National Public Education

Public Attitudes towards Education, Part III

The other day I was talking with a friend about his experiences as a band teacher in small towns in Iowa.  On finding that I had taught in New York City, he asserted that he would quit rather than teach in one of those "urban" schools.  He couldn't believe that I actually enjoyed working in such "terrible" places.

Well, maybe I am a bit odd, but look at what the data from that Kappan/Gallup poll tells us about those urban schools.  As you may recall, we saw that about half the people in the country think their local school is good, and well more than half think that distant schools are not good.  At first glance this seems logical, since we middle-class types, with our good schools, naturally think they are fine, and the rest of the population, such as the people in cities, have to put up with less good schools.  The general belief is that our overall school system is made up of a bunch of good schools, no doubt in middle class places, and a bunch of weaker schools, probably in the urban areas.

Leaving aside the inconsistencies in that view, which I discussed in the last two blogs, let's just look at what it says about exactly who it is who is favoring their own local schools, and what this says about those "terrible" urban schools.   Now, in the data, 50% gave their local school and A or B, and another 31% gave them a C.  So fully 81% of the population thinks their local school is either okay or good.

But wait, doesn't that include a good number of urban families, ones who attend those "terrible" schools?  About 62% of our US population lives in cities, and the Kappan/Gallup people are very careful to weight their sampling methods to accurately reflect this.  If the majority of the people sampled live in cities, then, and the majority of their opinions are in favor of their local school, there have to be a good number of urban families who actually think that these "terrible" schools are in the decent to good range. So what is going on?

First, let me say that such a finding is in keeping with my own experiences teaching at low-level urban schools.  No one was complaining to us about how bad the school was. On the contrary, the parents seemed to be very grateful for what we were doing.  And I probably had fewer complaints from parents than I had  in more affluent areas or private schools.  These parents had other things to worry about, such as poverty, crime, and the job of raising children in a poor area.  For them, as they often told me, the school, for all its low-performing data, was one of the few places around that was actually helping them.   For even particularly good students, whom you might think would do much better at a "good" school, the outcomes are often quite good.  The teachers, after all, are not all that different from teachers in general, and so are educated and caring, and particularly interested in paying special attention to those excellent students.  Strangely enough, a good number of really successful adults come out of those urban schools where they had spent their days doing special projects with teachers who loved them.

So, in fact, these urban schools in low-income areas are not "terrible" for most of the people who go there.  Yes, they have low scores on various measures, but for the people there they seem to be doing okay.  People seem to realize that although there are families with problems in that neighborhood, and this pulls down the scores, overall the schools are doing more or less what they should.

So, what conclusion can we draw from this?  Why does my band-teaching friend think he would hate teaching there?  The answer must be that there is some kind of bias in the way we are getting our information about these urban schools.  I'm not talking about racism, though no doubt that, too, exists.  A more powerful bias, it seems to me, is just that we would prefer to talk about the problems of someone else's children rather than our own. So this means that the TV commentator who has the choice of doing a story on drug use in his own, suburban school, or in a city school, chooses the latter.

I don't see that this kind of bias will change any time soon, and I am not going to "blame the media" as so many do.  I just want to remind all that we need to pay attention to this kind of bias in our perceptions about schools, particularly ones in urban areas.

Peter Dodington

December 17, 2016




Why Teachers Dislike Charter Schools


As the media never tire of pointing out, the people who are in charter schools all love them, and the only ones who are against them, it seems, are those teachers and their Union, no doubt because they want the “extra pay and less work” a Union job supplies.  We seldom hear from the teachers themselves, though.  (In fact, almost every quote in the media seems to come from someone who is already benefiting from a charter school.  Where are the comments from the average man on the street?)  To help remedy this unbalanced coverage, I, a sometime teacher, would like to offer the following comments.

To me it seems that teachers are against charters because they, almost alone, can see how traditional schools do help kids grow into successful adults and provide a public benefit to us all.  They know the kids; they see them grow and change in front of their eyes, so they have direct evidence that the schools, even in their current somewhat dis-functional state, do provide some part of what we want from a public program.  They do work, though not as well as we would like.  They are helping the kids mature into the kind of adults we want in our society.

Teachers, like everyone else who works with young people, don’t just want them to do better on tests, competitions, and awards; they want them to do better in life.  You can see this when a child comes back to visit after they have graduated.  The biggest smile on a teacher’s face is not when his or her student wins some award or, Lord knows, does well on a standardized test; it’s when they come back ten years later with a good job, a nice boyfriend, and plans to change the world.  That’s what matters; that is what we are all paying for in this public program.

The problem is that teachers are virtually alone in this knowledge of the public benefit from public education.  There is no data on the adult success of the graduates of the schools.  The only ones who can see this are the kids themselves, their parents, and the teachers who have worked with them.  No one else has any idea that it actually happens.  No public schools, in this country, keep track of their graduates.  The public has no way to telling whether getting a kid to pass algebra actually helps him get a decent job and so keeps him off the streets and out of trouble.  We all have a hunch that this does probably happen, but there is no direct evidence of it from the schools we are supporting.  Only the child’s family and his teachers know.

