National Public Education

The Essence of Public Education

When I was teaching at Park West High School in Manhattan some years ago, I came across a good idea for my remedial reading class.  We had a contract with the "Ramp Up" program from the "America's Choice" company, and they suggested that I get my students to read to elementary school children at a nearby school.  My kids were in the ninth grade but had about a fourth grade reading level.  The problem was that they had gotten so good at "faking" it that now they categorically refused to read any "remedial" texts; they only wanted the "real" thing, like Shakespeare or Twain.  Then they would rely on what they could pick up from class discussion, their girl-friends, and the helpful hints from their teacher to get them through the book.

Since this meant that I was hardly teaching them anything at all I wanted to get them into books they could actually read.  Having them read to young children would not only accomplish this, but would also get them to discuss the reading, an excellent way to improve one's reading level.  And, of course, the little ones would benefit, too.

It took me several months, though, to set this up.  I went around to one grade school after another.  Time after time the grade school principal would say something like, "I spend all day trying to keep my kids away from kids like yours."  Finally I found one principal who let me talk to one third-grade teacher who agreed to let me come one day a week.

It was an instant success.  The little kids gathered around my students the minute they came in the door, holding on to them and snuggling up as they went off to a corner to read.  It made no difference at all what the academic level was of the students, on either side of the group.  If anything, it was my biggest, toughest, and least educated students who were most popular with the little ones.  Everyone seemed involved.  And my students rose to the occasion.  I heard comments about plot and character that had never been uttered in my regular class.  The grade school teacher and I went around handing out books, but mostly we just stood there and smiled.

In those days we didn't keep very accurate records of such things, but I did get some feedback from an interesting source.  One day in my regular class I noticed a new student in the back.  I talked with him and realized that he had been registered for the class from the start but had never attended.  I had sent the usual notices home and to the attendance office but to no avail.  But here he was doing the work.

Then I didn't see him again until we went to the grade school, and then not again until a week later when we went again.  Then I remembered that on that first day we had planned to go but had cancelled at the last minute.  He was only coming on the days we went to the grade school.  It was only the chance to read to the little ones that was getting him to school at all.

This, it seems to me, is the essence of public education.  There is no private solution for that young man's problems, or at least none that anyone can afford.  One can argue that there are some private programs that could bring him back to school, but they are very few and far between, and quite expensive.  But when we pool our resources in a public program we can reach a good number of such students, and sometimes this does work. Here was the proof.  Who knows how much good we were bringing into that child's life by getting back into school, at least for one day a week?  And how much good we were producing for ourselves by keeping him less involved in anti-social activities?

Why, then, aren't there more success stories like this?  It wasn't that complicated; the ideas are out there, we just have to use them.  Why was it, though, that this program lasted all of one semester?  My school was closed at the start of the next term and I moved on, perforce, to a totally different school.

Was it that I didn't promote it enough?  But how?  Who was I supposed to go to?  True, the teachers' union does pay attention to such things, but who in the school administration does?  Whose job is it to see that a classroom success becomes a district or state-wide success?  Who was going to help the next teacher contact a grade school and set up a similar program?  Why aren't there any such people in the schools?

The short answer is, I think, because that's the way the public wants it.  The public keeps saying that what they want is an emphasis on the classroom.  They don't want any "outsiders" coming in and messing up the relationship between the children and the teachers.  Fine; so that is what we get.  Good classrooms.  And that is what I got.  A classroom success.  But nothing more; and consequently, a fairly short-term success.

In fact, what we needed was precisely those "outsiders" to come in and help the teachers set up such a program.  This kind of program involves things "outside" the classroom, such as the little kids, and so needs help from an "outside" source.  But we don't have people working on that aspect of education, and no one seems to want us to.

So my remedial program was, in fact, the "essence" of our public education system; it showed me how much we could accomplish, and also, how unlikely it was that this would happen, given what the public says they want from the schools.  A locally focused program gets local success, but only that.  It is incapable of changing the overall system for the better.

Peter Dodington

January 7, 2017


Druid Dialogues VI: Jefferson’s Plans


Druids Bar, on Tenth Avenue, was across the street from our school.  English and Special Ed. teachers were attending “9th period”, as we called it, on a Friday several years ago.

