National Public Education

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


The Founding Fathers on National Education

In the first years of our country, several of our most prominent leaders argued that our new government should adopt a national system of education.  From the start, our country seriously considered the value of a uniform system for all citizens.  These plans were not adopted, partly because our national government was so weak at the time, but national public education was always thought to be a viable option in this country.

Foremost among these leaders was George Washington.  In his first State of the Union address, delivered on January 8, 1790, at Federal Hall in New York City, he laid out his recommendation for a national university.

…Nor am I less persuaded that you will agree with me in opinion that there is  nothing which can better deserve your patronage than the promotion of science and literature.  Knowledge is in every country the surest basis of public happiness.

To the security of a free constitution it contributes in various ways:…by teaching the people themselves to know and to value their own rights; [and] to discern and provide against invasion of them….

Whether this desirable object will be best promoted by … the institution of a national university, or by any other expedients, will be well worthy of the deliberations of the legislature.

The need for a national university was one of Washington’s favorite themes.  He brought it up again in this farewell address, calling for the “promotion of institutions for the general diffusion of knowledge”, and in his will left money for the establishment of a national university.

While not specifically calling for a national system of public schools, Washington's plan would have strongly promoted such a system.  A national university would have influenced high school curricula throughout the country, since its entrance requirements would have been adopted as graduation requirements for most of the high schools.  It would have at least  created a de facto national curriculum.   Whether this would have led to eventual federal control of public education cannot be known, but it is surely not impossible.

Another group of founding fathers interested in national public education were the leaders of the American Philosophical Society.  They held a contest in 1796 for the best system of national public education in America.  This society was organized in Philadelphia in 1769, with Benjamin Franklin as its first president, Thomas Jefferson its third, and many of the founding fathers as members.  It offered a prize of $100 for “the best system of liberal Education and literary instruction, adapted to the genius of the Government of the United States; comprehending also a plan for instituting and conduction public schools in this country, on principles of the most extensive utility” (Quoted in Allen O. Hanson, Liberalism and American Education in the Eighteenth Century, New York, 1965, p.110).  The two winning proposals were by Samuel Knox and Samuel Harrison Smith.

Samuel Knox was a physician, educator and minister from Maryland.  His entry was published in Essay on Education (Baltimore, 1799).   He sets out to describe “an entire, general, uniform national plan” for education (Essay, p. 26).  In his remarks, he notes that he is amazed that national education, which seems to him to be as natural as sunlight, has not gained more prominence.

To have dwelt upon the natural advantages of national education, in the present enlightened age of the world, would appear like an eulogium on the benefits of the light of the sun to the solar system….It would appear, in some degree,          unaccountable that little hath been done in promoting some general plan of education equally suitable and salutary to the various citizens (Essay, p. 66).

He argues that using the combined resources of the entire nation to educate our children would be a much more effective, and efficient, method than the current scattered and incomplete attempts by individual localities.

Great…surely, must be the difference between the effects of education when abandoned to the precarious uncertainty of casual, partial, or local encouragement, and of that which has been established uniformly and generally by the united wisdom and exertions of a whole nation (Essay, p. 70).

Knox argues that the wide extent of our country, with all manner of different customs and conditions, makes it particularly suitable for a national system.

In…the United States of America, a considerable local diversity… must be the consequence of such a wide extent of territory, inhabited by citizens blending together almost all the various manners and customs of every country in Europe.  Nothing, then, surely, might be supposed to have a better effect towards harmonizing the whole…than an universal system of national education (Essay, p. 71).

Knox shared the Philosophical Society’s prize with Samuel Harrison Smith, an editor of several literary magazines in Philadelphia.  He proposed a complete system from elementary to the university level, all superintended by a national board of education.  He urges that the national government vigorously take charge of the education of our children.

…it is the duty of a nation to superintend and even to coerce the education of children (Quoted in Essays on Education in the Early Republic, Frederick Rudolph, ed., p. 211).

He spells out the entire system of education for children from 5 to 18, all run and organized by a national board.

It shall be the duty of this board to form a system of national education to be observed in the university, the colleges and the primary schools,…and to superintend the general interests of the institution (Rudolph, p. 213).

Instead of adopting any of these proposals, though, the national and state legislatures left public education in the hands of the local school districts.   The feeling evidently was that our settlers wanted to control their own education in their own communities, without interference from either the state or the national governments.   As we have noted, this has led directly to the current stagnation of our school system.

