National Public Education

Subways and School Reform

When I used to walk to my teaching job at Park West High School on West 50th Street in New York, almost everyone I met on the sidewalk was paying part of my salary.   Why was that?  I wasn’t teaching their children.

About 75% of the money for public schooling comes from the general, non-parent public, since parents with school-age children make up only about a quarter of the tax-paying population  (about 50 million out of some 200 million).  The schools are not primarily supported by the current group of parents; they are paid for, and so essentially controlled by, those non-parents on the street.   Those public taxpayers, then, are the key to solving the problems of our public schools.

If we want to improve all of our schools, getting our achievement scores up off their traditional perch near the bottom of the industrialized world, and also keep them public and open to all, we need to look at what makes this public program “public.”  How does public support for the schools work?  Why do we pay for our schools?  If we can’t answer this, we have an excellent reason right there for why the schools are not doing well.  If three-quarters of your supporters don’t know why they are funding your program, you have a problem.


I remember having a conversation about this one evening with a special ed. teacher in Brooklyn.  I was leaving the school one evening when I ran into him, the last ones out of those dark and humid halls.  He wanted to tell me about his day; how he had spent hours trying to get the computers to work in a room where bits of paint from a crumbling ceiling were constantly drifting down onto the keyboards and his students.

How could this be happening, he wanted to know, in one of the richest cities in the world?  Even if we have a problematic bureaucracy, don’t the people behind those city agencies, the taxpayers who actually provide the money for the schools, realize how much they are losing if they only paint ceilings once a generation?  Don’t they see how they benefit from the work we do with these students; how these kids will grow up to have good jobs and be leaders of their communities in ways that will benefit all of us, and that they are not going to do this unless we teach them in decent classrooms?  I had no answer for him other than that I, too, had taught in similar rooms.

I went home, though, and realized that I did know the answer to his question, and it was “No, they don’t see how they benefit from our work.”  He could see it, and I could see it, and the kids and their parents, but that was about it.  No one else had the faintest idea how we were benefitting the general public.  There was no data on this, no publicity, and, of course, no one ever came to see for themselves.  All the data on the schools is about the kids while they are students: their attendance, test scores, awards, etc.  Once they graduate no one pays any attention to them.

But it is their success as adult graduates that matters to the general public.  It’s their adult lives that provide the public benefit from the schools, not their student success.  You don’t actually benefit when a kid gets an “A;” it’s when he comes to work for you, or invents a new process, or moves in next door, that you obtain what you have been paying the public schools for:  intelligent, creative, civil, and hard-working adults.

There is no doubt that these benefits from education do occur.  Study after study has shown that better-educated students grow up to be more law-abiding, wealthier, healthier, and more tolerant than their less-educated peers, and that this success benefits everyone in their community.  The problem is that just how this happens is not clear to the taxpayers who support the schools.  It is not the benefit itself, but the demonstration of the benefit that is lacking.

Perhaps there is some correlation between school test scores and adult success, but it’s not strong enough to convince the public that they are getting all the benefit they have paid for.  They need to see evidence of the actual public benefit before they will spend their money.  You don’t buy a car because you have seen the parts in a factory.  You have to see the completed car itself before you will open your wallet.

Simply put, what we want for the non-parent majority is just what parents of school-age children already get automatically.  Parents do see how they benefit from the schools.  They see their children learning, and, more importantly, can see how the school will benefit their children, and the parents, after they graduate.

If I want to know whether a good algebra class helped my son become an architect, I can just ask him when he shows up at Thanksgiving dinner as an adult.  Parents keep in touch with their children their whole lives, so have an automatic way to assess the adult benefits they got from the schools.  This gives them an incentive to support improvements in the schools.  They want to fund better math programs because they know they will be able to see the results of that learning in their children’s adult lives.

But none of this works for the supporters who don’t have school-age children, the non-parents.  They have no direct connection to the children in the schools, so have no way of tracking their adult success or failure.  They have to rely on the schools to provide data on that adult benefit, and the schools don’t do this.  Unlike the parents, they have no way to see the long-term public benefits from the school programs they are now supporting, so they tend not to fund them very well.


This is why that ceiling was not getting painted.  Only the parents of the children in the school were interested in paying for a new ceiling, and they, it turned out, did not have enough money or influence.  The rest of the population, the ones on the street, had the money, collectively, but they had no way to see why they should use it.

