National Public Education

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







Three Facts About Improving Public Education

Some thoughts about how to improve the schools, boiled down to three facts.

1) It takes money, new money, to bring about improvements to a program.

This is so obvious that people often look right past it in the debate about the schools.  Of course schools deal with complex, hard-to-define issue like "intelligence" or "learning," but that does not mean that the structure of the program that provides those things is also hard to define.  If you want to change something for the better, that means that you have to put some new resources into it, like better ideas or better people.  These things cost money.  If they work, you will get the money back and then some, but at first you have to come up with new sources of funds.

In education, this is hard to see because people often want to just "fix" the schools, not "improve" them.  They want to make them less dysfunctional, or more like they used to be, or more equal.  That's fine, but it's not the same as wanting to improve them. Fixing them might be done by just moving the parts around some, and that might not cost much, and certainly the efforts to equalize them ought to be just a matter of shifting the funds around, not providing more funds.  But if we say, from the start, that what we want is better schools, not just schools that have solved their problems, then we will need more money.

A good defense is important in any sport, but in the end, it won't help much if you don't have an offense.  Let's score some points, one's we have made ourselves, rather than just answering our critics.  To do that we need more funds.

2) Funding has to come from the general public, not just the parents.

There simply aren't enough parents of school-age children to do the job.  Only about a quarter of the tax-paying population has children in school.  If we tried to rely on just their contribution to the schools, the schools would have to be four times worse! (Or the parents would have to pay four times as much, which is about what they do if they switch to a private school.) . Schools funded only by parents, such as a new day-care center, meet in church basements.

Private schools and colleges have known this all along.  They don't rely on just the tuition of the parents, as any alumnus can attest.  They are funded primarily by the rest of the population: wealthy donors, graduates and the government.

Of course there are suburban public schools that rely primarily on parent funding, but they educate a very small percentage of the population.  If we want to improve the entire system, we have to rely on funds from the general public.

3) The general public will not fund improvements unless they can see that these provide a public benefit to them.

Parents get a clear benefit from the education of their children.  They can see how this improves their lives now, and how, in the long run, it will improve their adult lives when they grow up.  That is why they are willing to support the schools.

The rest of the population also gets a benefit from the schools, a public benefit.  By educating our children we lower the amount of crime in our society, lessen disease, create better workers, foster innovations, create better voters, and make a more unified country, to name a few.  All this has been proven over and over.  We don't have public schools because we like government-run programs; we have them because they provide benefits that we can't get any other way.

But, you will say, I don't support my schools because I get a benefit from them; I just support them because I like them.  They are like the United Way or such; something good that I want to support.

But, you see, that will never lead to improvements.  Charity does not work as a way to fund growth.  It is actually a way to keep the status quo.  As you say, "You like them," that is, you like what they are, not what they could be.  Charity in general helps people become better at what they are; not at changing to something different, and better.  If we want to improve the schools we can't treat them as a charity.

If we want to fund improvements we need to show the general public how those improvements benefit them.  No one is going to put up new money, an increase in their educational taxes, unless they can see how that investment will make their own lives better.  We know that better schools do make our own lives better; the problem is how to show this to the taxpayers.

Once we get these three facts straight, and agree that they are valid, we can see why the public schools are not improving.  Our decentralized school system, run by the districts and the states, has no way to demonstrate the public benefit from the schools to the taxpayers.  Those benefits occur outside of these local and state entities, as the graduates move away, and so cannot be tracked and tabulated. The only way to improve the schools, then, is to switch to a national school system.

Peter Dodington

April 15, 2017



Lessons From Kansas City

The Latin contest had come down to a final series of questions.  Our middle school in Kansas City was tied with the top private school in the region for first place, with the district-wide selective magnet school a distant third.  The best private school student, a very studious-looking young girl in glasses and bangs, was trying to think of the answer.  She probably knew it, since it was not all that difficult, but she was having a hard time coming up with it.  As the seconds ticked away, one of my students, a street kid from the low-income neighborhood around our school, called out in a loud stage whisper, “She doesn’t know it.”  The moderator admonished him that “one more outbreak . . . etc.” but she was already just about in tears.  You could see she wanted to tell him she did know it, but she just couldn’t get it out.  Time was called.  We didn’t know the answer either, but went on to win the contest by one point.