From the start, then, the concept of a national school system was supported by some of the best minds, and the best leaders, of the country.  It seemed the logical choice.  To adopt such a system today would not be to go against the ideals of our founding fathers.  They thought that such a national system was certainly possible, and to many, preferable.

It cannot be that Washington, Jefferson and Franklin, who worked so hard for public education,  envisioned for our schools the un-workable stagnant situation we have today.  If they were here, they would want a workable system; that is, national public education.

Peter Dodington

July 30, 2011


Small Town Ideals

In my first teaching job, on the high plains of eastern Montana, I taught English in a large, three-story brick building that towered above the low wooden houses and gravel streets of the small town of Brockton, Montana.  As in many rural communities built in the 19th and early20th century, the public school was the largest and most ornate building in town, easily dwarfing the stores, churches and entertainment establishments.  The original settlers had spent a considerable amount of money and effort on this imposing and elegant school building.

I often wondered about the exceptional quality of that building, and others like it in similar towns across the country.  Why did the founders of these towns build such grand public schools?  What was it about public education that made it so valuable to them, and what might they teach us about our own problems with schools today?

Those early schools must have provided something more than simply a service to the parents in those towns.  If they only had that kind of functional, day-to-day role, they would have been built like the other practical stores and places of business in the town; low structures of wood and fiberboard.  The school I worked in must have stood for something more, some ideal.

That ideal was probably the future growth and success of the community.  The founders of that town made it bigger, better, and more elegant than the other buildings because it represented their hopes for a bigger and better town.  They wanted the town to become as impressive and successful as that school building.

The school would bring this about by providing smarter, more skilled and more civic-minded adults.  Its graduates would grow up to become the town’s leaders and successful citizens, and these adults would share their success with all the residents of the town, making it grow and prosper.  The young man who had done well in algebra would use that knowledge to help everyone calculate things like the risks and rewards of early planting, and the woman who had studied Macbeth would help people understand the dangers of ambition and power.  Through the work of its adult graduates, the school would provide the means to improve and strengthen the entire town.

For these early settlers, then, the public school was much more than simply a place to educate their children; it provided a public benefit for everyone.  And since that benefit extended to all the residents, it made sense to charge them all equally for the school.  Everyone would succeed more if the quality of their residents was improved by education, so everyone supported the school.

This was the way public education was supposed to work in this country.  We set up small autonomous districts to run the schools, since local control was what the early settlers wanted.   When the graduates from the schools stayed in, or returned to, the community where they were educated, they provided a benefit to the same people who had funded their education.  As long as the children being educated would become the adults who would improve the community, it made sense to support and improve the schools.  Each dollar spent on the schools would come back as a future benefit to the taxpayer who had spent that dollar.

Notice, also, that the school itself did not have to do anything to promote this public benefit.  In these small towns there was no need for data on the success of the school’s graduates; it was obvious to all.  The public could see how they benefited from the school by just looking out the window at what the graduates were doing.  All the school needed to do was to keep track of what went on within its own walls: attendance, grades, tests scores, etc.  The school had a good relationship with its tax-paying public, but it was an informal, undocumented one.

Mobility and Mediocrity

If the graduates, however, did not come back to their community, the public would no longer be getting this public benefit from their school support.  They might feel that they benefited somewhat from the graduates who moved away, since they might encounter them in some other context, but they no longer got the full benefit of their investment.  Of course, other graduates from other towns moved in, but this did not necessarily mean that they were getting the full benefit they paid for.  It could well be that they were exporting a higher level of graduates than they were getting back.

This partial benefit led to the public pulling back on their support for the schools.  In fact, sharing graduates with other towns meant that, at best, they only had an incentive to support their schools to a middle level of excellence.  By trading graduates with other schools they were getting a benefit that was the average of all the schools whose graduates came to them.   It only made sense, then, to contribute only an average amount.   If the costs of something are born individually but the profits shared, one has to keep those costs to a middle range, comparable to the middle level of profits that the sharing enforces.  If you aim for the best graduates from your school, you will always be losing money.  The better your school gets,  the more you lose.  The mobility of the graduates brought about a situation where the public was aiming for mediocre schools.

The obvious solution to this mobility problem was to enlarge the community that was funding, and benefitting from, the education.  If the state became the center of public education finances, then everyone would get a fair return on their educational investment as long as the graduates stayed in the state.

