National Public Education

A Conversation about National Public Education

I was sitting in La Rana, my favorite bar in Decorah, Iowa, when I spied a friend whom I had just met a few days before at the bar.  He had moved to Decorah from the East Coast to work for a local non-profit, and had an interesting take on Mid-West and US problems in general.  He asked me what I was up to, and I said I was writing a book on public education.  His eyes lit up and he asked me to explain.

Me: When I was teaching in the public schools, I started wondering why we had a state-run, diversified, school system.  Was this really better than the national systems almost every other country had?  Could there be some kind of a link between this system and the poor performance of our schools?

He: But there are all sorts of reasons why our schools do poorly.  Half the students in the public schools are from low-income families; many of these families have serious problems that interfere with the kids' learning, not to mention that there has always been a strain of anti-intellectualism in this country.  Many people simply don't want good schools, or just don't care about the education of those poor minority kids.

Me: Perhaps so, but none of that negates the fact that we might improve the schools overall by having a different structure for the system.  Perhaps some of those outcomes you mention are, in fact, linked to our state-run structure.

He: How could that be?

Me: Well, for one, our state system works against providing an incentive for the public to support the schools.  At the state level, that is, not the local level.  The local schools work fine, but local taxes provide only about half the cost of the schools.  The rest comes from state taxes.  Federal support is negligible.

At the state level, it turns out, you are stuck with paying for the cost of the schools with your own state taxes, but then have to share the benefits from the schools, such as less crime, better productivity, better public health, etc., with the rest of the country.  The graduates don't stay in your state; they move to other states.  This means that there is little incentive to produce really good schools.  The only level of schooling you will ever want is the average level of all the other states, since then you don't lose anything when your graduates move away and are replaced by graduates from other states.  The better your graduates, the more you lose when they move away, so you will never want to fund really good schools.

The states are trying to fund a collective good, which spreads over the whole country, with individual, autonomous, payments.  As many economists have pointed out, this will always lead to mediocre outcomes.   The system itself could be the main reason why the schools stay mediocre.

He: So what's the solution?

Me: A national school system, where your taxes are applied to all the kids in the country, the same ones who provide the benefits.  Then it would make sense to make the schools as good as possible, since each improvement will come back directly to the national taxpayer in the form of national benefits.  You would be sharing the benefits with everyone in the country, but also sharing the costs with them, so it would work.

He: That would never work.  The real problem is that we aren't teaching the kids correctly.  The schools are too rigid; they don't emphasize creativity enough.  They are run by a huge bureaucracy.  And you want to make that bureaucracy even bigger! How could that ever lead to better schools?

Me: A bigger bureaucracy is not necessarily a worse one.  Look at your state tax forms; are they better than the federal tax forms?  Look at the military.  There's a huge bureaucracy that runs the best army in the world.  Of course it's bureaucratic; all large public programs have a certain amount of bureaucracy.

He: Fine, but where's the evidence that a federal program would work?  You need to go back and get more data.  It seems to me that the federal programs haven't worked very well in the past.

Me: There is no data on a new idea.  There's just a logical argument that it would work. And, of course the federal programs currently don't work; they are not in charge, the states are.   I'm not proposing that the feds take over more of the current system.  I want to change the system.

He: I still don't see how the feds would do better than the states.

Me: That's not the point.  I'm not saying they would do better, but that they could do better.  That's all.  Whether they actually do this is still up to them.  The point is that the states can never, ever, do better.  They are locked in to mediocrity by the structure of the state system itself.

Your state can make their own schools as good as they want, and still end up with mediocre schools in the long run, because the public will not fund the schools at any other level. It's simply not in their interest to fund really good schools when all the other states are mediocre, and those graduates migrate into your state as adults.  So you can make good schools, but no one will fund them, so they will eventually revert back to the mediocre status quo.

There is no guarantee that a federal program will be better, but at least this is possible, which is a step in the right direction.

He: I'm not sure most people will be able to understand all this.

Me: But you do; why not others?


Peter Dodington

November 25, 2017



Ontario Education

A recent Atlantic article extols the success of public education in Ontario, Canada (  As many of the commentators on this article noted, this should mean that the U.S. could do the same with its own state-level programs.  Canada has no federal education program; all public education is funded and run by the individual provinces.  But there are significant differences between provinces and states.

The first is that far fewer residents of the provinces move to other provinces than we do in the states.  The figures are that about 15% of the residents of a province were born in another province, while about 40% of the residents of an American state were born in another state.  That is almost three times as many.

