National Public Education

Elizabeth Green and Charter Schools

Elizabeth Green, the creator of "Chalkbeat" and the author of several excellent works on the public schools, has written an article for the Atlantic about Eva Moskowitz and her charter school network.  In that article she says that she worries about where these charter organizations are headed, with their wealthy donors on their boards, but feels that they are the "most promising model we have for public education."

But I don't want to discuss either Ms Moskowitz or the charter school movement. Instead I want to ask why Ms Green rejects the other options for our schools, such as the traditional government run schools.   I want to look at what Ms Green says about public education in general, and see if we an figure out what she thinks is going wrong there, and whether there is any solution to those "public" problems.  If not, then we might turn to a discussion of things like charter schools.

Ms Green says that when she started to write a book in 2010 about the public schools, she realized "how impossible teaching is, especially in traditional public schools."  She points out that other countries are able to supply good materials, goals, and training to their teachers, but our governments do not.  Part of the problem, she says, in the confusing mix of local, state, and national authority in public education.  She wants a system that is "equitable, accountable, and parent-friendly," but does not see how our governments can supply this.  She goes so far as to worry that "democracy as we know it is a problem."

All this is true.  But why, then, not try to fix the democracy?  Before we turn away from it, and give up on a workable public system, why not try to change that government system so that it does work? That would not be impossible; we still are able to vote on changes in the way we govern our public programs, aren't we?

Ms Green, herself, hints at how we might approach this problem.  At the end of the article, she turns her attention to the boards that run the charter school systems and finance the charter-specific aspects of them. She worries, quite rightly, that the people who control that money might use these funds for their own ends.  She sees, rightly, that those who control the money in these programs control the essence of these charter schools.

Let's apply that kind of thinking, then, to the public school system.  Where does the money for that system come from?  Obviously, the taxpayers.  And not just the parent taxpayers, who only make up a quarter of the population, but the general taxpayers who don't have children in the schools.  They, as in "we", are the source of the money that makes public education happen; we, ourselves, are the "board" for the school system. That's why it's called a "public" system; it is funded by that "public."  When I was a teacher in the New York City schools, almost everyone I met on the street was paying part of my salary. The money, and, actually, the control, of public education comes from the taxpayers.

But you can see right away that there are problems.  Why were those people on the streets of New York paying me?  I wasn't teaching their children.  So was I providing them some kind of public benefit, like less crime and a better economy?  But where is the evidence that this is happening?  Almost all of that money goes to the state and local governments, but do these governments ever tell us anything about those public benefits?  All they tell us is what happens in the schools, not the effect of this on us, the people paying for those schools.

Well, you might say, that is too complicated.  Who can fathom the workings of state and local government?  It's so "political."  But if you can work your way through why a hedge-fund owner might want to support charter schools, I think you can also start to figure out our decentralized state and local public school system.  There are some obvious truths that are apparent to anyone who looks in that direction.

Take, for example, the issue of teacher training, which Ms Green has particularly focused on, quite rightly.  Who is in charge of this in the public schools?  Not the local districts, and not the federal government, which provides less than 10% of the funding for the school system.  It must be the states.  But why should the states want to do this well?  Do the graduates of their programs stay in their states?  Not at all.  So why should they focus on spending their good state tax money on this?  They don't get any direct benefit from it.  They have to share the results of their program with all the other states, so why should they ever try to make their program better than the average level that the other states provide?  So that's why we have average, mediocre, teacher-training programs. There is no way around this as long as we allow the states to run these programs.

In Ms Green's article, the words "state government" do not appear.  That is a problem. She has such a good understanding of the schools; she just needs to take it to the next level.  Where is the public money coming from, and what is wrong with the way we are doing that?  There are public solutions to our public school problems, but we won't ever find these unless we examine the fundamental structure of the system we are currently using.  Before we even start to think about alternatives, like charter schools, let's look critically at the public system we have, and see if we can make it better.

Peter Dodington

December 9, 2017



Great Ideas, not Implemented

Elizabeth Green has written a wonderful book about how to teach well: Building a Better Teacher.  She narrates story after story about dedicated teachers who are finding more and more about how to get our students to learn.  I loved her comments about how teachers are focusing on the “why” of wrong answers – how did it come about that a student got that answer and not the right one?  To do this they have to create situations where the children are not afraid to try out an answer; to say what they are thinking it might be; to explain their thoughts.  This was so good it got me thinking of ways to improve my own classes – for both the 10-year-olds in Sunday school and my college students.

