National Public Education
25Jul/160

Subways and School Reform

When I used to walk to my teaching job at Park West High School on West 50th Street in New York, almost everyone I met on the sidewalk was paying part of my salary.   Why was that?  I wasn’t teaching their children.

About 75% of the money for public schooling comes from the general, non-parent public, since parents with school-age children make up only about a quarter of the tax-paying population  (about 50 million out of some 200 million).  The schools are not primarily supported by the current group of parents; they are paid for, and so essentially controlled by, those non-parents on the street.   Those public taxpayers, then, are the key to solving the problems of our public schools.

If we want to improve all of our schools, getting our achievement scores up off their traditional perch near the bottom of the industrialized world, and also keep them public and open to all, we need to look at what makes this public program “public.”  How does public support for the schools work?  Why do we pay for our schools?  If we can’t answer this, we have an excellent reason right there for why the schools are not doing well.  If three-quarters of your supporters don’t know why they are funding your program, you have a problem.

 

I remember having a conversation about this one evening with a special ed. teacher in Brooklyn.  I was leaving the school one evening when I ran into him, the last ones out of those dark and humid halls.  He wanted to tell me about his day; how he had spent hours trying to get the computers to work in a room where bits of paint from a crumbling ceiling were constantly drifting down onto the keyboards and his students.

How could this be happening, he wanted to know, in one of the richest cities in the world?  Even if we have a problematic bureaucracy, don’t the people behind those city agencies, the taxpayers who actually provide the money for the schools, realize how much they are losing if they only paint ceilings once a generation?  Don’t they see how they benefit from the work we do with these students; how these kids will grow up to have good jobs and be leaders of their communities in ways that will benefit all of us, and that they are not going to do this unless we teach them in decent classrooms?  I had no answer for him other than that I, too, had taught in similar rooms.

I went home, though, and realized that I did know the answer to his question, and it was “No, they don’t see how they benefit from our work.”  He could see it, and I could see it, and the kids and their parents, but that was about it.  No one else had the faintest idea how we were benefitting the general public.  There was no data on this, no publicity, and, of course, no one ever came to see for themselves.  All the data on the schools is about the kids while they are students: their attendance, test scores, awards, etc.  Once they graduate no one pays any attention to them.

But it is their success as adult graduates that matters to the general public.  It’s their adult lives that provide the public benefit from the schools, not their student success.  You don’t actually benefit when a kid gets an “A;” it’s when he comes to work for you, or invents a new process, or moves in next door, that you obtain what you have been paying the public schools for:  intelligent, creative, civil, and hard-working adults.

There is no doubt that these benefits from education do occur.  Study after study has shown that better-educated students grow up to be more law-abiding, wealthier, healthier, and more tolerant than their less-educated peers, and that this success benefits everyone in their community.  The problem is that just how this happens is not clear to the taxpayers who support the schools.  It is not the benefit itself, but the demonstration of the benefit that is lacking.

Perhaps there is some correlation between school test scores and adult success, but it’s not strong enough to convince the public that they are getting all the benefit they have paid for.  They need to see evidence of the actual public benefit before they will spend their money.  You don’t buy a car because you have seen the parts in a factory.  You have to see the completed car itself before you will open your wallet.

Simply put, what we want for the non-parent majority is just what parents of school-age children already get automatically.  Parents do see how they benefit from the schools.  They see their children learning, and, more importantly, can see how the school will benefit their children, and the parents, after they graduate.

If I want to know whether a good algebra class helped my son become an architect, I can just ask him when he shows up at Thanksgiving dinner as an adult.  Parents keep in touch with their children their whole lives, so have an automatic way to assess the adult benefits they got from the schools.  This gives them an incentive to support improvements in the schools.  They want to fund better math programs because they know they will be able to see the results of that learning in their children’s adult lives.

But none of this works for the supporters who don’t have school-age children, the non-parents.  They have no direct connection to the children in the schools, so have no way of tracking their adult success or failure.  They have to rely on the schools to provide data on that adult benefit, and the schools don’t do this.  Unlike the parents, they have no way to see the long-term public benefits from the school programs they are now supporting, so they tend not to fund them very well.