The provinces simply have a stronger "identity" than our states do.  This is partly because there are far fewer or them, but also because they have a definite culture of their own.  Of course Quebec is different, but so is Manitoba.  They even have their own political parties that are different from the national parties, and their own somewhat odd forms of government.  Are there any state governors who are not Democrat or Republican?

This identity and stability mean that an educational system run by a province has a much greater chance of actually benefiting the public who are paying for it than one run by a state.  In the state, 40% of your graduates are going to move away, but only 15% in a province.  This makes a difference in how much you want to spend on education, or simply how concerned you are about this problem.

In the article it was noted that the whole reform process started when the voters elected a government that was committed to long-term educational success.  Has this ever happened in a state?  Some governors have worked hard on education for a few years, and made some progress, but never over a long term. Do any state politicians ever run on an education platform?

The reality, I think, is that we don't in fact want to spend much effort on improving our particular state's education program, or anything else about the state.  We know we may not live there all that long and have no real commitment to it.  We are committed to American education, not New Jersey's.

In the comments after the article it was lamented that Canadians take education more seriously than Americans.  Perhaps this is true, but what can we do about this?  Not much.  What we can do something about is our state system of education.  It cannot work, ever, unless we all go back to spending our lives in one state, and that is not going to happen.  The only serious solution is a national education system.

P. Dodington

May 14, 2012


The Robins Build a School

I heard this story from a homeless man I often see wandering in the woods of Inwood Hill Park, in northern Manhattan.

Once upon a time the robins were complaining that their young were not learning the skills needed to succeed at adult robin life.  Hardly any of them knew, for example, how to intimidate a hawk, or the broken wing trick.

“What we need to do,” said Robin Redbreast, “is build a school.  And let’s make it open to all, regardless of their wealth or background, so our whole flock will benefit when all the young become better and more productive robins.”

“But no outsiders,” said Cock Robin, who had been tweeting his friends and just joined the conversation.  “The school should be only for the children of our own local community, those who share our values and ideals.  We don’t need any outside interference.”

“Of course,” replied Robin Redbreast, “It will be a public school, but only for the young of our flock.  All the funding will be raised from our own local taxes, so we can have total local control. “

And so it was.  The school was a success from the start.  The young robins learned the knowledge and skills needed for adult life and, most importantly, the attitudes and ideals of the flock.  They became productive and civic-minded robins, adding to the wealth and happiness of the whole flock.  Everyone was willing to support and improve the school because it was clear that each graduate brought them a significant benefit.

In time, though, the school’s success created its own set of problems.  As they became more educated, the young robins realized that they could succeed anywhere in the forest, not just in their own flock.  The opportunities and the pleasures of the world outside drew them away more and more.  Eventually most of the young were choosing to live elsewhere as adults.

“And why, then, are we paying to make this school any better,” Cock Robin wanted to know, “when most of the graduates go off to benefit other flocks in other parts of the forest?  The better our school gets, the more we lose when they migrate off to other flocks.  It’s true that we get graduates back from these other areas, but by definition they are only of average ability, since they come randomly from a variety of places.  It only makes sense, then, to just support the school up to that average level.  We’re wasting our money if we try to make it really good, better than the others."

“But the school does help our children,” said Round Robin, the parent of two small robins.  “I want to do everything I can to make it the best possible place of learning.  We all need to pull together to help our children.”

“That’s fine,” continued Cock Robin, “but you get the direct benefit of your children’s education no matter where they go in the forest, so it makes sense for you to make the school better and better.  What benefit do I, or any other non-parent taxpayer, get, other than the vague sense of helping my neighbor?  I’m willing to put in some money, but I can’t see the point in making the school much better than it already is.”

“Well,” pondered Robin Redbreast, “we could ask the state to help us.   Many of our graduates settle in the state and so benefit all the state residents.  If we shared our school costs with them, paying state taxes and getting back state aid to education, we could come closer to equalizing the costs and benefits of the schools for all the residents of the state.  Then it might make more sense for everyone to support the schools fully and try to make them better.”

And so it was.  Soon the amount of school funds received from the state equaled or even surpassed those raised locally.  But support for the schools still remained stagnant.

The problem was that the state had its own mobility issues.  Fully 39% of its graduates, by the latest robin census, had moved out of the state to somewhere else in the forest.  That was enough to make the state taxpayers think twice about fully supporting calls for improvements to the schools.