And this must be true for most schools, not just urban ones in poor areas.  If three-quarters of the support comes from non-parents, the average school must be funded mostly by supporters who cannot see how they benefit from the schools very clearly.  Of course there are schools, particularly in the suburbs, where most of the supporters are parents, but these must be far in the minority.  All those non-parents have to live somewhere.

The result has to be a continuation of the status quo.  Teachers and parents push forward for new programs and initiatives, but the general public, with no evidence that any of this will matter, pulls back.  The schools don’t fail, but they don’t get any better, either.  This is why all our statistics have been flat for so long.  Our schools don’t improve because we don’t have a good way to show most of our supporters why they should fund improvements.

This stagnation is a crucial problem for our schools.  A good argument could be made that our trouble today is not that the school system is doing poorly but that it seems that it cannot do any better.  It would be one thing if the schools were at a low level and were slowly getting better.  It’s quite another that it seems we cannot get them ever to improve.  It’s not the level of our success that is bothering us but the stagnation.

This is why we have turned to completely different methods of school organization, such as charter schools, vouchers, or home schooling, instead of trying to fix the public school system we already have.    If we felt we could move the current system forward we would want to keep working on public school problems, but if these issues seem unsolvable the only thing to do is try a completely different approach, such as a more private-like school system.  A machine that cannot be fixed or improved will eventually be replaced.


Not all public programs have these problems. The police, for example, report on the crime rate in our neighborhoods.  They don’t just tell us about what happens in their police stations, such as how they solve crimes or meet the needs of those who are using their services, but the effect of that work on the rest of us, the general public.  What we, the public, want to know is whether our street is getting more dangerous or not, so that’s what they tell us about.  That’s the public benefit their work produces.

In the same way the Centers for Disease Control keeps track of the rates of various diseases and disorders in the country, not just what happens in their clinics and hospitals.  They may do a wonderful job with their patients, but that’s not what they report to us.  It’s the effect of their work that they publicize -- how this makes our lives safer and disease free.  Similarly, the sanitation department tells us how clean the streets are, not just how many bags of garbage they pick up, and the army tells us whether they achieved the objectives of their campaigns, not just how well their soldiers are fighting.  It is the results that affect us that are publicized, not the internal workings of the program.

But the schools do none of this.  They only tell us about the results that occur within their own buildings; the data on the students, not the effect of this work on the public.  Even though they are a public program, they report results that only matter to the people who are currently using their services, the parents and children involved, not the general public who are actually supporting them.

There is no solution to this problem at the school level.  We can make each school as good as we want, winning awards and setting new standards of excellence, and still end up with exactly the same stagnant level overall, because this is the only level the general public will support.  Each new and better program, funded and supported by its own group of parents and teachers, slowly dies as the parents move on to become non-parents.  Without any indication of how these improvements benefit them, the non-parent majority sees no point in continuing to fund them, so the program dies and we are back to square one.

This means that we are currently wasting a good amount of time and effort.  We keep trying to make the schools better, one by one, and then are frustrated that this does not improve the overall results.  We fail to see that what we need is not better schools, per se, but a better school system; not just a way to educate the children better, but a better way to govern the entire process.  We actually know how to teach children pretty well.  What we don’t know is how to run a successful public school system.


To borrow a phrase from James Baldwin, by now you are saying, “No, no; you go too far.  It’s not that bad.  There are other factors that are causing these problems.”  Perhaps, but let’s look more closely at these.

First, there is the general belief that public programs can never really succeed.  They seem to be a kind of compromise that will always produce mediocre results.  Our best workers don’t set their sights on working for public programs; they work in the private sector where the path to success is so much clearer.  The typical public worker seems to be some clock-watching bureaucrat who will never produce the excellence we want.

But I’m not arguing that public education should be similar to a successful start-up company, but that it could be similar to a successful public program.  There are such things.  Our military is a public program which is certainly one of the best in the world.  And what about our fire departments, roads, or water systems?  No one is complaining about them.  Most of our public programs are better than public programs in other countries.

The argument that the public schools are too bureaucratic cannot be the whole story.  All public programs are bureaucratic.  They are paid for jointly by the entire population, so have very complex bookkeeping needs.  When a policeman enters an apartment to settle a domestic dispute he has to be careful to meet the needs of everyone there: the grandmother, the children, the cousins and the neighbors, not just the ones causing the trouble, since everyone in that room is his boss, in a sense.  They all are paying him, as are all the other members of that community.  Keeping track of this so that everyone can see, at least to some extent, how their funding is being used, is a very complicated, and bureaucratic, problem.  That doesn’t mean it doesn’t have a solution.

