National Public Education
9Dec/170

Elizabeth Green and Charter Schools

Elizabeth Green, the creator of "Chalkbeat" and the author of several excellent works on the public schools, has written an article for the Atlantic about Eva Moskowitz and her charter school network.  In that article she says that she worries about where these charter organizations are headed, with their wealthy donors on their boards, but feels that they are the "most promising model we have for public education."

But I don't want to discuss either Ms Moskowitz or the charter school movement. Instead I want to ask why Ms Green rejects the other options for our schools, such as the traditional government run schools.   I want to look at what Ms Green says about public education in general, and see if we an figure out what she thinks is going wrong there, and whether there is any solution to those "public" problems.  If not, then we might turn to a discussion of things like charter schools.

Ms Green says that when she started to write a book in 2010 about the public schools, she realized "how impossible teaching is, especially in traditional public schools."  She points out that other countries are able to supply good materials, goals, and training to their teachers, but our governments do not.  Part of the problem, she says, in the confusing mix of local, state, and national authority in public education.  She wants a system that is "equitable, accountable, and parent-friendly," but does not see how our governments can supply this.  She goes so far as to worry that "democracy as we know it is a problem."

All this is true.  But why, then, not try to fix the democracy?  Before we turn away from it, and give up on a workable public system, why not try to change that government system so that it does work? That would not be impossible; we still are able to vote on changes in the way we govern our public programs, aren't we?

Ms Green, herself, hints at how we might approach this problem.  At the end of the article, she turns her attention to the boards that run the charter school systems and finance the charter-specific aspects of them. She worries, quite rightly, that the people who control that money might use these funds for their own ends.  She sees, rightly, that those who control the money in these programs control the essence of these charter schools.

Let's apply that kind of thinking, then, to the public school system.  Where does the money for that system come from?  Obviously, the taxpayers.  And not just the parent taxpayers, who only make up a quarter of the population, but the general taxpayers who don't have children in the schools.  They, as in "we", are the source of the money that makes public education happen; we, ourselves, are the "board" for the school system. That's why it's called a "public" system; it is funded by that "public."  When I was a teacher in the New York City schools, almost everyone I met on the street was paying part of my salary. The money, and, actually, the control, of public education comes from the taxpayers.

But you can see right away that there are problems.  Why were those people on the streets of New York paying me?  I wasn't teaching their children.  So was I providing them some kind of public benefit, like less crime and a better economy?  But where is the evidence that this is happening?  Almost all of that money goes to the state and local governments, but do these governments ever tell us anything about those public benefits?  All they tell us is what happens in the schools, not the effect of this on us, the people paying for those schools.

Well, you might say, that is too complicated.  Who can fathom the workings of state and local government?  It's so "political."  But if you can work your way through why a hedge-fund owner might want to support charter schools, I think you can also start to figure out our decentralized state and local public school system.  There are some obvious truths that are apparent to anyone who looks in that direction.

Take, for example, the issue of teacher training, which Ms Green has particularly focused on, quite rightly.  Who is in charge of this in the public schools?  Not the local districts, and not the federal government, which provides less than 10% of the funding for the school system.  It must be the states.  But why should the states want to do this well?  Do the graduates of their programs stay in their states?  Not at all.  So why should they focus on spending their good state tax money on this?  They don't get any direct benefit from it.  They have to share the results of their program with all the other states, so why should they ever try to make their program better than the average level that the other states provide?  So that's why we have average, mediocre, teacher-training programs. There is no way around this as long as we allow the states to run these programs.

In Ms Green's article, the words "state government" do not appear.  That is a problem. She has such a good understanding of the schools; she just needs to take it to the next level.  Where is the public money coming from, and what is wrong with the way we are doing that?  There are public solutions to our public school problems, but we won't ever find these unless we examine the fundamental structure of the system we are currently using.  Before we even start to think about alternatives, like charter schools, let's look critically at the public system we have, and see if we can make it better.

Peter Dodington

December 9, 2017

 

16Sep/170

“The War on Public Schools”


Erika Christakis has written a good piece in this month’s (October, 2017) Atlantic magazine on how public education helps to bring us all together in a stable, workable, democracy.  She points out that what we need is more civics education, more emphasis on the social, cooperative, values taught in school, and a realization that the “privatization” of the schools will destroy something valuable.  All this is great, but, of course, I also wish she had pursued some of her points more thoroughly.