Charter schools turn away from this public benefit.  The whole reason they exist is that it seems that these long-term public benefits do not really occur in the public schools (since there is no direct evidence of them), so we need to focus just on the immediate private needs of the children and families involved.  They purposely break the ties with the overall public system, the bureaucratic apparatus that tries to produce a public benefit from the schools, and pull back to just making the classrooms work better.  Privatization, in general, is repudiation of the notion that the public programs provide a public benefit.  It’s an argument that the public part of the program is not working, so we need to make it private.

But teachers know better.  They can see that the kids do grow up and so benefit us all.  They know the kids.  That’s why they are against charter schools.  They don’t want to abandon the effort to make good, happy and beneficial adults, which would mean focusing just on the grades, awards and test scores of the students.  They want to make a better society, not just a better school.

Peter Dodington

November 6, 2016



Druids Dialogues IV: Public Education and the Media


The week was finally over.  Limato and Pedro sat with their Guinness as they recounted how last night someone set fire to the list of Regents scores posted outside the English office.

Pedro:  That’s one way to express your opinion of the test.

Limato: I guess he didn’t do all that well.

Pedro:  I’ll probably see him, or her, in next term’s remedial class.  I should check who likes to write about burning stuff.

Limato: Or just ask somebody.  They all know.

Bob and Tom join them.  Bob has something on his mind.

Bob:     Okay, I get all these logical arguments about the value of public programs, and the problems of private ones, but what I don’t get is how come I’m the only one?  If this is all so clear and simple, as it seems to me, why is it such a secret?  Why does absolutely everybody say the exact opposite; that only the moms and kids matter, not the general public?  There must be something wrong either with the way we’ve figured this out, or the way the world works.

Limato: That’s a no-brainer.  Since when was the world on the right path?

Tom:    But Bob’s right, there must be some reason why we never hear about this kind of argument.  All we ever get from the media is the most light-weight, even childish, points of view about public education problems.  Every silly complaint, every emotional or selfish thought is recorded and taken at face value.  The man on the street is put alongside the professor, the politician, and the teacher, all equally, until the only possible answer is that there is no answer.

Pedro:  True.  For all their talk about the value of “the public” and the need to “let the people decide,” you never hear the media actually favoring some collective action by that public.  They favor “the people” but only in the abstract; not when it comes to doing something that would benefit them.

Limato: Of course not; it’s not entertaining.  A public message?  Boring.  This is going to get people to listen?  Moms and kids are more interesting; like cat videos.

Pedro:  That’s true, but it can’t be the whole story.  I mean, the media actually does take a stand in favor of things like the right to choose your own school, or decide your school’s curriculum.  It’s not just entertainment they want.  They have a point of view, and it is not in favor of public, collective, action.

The group sits there, looking at their beers.

Bob:     (With a shrug) It’s not in their interest.  They don’t make any money backing collective action.

Limato: And I suppose they do backing the moms?

Bob:     Indirectly.  They make their money from ads, right?  Well, moms, and all individuals, buy things.  A collective group doesn’t.  A public group gets what it wants through collective, governmental, actions.  There’s no buying and selling of anything.  But ads won’t work unless there is buying and selling.  So it’s the private, market-based side of the ledger that the media is always going to favor, since that’s the side where their money is.  Radio stations and newspapers are private businesses, not public agencies.

Tom:    The government doesn’t advertise.

Pedro:  What people want for their children’s education is a very powerful force.  If we start solving that problem  through a public, governmental, solution, with no market involvement, the people who rely on that market, like those who sell advertising, will lose a huge amount of money.  So they want solutions based on individual, private, choices, not group action.

Limato: The point is to keep us wanting those private goods, whether we can afford them or not, since that is what drives the market economy, and the ads that go with it.  So that is what gets emphasized, logic be damned.

Bob:     And since when does a salesman worry about what you can or cannot afford?  It’s best to keep that a bit vague.  You want the big BMW, oh, that’s a good idea.  So we can’t expect the media to stress the fact that you can’t really afford that private-like education you keep harping about.  It’s better for the salesman that you don’t realize how much it really costs.

Pedro:  But we can’t be too hard on the media.  They have to make a buck somehow.  The real problem is that we have come to rely on them for virtually all our information on public education.  We turn to the New York Times and The Atlantic for the final word on the topic. We don’t have our own system of something like “information management,”  like the police do, or the hospitals.  You don’t see them letting the media say what is going on in their own operations.  They have a healthy respect for the power of the media to affect the success of what they do, so they keep it at arm’s length.

Tom:    They know that the media, and “public opinion,” can easily interfere with their success; like when there’s a rush to judgment concerning a crime or health problem.

Pedro:  That’s the attitude that’s missing in public education.  We don’t see how our own work, like equalizing success across the economic levels of our students, can be weakened by interference from uninformed public opinion, fostered by the media.  When was the last time a school administrator held a press conference to give his point of view on one of these issues, such as integration or testing?  Instead we just let the media interview us, alongside the uninformed views of the man-in-the-street.

Tom:    So the real question is not so much why the media gets it wrong, but why we don’t get it right.   It’s not really a media problem; it’s our problem.

Limato: How come each answer leads to another question?

Shrugs all around.


Peter Dodington

July 24, 2015