But the states had their own mobility problems.  There was, and is, a wide variety between the states, but, on average, about a third of state residents no longer live in the state where they were educated.  This was enough to make residents think twice about fully supporting improvements.  State taxpayers also had to aim for a middle ground in their support for the schools.

This loss in the return on educational investment, though, only applied to the general public, not the parents.  The parents continued to get a benefit from the education of their children regardless of whether these graduates returned to the community or not.  The children of parents always “return” to those who supported their education, since they keep in touch with their parents throughout their adult lives and so bring back to them the fruit of their educational labors.  For parents it always makes sense to fully support the schools while their children are in them, since they know they will get back a full measure of the benefit due them.  Since they do not have to share the benefits of their support with others, they have the full incentive to maximize that support.

Parents, though, make up only about a third of the general population.  They cannot support the schools all by themselves.  Try as they may to improve the schools, their programs are always eventually undercut by the non-parent majority, who have less interest in making the schools better than average.  And since parents, by definition, are only parents of current school children for a limited time, they often abandon these battles even if they are making progress.  Why fight for better 7th grade math if your kids are now in high school?  The system of costs and benefits of public education still works for the parents, but that only means that the general push towards mediocrity is occasionally retarded.  The majority of taxpayers are still forced to want only moderate success for the public schools.

Modern Consequences

No wonder, then, it is so hard to improve the public schools today.  Graduates still do not stay in the same towns or states where they were educated, so the public still has no incentive to fully support the schools, and reforms are not funded.  The schools themselves, never having been in the business of paying attention to the public benefit, continue to ignore the problem and focus only on the needs of the parents.  The result is that there is a general feeling that there is no solution to the problem of  the general public’s support for improvements, so we may as well pull back to simply pleasing the parents and leave it at that.

Indeed, all the reforms in the last 30 years have been about making the public schools more focused on the needs of the parents, and less on those of the general public.  Vouchers, charter schools, smaller schools – all these try to make the schools more responsive to parents.  The issue of support from the general public is not even brought up, much less worked on.

These reforms would work fine if the schools were private, and funded only by those parents.  That would work.  But as long as we keep to a public system of funding, charging everyone equally, ignoring two-thirds of the supporters has to lead to stagnation.  The ignored majority will always pull the system back to the status quo.  When only one-third of your supporters has any reason to fully support the schools it doesn’t matter how well you serve that one third; you still will get a mediocre result.

We cannot solve the problems of our public school system with private school remedies.  If we actually want to try to fix the public system, we have to fix it with public remedies.  This means dealing with the problems of the general public, not just the parents.

The stagnation is actually a more serious problem that simply low performance.  It calls into question the validity of the entire public system.  A program that cannot change is a program that doesn’t work.  It would be one thing to have a low-performing school system that needed a lot of work to make it better, and we had some evidence that we could do that.  It’s quite another to have a system that seems impervious to any efforts to change it.  The first may eventually be fixed to meet our needs, but the second can only be allowed to slowly decay until we eventually throw it out entirely.

The Solution

In other countries the problem of the benefit for the general public is solved by having a national school system.  At the national level the mobility of the graduates (to another country) is low enough to give the population confidence that they can realize the social benefit from the schools.  Each taxpayer puts in his contribution to the national system and gets back exactly that amount of benefit, since the adult graduates remain in that system.  No graduate moves out of the school system you support and takes his benefits to another system.  There is only one system.

Under a national system, if you want to improve the education of people who tend to commit crimes, for example, you can do that with your tax dollars and know that there will be now be less chance of someone coming to steal your car, no matter where in the country that criminal went to school.  You can know that your own contribution to the schools helped stop the robbery of your own car.  Since your tax dollars are affecting all the people who might help or harm you in the future, you have a strong incentive to improve their education.

None of this happens under the state system, because you are only paying for the education of people from one state, yet can be robbed, or helped, by people from all 50.  There is no way for you to know whether your contribution to education will ever help you or your community, since all the graduates of all the schools throughout the country mix together in their adult lives.  You know that education does lessen crime, but you don’t know whether your own contribution to education is lessening your own exposure to crime.