Nor is the argument valid that money cannot solve these bureaucratic problems; that we continue to spend more on the schools every year but get no improvements, so money must not be the answer.  In the everyday world, if your washing machine doesn’t work, and you pay for a repair, and it still doesn’t work, and you pay for a repair again, and it still doesn’t work, you don’t then say, “money can’t fix washing machines.”  You say, “There must be some other problem that we are not considering.”  That is my point.  The fact that money has not solved the public schools’ problems simply means that we have not yet figured out what is wrong with them.  Perhaps, then, we should look more closely at the structure of the public benefits from the school system.

In my own backyard, New York, I have seen the subway system steadily improve over the past 30 years.  I remember my father-in-law, from Iowa, looking at the 1-Train rumbling by back in the early ‘80’s, covered with graffiti and dirt, commenting that he didn’t think there was any hope for New York (where I had just moved with his daughter and two grandsons).  But the subway system solved the graffiti problem, by just hiring more car-cleaners, and slowly rebuilt the tracks and trains.  That fully public program found a way to solve its problems.

There are some interesting parallels in that story for the schools.  In those days everyone said that there was no solution to the graffiti problem and the general lack of upkeep.  The kids broke through all the fences they put up around the trains at night and marked up the cars to their hearts’ content.  There was no way to stop this, it seemed.

But new management came in and hired people to clean and repaint each car each night and the graffiti went away.  It turned out that you didn’t need to fence in the cars; just clean them.  The problem was not unsolvable; it was just that the people in charge had not thought it through.

And this was quite logical, since the people in charge, at first, were the ones who ran the trains.  The whole system was led by people who had once been conductors and trainmen.  Now graffiti doesn’t actually interfere with the running of the trains.  It doesn’t slow them down.  So to all those ex-conductors it didn’t seem like that big a problem.  It wasn’t their job.  They were supposed to make the trains run, not look good.  And the customers in the trains agreed; they also were not bothered by what was happening on the outside of the cars.  So the problem festered.

New management, though, saw that the key to the problem was not what was happening inside the cars, but outside them.  The people with the money, new money to pay for new improvements, were outside the cars.  They were the ones you needed to influence if you wanted more customers and more money.  And for them the graffiti was very important.  It was all they knew about the trains; all they saw.  They, the general public, weren’t likely to pay for improvements to the trains unless they could see that this problem had been taken care of.

Similarly, what the schools need to do is influence the people outside the school, the general public, not just those inside them, the parents and children.  The ones outside are the ones with the money for improvements, so they are the ones you need to pay attention to.  We want to show them that the schools can solve their public problems the way the subways did.  For the schools this would mean demonstrating that they are providing a public educational benefit to the general public.


But, then, is it really possible that our school system has always had some deep flaw?  Can we have had this problem for some 200 years and never noticed it?  Is this the way the Founding Fathers set it up; a program that could never improve?  Is that likely?

No, that is not likely.  But it could be that the school system was set up in a way that worked well 200 years ago and has developed problems over time.  Perhaps conditions have changed but the schools have not, and that is causing the problem.

It certainly seems that Washington, Jefferson, et al. wanted schools that worked as fully public programs.  They were always talking about how the public, not just the parents and children, would benefit from schools.  As Washington said in his first State of the Union address, “Knowledge is in every country the surest basis of public happiness.”  It is the general public benefit, the overall level of “happiness” that the entire population gets from public education, that is important.

It is the adult graduates of the schools, the citizens that the schools will produce, that concern the Founding Fathers, not just what happens in the classrooms.  No one talks about test scores in the 18th century.  What they wanted, from the start, was precisely the kind of public benefit from the schools that I am saying we need to pay attention to today.  They had it right; they wanted a public program that benefited the whole community.  The schools they set up must have worked as successful public programs.  Somehow, though, we have gotten off track.


There are logical reasons, then, why the public schools are not improving, and these have more to do with the overall structure of the school system than any individual problems of teachers, schools, or students.  Once we focus just on that school system structure it is clear that it does not work the way a public program should, since it has no way to demonstrate its public benefit to its public supporters.  Those pedestrians on West 50th Street didn’t, in fact, know why they were paying my salary, and that is the central problem of our current school system.

