National Public Education

The “Too Big for one School System” Fallacy

One of the favorite arguments in favor of having a state-run decentralized school system in this country is that we are too big to have one, centralized, national school system.  Other countries that have national programs are smaller and more homogenous, like Japan or Finland, and so can run their schools from one national capital.  We are too big and too diverse to do that effectively.  We need some kind of local divisions, like the states, to respond to all our various local needs.

There is some logic to this.  Many large organizations divide their work into divisions or units that then can accomplish the work more efficiently.  Your local supermarket divides itself up into “produce,” “meat,” “dairy,” etc., so that each unit can focus on its own “local” problems.  That works.

But that is not, in fact, what we do in our state-run decentralized school system.  We haven’t set the states up as divisions of a larger organization so that the whole will work better.  Each state is a separate entity on its own; it raises it own money from its own residents and spends this as it pleases.  It’s not a division of a larger program, the way the produce department is a division of the supermarket.  There is no larger program, since we specifically forbid there to be a national program.  Each state is its own completely separate operation as far as education is concerned.

No supermarket, or any other organization, would ever let its divisions operate totally on their own, raising their own money and spending it as they wished.  That would not improve the organization.  Each unit would just go its own way so that the result would be varied.  Some would improve, but others would get worse, and the end result would just be stagnation.  It is only by coordinating those units that the whole scheme could ever produce a better situation.  But that is precisely what we don’t do in public education. There is not way to coordinate the state programs.  Since they raise their own money they can do whatever they want with it.

So we may be “too big” to run our school system just from Washington, but that problem will not be solved by our current system of autonomous states. What would solve it would be to divide up our educational program into something like state programs, and then coordinate these through a central, national, organization.  That would work.  But that would mean that the national government would have to have some say over the state programs.

The key to that kind of a solution is to share the control of the schools between the local units and the centralized organization.  There is nothing wrong with local control; it is the right way to respond to the needs of the families in the schools, and should be put into effect as much as possible.  However, you still need centralized oversight so that the whole program can move forward.  You can’t just let each local program go its own way if you want any kind of long-term improvement.

This is not rocket science.  Every school program throughout the world, even in very decentralized programs such as Canada's, allows for restrictions on the local units set by the central government.  These central organizations set standards in various academic and operational areas, and have the ability to enforce these.  They can then change the local programs for the better.  That’s why their school systems improve.

It’s interesting, too, why we even bring up this issue.  Why are we worrying about how to educate all the children in the country, anyway?  Haven’t we decided that we only want a local, state-run, program, not a national one?  So shouldn’t we be worried about how to make Nebraska’s school system work, not the nation’s?  We go around thinking that we have solved this national “too big” problem, but that’s not even the right question.  It has nothing to do with what should be the real problem for us, namely how to run a good state program.  Why are we even bringing this up?

What this implies is that we don’t actually want just a good program for each state.  What we really want is national success, for everyone.   We bring up this "too big" problem because we think that it proves that we can get that kind of national success through our state system.  But we can't; an autonomous state program with no national oversight doesn't work.  If what we really want is national success, why don't we simply set up some kind of national program?

Peter Dodington

November 11, 2017





Local and Distant Public Schools

Todd Kominiak, in his blog at, has written that the schools are doing better than is generally thought, since most people report that their own public school is doing well.  He quotes an article in the Atlantic by Jack Schneider (7/17/17) who notes that the yearly poll in the Kappan magazine always shows that people give their local schools an A or B rating, but grades of a C or D to distant schools.  Everyone thinks their local school is fine, but that the schools in general need work.

From this Mr. Kominiak concludes that that the schools are doing better than we think.  Much as I agree with that sentiment, there are some problems with that specific claim.  First, there are many more distant schools for any one person than their one local school, so the evidence is still that, overall, the schools are getting a low grade.  Everyone is still saying that there is one good school and lots of lousy ones.

Secondly, the fact that the public is confused on this issue, (since obviously they are misjudging those distant schools, which are rated well by their own residents, the ones who ought to know them best) means that this “data” on the schools should not be relied on too heavily.  The question is not whether the ill-informed public thinks some schools are doing well, but whether they actually are doing well.  That has not been decided by this data.

Still, I am glad Mr. Kominiak brings up this issue.  It indicates several important factors about the public schools.  For one, it reminds us that all the schools, not just ones in affluent suburbs, have their supporters.  The Kappan people are very careful to sample all parts of the population, including the urban and rural poor, who make up a significant portion of the school-age population.  These people also think that their local school is doing well.  In other words, a school with low scores in a big city, which is classified by many outsiders as “failing,” is actually seen as a success by the parents who send their children there.

This sounds about right to me from my own experience.  When I worked at low-performing schools I always found that our parents loved us.  They obviously knew that there were problems, but, what else was new?  Of course they had problems; that’s why they were in the South Bronx.  At least the schools were trying to help.  The parents knew that the scores were low, but understood that this was because we were working with kids who came to us with low scores, and they respected us for working with them.  As I have noted elsewhere, it is quite possible to be a good school with low scores.