 

This is why that ceiling was not getting painted.  Only the parents of the children in the school were interested in paying for a new ceiling, and they, it turned out, did not have enough money or influence.  The rest of the population, the ones on the street, had the money, collectively, but they had no way to see why they should use it.

And this must be true for most schools, not just urban ones in poor areas.  If three-quarters of the support comes from non-parents, the average school must be funded mostly by supporters who cannot see how they benefit from the schools very clearly.  Of course there are schools, particularly in the suburbs, where most of the supporters are parents, but these must be far in the minority.  All those non-parents have to live somewhere.

The result has to be a continuation of the status quo.  Teachers and parents push forward for new programs and initiatives, but the general public, with no evidence that any of this will matter, pulls back.  The schools don’t fail, but they don’t get any better, either.  This is why all our statistics have been flat for so long.  Our schools don’t improve because we don’t have a good way to show most of our supporters why they should fund improvements.

This stagnation is a crucial problem for our schools.  A good argument could be made that our trouble today is not that the school system is doing poorly but that it seems that it cannot do any better.  It would be one thing if the schools were at a low level and were slowly getting better.  It’s quite another that it seems we cannot get them ever to improve.  It’s not the level of our success that is bothering us but the stagnation.

This is why we have turned to completely different methods of school organization, such as charter schools, vouchers, or home schooling, instead of trying to fix the public school system we already have.    If we felt we could move the current system forward we would want to keep working on public school problems, but if these issues seem unsolvable the only thing to do is try a completely different approach, such as a more private-like school system.  A machine that cannot be fixed or improved will eventually be replaced.

 

Not all public programs have these problems. The police, for example, report on the crime rate in our neighborhoods.  They don’t just tell us about what happens in their police stations, such as how they solve crimes or meet the needs of those who are using their services, but the effect of that work on the rest of us, the general public.  What we, the public, want to know is whether our street is getting more dangerous or not, so that’s what they tell us about.  That’s the public benefit their work produces.

In the same way the Centers for Disease Control keeps track of the rates of various diseases and disorders in the country, not just what happens in their clinics and hospitals.  They may do a wonderful job with their patients, but that’s not what they report to us.  It’s the effect of their work that they publicize -- how this makes our lives safer and disease free.  Similarly, the sanitation department tells us how clean the streets are, not just how many bags of garbage they pick up, and the army tells us whether they achieved the objectives of their campaigns, not just how well their soldiers are fighting.  It is the results that affect us that are publicized, not the internal workings of the program.

But the schools do none of this.  They only tell us about the results that occur within their own buildings; the data on the students, not the effect of this work on the public.  Even though they are a public program, they report results that only matter to the people who are currently using their services, the parents and children involved, not the general public who are actually supporting them.

There is no solution to this problem at the school level.  We can make each school as good as we want, winning awards and setting new standards of excellence, and still end up with exactly the same stagnant level overall, because this is the only level the general public will support.  Each new and better program, funded and supported by its own group of parents and teachers, slowly dies as the parents move on to become non-parents.  Without any indication of how these improvements benefit them, the non-parent majority sees no point in continuing to fund them, so the program dies and we are back to square one.

This means that we are currently wasting a good amount of time and effort.  We keep trying to make the schools better, one by one, and then are frustrated that this does not improve the overall results.  We fail to see that what we need is not better schools, per se, but a better school system; not just a way to educate the children better, but a better way to govern the entire process.  We actually know how to teach children pretty well.  What we don’t know is how to run a successful public school system.

 

To borrow a phrase from James Baldwin, by now you are saying, “No, no; you go too far.  It’s not that bad.  There are other factors that are causing these problems.”  Perhaps, but let’s look more closely at these.

First, there is the general belief that public programs can never really succeed.  They seem to be a kind of compromise that will always produce mediocre results.  Our best workers don’t set their sights on working for public programs; they work in the private sector where the path to success is so much clearer.  The typical public worker seems to be some clock-watching bureaucrat who will never produce the excellence we want.