There is much to like; for one, simply the term “public” in the title.  That, in itself, is a big step in the right direction.  Only a few years ago this very same magazine did a large survey on “American Education.”  As I wrote then, this is not the problem.  We already know how to “educate” people quite well.  What we don’t know how to do is run a public program that does this well.  The main problem is the “public” part of public education.

Secondly, she brings up the topic of the “public benefit” from public education.  Finally someone is talking about this.  She points out that one of the key “stakeholders” in public education is the public itself, i.e. the nation as a whole, and that the emphasis on individual rights and choices ignores the importance of this aspect of the public schools.

She also reminds us that America has never been at the top of the world in terms of student achievement.  We have been the best at getting more of our population into school, but we have never been the best academically.  That, too, is an important point to remember, since it implies that if we want to get to that high level now, we probably need to make some major changes in the entire program.  Simply going back to what we have always done will not get us to the top academically.  We need to do something new. (Of course, this is exactly why people argue that we need to privatize the schools; what I would like to point out is that we could also simply build a new, and better, public school system, one that, for example, had a more centralized structure.)

And finally, and best of all, she explains how illogical it is to want to have a “choice” in how we educate our children in a public school system.  She points out that of course everyone likes this idea of having more control over their child’s schooling, but that the whole idea really doesn’t make sense.  It would be like choosing to get, as she says, a free gym membership for oneself by using funds allocated for better parks; getting an essentially private benefit from something that was supposed to be for the public, for everyone.

This is a great argument.  It brings out exactly the central problem with the whole privatization movement; that these plans are a misuse of the intent of the people who are actually funding these schemes, the public taxpayers.  In her example, these people paid for a park, not gym memberships.  A public program is, by definition, for everyone, so it will always be more or less uniform for all.  In such a system, "choice" doesn't make sense.

My only problem with Ms Christakis is that she doesn’t stress this point enough.  She turns away from it in the next sentence, saying that she doesn’t want to discuss school choice, since, as she says, the evidence for these schemes is “mixed.”  By this I gather she means that some charter and voucher programs do produce better results than the traditional schools.

But this is the same mistake everyone makes about the issue of charter schools and the like.  The point is not whether they are better than the traditional schools or not. There’s a deeper problem. The whole concept is wrong; it’s a misuse of public funds.  Looking at whether charter schools do a good job would be like, in Ms Christakis’ example, looking at whether the gym memberships were “better” for us than the park program.  You see, that’s not the point.  Even if the gym memberships were better, that would not negate the central problem with such a scheme; it would still be wrong to use public funds for a private benefit.

So, she is well on her way to making a valuable contribution to the debate on public education, but still has a way to go.  She sees the outlines of the central problems, but is not quite ready to address these core issues yet, or, perhaps, is not quite ready to try to get such controversial issues into print.  What is great, though, is that she brings up the “public” nature of the public school problem, for that is the key to its eventual solution.

 

Peter Dodington

September 16, 2017

9Sep/170

“Endangering Prosperity” by Eric Hanushek

Eric Hanushek et al. have written an excellent book on the economic implications of our weak public education system.  The authors put to rest many of the popular misconceptions about the schools.

First, just to review what everyone knows, on an international test of student achievement, such as the PISA exams (Program for International Student Assessment), the US ranks 32nd out of the 68 countries tested in math in 2011, in other words, just about at the bottom of the list of developed European and Asian countries.  The results are only slightly better for English skills.  All this is well known.

What is not so well known is that this poor showing is not caused by our diverse population.  All our students do poorly, rich and poor.  Among white students whose parents are college educated, less than half are at a proficient level in math, putting them below all the students, minorities included, in 16 other countries.  Our best students are nowhere near as good as the best students in many other counties.  Among white students in the US, only 9% performed at an advanced level, putting us, again, at the bottom of the developed world.  The problems of our educational system are not limited to our poor and minority communities.

As Hanushek points out, the US is not the only diverse country.  Canada, for example, has a similar level of diversity, but does much better than us educationally.  They also are a big country spread over a wide area, yet still seem to find a way to educate everyone.  It is not just the small homogenous countries that do well.

What Hanushek is worried about is that there is no doubt that these educational problems will affect our economy.  There can be no argument that educational level does not have an effect on economic growth.  The chart is right there on page 24 of this book.  All the countries with high test scores also have high rates of economic growth from 1960 to 2009.  And those with low test scores have low rates of growth.  The US is, again, about in the middle, below most of the wealthy countries in the world.