Peter Dodington

July 25, 2016



A Country or a Colony?

Whenever I bring up the idea of a national school system, one of the first critiques is always that this would result in more emphasis on the “dominant culture” in our country, and that this is not a good thing.  The argument is that by centralizing our school system, so that there would be only one source for the curriculum and methods, instead of the 50 states, we would have to make the schools more homogeneous and less diverse.  A recent gallop poll notes that 80% of Americans do not want the schools to emphasize “one dominant culture.”  Our diversity and openness has always been seen as one of our essential strengths.  Wouldn’t a national system weaken or even do away with these attributes?
But is it possible to have a strong school system that does not represent a certain point of view?  A teacher has to teach something; he can’t teach everything.  Can we really teach all the different points of view possible?  Wouldn’t it be better just to teach the best ones?  Of course a weak school system can be said to not teach any one dominant culture, since it doesn’t really teach anything, but can a strong one?  It may be that diversity is a cardinal concept in our culture, but that does not mean that the teaching itself has to be diverse.
These arguments against any strong central beliefs seem to me to be part of a nostalgia for our past rather than any clear thinking about our future.  In the past we were intent on filling up this country and needed all the new people we could find.  On the frontier it had to be that all were welcome, all were equal, all were left to their own devices to come up with as many solutions to a problem as possible.  Any centralized culture would work against the kind of varied and energetic immigrants we needed.    We wanted everyone to feel at home, so it was essential that there was only a very loose definition of what was our dominant culture.
But what of the future?  What will this country be remembered for a millennium hence?  What have we done that others haven’t?  Were we a refuge for the “tired and poor” of the rest of the world?  But the statue of liberty faces away from our shores.  It is a monument for the rest of the world, not for us.  We helped them solve their problems; what have we ourselves done?  Innovations?  Yes, but these, by definition, come and go quickly.  Who still honors the inventor of the tape recorder?  Democracy?  But most of the world now does this, and many better than we do.  Wealth and power; is anyone remembered for this?  Personal freedom; which the most backward, violent, countries have more of than we do?
We haven’t accomplished much that is lasting because we have never settled on who we are.  We have not yet agreed on what makes us unique.  In a sense, we still think of ourselves as a young, evolving country; teenagers in a world of adults.  We haven’t grown up into the kind of mature stable country that we should be.  Adults have to choose the one thing they want to be; you can’t be both the physicist and concert pianist that you hoped to be when young.
In many ways, what we have done is kept the characteristics of a colony: a place where anyone can arrive and feel at home, no matter what their beliefs; where money is to be made, and innovations, and stunning achievements in technology and science, but little of lasting value.  A colony is a service to the rest of the world; a refuge, a land of new opportunity.  All are welcome; all have a chance to succeed.  But the whole operation is based on change; little is done that is ever remembered.
Nor is a colony a good place for our young.  A child needs a stable society, one where the ideals of the culture are clear and will remain so on into the future; where work today on those ideals will lead to success tomorrow.  A colony, where the adults all think of themselves as young, is hard on those who actually are young.  Children need some real adults around to guide them.   We need to consider how we might educate our own, interior, newcomers, the ones we have produced ourselves, our children.  They can be just as valuable to us.  They can be our future.
So I am not worried that a national school system would run counter to who we really are.  We don’t know who we are.  We have chosen to ignore that question so that we may continue to attract outsiders.  It is time, though, to grow up into the mature country we ought to be.  This means starting the process of deciding on stable and consistent ideals.  That process would be aided by a national school system, not hurt by it.

Peter Dodington

August 7, 2013



The Department of Public Education


The title of this post refers to something that does not exist.  There are no Departments of “Public Education,” either in our governments or colleges.  Instead, we have Departments of “Education.”  Yet we do have Departments of Public Health, Public Safety, Public Works, etc.  Why not in the field of education?  A small difference, you may say, but one that reveals a lot about our core problems in this field.

When we call these departments simply “education,” we imply that the core problems they deal with involve how to teach children well – the curriculum, the methods, the quality of the teachers, the level of test scores, etc.  Getting a degree in “education,” then, is similar to getting a degree in medicine; it deals with the whole range of issues in that general field.