Limato: But Pedro, how can these problems with our state-run school system be true?  Shouldn’t someone have seen this long ago?  I mean, is this the way we set up the system – so that it could never succeed?

Tom:    Yeah; didn’t Jefferson figure this all out back then, telling us how to set up a public school system?  It can’t be that he was blind to these problems.

Pedro:  Quite so; Jefferson knew what he was doing.  In fact there were several plans in the late 18th century for state-wide, or even national, school programs.  Washington himself argued for a national university, which would have set up national standards for the secondary schools and a national curriculum.  And of course Jefferson proposed a full range of K - 12 public schools for the state of Virginia.

Bob:     But none of that got passed, did it, at least in their life-times.  It turned out that no one wanted any kind of “top-down” structure in the schools.  They had left all that behind in the old country.  Now they were going to create their own new towns, their own communities, with their own schools run their own way.

Pedro:  So the only schools that got set up were funded totally through the small, local districts.  Local control was all there was.  In fact, up through the early part of the 20th century some 90% of all public school funding in this country came through the local districts, not the state or the national level.

Limato: But that worked, right?

Pedro:  It must have been great.  The townspeople banded together and created their own school districts and ran them totally by themselves.  The little, dirt-street town where I first taught in Montana had its own district, own superintendent, and own school board for its 100-student system, and still does.  This system worked because everyone contributed to the schools, since everyone, not just the parents, benefitted. They were educating the next generation of town workers and leaders.  They paid for someone to teach algebra so the town would have someone who could figure out corn prices and investments.  It was a locally run system, but totally public.  Everyone shared the costs and everyone shared the benefits.  It worked.

Limato: So what went wrong?

Pedro:  Well, the trouble with education is that it takes so long to realize the benefits from it.  A whole generation, just about.  So, to make it work, you have to have a really stable community.  It’s not like a public road, where you get to use it a few months after you pay for it.  Education produces a terrific benefit, but it is a long way in the future.  This means that the program only works if the graduates from the school stay in the town, where they can pay back, so to speak, those who funded their education.

But not everyone wants to spend their lives in a small town.  New opportunities come up, new interests.  You know, people didn’t come to America just so they could live in a small town.  They came to succeed, and that usually meant moving on to bigger and better places.  Everyone loves the guy who stays and runs his dad’s store, but we all know, too, that this is not the way to make some serious money.

Tom:    So the grads took their skills and education off to some other town; some place that had not paid for their education, which meant that the people who paid for their education were losing out.  They were only getting a partial return on their investment in those kids, so tended to only want to support the schools now in a partial manner.

Pedro:  The data on mobility is that well more than half the residents of the average town leave for other places.  In my New Jersey suburb only a few of my childhood friends still live there; many less than half.

Limato: But the ones that leave are replaced by educated people from other towns.  Doesn’t that matter?

Pedro:  Yes, but that’s why our problem is an unrelenting mediocrity and not total failure.  The ones that come in are from all over, right, so have to be at about an average level of education, in general.  That’s fine unless you want to improve the schools above that average, mediocre, level.  If you try that, you will be producing excellent students but only getting back, from the other towns, average ones.  You would be cheating your taxpayers.  The only level of education that makes sense is the average level of all the other schools.  That’s what you’re going to end up with anyway, after everyone moves around, so you might as well only aim for that level from the start.  If the costs are bourn individually, by the town, but the profits shared, throughout the country, there is not much point in making excellent students.  The better you get at this the more you lose.

Bob:     So it was our own individualism, our belief that we could do it all by ourselves, in our own little towns with no outside help, that led us down this unworkable path.  Our hubris that we could create it all by ourselves.

Limato: The best we could do, ever, is just recreate the average level of all the other schools. The combination of autonomous small districts and mobile graduates forces the system to stay mediocre.

Pedro:  But we can’t be too hard on those early pioneers.  They thought everyone would stay in the towns, just as people had stayed in the towns they came from in Europe.  They didn’t see that they had brought over with them a kind of restlessness; a drive to move on.  It’s one of our strengths, right?  But it makes it difficult to build a public program like public education that relies on stability, at least on a local level.

The real problem, though, is why, once we realized this scheme wasn’t working, we haven’t done anything about it.

Limato: But didn’t they get the state involved then?  Didn’t that help?

Pedro:  Sort of, but that’s another story.


Peter Dodington

August 6, 2015