National Public Education

The Early Colonists vs.The Founding Fathers on Education

In the debate about how we should structure our school system, we keep forgetting that our views on the importance of high academic achievement have changed over the years.  It may be that our schools have deteriorated to some degree, but the main difference between today and 100 years ago is that we now expect a higher level of academic excellence from them.  Keeping this in mind would help us see more clearly how to improve the schools.

When this country was founded there were many plans for what we would now call a “centralized” public education system.  George Washington wanted to create a national university in Washington, (which would have resulted in a de facto national system of public education) and Jefferson devised an elaborate plan for every school in Virginia.  The Founding Fathers believed strongly in universal, uniform, public education for everyone.  Madison suggested that provisions for the support of public schools be put into the Constitution.

As we know, though, none of these proposals were adopted.  The early settlers didn't want this kind of centralized, top-down, educational system.  That was what they had left in the old country.  They wanted everything funded and controlled through small local districts, most no larger than a town.  The settlers were creating their own towns and cities; of course they also wanted to create their own schools.  Up through the beginning of the 20th century almost all funding for our schools came through the small local districts, not the states or the nation.

And these schools were very successful.  Who wouldn’t choose to study subjects decided on by one’s friends and neighbors rather than the dictates of some national bureaucracy?  When all the school decisions were made locally it was only natural that everyone took part.  America was soon enrolling a larger percentage of its population than any other country, with concomitant economic gains.

But it helps to remember, in our current debate, that these schools were still not as “academic” as the ones planned by Washington and Jefferson.  I realize that it is heresy to say this, but if someone had done an international comparison of academic achievement throughout the world at that time, surely we would have come out somewhere near the middle.  It is wonderful that some of these small town schools taught Latin and Shakespeare, but that is not necessarily the same kind of academic level Jefferson was talking about.  Really great teachers, the kind that have a graduate-school level of knowledge but can relate this to the lowest student, these people are rare.  They don’t show up in every small town.  People did become more educated, but that didn't mean that now they fully understood sine curves and relative pronouns.

Well, you’ll say, that is what we wanted, and it worked for us.  Quite so.  And the proof of this is that we had absolutely no interest in those international studies.  Rich people sent their children to Europe for their education, but they were seen as an anomaly.  We were successful; our school system worked; it was what we wanted.

The problem now is, though, that we seem to have changed our minds.  Now we do care about those international studies, and everyone seems convinced that the schools are “failing” since we are near the middle of the developed world.  One can argue that there has been some overall decline in the schools, but the real change has been that we are no longer satisfied with the academic level we once thought was reasonable.  Now we do want a “world class” level of academic achievement.

And there are many good reasons for this.  In a world market, advanced technology makes a huge difference in economic growth.  Sine curves matter more than ever.  We need more people with the highest level of education, not just a good one.  And other conditions have changed.  Towns are no longer far apart and isolated; we are a much more unified and connected country.   All our new ideas about education are for the entire country, not just the town or even the state.  We seem to want the kind of national, uniform, excellent system of education that the Founding Father once suggested.

So, one might say, what’s the problem?  Our own leaders once suggested such a plan.  We turned away from it 200 years ago, with good reason, but those conditions no longer apply.  Now we need the kind of academic excellence that people like Jefferson proposed.  So, let's do it.  Yes, this might involve some changes in our interpretation of the Constitution, but this has been done before.  It’s what we want.


Peter Dodington

May 20, 2017





The Cyclopes and Local Control

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Peter Dodington







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