National Public Education

“None of the Above” on Educational Reform

Who is going to lead educational reform in America?  To answer this question, let's look at some successful reform efforts for other public programs in this country.

When I first moved to New York City with my wife and small children in the early 1980's, my father-in-law told me that he thought there was "no hope" for the city.  He had just seen a subway train rumble by, all covered with graffiti and dirt, and the sight of that train convinced him that the city as a whole was incapable of succeeding.

But ten years later the subways were doing well, with new cars, new track, and increased ridership.  What happened?  Several things, to be sure, but one major improvement was that the city hired some administrators who knew what to do.  David Gunn, Richard Kiley, and others, knew how to fix the system.  They got rid of the graffiti, fixed the track, and got new state laws passed which enabled them to hire better workers and managers.

Up to that point, no one had worked very hard on the graffiti, for example, because they didn't think it was their job.  The entire system was run by people who had come up through the ranks as trainmen and conductors, and they didn't see how graffiti made that much difference.  After all, it didn't slow down the trains.

What Gunn et al. realized was that if you want to make new improvements, you needed to have new sources of revenue, and that this could only come from the people who were not currently taking the trains: new passengers out there in the general public.  People like my father-in-law.  And, for those people, the graffiti was all they knew about the trains. It was what they saw, period.  So if you wanted to access their funds, you had to fix the graffiti.  And it wasn't that hard; you just had to hire more cleaners.  Once the trains simply "looked" better, people started to think that the system now knew how to solve its problems and so started having more confidence in it, and thus were more willing to support it through fares and taxes.

The same strategy could work for public education.  New improvements have to come from the support of the general public, not the people who already have children in the school system.  How does one influence them?  Perhaps by showing them how they benefit from their support of the schools: the better workers, less crime, and better public health that public education does provide us all.  Where is this data currently?  It doesn't exist.  Solving that problem, like the graffiti, would go a long way towards improving support from the general public.

But here's the problem for the public schools.  Who is going to do this?  Unlike the subway system, there is no one person who is the director of the system.  There is no job title that is set up to solve this kind of a problem.  We can't just hire someone good for that job; it doesn't exist.

We have a decentralized, state-run public school system.  The leaders of that system are the 50 governors and 50 state superintendents of instruction.  Each of them is only in charge of 1/50 of the problem.  They don't have the authority to do any more than make a few minor adjustments.  And the local school leaders have even less power.  They control a tiny fraction of the problem.

And what about the national leaders, the ones that everyone seems too think are calling the shots?  They are forbidden by law from doing almost anything.  All their laws and edicts have to be worded as "recommendations" for the states, since we have a decentralized system.  Even when they threaten to take away federal funding from a state that doesn't follow their recommendations, they are only talking about 10% of any state's education budget.  90% of the system is run by state and local funds raised by the states themselves, not the federal government.

So there is no job title, currently, which we could fill with some excellent leader who would bring about the kind of reforms that improved the subways.  None of the current options would work.  There is no one, actually, fully in charge of our public school system.  So, of course, it is going to be quite difficult to improve it.

The solution, then, is to change that system.  We have to create, first, a position for a leader of the entire school system.  Someone whom we all agree will be in charge of the program.  Someone like the head of a national school board.  Then we would at least have the chance at improving the schools.

People say that they don't want a national leader for their school; they want local control. But such a position would not be a leader of the schools, but a leader of the school system.  It's a bureaucratic position; a way to make the much-maligned bureaucracy work better, not a management position for the schools themselves.  Gunn didn't worry about what was happening in the trains; he worried about the relationship between those trains and the general public, the source of their support. This is what the schools need.  A leader for improvements in the school system, not the schools themselves.  Then the schools will be able to improve.

Peter Dodington

March 25, 2017



The Origins of Public Education Despair

Despair is a major modern problem.  There is a reason why one of the first barriers to Christian's "progress", in Bunyan's tale, is the "Slough of Despond," a bog where he wallows in the mud and cannot free himself. Despair is one of the most powerful forces working against solving one's problems and making progress.

Emily Dickinson, in a poem about how bad writing can affect us down through the ages, calls it a kind of disease, like malaria.  It infects us.

Infection in the sentence breeds

We may inhale Despair

At distances of Centuries

From the Malaria.

Of all the evils that "a word dropped careless on a page" may bring, it is despair that Dickinson emphasizes.  It is, she seems to be saying, the most important modern problem.