The authors also show that it is not simply the amount of money spent on education, or even the number of years of schooling offered, that makes a difference.  Strangely enough, it is how much the students actually learn that matters.  This is what is correlated with economic growth.

All this bodes ill for the future of US prosperity.  We are in trouble.  As Hanushek points out, many of our economic gains over the past two centuries have been linked to non-educational factors, such as our natural resources and our traditional support for new and innovative businesses.  And we also had an educational system that included a higher percentage of our population than any other country.  But none of this is still true today.  The rest of the world has caught up with us, and they have done so by educating their children to a higher level.  That is what we need to do if we want to continue to grow.

All this needs to be read by a wider audience.  The data in a book like this, written by professional economists, ought to be read by every state legislator and every member of the state departments of education, not to mention the federal Secretary of Education.  They are the ones in charge of our schools; it is up to them to find a way to improve them.  If they cannot do this, they need to be replaced by someone who can.

The only problem I have with this book is that Hanushek then blames teachers and particularly the teachers’ unions for these problems, saying that teachers have uniformly opposed innovations in public education, such as vouchers and charter schools.

This may be true, but they oppose them for good reason.  Is there any evidence that these quasi-private schemes will ever improve the public school system?  Can we really make a public program better by making it more private?   Does that make sense?  Regardless of how well each one does, these schemes cannot solve the overall problem, since they have no way to address the entire public program.  They only work because they are separate from the rest of the program.  That is not a viable solution.

Still, I am thankful that Mr. Hanushek has written such a good book on the realities of the link between public education and economic prosperity.

Peter Dodington

September 9, 2017

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

12Aug/170

Equity Versus Improvement in the School System

Recently there have been many articles in the press about how Secretary of Education DeVos will "destroy" the public schools if she is allowed to continue her privatization efforts.  I fully agree with this point of view.  It seems that she is intent on doing away with public education as we know it; replacing it with a private school system. However, this doesn't mean that I think these comments are the best way to address this issue. This approach only deals with half the problem: it points out how her plans are inequitable and unfair, but does nothing to solve the overall problem of how to improve the schools.

The schools do need to be improved.  Don't we all know this?  All the data has been flat for a generation.  No matter how we have tried to improve the schools, through better curriculum, better ways to judge the teachers, smaller schools, better pay, etc., nothing has worked.  Of course there are scattered successes, as I myself have been a part of, but no one would say that we now know how to solve our public school problems.

People try to excuse this by saying we have a diverse population, which makes overall success harder, but, for one, there are other countries, such as Canada, which are quite diverse and educate their entire population well, and, for another, diversity is what we do here in America.  Are we going to solve the problem by becoming less diverse?  Is that the solution we want?  If we are diverse then we have to find a diverse way to educate our children well.  Is there any other way to look at it?

People also argue that our top end, our best students, are doing as well as anyone.  Well, duh.  Everyone's top end is doing reasonably well.  It's the entire American system, though, that we want to fix, not the schools in a few select towns or even states.  The central, average level of education in this country is not improving, and hasn't been for a very long time.  That is a problem.  And that is why, of course, the conservatives have turned to their privatization schemes.  They want to find a way to improve at least some of the schools.

This problem of school improvement, though, is ignored in the liberal criticism of Ms DeVos and her friends. Instead, all the focus is on how unfair her privatization schemes would be to the average, non-wealthy, child.  Everyone wants to stop her efforts because they would destroy the equity inherent in a truly public school system.  Her plans would be unfair, and, in a certain sense, immoral.

All this may well be true, but then what?  Does this mean that we want to go back to the public school system we always had, the one whose problems started this whole discussion?  Is it the status quo that we want to return to?  That "status quo" is the problem!  We can't simply argue that the conservatives are wrong.  We also have to come up with what would be right.

This is why the conservative press is more or less laughing at the criticism of Ms DeVos. Quite rightly they find it amusing that no one on the left seems to have the slightest idea of how to improve the schools in a fully public form.  They realize that this "moral" argument about the fairness of her policies is not the main issue.   They at least have one way to improve the schools. That this method only improves some of the schools is problematic, but this still puts them ahead of the opposing liberal view, which has not way to improve any of the schools.  When the liberals say that their policies will "destroy" public education they agree; the public system is not, in fact, working.  It clearly does need to be changed.  They will continue to take this line of argument until the liberals come up with a plan for how to improve public education and keep it public.