From the start, though, Ms Green says she wants to do more than just prescribe better classroom techniques; she wants to improve public education.  Half of her Prologue is about the problem of raising the overall level of education in America.  Here she has less to say.  She dutifully recounts all the horror stories of the “incoherence” of the “three-headed monster” of our local, state, and federally-run system, which results in “mass confusion.”  She recounts how a Japanese teacher, who came to America hopeing to learn from the land of John Dewey, was horrified to see that in our classrooms “they don’t do anything like that.”  She comments, “The Americans produced wonderful intellectual work on what teaching could look like, but they had failed to implement any of it” (p. 124).

For this problem, apparently, she feels there is no solution.  After running through the various reform movements such as Teach for America, charter schools, vouchers, and Common Core, and noting that these have made little difference to the vast majority of teachers, she falls back to a resigned acceptance of the status quo.  She notes that those who want to work with “a larger group of teachers”, such as Deborah and Francesca, her two best reformers, “had to work with the patchwork [of government control] that did exist – incoherence and all”  (p. 310).  The best we can hope for, she has Deborah say, is gradual change over at least ten years.  The implication is, though, that this may be impossible; Ms Green’s last quote is from the Red Queen in Alice in Wonderland, who recommends doing “six impossible things before breadfast” (p. 313).  Her last chapter is called “A Profession of Hope.”

Is that it, then?  There is no way to improve the schools overall?  Better teaching is the key to better schools, and we know a lot about how to do this, but is there no way to implement these practices into more than a handful of classrooms?  Is it really true that there is nothing we can do about this except “hope” for the best and mumble "This, too, shall pass?"  I can’t believe it.   The wise men who founded this country did not set up a school system that could never be improved.  Something has gone wrong over the years; somehow we have gotten off track in the way we organize public education in this country.  Finding out what that might be is our task, not an acceptance of the “mass confusion.”

So Ms Green has come up with the wrong answer to the question of how we can implement these great teaching practices.  Let’s try to see how that came about.  Let’s apply her own technique of delving into the thought processes that led to an incorrect answer.

One starting point might be that she, like almost all commentators on the public schools, is ready to take criticism of any politically-based school reform at face value.  When discussing Common Core, for example, she quotes, with no comment, an observation from unnamed “critics” that CC is an “unwanted federal intrusion or even . . . Communism” (p. 311).   It is assumed, apparently, that every voice from the man-in-the-street is a reasonable comment that ought to be heard.  She has already argued that Common Core is a logical first step in general educational reform, but then turns around and quotes all sorts of contrary opinions.

Is this anything like how she approaches the issues of how to teach well?  Would she ever quote some uninformed math teacher who thinks that simply memorizing the multiplication tables is the best way to teach math?  Isn't her whole point that teaching is a complex topic that most people do not understand, so we will never get anywhere if we just listen to un-informed general public opinion?  Would she ever say that there is nothing we can do about good teaching since there is such a diversity of opinion about it?  Concerning the classroom she is intent on creating something new; something most people don’t know much about.  Why doesn't she do that concerning these implementation issues?

The obvious answer is that she does not feel she knows enough about the political issues involved in implementation, so does not want to take a stand.  But I would say that she could find out.  She probably did not know all that much about classroom techniques before this book, but did an excellent job of researching the topic.  Why not turn her attention now to implementation?

If she does, here are some ideas.  First, approach the problem as unique to public education.  The issue, as she points out, is not how to teach, but how to make a public school system that works.  That is a political policy issue, not an educational one.  It won’t help much, then, to keep talking only to teachers or school of education professors.  Their focus is the classroom.  That’s not where the problem is; it’s outside the school, in the state legislatures and the U.S. Congress.  It’s the “public” part of “public education” that has to be fixed.

Secondly, watch out for confusions between local and state issues.  No one is really complaining about our local school system.  That works pretty much as it is supposed to.  It’s the next level up, the states, where the problem is.  The states are the entity that ought to implement teaching reform in our decentralized system.  They are in charge, so they are the crux of the problem.

And thirdly, distinguish carefully between parents and the public.  In a classroom it is easy to focus on the parents and how we can best get them to support the school, but in reality it is the public we need to impress.  Most of the money for that classroom, and for reforms in that classroom, will come from the non-parent public, since they make up most of the population.  We do need good a parent-teacher relationship, but even more we need a good public-teacher relationship.  And that is very hard to come by in a state-run school system, as I discuss elsewhere.

So, I will wait for that second volume.  Ms Green has all the right ideas; she just needs to follow them on to their logical conclusions.  Then she will see that the schools can be improved.

Peter Dodington

Jan. 28, 2015