When we look at commentators on public education today, though, we find despair everywhere.  As readers of this blog know, almost every writer today either has given up on making any major changes in the success of our schools, and suggests that all we can do is "Hope" for a change for the better (Elizabeth Green), or that nothing can be done until we do away with such things as poverty (Ed Boland), which is saying the same thing. No one sees a path through this swamp.  The best we can do is try to find some other way out, perhaps through a more private approach to education.

But that doesn't get us out of the despair.  We know that private education won't work for everyone; we can't afford it, and, of course, it runs contrary to our founding principles of equality and justice for all.  We don't want to educate people according to the wealth of their parents.  So we are stuck in the swamp, it seems, of public education; unable to go forward to making it work, and unwilling to go back to some different system.

But let's look at that swamp a bit more closely.  What makes it so hard to move forward? Isn't it that there seems to be no way to improve the schools for the general population? We are able to see progress in our own local schools, with the success of our own children and our neighbors', but, overall, there is nothing but a mediocre status quo. The "private" part of the system, our own local school, seems to be working, but the "public" part, throughout the rest of the country, seems mired in failure.  The only solution, then, seems to be to work with just that part that is making progress, the local, private-like part.  Hence the emphasis on local control and all those efforts to privatize public education.

But, you have to admit, turning aside to the individual, "private-like" part of this public system is not going to solve that "public" part of the problem.  If anything, it will make it worse.  If the problem is with overall, collective program, the part that deals with other peoples' children, then we have to work on that public part.  Pulling back to just working on our own problems, not those of collective society, is a hallmark of despair.  It's that lonely life of "one against all", rather than cooperation and sharing, that leads to all sorts of problems, including despair.

So let's see how we might fix the public part of the program.  Once we focus on that, it becomes quite clear that we have a major problem with our state-run decentralized school system.  The states have no way to determine the "public" success of their schools, since this comes from the success of the graduates, and the states have no way of tracking them since they scatter all across the country.  It isn't that we have evidence that the schools don't benefit us; it's rather that since we don't have any evidence about this kind of public benefit at all, we assume that the schools are failing.  Since it is so easy to see the private benefit, we assume that when we don't see any public benefit there must not be any.  (It is only teachers who get to see this benefit, as they get to know the kids and keep track of how they benefit society.  This is why teachers, in general, are against privatization.)

The problem for the schools, then, is not that they are doing poorly, but that there is no way to see how they are doing at all.  There is no CDC, as there is for public health, or an FBI or other crime-data organizations, for the police, that is in charge of the overall data on the success of the schools.  The federal government is forbidden to gather such data by our decentralized system.  The only source for that kind of data would be the states, and they are incapable of collecting it.

That, then, is the nature of this swamp of despair.  It is our ignorance about the results of our schools in general, the "public" results, that keeps us focused just on our local "private" results, even when we know that this will never solve the problems we want solved, the public ones.  The only way to drain it is to change to a national system of public education.

Peter Dodington

March 11, 2017



The Essence of Public Education

When I was teaching at Park West High School in Manhattan some years ago, I came across a good idea for my remedial reading class.  We had a contract with the "Ramp Up" program from the "America's Choice" company, and they suggested that I get my students to read to elementary school children at a nearby school.  My kids were in the ninth grade but had about a fourth grade reading level.  The problem was that they had gotten so good at "faking" it that now they categorically refused to read any "remedial" texts; they only wanted the "real" thing, like Shakespeare or Twain.  Then they would rely on what they could pick up from class discussion, their girl-friends, and the helpful hints from their teacher to get them through the book.

Since this meant that I was hardly teaching them anything at all I wanted to get them into books they could actually read.  Having them read to young children would not only accomplish this, but would also get them to discuss the reading, an excellent way to improve one's reading level.  And, of course, the little ones would benefit, too.

It took me several months, though, to set this up.  I went around to one grade school after another.  Time after time the grade school principal would say something like, "I spend all day trying to keep my kids away from kids like yours."  Finally I found one principal who let me talk to one third-grade teacher who agreed to let me come one day a week.