It is not enough, then, to show that the conservative efforts to privatize the public schools would be unfair to the majority of students.  Even it that is true, it just gets us back to square one, the question of how to improve the public schools while keeping them public and equitable.  That question, as I never tire of pointing out, is religiously avoided by all, since it is clear that solving it would involve a major revision of our country, let alone of our school system.  That we are afraid to do that implies that we are never going to solve this problem of the public schools, and that the conservative agenda of privatization is going to succeed.

There is a way to make a working, equitable, public school system that would be fair for everyone, through a national school program.  Everyone knows that this would work. We just have to be brave enough to make such a fundamental change.

 

Peter Dodington

8/12/17

 

 

 

5Aug/170

The NAACP and Charter Schools

Some time ago the NAACP called for, with good reason, a moratorium on the creation of new charter schools so that, as they said, we might examine these programs more closely in three areas: 1. the governance of these schools, 2. their relationship to the public schools, and 3. their effect on the public schools.  Let's look more closely at each area.

1. The governance of charter schools.  Who, exactly, is in charge of these schools?  The answer out there on the street is "no one," it's just the parents who send their kids there. "That's the whole point; they are run by the people who use them."  But is that possible? Do the parents hire the staff, fire the staff, choose the books?  Aren't there administrators and bureaucrats who actually organize these things?  Who are these people, and who are their bosses?

And is there any way to affect them?  The traditional schools may be bureaucratic, but there is a way to vote the leaders out of office.  There is nothing like an elected school board in charge of a charter school.  So what happens if there are problems?  It would seem that by doing away with public school bureaucracy the charters have also done away with the democratic process, replacing a cumbersome but transparent administrative structure with a sleek but secretive one.

Given that there is no obvious way to change the policies of a charter school through any kind of democratic process, wouldn't it be wise to get a clear picture of the rationale behind those policies?   Who benefits from these schools?  Are they just a gift to the parents?  That doesn't seem likely.  Aren't there some people in charge who are also benefitting?  Who are these people, and how are they benefitting from these programs? It's our public money; where is it going?

2. The relationship to the public schools.  These schools are still funded by the public school system, even though they are administratively separate from them.  Doesn't that funding imply a relationship?  Can a charter school, then, change its funding?  Will it be able to fund new programs with new funds if that seems best?  And will it ever be able to increase the funding for programs that are doing well?  If not, what will be the incentive to do well?  If yes, how does that match up with the separation from the public schools?

How, then, does the public school system decide on that funding?  Is it according to the overall per pupil cost, or just the per pupil cost for each taxpayer?  There are many more taxpayers than pupils, so the latter will always be much less.  It may actually cost about $20,000 to educate a child these days, but each taxpayer might only pay about $10,000, since they get to divide that cost up between all the taxpayers.  If the state only funds the charter school according to the second amount, won't they be profiting on each child that attends a charter school?  Is that why they are so much in favor of such programs? The state no longer has to pay out that $20K for the child, but then only gives $10K to the charter school and pockets the rest.

But how are the charter schools supposed to educate a child on $10K?  Can they build a new science lab?  Create a football program?  Sponsor trips to Europe?  Won't they always be relying on the public school structure for such things?  But what will happen when the charters start replacing the public school structure, as they seem intent on doing?  Who then will build the science labs?

3. The effect on the public schools.  People argue that charter schools are better than the public schools they replace.  They are a good deal for the parents.  They are almost like a private school education but at a public school price. What a deal!

What the NAACP has realized, though, is that even if there is nothing wrong with this logic, it is starting from the wrong place.  It's looking at the issue of charter schools merely from the perspective of a consumer of this education, not that of the creators of a sound public educational policy.  There may be no conclusive argument against the idea that charters are good schools; the question is, though, are they good school policy?  Are they a way to improve the education of the entire population?  This is the "effect on the public schools" that one has to analyze.

The public schools do educate the entire population (or 90% of it).  If we are really going to replace them with these charter schools, we have to ask whether this new program will also educate everyone.  Is it the right way to replace a program that educates us all? I don't see how we could say this.  Charters are built on the idea of turning away from a general, collective, public approach to education.  They don't help the traditional public schools. How could they?  They are founded on the idea of separation from the public school structure; they are a rejection of the public schools, not an aid to them.  Where is a public school that has benefitted from a nearby charter school?  They don't exist.

So my hat is off to the NAACP.  They have seen that this is a public policy issue, not simply a matter of whether some parents will get a good deal on their child's education. We live in a democracy.  We get to create the public policies that run our public programs like public education, health, and the military.  This is the task we have to focus on.

Peter Dodington

August 5, 2017