National Public Education
11Nov/170

The “Too Big for one School System” Fallacy

One of the favorite arguments in favor of having a state-run decentralized school system in this country is that we are too big to have one, centralized, national school system.  Other countries that have national programs are smaller and more homogenous, like Japan or Finland, and so can run their schools from one national capital.  We are too big and too diverse to do that effectively.  We need some kind of local divisions, like the states, to respond to all our various local needs.

There is some logic to this.  Many large organizations divide their work into divisions or units that then can accomplish the work more efficiently.  Your local supermarket divides itself up into “produce,” “meat,” “dairy,” etc., so that each unit can focus on its own “local” problems.  That works.

But that is not, in fact, what we do in our state-run decentralized school system.  We haven’t set the states up as divisions of a larger organization so that the whole will work better.  Each state is a separate entity on its own; it raises it own money from its own residents and spends this as it pleases.  It’s not a division of a larger program, the way the produce department is a division of the supermarket.  There is no larger program, since we specifically forbid there to be a national program.  Each state is its own completely separate operation as far as education is concerned.

No supermarket, or any other organization, would ever let its divisions operate totally on their own, raising their own money and spending it as they wished.  That would not improve the organization.  Each unit would just go its own way so that the result would be varied.  Some would improve, but others would get worse, and the end result would just be stagnation.  It is only by coordinating those units that the whole scheme could ever produce a better situation.  But that is precisely what we don’t do in public education. There is not way to coordinate the state programs.  Since they raise their own money they can do whatever they want with it.

So we may be “too big” to run our school system just from Washington, but that problem will not be solved by our current system of autonomous states. What would solve it would be to divide up our educational program into something like state programs, and then coordinate these through a central, national, organization.  That would work.  But that would mean that the national government would have to have some say over the state programs.

The key to that kind of a solution is to share the control of the schools between the local units and the centralized organization.  There is nothing wrong with local control; it is the right way to respond to the needs of the families in the schools, and should be put into effect as much as possible.  However, you still need centralized oversight so that the whole program can move forward.  You can’t just let each local program go its own way if you want any kind of long-term improvement.

This is not rocket science.  Every school program throughout the world, even in very decentralized programs such as Canada's, allows for restrictions on the local units set by the central government.  These central organizations set standards in various academic and operational areas, and have the ability to enforce these.  They can then change the local programs for the better.  That’s why their school systems improve.

It’s interesting, too, why we even bring up this issue.  Why are we worrying about how to educate all the children in the country, anyway?  Haven’t we decided that we only want a local, state-run, program, not a national one?  So shouldn’t we be worried about how to make Nebraska’s school system work, not the nation’s?  We go around thinking that we have solved this national “too big” problem, but that’s not even the right question.  It has nothing to do with what should be the real problem for us, namely how to run a good state program.  Why are we even bringing this up?

What this implies is that we don’t actually want just a good program for each state.  What we really want is national success, for everyone.   We bring up this "too big" problem because we think that it proves that we can get that kind of national success through our state system.  But we can't; an autonomous state program with no national oversight doesn't work.  If what we really want is national success, why don't we simply set up some kind of national program?

Peter Dodington

November 11, 2017

 

 

 

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