And perhaps more importantly, the state had no real ideals or goals of its own that would energize the robins to support their state programs.  No one believed in the state.  The Robins cared about their local communities, and they cared about the whole forest, their nation, but were generally indifferent to the success of their state.  In a sense they didn’t actually want their state to become a lot better than other states; they wanted them all to be similar.  What was the point, then, of building up the state-run school system, when its final goal, the improvement of the state, was not what they wanted?

So the schools languished; not failing, but not getting any better either.  The parents continued their efforts, but these were always undercut by the resistance of the general non-parent population to any increase in expenditures.  The partial benefit that the average tax-paying robin received, due to the mobility of the graduates, led to a partial support of the schools and, consequently, a locked-in mediocrity.

Everyone kept grumbling about the sorry state of the schools, but no one seemed to be able to make them better.  Finally, Robin Hood, a gym teacher at the local school, called a meeting to address the problem.

“What bothers me most,” he began, “is the waste of effort.  We keep coming up with plans and procedures on how to improve the schools themselves, and many of these are excellent.  But our problems cannot be solved at the school level.  We could make the best school in the forest and still not change the fundamental reasons why our schools end up being mediocre.  The problem is in the structure of our school system, not the schools themselves.”

“The only solution is to adopt the school-system structure that every other animal uses, a forest-wide system.  Then we will share in all the benefit from the success of our graduates, since few ever leave the forest permanently, and our costs will be likewise shared across the forest.  When these costs and benefits are again equalized, it will once again make sense for each of us to fully support the schools, and they will improve.”

“Furthermore, we believe in what the forest stands for: the ideals set down by our Founding Robins.  We want to make the forest as strong and good as we can, unlike our feelings about the state.  The forest is actually our community in a way that the state can ever be.  Structuring the schools around the forest gives us a truly workable rationale for improving the schools.”

“No, no; you can’t do that,” called out Round Robin.  “The forest council is too big and too strong.  They will force us to educate our children only their own way.  What will become of our freedom of choice to teach our young as we see fit?  Perhaps the schools are not as good as they could be, but at least they are our own.  I’m not going to be told what to do about my own kids.  I’ll take my freedom, no matter what the cost.”

“But we wouldn’t be changing our level of freedom at all,” said Robin Hood.  “We would still have the local school systems, and could make them as strong as we want, stronger than they are now.  It is only the state part that needs to be replaced.  Once we put in a system that actually works we will have the flexibility to adapt it to our needs.  We could make it as centralized or decentralized as we want.”

The flock was silent.  Many respected Robin Hood, and could see that there was a good deal of merit to what he said, but the change seemed so enormous.  It would threaten, they thought, the very foundations of their flock.  Hadn’t their ancestors come to this forest precisely to avoid this kind of government intervention?  His plan might work, but perhaps too well.

But Robin Hood wouldn’t give up.  He kept arguing that a forest-wide system was the only way to have a working public school system in a mobile society, and no one could prove him wrong.  Eventually the states decided that being in charge of a system that could never work was not what they really wanted, and agreed to give up control of the schools to the forest.

Then the schools finally did improve.  The forest council standardized the things that needed to be standardized, like the tests for graduation and the distribution of resources to each school, and also emphasized the humanitarian and community-building ideals of the Founders.  They left the actual running of the schools, though, to the local flocks.  If anything, there was less big-government interference in the local schools, since everything ran so smoothly.

The parents were pleased and the general public was too.  They could now see how their support benefitted them, since the forest could easily tally the success of all the graduates no matter where they settled.  The public schools were finally back to where they had started, when everyone could see how they benefitted from school improvements and so it made sense to fully support them.  The schools improved, the young robins learned more, and in time the whole flock became more civilized, productive, and happy.

After all this the robins were tired but content.  They had fixed a problem no one thought was solvable.  They decided that their next meeting would be on medical care.

Peter Dodington

Aug. 30, 2011


Better College Admissions Tests

In most of the world, the way you get into college is to pass a test on what you have learned in high school.  Those who do well go on to the best colleges and often the best careers, and those who don't go on to something else.   This means that success in high school plays a clear role in the future success of the students.

Such a system helps the schools a great deal, since it gives the students a clear incentive to do well in school.   If the colleges are paying attention to how well you understand factoring and the subjunctive, you will, too.  If whether you do your French homework directly affects whether you will go to your favorite “name” school, you may well do it.  And if your teachers are not just people sent by your parents to annoy you, and make you “do your work,” but are actually the key people who can help you learn the material on this test, since they are the ones who actually know it, then you might listen to them quite carefully, and ask some good questions.  Having college admission tests based on the curricula of the schools makes the schools work much better than not having such tests.