The article in the Kansas City Star the next day said that the principal of the private school had complained that the contest was not fair.  He said something like “they didn’t tell us the questions were going to be so difficult.”  That was golden.  Here we were, one of the lowest-ranked middle schools in the state, managing to answer these questions better than the top academic schools in the metropolitan area.  This got me wondering.  If we could do this, why weren’t the other public schools doing any better?  Was there some other problem?

I had come to Kansas City in the late 1980's to help run this "Latin Grammar School" in a poor section of the city.  Some of the kids actually showed up to school barefoot.  We had eight Latin teachers and I was the department chairman.  That first year did not go well.  None of the kids knew very much about the Romans or why anyone would want to learn this strange language.  The Latin teachers would crowd into my office at the end of each day with one horror story after another.  Progress was slow.  The youngest, the sixth graders, did best, since they would still listen now and then to their teachers, but the eighth graders, knowing well that they would never have to take another day of Latin once they got through this year, were almost impossible.

But we teachers were all young, idealistic, and fully convinced, I think, that anyone could learn Latin if they just kept trying.  After all, we had all had our own doubts about our own ability to learn this language, but had pulled through and finally done it.  No one was ready to give up.

In the end the results were pretty amazing.  The school had started out with a percentile rank on the state tests of general knowledge down in the single digits, but we managed to double these by the second year, and then double them again in the third, putting us within shouting distance of the middle range of schools in the state.  In three years we went from being the worst middle school in the city to the best.

No one claimed, though, that this was simply because we were teaching Latin.  We had, after all, one of the best principals in the city, Juanita Hempstead.  People often say that Latin helps one on standardized tests, but I have never really bought this argument.  When you actually look at the questions on the tests and try to find any that are related to what is in the Latin curriculum, you find a very small correlation, probably less than one percent.  There are simply too many difficult English words, and we learn too few Latin roots, for the two groups to match up.  Yes, we could find five kids who could do well in a Latin contest, but that was because we had so many kids to choose from.  We were a large school.

So it was not just that the kids were learning some Latin.  Rather, I think, it was the fact that we were trying to teach Latin that made the difference.  The fact that we were doing this showed the kids that we thought they could do it; that they could master this difficult and very academic subject if they worked at it.  This gave them a whole new level of confidence in their own ability and so made them much more likely to do well on those state tests.

As anyone knows who has ever sat next to a poorly educated child who is working on one of those standardized tests, they almost always know a lot more than what they are putting down on paper.  If you ask them about the questions they often know quite a bit about them, but have not put this down.  The trouble is that they are not “engaged,” as teachers say, in the process.  They could care less how they do on this waste of time.  They might know some answers, but hardly bother to read the questions.

But what we were telling them in our Latin classes, and showing them through our persistence, was that we thought they were, in fact, the kind of kids who ought to do well on those tests.  They could learn Latin, we were saying, and so probably could do well at any academic task.  That’s what we thought, anyway, and eventually they came to believe it, too.  They began to see the tests as a normal part of their academic lives, not as some outside source of annoyance, and so started to take them seriously.  Then they did better.

Ironically, what made the difference, then, was not that we succeeded in teaching them Latin, but that we were so often failing at this.  That’s what got those scores up.  It was not that they were learning Latin; that did come, but not until later.  At first what mattered was that they were not learning it and we still thought they could.  Then they had concrete proof that we believed in them, in their own natural ability.  That is what changed their view of themselves, and consequently their success on the tests.  All those complaining Latin teachers in my office were actually a sign that we were on the right track.  Who knew?  Just because you are not succeeding does not mean you are not doing the right thing (a thought I have often had occasion to recall as I try to find ways to improve public education in general).

