National Public Education

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



Our Need for Public Education

Some time ago, my brother sent me an article from the Wall Street Journal ridiculing the excessive, the author felt, interest in the DeVos nomination to be head of the Department of Education.  Here she is, he said, in charge of one of the smallest cabinet posts, with a budget that amounts to just 3% of federal spending, and yet she is on the front page of every liberal newspaper and website in the country, and is the subject of a massive campaign to block her nomination.  Why is that?

Her position is not even that important to public education in general, since federal programs make up only about 10% of the total amount spent on the schools.  There are probably some individual states that have just about as large an educational budget.  But who knows the name of their state superintendent of public instruction?  Why is there such a fuss about this relatively unimportant federal position?

I may differ with the tone of this article, but it does have some truth to it.  There is no doubt that the general public does care more about public education than would seem reasonable.  The DeVos story is just one aspect of this.  Hardly a day goes by without some story about the schools making headlines.

This isn’t just because the schools deal with children.  You don’t see a similar level of interest in other programs for children, such as youth leagues or well-child programs.  America, in fact, is well behind most other countries in providing social programs for children.

Nor is this interest in the schools related to education in general.  If that were the case, wouldn’t there also be an interest in the private schools?  But where is this?  Do you ever see an article about a private school in the paper?  Fully 10% of our children attend these schools, but there seems to be little overall interest in them.

Rather the public is fixated on the public education aspects of these issues.  And this explains why they are so fascinated by Ms DeVos.  She is as close as we can come to having a leader of this program.  True, she is only in charge of 10% of the overall program, but who is in charge of more?  The state superintendents?  Each of them is only in charge of his or her own state, one of 50 different autonomous entities.  They have absolutely no influence on the other 49, by law.  At least there is some possibility that Ms DeVos might influence several states, not just one.  She is the best we can do in terms of the leadership of our public school system.

Putting aside for now the obvious question of why we don't have a leader for our public school system, let’s look at a more basic question:  Why do we care so much about this issue in general?  What is it about public education, in contrast to other kinds of education, and other programs for children, that makes us worry about it so?  Why do we all seem to want a better public school system?  Does it satisfy some basic need in us?

Thinking about this issue, I was reminded of a quote by Benjamin Rush, the famous Philadelphia physician and signer of the Declaration of Independence:

"Our schools of learning, by producing one general and uniform system of education, will render the mass of the people more homogenous and thereby fit them more easily for uniform and peaceable government"  (A Plan for the Establishment of Public Schools and Thoughts upon the Mode of Education Proper in a Republic (1786) p. 14).

As many have pointed out, Americans came here to accomplish their own personal goals.  They have a built-in mistrust of government programs that will tell them what to do.  They want to be free to develop their own ideas, their own way of doing things.  As Rush notes, though, they then need some help in finding ways to join together in collective activities. They don't do this naturally.  They need to find out how they agree on things; how they are similar.  Public education can do this.  It has been a way, from the start, of smoothing out all those differences that the immigrants brought with them.  It has helped make them "amenable to peaceable government."  Perhaps that is why we worry about it so much.  We can see, to some extent, that we Americans need it.

This would also help to explain why we are somewhat irrational in the intensity of our interest in public education.  We know it’s a problem for us, something we haven’t yet solved, and so are concerned with that problem; it bothers us.  But we’re not even sure there is a solution.  We like that independent and individualistic way of doing things.  Perhaps we will never find a way to join together as one homogenous country.

All the more reason, then, to worry so about it, even in a somewhat irrational way.  That, at least, is one way to deal with it.  It gives us something to do.  Maybe if we think about it long enough some solution will turn up.  That is one way to look at it.

But, of course, it is not the best way.  A better way would be to try to think through what the problem really is and then take steps to solve it.  We might start with that question of who ought to be in charge.

What this all implies, it seems to me, is that it is crucial that we solve our public school problems.  The whole issue is an integral part of our American heritage.  It’s not just a problem for the children or the parents or the teachers; it affects us all.  We really do need working public schools.

Peter Dodington

July 8, 2017




Measuring School Success

I recently read a good article by NPR on whether money matters in public education.  Much as I respect National Public Radio, and am very pleased that they set out to show that it does matter, I would like to say a few things about their approach.  They seem to pass right over what I think is the main reason there is so much confusion about this topic.

The article starts with the findings of researchers, like James Coleman and Eric Hanushek, that, in general, increasing the amount of money available to a school has little effect on student outcomes such as test scores and graduation rates.  This is true.  There is ample evidence that, particularly in low-performing schools, increases in funding have produced almost no changes in these outcomes.