Secondly, these articles bring up a question we need to answer: why this is happening? What is going wrong in the public’s perception of these distant schools?  Why are we underrating them?  Mr. Schneider, in the Atlantic,  argues that our critique of distant schools might be due to such factors as the negative publicity he says that the federal government puts out about public education in general, or that the efforts of “civil rights activists” to blame public education for segregation makes us underrate them, but these arguments do not make sense.  Why would such broad influences affect only the public’s attitudes towards distant schools and not their own local school?  They should have the same effect on all the public schools, not just the distant ones.  The question is why the public has different attitudes towards these two groups of schools, and this is not answered by such general factors which affect all schools equally.

Well, you might say, maybe these general factors do matter, but the public has reasons to discount the negative influences on their local schools, since they can see with their own eyes that their local schools are succeeding.

Exactly.  It's that difference in perception that is crucial.  That’s where the real difference between the two groups lies.  At your local school you can see with your own eyes how the schools are succeeding at their various projects – the kids are learning, they are happy, they seem to be getting along with each other.  Your 10-year-old now knows where India is.  This is what you base your opinion on.

But at the distant schools you get none of this information.  You don’t know the kids, or their families, or anyone in the town.  You have to rely, then, on test score “data,” and that doesn’t work very well.  As Mr. Schneider notes, test scores don't tell taxpayers what they want to know about a distant school.  It’s data on the kids, not the graduates, and that’s a problem.

After all, why do we support those distant schools?  They aren’t teaching our own kids.  It's because public education produces social goods that we value: a lower crime rate, better health, more intelligent workers.  Education is related to all those outcomes.  It’s a public program, like the police or public health, that benefits our society, not just our own private needs such as the education of our own children.

But, the question is, where is the data on those benefits?  That is the real problem.  It doesn’t exist.  There are no indications at all that the public is getting those social benefits.  All the data from the school system is about the students, not the graduates who provide these public benefits such as better workers and less crime.  So that is why the public rates these distant schools so low.  They get no information on whether they are providing a benefit to them, regardless of whether they actually are or not.

This is a serious problem.  It is one of the reasons we need to make changes in the entire system, but that is another story.  These two articles don’t yet see the whole picture, but at least they are asking the right questions.

Peter Dodington

July 22, 2017



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





The Cyclopes and Local Control

Everyone knows the story of the Cyclops in the Odyssey: how Odysseus escapes from this man-eating monster by getting him drunk on fine wine and then poking out his eye with a sharpened log.  What is less well known is that Homer has some sharp criticism about how these monsters live.  They don’t know how to live well.  They don’t cooperate with each other and they don't have any way to meet and discuss things.  Each one lives alone in his own cave, master over only his own family.   They have no government to decide their laws, and no customs or traditions that regulate how they should interact with each other.

Consequently, they have no organized agriculture or technology – no ships, no crops, no trade, no good wine.  Without a way to meet and talk with each other about these things they can never develop them.  By always living alone, each in his own local abode with just his own family, they can never achieve the kind of excellence that the Greeks have.  Their success is limited to the success of each individual, not the combined success of the community.  This is why, Homer says, they are so easily defeated by Odysseus, even though they are individually so much stronger.

In our public education system we put a good deal of emphasis on the importance of “local control.”  We say that this is the best way to educate our children; we try to give the families involved as much authority as possible and to limit outside influences, such as distant state or federal authorities.  I have no problem with this idea in general.  In my own work in schools I have always involved parents as much as possible.  Throughout the world it is accepted that families and local communities ought to have a major voice in the education of the children.

The problem is that if we only emphasize this aspect of our educational system we end up with a Cyclopean kind of problem.  If only the local systems are emphasized, so that there is no way to coordinate their efforts and combine their successes, we will always end up, like the Cyclopes, with a less than optimal result.  If there is no way for the local groups to talk with each other, to share information on how to develop the best practices, then there is no way to produce new and better ways to teach the children.

This is why it is so hard to “take to scale” new ideas in 0ur public education system, and why the outcomes, overall, have not improved in the last generation.  Stagnation is built into the very concept of an emphasis on local control.  Yes, local control works, but it is not a good way to improve things.  If all your emphasis is on simply developing each local situation, then the results have to be varied, since there are, by definition, no connections between these results.  But all those varied results will always just add up to the same average results over time; there is nothing to move them forward.  If you don’t ever work on making the overall situation better, it won’t get better.

It is hard for the people in those local situations to see this.  The Cyclopes don’t see anything wrong with their way of life.   It’s only when an outsider, like Odysseus, brings in something better, like really good wine, that they realize that things could be different.  Similarly there is nothing in a local school system that indicates a problem.  It is, after all, the best way to educate the children.  It’s only when we pull back and look at the overall results that we realized that things could be done better.

As Homer points out, though, the solution is simple.  It’s merely a matter of getting together and talking about these issues.  That’s what the Cyclopes are missing: meetings.  That’s all; a way to discuss what the local people are doing and so decide on which ways are best.  This doesn’t have to replace the emphasis on local control; it just adds a way to share new ideas and techniques.  Collective methods that grow out of local work do not replace that local emphasis, they just add to it.

The point here is not that there is anything wrong with local control; what is wrong is to try to run the entire program around this one ideal.  What we are missing are the kinds of meetings that the Cyclopes are missing; discussions about our local control.  Those can only be created by setting up some kind of organizational structure that is larger than local.


Peter Dodington







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