Contrast this with a degree in Public Health.  Here it is understood that the courses deal with how this program needs to be run.  It is assumed that topics such as the government’s role in the program and how much public support it has will be a large part of the curriculum.  No one expects to solve public health issues by simply doing medicine better.  A new drug for cancer does not necessarily mean better care for the elderly.  It’s the application of this knowledge to a working public program that is the goal.

Yet in education, we ignore these differences and lump everything under the general term “education.”  We say we have an “education” problem in America, not a “public education” problem, and name our departments accordingly.  But this is not quite true.  We actually do education, per se, pretty well.  No one is complaining about our private schools or colleges, and there are numerous small public schools that do very well.  There are even whole state programs, such as in Massachusetts, which are among the best in the world.  We know how to teach every child well.

What we don’t know is how to run a viable public education program for everyone that is capable of improvement.  There are pockets of success, but the overall data for general public education is at best flat.  It is the public program that is not improving, not our knowledge of how to teach children or run a school.  Our problem is “public education,” not “education."

That we don’t have any departments of public education at either the federal or the state level, or our colleges, implies that these organizations do not feel that it is their job to address these public program issues.  There are several reasons why they feel this way.

The federal government would seem to be the logical agency to develop a working public education program for the entire country.  Yet the federal department of education has always restricted itself to merely suggesting voluntary measures for the various school districts and state programs.  The feeling has been that the 10th amendment to the Constitution, which reserves to the states all powers not specifically mentioned in the Constitution (such as education), mandates that the states control public education.

Consequently the federal program restricts itself to matters of general educational theory and practice, not the actual creation and control of public education program. They feel that the best they can do is make suggestions about the general topic of education and leave the job of controlling public education up to the states.

But the states, too, have their own reasons for shying away from the topic of public education, as I have argued in other posts.  The combination of the mobility of state residents and the long-term nature of educational public benefits make it impossible for states to improve their programs beyond an average level.  Why should state residents pay for a better program if so many graduates move to other states, taking the public benefit with them?  So the states, too, don’t want to emphasize the “public” nature of their work in education.  They, too, want to work on general educational topics such as how to teach the children and build new gyms.  If they called their programs “The Department of Public Education,” someone might reasonably want to know how the public was benefiting from this program, and the states know they cannot, given the mobility of their graduates, answer this question.  So they pull back to calling their program just “education.”

There are four states that do use the word “public” in the name of their departments, but these, too, illustrate the nature of the problem.  For these states (Wisconsin, North Carolina, New Mexico and North Dakota), all have departments of “public instruction,” not “public education.”  They agree, then, that they have a role in the creation of a public program, but it is a program of instruction, not education.  They want to deal with what the teachers and schools do, not what the children and the public receive.

Contrast this with the names for other government departments, such as” public health,” “public safety,” etc.  These titles emphasize the effect of these programs on the public.  It is the health and safety of the people out there in the public that will be improved, not simply the quality of the delivery system: the hospitals, doctors, police forces, etc., or, in the case of education, the instruction in the schools.  These other programs emphasize the effect of their work on the public; they put the public benefit from their program, the “health” or “safety” that will happen to the general public, right in their names.

A department of “public instruction” does mention the public, then, but in a way that keeps the emphasis away from the actual results the public will see, and puts it back on the quality of the schools and teachers, as the other departments of education do.  It, too, is not concerned with the actual creation of a working public education program.

For the colleges the question is a bit more complex.  Obviously they could make departments or even schools of public education if they wanted to, along the lines of their programs in public health and public safety.  That they don’t must simply mean that they, too, see no solution to the problems we have noted at the federal and state level.  Since there is no way to create a working public school program in this country, given our constitution and our mobility, there is not much point in creating a program to study it.

No wonder, then, we have a public education problem in this country. No one is working on it.  All the agencies in our governments and colleges have essentially given up on this problem before even trying to solve it.  As the names of their departments and programs indicate, they have all pulled back to working on the theoretical and most general levels of the problem, that is, how to “educate,” and left the problems of how to make a working “public education” program unsolved and unexamined.

How depressing, one might say.  But I don’t bring up these conclusions with that in mind.  Rather I want to urge that the current situation calls for what have always been considered “drastic” measures, such as the control of the schools by the federal government.  There is no other choice.  As the very names of our programs indicate, everyone already agrees that there is no solution to "public education" under our current system.   If we want improvements, we will actually have to change that system in ways that have always seemed impossible up to now.

Peter Dodington

Jan. 16, 2013