It was an instant success.  The little kids gathered around my students the minute they came in the door, holding on to them and snuggling up as they went off to a corner to read.  It made no difference at all what the academic level was of the students, on either side of the group.  If anything, it was my biggest, toughest, and least educated students who were most popular with the little ones.  Everyone seemed involved.  And my students rose to the occasion.  I heard comments about plot and character that had never been uttered in my regular class.  The grade school teacher and I went around handing out books, but mostly we just stood there and smiled.

In those days we didn't keep very accurate records of such things, but I did get some feedback from an interesting source.  One day in my regular class I noticed a new student in the back.  I talked with him and realized that he had been registered for the class from the start but had never attended.  I had sent the usual notices home and to the attendance office but to no avail.  But here he was doing the work.

Then I didn't see him again until we went to the grade school, and then not again until a week later when we went again.  Then I remembered that on that first day we had planned to go but had cancelled at the last minute.  He was only coming on the days we went to the grade school.  It was only the chance to read to the little ones that was getting him to school at all.

This, it seems to me, is the essence of public education.  There is no private solution for that young man's problems, or at least none that anyone can afford.  One can argue that there are some private programs that could bring him back to school, but they are very few and far between, and quite expensive.  But when we pool our resources in a public program we can reach a good number of such students, and sometimes this does work. Here was the proof.  Who knows how much good we were bringing into that child's life by getting back into school, at least for one day a week?  And how much good we were producing for ourselves by keeping him less involved in anti-social activities?

Why, then, aren't there more success stories like this?  It wasn't that complicated; the ideas are out there, we just have to use them.  Why was it, though, that this program lasted all of one semester?  My school was closed at the start of the next term and I moved on, perforce, to a totally different school.

Was it that I didn't promote it enough?  But how?  Who was I supposed to go to?  True, the teachers' union does pay attention to such things, but who in the school administration does?  Whose job is it to see that a classroom success becomes a district or state-wide success?  Who was going to help the next teacher contact a grade school and set up a similar program?  Why aren't there any such people in the schools?

The short answer is, I think, because that's the way the public wants it.  The public keeps saying that what they want is an emphasis on the classroom.  They don't want any "outsiders" coming in and messing up the relationship between the children and the teachers.  Fine; so that is what we get.  Good classrooms.  And that is what I got.  A classroom success.  But nothing more; and consequently, a fairly short-term success.

In fact, what we needed was precisely those "outsiders" to come in and help the teachers set up such a program.  This kind of program involves things "outside" the classroom, such as the little kids, and so needs help from an "outside" source.  But we don't have people working on that aspect of education, and no one seems to want us to.

So my remedial program was, in fact, the "essence" of our public education system; it showed me how much we could accomplish, and also, how unlikely it was that this would happen, given what the public says they want from the schools.  A locally focused program gets local success, but only that.  It is incapable of changing the overall system for the better.

Peter Dodington

January 7, 2017


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



Data on Public Attitudes on the Schools

Each year the Phi Delta Kappan organization, in conjunction with the Gallup poll, publishes a report on public attitudes about public education.  The most recent study readily available online is from September 2014.  What it says about public opinion can help us see how we should approach the problems of our schools.

I would like to focus on two findings from the report.  The first is that the “biggest problem” for the public schools is the “lack of financial support.”  More than three-times as many people (32%) voted for this problem compared to the next highest problems, “standards,” and “discipline” (both 9%).

The second finding concerns the “grade” the public would give, on the one hand, to their local school, and, on the other, to America’s schools in general.  As is reported every year, the public is much more favorable towards their local school than to the schools in general.  12% of the population give their local school an “A” but only 1% give that grade to the distant schools in the rest of the country.  And 38% give their local school a “B”, while only 16% give that grade to the distant schools.  There is, then, about three times as much approval (“A” or “B”) for local schools as there is for distant schools (50% versus 17%).

When looking at these two findings, the first thing to note is that they must be related.  The reason we have a problem with financial support of the schools is that we, the public, do not approve of what most of the schools are doing, and consequently do not end up supporting them very well.  There are thousands of distant schools but only one local school for each individual.  When you say that you like your local school but don’t like the distant ones, you are saying, in effect, that you don’t agree with what the vast majority of the schools are doing.  So of course you are not going to support them very well.   If we only think 1% of the schools in general are doing a good job, there will always be a problem with the “financial support of the schools.”

