private schools, and you can even start one yourself if you comply with the usual regulations for a private school.  There is nothing wrong with educating one’s own children in a private way.

The problem is that the states have then turned around and said that these private arrangements ought to be funded by the public school system.  They are using public money to support a non-public program;  a program that not only does not contribute in any way to the success of the public schools, but which actually undermines the success of that system, as the truancy laws have long pointed out.  Taking students out of the public school system does not necessarily harm the students, but it does always harm the public who is paying for that system.  It lessens the societal benefits from that system, and these benefits are at the core of the reasons we have a public school system in the first place.

So, much as I agree with Secretary King on most matters, I would like him look at bit more deeply into public support for homeschooling.  It doesn’t make sense, regardless of how successful it may be for the students involved.  It doesn’t work as a public program.

Peter Dodington

September 24, 2016

 

14Jan/150

Private Homeschooling

Last week the New York Times had a front-page article on the rise of homeschooling in America.  It said that not only is the number of home-schooled students rising, but the regulation of this practice by the states is becoming less effective.  Not all states have clear regulations on what constitutes a proper home-schooled education, and some that do are not enforcing these.   The article notes that it is generally agreed that homeschooling typically teaches math and science less well than traditional schools.

Proponents of homeschooling, though, do not see why they should have any state regulation at all.  They are spending their own money, not the state’s, and are still paying state taxes for the education of everyone else’s children, so why shouldn't they be allowed to educate their own children as they see fit?  In general, they argue, home-schooled children do about as well as others.

The problem is, though, that they are still part of the public school system.  Long ago the general public decided that it wanted to impose minimum standards on evey child’s education, since this would benefit society in general.  This meant that the school system would not only govern the public schools, but would also check up on the private ones, making sure that they met various requirements.  Obviously such a system could only work well if it were applied uniformly across the entire population.

The question, then, that we, as the public, need to ask about home-schooling is not whether it benefits the families involved, or even whether it saves the state money, but whether it benefits all our families.  Does it help or hinder the effort to create a better, more educated, society?  I don’t think there can be any doubt about the answer to that question.

Home-schooling is, after all, a private form of education.  It is not some special form of a public school; it’s a private school run by, and paid for by, private individuals.  There’s nothing public about it.  The whole point is that the parents have rejected the public schools. Logically, then, it ought to be treated the same way any other private school, and so regulated by the same general restrictions states place on their normal private schools.  It’s not some new and innovative way to do public education; it’s a private school.  By definition, then, it does not help the public school system.

Nor could homeschooling ever be applied to the population in general.  The cost per year, when you figure in the lost wages for the family member who stays home, has to be around the same as the cost of a regular private school, that is, well into the 5-figures.  This means that homeschooling can never become the normal way for the general population to educate their children.  Only a small percentage can afford it.

So why is the public school system even involved with these programs at all?  A good question.  Perhaps it is because the home-schooling families want it that way.  They don’t want to be seen as private-school patrons, since that would cut them off from whatever general public benefits might be still available to them.  If the state is willing to treat them as a special part of the public school population and so give them at least some support, and a public school diploma at the end, why not take it?

But this should make no sense to the public, who are paying for this public program and so should have control over it, not give that control away to anyone who asks for it. How can we agree to a policy that lets anyone reject the school system we have set up, yet still claim to be part of it?

The core of this problem, then, as with many of these issues, is not with the families that are practicing homeschooling, but rather with the state government that allows them to do this. It is the state legislatures that are not doing their job; not representing the wishes of the public.  Their inability to define and regulate homeschooling correctly is just one more example of why we should replace state control of education with a national school system.

Peter Dodington

January 14, 2015