But, there’s a problem with the kinds of outcomes we are looking at, those test scores and graduation rates.  They are not a good indication of what the school is all about.  As a teacher, I never felt my job was to raise test scores or graduation rates.  I had more important things to think about, such as educating the kids.  It was their lives that I wanted to change, not their scores.  I wanted them to find themselves; to grow up and discover ways to work hard and be happy doing this.  I really believed that learning my subject would help them do this.  As Thomas Jefferson said, education can show students that “their own happiness does not depend on the condition of life which chance has placed them.”  That's what education is all about.

And besides, what teacher ever set out to have every student pass a test?  That’s not the point of testing.  You give the tests so you can find out who is having trouble.  It’s the failures that you are interested in, not the “A’s”.   And my goal wasn't that what they learned in my class would somehow help them in other classes, or on some standardized test of general knowledge.  I just wanted them to learn what I was teaching them.  That was hard enough.

Well, you might say, you should have been more concerned with their test scores.  Should I?  Is that what you would want for your own child?  A teacher whose main emphasis was on the data produced by the child rather than the child himself; some kind of classroom bureaucrat who was focused on whether he, the teacher, was succeeding?

So it is perfectly logical that more money doesn’t change those test scores.  The teachers don’t want it to.  They want to use the money to help make the kids more mature, more self-confident, more successful as adults.  And this often does work.  There are studies, as the NPR article noted,  that better resources in a grade-school classroom do affect things like adult earnings, even though they don’t raise test scores.  Of course, though, such things are rarely measured by the schools, since they have no way to track the kids into their adult lives.

A good way to understand this whole topic is to consider what we do in other public programs.  Suppose we wanted to see whether more money for the fire department was producing better results.  But the results we chose were those we could easily measure, such as response time to the fire, or the amount of water used, or the cost of the property damage.  But are these things what firemen care about?  Aren’t they in this profession because they want to save lives, and actually do this regularly?  Wouldn’t they spend the money, then, on how to save those lives, not on how to improve water use?  So it might well happen that more money did not change the kind of outcomes we were measuring, but not because money didn’t matter, but just because we were trying to measure the wrong outcomes.

To its credit, the NPR story does raise this question of whether we are looking at the right outcomes, but only at the very end, and only then as one of many issues to be resolved.  They miss the importance of this issue.   We are all using the wrong metric to evaluate school success; a metric that no one in the schools takes very seriously, and that we don’t want them to take seriously.  We want them to improve the kids, not the testing data.

If we did want to evaluate the schools more seriously, I would suggest: a) longitudinal data on the students on into their adult years, and b) data on the growth of individual students, not average scores.  Many schools get in new kids with low scores every day, and we want them to; someone has to educate those kids.  But their average scores, then, stay low no matter how well they raise the scores of each kid.  It is quite possible to be a very good school with low average scores.

Peter Dodington

June 17, 2017





There is an interesting paradox concerning the efforts to improve the public education system in America.  The people most interested in this effort, the intellectuals and other people most concerned with learning and education, are precisely the people least interested in having the government solve this problem.  We are all revolutionaries, fighting the good fight against big government and other agencies that will squash intellectual freedom.  The last things we want to do is turn this problem over to Washington.

But then what are we going to do?  What, then, is the plan?  Everyone is quite sure that the privatization of the schools is all wrong, and that it harms the public schools and should not be allowed, but then what?  Is the goal simply to leave these wonderful schools as they are?  Is that going to work?  Isn’t there a problem with the schools?  Aren’t the data flat for the last 50 years or so?  Don’t we need to have our own plan for how to deal with this?  We need an offense, not just a defense.

But that has to mean dealing with a government solution.  The public schools are a government program.  If you don’t want that, fine, but then you’re reading the wrong blog.  I want to talk about how we might fix the schools within their current structure, since I think that is the only structure that will work if we want to educate the entire population.  We can’t afford a private school for everyone.  So let’s fix the public school system, the one run by the various state, local and national governments.

I know, my intellectual friend, you feel that you have never learned anything through a government program.  All your learning has come from teachers who, it seemed, were quite anti-government.  Revolutionaries, like yourself.  It doesn’t seem that the government is in any way a good source of education.

But, you see, “education”, per se,  is not the problem, here.  It’s not the classroom that needs to be fixed, but the government that is organizing the classrooms.  We know how to educate; what we don’t know how to do is organize an educational system.

Suppose you want to open a restaurant.  And you say, good, let’s get in a great chef and open up.  And your friends say, wait, there’s a lot more to it than that.  You have to design the place, and figure out what the kitchen will be like, and who will be in charge, and all that stuff.  You, who have been a customer, are focused on the food, but the people actually running a restaurant have to think about much more.  There’s a structure to the whole business that has to be worked out.