The schools are not run, or financed, by some big corporate types who have their own agenda on how to increase their profits: they are run by us, the public.  We are the only source for their funds.  We are not just the consumers of the education, we literally own the schools.  In the most general sense, we are the “board”, the major owners, of that organization.  If the schools are not getting the right amount of financial support, it’s because we have chosen not to give it to them.  And, apparently, this is because we do not think that the non-local schools are doing a good job.

But the second thing to note is that there is something wrong with these grades given by the public; they don’t make sense.  If I were teaching this topic to a class I would say, “Doesn’t anyone see this?” and after a number of blank looks some sharpie in the back would say, “Oh, right, the two sets of schools, the local and the distant, are the same schools.”  Quite so.  My local school is your distant school, and vice versa.  These schools, then, can’t be simultaneously both good and bad; they have to be one or the other, which means that somebody is making an error in their evaluation of the schools. Either they are over-estimating the value of their local schools, or they are under-estimating the value of the distant ones.  Well, since they know their local school quite well, and the distant ones hardly at all, it is more reasonable that everyone is undervaluing the success of the distant schools.  For some reason we all have a wrong view of distant schools in general – we think that they are worse than they really are.

This, then, is good news in our quest for how we can improve the schools, since it gives us a path to restoring better funding for the schools.  If the reason the schools are not being funded  is simply that the public does not approve of most of them, and this is a mistake in perception, then all we have to do is discover why the public is making this mistake, and that shouldn’t be too hard.  In other words, if the problem for the funding, and improvement, of the schools is not just in their actual failures, which might be quite hard to fix, but just in the perception of their failure, and this is an incorrect perception, then the problem is much simpler.  We just have to find a better way to evaluate more accurately the distant schools.  Then we would want to support them more and improvements would follow.  It should be quite possible, then, to improve this apparently so-dysfunctional school system.

So, how do we evaluate those distant schools?  Well, first, not by personal experience.  That only works for the local school where your own kids are taught or your neighbors’.  What about the data on the schools?  The various state school systems do provide data on the test scores, attendance, graduation rates, college admission, etc. for all the schools.  But, again, this is primarily data about a local situation.  It is about what is happening in a local school.  The problem is that you are not involved with that local school if you do not live there.  Whether a student gets an “A” there has an effect on the local residents in that town, but not on you if you are miles away.

What affects you in that distant school is the success or failure of the graduates of the school, not the students.  The graduates are the ones who will change your life for better or worse, when they succeed in their jobs, or come to work for you, or steal your car.  They are the connection between you and that distant school.  If you want to know whether you ought to support that distant school, you need to know whether the graduates of that school are providing a public benefit to you, something like a better economy, less crime, or better overall health.

But, strangely enough, this information is not provided by any part of the school system; not by the local, state, or national school systems.  All the data is about the students, not the graduates.  This has a profound effect on our perception of the success of those distant schools, and the consequent funding we are willing to spend on them and the school system in general.

The problem is that when someone wonders whether school X, 100 miles away, is doing a good job, he doesn’t ask “Do we have any good data on them?”  He just asks, “Is there any evidence that they are succeeding?”  Unfortunately, if the answer to the first question is “no”, the answer to the second has to be “no.” No data means no positive data, which means we don’t approve.  When we don’t have any way to evaluate a school, we end up assuming it is doing poorly.  No data means no evidence of success.

So here we have an answer to our question of why we make the mistake of under-valuing distant schools.  It’s simply because we don’t have any meaningful data on their success; success that matters to us, the success of their graduates.  Consequently we assume that they are not doing well, when, actually, we don’t know whether they are doing well or not.  This leads to the kind of illogical results reported in the Kappan study, and to a general under-support of public education.

Why, then, do we not have this kind of data on the public benefits from this public program?  Other public programs are careful to publish results on how their programs affect the general public.  The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) tells us a lot about the rates of various infections in the population in general.  This is data on how the general public was affected by their work, not just about how the people in their hospitals were treated.  If they acted like the schools they would only tell us how many patients they had cured – the characteristics of the people using their services; the people in their buildings.  If they did only that, they would probably be as poorly supported as the public schools.

The same is true for police data on the level of crime in our neighborhoods, or data from the sanitation department on how clear our streets are.  This is data on the effect of their work on the general public, the people who are paying them.  Why doesn’t this happen in our school systems?

As readers of this blog know, I have some thoughts on this topic, but we will have to wait until next week to discuss them.

Peter Dodington

December 4, 2016