What I had learned, though, was that there was nothing about those children from that poor neighborhood that made it impossible for them to be among the best.  They were not the problem.  They learned these things just as well as anybody, given the time to work through their problems.  And this applied to their general social conditions, as well.  The problem was not their poverty, unemployment, or lack of fathers.  Our kids had all those problems, yet still found ways to succeed.  What did matter were their parents, and their friends, and their previous education, but we knew how to deal with those issues.  That's what teachers do.  There was nothing mysterious about their success.

Why then, weren't the schools in general doing better?  It wasn't rocket science.  None of us had any background in educational theory.  We just set the goals high and kept at them.  One ought to be able to do that in all the schools.

That's when I first started to think that there may be something else going wrong in the way we are educating our children.  Some deeper, structural problem that was impeding the success that we ought to be having.  Something like the problems we have with our state-run decentralized school system.

Peter Dodington

April 8, 2017








Independent Funding of a Collective Educational Benefit

If we want to build a collective project, one that will serve the entire community like a cell-phone tower, we cannot let each member of the community decide on their own how much to pay for it.  We can't just let everyone go to the cell-phone company and put down the amount of money that they think is appropriate, as if you were buying a toaster at a yard sale.  That wouldn't work.  Obviously everyone would just pay the least amount they think they can get away with.   You would never get a good cell-phone tower that way.

So we never do that.  We always agree ahead of time on what we will charge everyone. We have a meeting, or some kind of a group discussion, and decide how much each person will spend.  Then we can build as good a tower as we want.  We decide that we want X amount of benefit and so need Y amount of cell-tower, and agree to fund it at that level. Then it is possible to build a good one, or to improve it to a better one if that is necessary.

This is such an obvious rule that we tend to overlook its importance.  For any joint project, or game, or sport, or just a party, you have to talk about who is going to do what before you begin.  You can't let the kid in right field just wander off to play second base. The kids on the playground have a meeting first to decide who will do what.  Then the group will work together well.  No one starts a group project without first deciding these things.

But this is precisely what we do in our state-run public school system.  We try to fund the collective benefit from the schools with money from the independent, autonomous, states.  These 50 states never meet as a group to decide how much they should agree to spend on education; each state is allowed to decide totally on their own. Consequently the entire program is underfunded and is unable to improve.  The structure of our state-run decentralized school system, then, is the central cause of the stagnation and dysfunction of the public schools.

Our school system produces a collective good because the graduates of the schools, the source of the public benefit from public education, such as a lower crime rate, a better economy, better health, and more unity, spread all across the country.  The graduates may have, at one time, stayed in the states where they were educated, but they do so no longer.  At least half the educated population is living in a state different from where they were educated.  When we say that we are paying for public education because it makes our country stronger, we are saying that we are paying for a benefit that is collectively shared throughout the country.  It doesn't just make our state stronger; it makes the whole country better, and that's the way we want it.

But we don't have any way to pay for this on a national collective level.  We can't have a national meeting to decide how much we should pay, or any way to do this through our elected representatives.  We let each state decide independently.  That's what a decentralized school system means; the states are in charge.  That means that they will always opt for the minimum amount, not the best, or even the good.  They will usually pay only what they think is the average amount of the other states' contributions. Paying any more than that would always be a waste, since they would then be paying more but only getting the same benefit as everyone else.  Consequently there is no incentive for them ever to choose to pay for an excellent school system, and so we will never get one.

Nor is there any incentive for them to improve the schools.  Once they choose to be as close to the average for all the states, they have to stay at that level.  Nothing else would make sense.  We have locked ourselves into permanent stagnation of educational funding.

People have a hard time seeing this because we get hung up on the need to fund our local schools and support the needs of our own children.  But only a quarter of the population has children in the schools.  The rest of us support the schools because of the public benefit we get from them, a benefit that is spread all across the country.  It is that collective, public benefit for three-quarters of the population that we have no good way of paying for, and which is consequently holding back the improvement of our schools.