That structure is the part that is not doing well in public education.  Not what’s going on in the classrooms, but what’s going on in the state legislatures, and congress, and the school boards.  We have to fix the way these governments run the schools, not the schools themselves.

But the government has never been a solution, in your experience.  They do nothing but interfere with your business or college or freedom.  And I say, that’s different.  These were private businesses or operations.  Public education, by definition, is a government-run operation.  There is no way to privately run a public school.  The only way to fix public education is to fix the government that runs it.  Government is often a problem for a private business, but it has to be the solution for a public program.

But you say, “Well, I don’t know much about these governments, especially the state ones.  They seem to be purposely set up to confuse us.”  So, is the answer then to give up?  Or should we find out more about how state governments work, since they are in charge of the school system?

When this country was founded, certainly Washington, Jefferson, et al. were true revolutionaries; they were fighting, with their lives, for freedom from big, bureaucratic, England.  But that did not mean that they were not interested in government.  The members of the Constitutional Convention thought that government was the solution, not the problem.  They firmly believed that the best way to acquire “public happiness” is through good government.  Is there something wrong with this idea?  Isn’t it still true today?

Public education is worth the trouble.  If we could do it better, not only would we find that our economy was stronger, and our health better, and the crime rate lower, but the entire level of civility throughout the country would improve.  We would be a more unified and less angry people.  That would be good.

Peter Dodington

June 10, 2017



“My Father Taught Me to Be the Best”

In Homer’s Iliad, the Greek warrior Diomedes meets the Trojan prince Glaucus on the battlefield.  Diomedes, who has been killing Trojans right and left, is amazed to find one more young man coming out to fight him, and demands to know who he is.  Glaucus responds by first noting that such questions matter little in the general scheme of things, since we are "but leaves, born to die and be scattered by the wind", but, if he wishes, he will tell about himself.

He is a grandson of Bellerophon, the famous warrior who tamed Pegasus, the flying horse, and who killed the monster Chimaera and defeated the Amazons.  He then sums up who he is by saying, “My father told me over and over to always be the best, and to hold my head high so as to not disgrace my noble ancestors” (Book 6, lines 207 ff).

Today we pull back from saying we are “best” at anything.  It seems so self-centered, so haughty.  But this is not quite what Glaucus is saying.  He does not say he is the best, but that his father taught him to be the best.  He says nothing about his achievements; it’s only his attitude, his goals, that he mentions.  He’s not talking about himself as much as he is  about his relationship with his father and his relatives.  The point is not what he has done, but what his family has taught him to do, through their actions and their words.  This is how he defines himself; not by his achievements, but by his connections to his loved ones; by the aspirations and goals that his family has taught him.

Isn’t this what we want for our own children?  Not that they say “We’re number one,” but that they feel they should always try be the best at what they do; to always aim for the top and never settle for less.  This will enable them to find their own personal satisfaction, regardless of whether this involves wealth, or fame, or whatever kind of success they want.  In the words of another of my favorite authors, Thomas Jefferson, it will show them “how to work out their own greatest happiness, by showing them that it does not depend on the condition of life which chance has placed them” (Jefferson’s comments on the value of education in his Notes on Virginia).  It will lead them to the kind of internal happiness that we want for them.

How, then, could we accomplish this in today’s world?  Primarily, of course, through our own personal excellence and our interactions with our children, just as Glaucus’ father did for him.  But we also have a more communal way to foster that excellence in our children, and that is through our public school system.  It, too, can say to our children, “always be the best and hold your head up high.”

But clearly our American public school system is not saying this right now to our children.  There are isolated pockets of excellence, but overall there is a pervasive tone of of mediocre status quo throughout the schools.  All the data for a generation has put us at or near the bottom of the developed world.  The achievement scores of our students, particularly in the upper grades, have been unchanged for 50 years.

And it seems we have decided that there is little we can do to change this.   We are no longer trying to make our public schools engines of excellence.  All the new ideas are about how to make private schools for a few, not public schools for all.  We are content, it seems, to settle for something reasonably good, since we cannot find a way to make the schools excellent.  We are no longer telling, or showing, our children that they can be the best.  Rather we are saying to our children in the public schools, collectively, that we are "teaching you to be average."

I say this with all due respect for the teaching profession.  I myself taught in public schools for 40 years and certainly did not try to settle for anything like an average level of success.  But the data is there; this is where we have ended up.

My point is that our neglect of our public schools is an affront to our own beliefs of how best to raise children.  We know what we want for our children, and it is certainly not that they should go through life thinking that they are somehow average.  Why, then, settle for this in a public program?  It's our program.  We control it; it's our money, through our taxes, and its our leaders, whom we have elected, who run it.  Why not show all our children, through that program, that they can be "the best"?


Peter Dodington

May 27, 2017