In America, though, we have no such tests.  Instead we use the SAT test for college admissions which is purposely not a test of any school’s curricula.  The SAT, which was originally called the Scholastic Aptitude Test, measures  students’ ability to solve problems: their aptitude for scholarly work, not what they have learned in school.  The colleges were looking for another way, besides grades, to indicate which students could do well in college.  The SAT in effect tallies the students who have not done well in school, but still have the ability to do college work.  It is not so much a test of how well the students have done in school as a test of how well they may do in college.

Over the years many have complained that the SAT is harmful to schools and should be replaced by a test on curricula, but no changes have ever been made.  The reason for this is that the states have no way of bringing this about.   Some states have their own tests on their curricula, such as the New York State Regents, but there is no way to use this for college admission.  Obviously the colleges are not going to consult 50 different state tests.

Nor are the states able to formulate a test common to all, since there is no common curriculum among them, nor is there any organization that could coordinate such a move.  Each state is an autonomous entity fully in charge of its own schools and students.  There is no way to organize such joint action.  If one state were to try to start the process of changing to a different test by itself, the colleges, all of which take students from many different states, could easily ignore them, to the detriment of that state's students.

The obvious answer is a national system of education.  Then we would have a way to coordinate the various curricula of the states, and make a general test that reflected the work of the schools.  Once we changed to a national system, it would be perfectly natural to have a national admissions test, and to base this on school work, not aptitude.  This would bring improvements to the level of learning throughout the schools in this country.

The state-run system we have harms the schools.  It takes away from them a major incentive for their students to learn.  It is as if we set up a game for children and then told them that the “winner” would be the ones with the best colored shirts.  They wouldn’t play the game very well, then, would they?

All this is not the fault of the states, or the colleges, or even the SAT test itself, which is actually run quite well.  It is the fault of the system we use to organize public education in this country, a system that forces the schools to hand over control of college acceptance completely to the colleges, since no state or local district has the ability to organize it themselves.  There is no way to fix the problem except through a national school system.

Peter Dodington


Do We Want a Successful State-run Program?

Suppose that we had a successful state-run school system in this country.  One where the states were increasing their educational success and the public was generally satisfied with their progress.  What would that look like?  Would it be something that we would want?

If we wanted the state system to work, we would have to lessen the amount of mobility out of the states.  Currently only about 62% of the U.S. population is living in the state they were born in.  This means that, roughly, more than a third of the people educated in any one state move to another.  What is the point, then, in working hard to make your state’s educational program excellent?  More than a third of the benefit from that excellence is going to move off somewhere else.  The only logical way to treat such a situation is to aim for a middle ground in your educational efforts, so that you don’t produce graduates who are better than average.  High mobility has to lead to mediocre state programs.

In Canada, where it can be argued that provincial-run education does work well, the percent of the population that is living in the province where they were born is about 85%.  Only about 15% leave the province they were educated in, or less than half the U.S. rate.  If we want to succeed at a state-run program here, we would have to get our out-of-state migration rates down to about that level.

Then it would make sense for the state residents to invest in their own state’s educational programs.  If you all stay in the state,  then it makes sense to hire good 7th grade math teachers because the better students they produce will be the ones you work with, or live next to, later in life when both you and they are still in your state.  Then you all will have better jobs and better communities, and your kids will too.

But only if you, and your kids, stay in the state.  You cannot move to another state for a better job, or more opportunity, or a better climate.  And, you cannot take advantage of the power of this country, either.  You have to rely on the power of your state.  Google may be doing well, but that is not going to affect you unless you happen to be in a state where they operate.  To benefit fully from your state’s educational program, you have to regard it as your one and only source of power and success.

This means, too, giving up on any attempt to improve the overall educational strength of the U.S.  A state program has no control over the country as a whole.  To make a state program work you have to focus on that program, not the country.  Of course, success in the state may help the country succeed, but this is only by chance.  The state cannot set out to improve the country.  State success may have little effect on the overall improvement of the country if other states do poorly and cancel out its contribution.  A state program cannot change the success of the country as a whole any more than it could change the educational success of a foreign country.

In the end, then, making the state-run school system work would mean shifting our allegiance to the states rather than the nation.  It would mean that we would actually have to care more about the success of our state than the success of our country.  The state would have to become our true home, not America.

So we could make our current state-run system work.  The question is, do we want to?  Do we ever want to put our efforts more towards our states than our country, and do we want to limit ourselves to residing only in the one state where we were educated?  If the answer to these questions is no, then there is no way we can ever have a successful state-run educational program.

Peter Dodington