The solution -- and the only way to improve the public school system -- is to create a national system of public education so we could collectively decide how to fund this collective program.

Peter Dodington

April 1, 2017






Average and Excellent Schools

When you read about plans to improve our schools, they almost always focus on the local community.  In the list of "stakeholders" for the schools, that is, the people involved in their support and operation, just about every group mentioned is local: the teachers, children, parents, school board, community business leaders, etc.  Only at the vary end, usually, come the state taxpayers.

Unfortunately, though, local communities cannot usually afford good schools all by themselves.  They need money from the state.  As everyone knows, the states pay at least as much as all the local communities combined for the public school system, with the federal government providing a small amount.  The states are actually the largest "stakeholder" of all.  Let's go against the grain, then, and look at how we might get the states to improve the schools.

In my lifetime I have seen many states work out plans to improve their school systems. Tennessee was one of the standouts, and of course the success of Texas' schools was one of the reasons the younger George Bush was elected.  A concerted effort, with strong leadership, usually worked.  Why, then, has this not continued?  If, as everyone agrees, the schools need to improve, and the states seem capable of doing this, what's the problem?

For one, it's that almost all those states that improved were in the lower half of the distribution of schools.  (Massachusetts being the current exception) They brought their schools from a low level to somewhere around the middle of the pack.  Once they got that far, though, they had more difficulty improving into the excellent range. Consequently, the country as a whole has been stuck at that middle level; some states do improve, but only the low-scoring ones, and some deteriorate, so the overall average stays about the same.

We don't have to look far for the reasons for this aspect of state improvement.  If you are a state taxpayer, and someone tells you that your state is below average, you probably will decide to remedy that.  You will agree to more and better programs, all of which cost money.  (I remember how, in my first teaching job, I talked the local school board into giving us all a raise simply by pointing out that all the nearby schools paid their teachers more than we did.  I was amazed.  All you had to do was point out that we were not up to the level of those other little towns in eastern Montana and the money appeared.)

Once you get to that average level, though, your standards have to become more strict. You no longer are being pushed forward simply by a perception of your inferiority.  The question you now start to ask is: what am I getting out of this?  Now that I'm just like everyone else, more or less, why should I get better?  What are the benefits to doing that?  If, as in fictional Lake Wobegon, we now are all somewhat above average, why should we continue to improve?

What you need, at that point, is some demonstration of the public benefit that your state is providing you from these better schools.  When they were below average, that, in itself, was enough to open your wallet, but now that they are moving into above-average territory, you need something more.  You need some evidence that the schools are benefitting the entire state community.

As we have noted, though, the states don't do this.  They tell us nothing about the overall benefit to the community from their school programs.  All their data is about the children in the schools, not the graduates who benefit the community.  The graduates probably do benefit the general state community, through better workers, less crime, better health, more unity, etc., but no state tells anyone about this.

This is because, as we have said often in this blog, the states have no way to find out about this public benefit, since it scatters all across the country.  About half the students they educate leave the state.  They have no way to track how their graduates are lowering the crime rate, since a good portion of that benefit is happening in other states.  Nor, in fact, do they want to do this, since it also implies that their own state taxpayers are only getting about half the public benefit they paid for.  The rest has gone out of state.

This means that we will never get excellent public schools as long as we have a state-run system.  Improving the schools to that level requires some indication of how the taxpayers benefit from them, and we cannot ever get this from the states.  (Nor, of course, from the local districts either, who also cannot track their graduates, almost all of whom move away, nor the federal government, who are forbidden to do this by our commitment to a decentralized system.)  Having state-run schools guarantees that we will always have an average level of public school success; we will never move up to an excellent level.  That is, of course, why people keep turning to a more private-like way to educate our children.  The state-run public system doesn't work, and never will.

Peter Dodington

March 18, 2017