If the entire country attends the same school system, it is easy to see data on the benefits from it, since one can just look at general national indicators, such as growth in productivity or the prison population, to get an indication of the effect of the schools on the public good.  One doesn’t have to rely on the schools to keep track of the public benefit; it will show up in the general national statistics.  If everyone in the country is taking the same math courses, a glance at the country’s production of technically sophisticated products shows whether the public is getting a benefit from those math courses or not.  The general social and economic indicators for the entire country can be used to show the public how they benefit from the school system.

Such a national system of public education only works, of course, if the tax money actually goes to the federal government.  Just having Washington keep track of the public benefit, while keeping the state-run system, would not work.  It would just produce a better way of demonstrating to the public how much they are losing through that state system.  The problem is not the data, it’s the money.  When you combine the mobility of graduates with small (i.e. state-sized) school systems,  each taxpayer’s contribution leaks out of each small system to such a degree that it makes full support illogical.  No amount of federal oversight or data collection by itself can change that.

We would not have to change the funding system for the local districts, however.  We could let the local districts focus on the needs of children and parents with as much autonomy as possible.   Local control does work for the parents and children.  It is the state part of the system that would have to be replaced by a national one so that the other two-thirds of the system also worked.

When this country was founded, many suggested that we create a national school system.  Washington wanted a national university, and plans for national secondary schools were put forth by Benjamin Rush and several others.  None of these plans were put into place, though, since our new immigrants wanted to set up their own communities and run their schools themselves.  This worked for them and produced many excellent schools.

In time, though, we seem to have changed our minds about those small local communities.  We still think they are a good place in which to raise our children, but no longer want to spend our working lives there.  There is nothing wrong with this, but the change in attitude has undermined the public school system.  Education needs communities that are stable over a long period, so the schools can return their long-term benefits to those who paid for them.  Our stable community has become, in effect, our country, not our towns or states.  It is the one place where we both grow up and live as adults.  As such, it has to be the basis for our public schools.

The problem is that, although we have changed our minds about the value of living all our lives in the same small town, we have kept the school system that was built around that pattern.  It no longer fits our needs, and so can only produce some fraction of the benefit we expect from it.  We have changed, so the school system needs to change.

If we changed to a national system we would in effect be going back to the original goals of the public schools in those frontier towns like the one I taught in long ago.  We would again have a school system that allowed us to see, with our own eyes, the benefits that the graduates of the school we support brought back to our community.  Everyone, then, not just the parents, would have an incentive to support the schools, since all would be benefitting equally.  With that kind of full support it would be possible to implement long-term improvements.  It the way the public schools are supposed to work.

Peter Dodington



Hidden in Plain Sight

When I first started teaching in New York City, in the early 90’s, I worked at what used to be Andrew Jackson High School in Jamaica, Queens.  The school had been converted to a collection of magnet schools that summer, but there were still remnants of the old arrangement around, including the bulletin boards put up by the last of the Jackson students.   (Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg had been a Jackson graduate—her name was still engraved on the permanent honor role in the front hall.)

One of these bulletin boards was about a letter-writing project in which the students had proposed that we adopt a national education system.  I forget the details, but I think they had written to various senators and congressmen to argue the case for converting to a fully national school system.  They simply pointed out that a federal system would work better than the current state one.

In the years that followed I have often thought of those students and their project.   In a way, what I am doing now on this blog is a continuation of their work.  I just want to point out, perhaps naively, that a national school system would work well, and leave it at that.  Like those kids, I want to focus on the simple question of how to make the schools better.  If that is the only question under discussion, one has to eventually get to the topic of national public education.

A fully national school system, with the educational tax money that we currently send to the states going instead to the federal government, (but the local school district staying the same) is not a topic that many take seriously.  I suppose everyone thinks that it would be too difficult to make such a fundamental change, and too scary.  That fact alone, however, does not make it any less logical.  No one can deny that trying to improve all the schools in this country with 50 different, autonomous, groups in charge is not the best arrangement.  Just on the face of it, without going into all the complex arguments for state or national control, one can see that having 50 leaders of school reform will tend to bring about the kind of permanent mediocrity that we have come to know so well.  It is not that our state system cannot work; it is that it can never work well.

I realize that there are many people out there who are at best lukewarm on the topic of improving public education.  These are not my audience.  But there are also many who truly believe that public education is the best way to educate our children, and are seriously searching for ways to improve it.  To these I want to suggest that one answer has been there all along, hidden in plain sight: a national school system.  It is time that we started talking about it.