But I’m not arguing that public education should be similar to a successful start-up company, but that it could be similar to a successful public program.  There are such things.  Our military is a public program which is certainly one of the best in the world.  And what about our fire departments, roads, or water systems?  No one is complaining about them.  Most of our public programs are better than public programs in other countries.

The argument that the public schools are too bureaucratic cannot be the whole story.  All public programs are bureaucratic.  They are paid for jointly by the entire population, so have very complex bookkeeping needs.  When a policeman enters an apartment to settle a domestic dispute he has to be careful to meet the needs of everyone there: the grandmother, the children, the cousins and the neighbors, not just the ones causing the trouble, since everyone in that room is his boss, in a sense.  They all are paying him, as are all the other members of that community.  Keeping track of this so that everyone can see, at least to some extent, how their funding is being used, is a very complicated, and bureaucratic, problem.  That doesn’t mean it doesn’t have a solution.

Nor is the argument valid that money cannot solve these bureaucratic problems; that we continue to spend more on the schools every year but get no improvements, so money must not be the answer.  In the everyday world, if your washing machine doesn’t work, and you pay for a repair, and it still doesn’t work, and you pay for a repair again, and it still doesn’t work, you don’t then say, “money can’t fix washing machines.”  You say, “There must be some other problem that we are not considering.”  That is my point.  The fact that money has not solved the public schools’ problems simply means that we have not yet figured out what is wrong with them.  Perhaps, then, we should look more closely at the structure of the public benefits from the school system.

In my own backyard, New York, I have seen the subway system steadily improve over the past 30 years.  I remember my father-in-law, from Iowa, looking at the 1-Train rumbling by back in the early ‘80’s, covered with graffiti and dirt, commenting that he didn’t think there was any hope for New York (where I had just moved with his daughter and two grandsons).  But the subway system solved the graffiti problem, by just hiring more car-cleaners, and slowly rebuilt the tracks and trains.  That fully public program found a way to solve its problems.

There are some interesting parallels in that story for the schools.  In those days everyone said that there was no solution to the graffiti problem and the general lack of upkeep.  The kids broke through all the fences they put up around the trains at night and marked up the cars to their hearts’ content.  There was no way to stop this, it seemed.

But new management came in and hired people to clean and repaint each car each night and the graffiti went away.  It turned out that you didn’t need to fence in the cars; just clean them.  The problem was not unsolvable; it was just that the people in charge had not thought it through.

And this was quite logical, since the people in charge, at first, were the ones who ran the trains.  The whole system was led by people who had once been conductors and trainmen.  Now graffiti doesn’t actually interfere with the running of the trains.  It doesn’t slow them down.  So to all those ex-conductors it didn’t seem like that big a problem.  It wasn’t their job.  They were supposed to make the trains run, not look good.  And the customers in the trains agreed; they also were not bothered by what was happening on the outside of the cars.  So the problem festered.

New management, though, saw that the key to the problem was not what was happening inside the cars, but outside them.  The people with the money, new money to pay for new improvements, were outside the cars.  They were the ones you needed to influence if you wanted more customers and more money.  And for them the graffiti was very important.  It was all they knew about the trains; all they saw.  They, the general public, weren’t likely to pay for improvements to the trains unless they could see that this problem had been taken care of.

Similarly, what the schools need to do is influence the people outside the school, the general public, not just those inside them, the parents and children.  The ones outside are the ones with the money for improvements, so they are the ones you need to pay attention to.  We want to show them that the schools can solve their public problems the way the subways did.  For the schools this would mean demonstrating that they are providing a public educational benefit to the general public.

 

But, then, is it really possible that our school system has always had some deep flaw?  Can we have had this problem for some 200 years and never noticed it?  Is this the way the Founding Fathers set it up; a program that could never improve?  Is that likely?

No, that is not likely.  But it could be that the school system was set up in a way that worked well 200 years ago and has developed problems over time.  Perhaps conditions have changed but the schools have not, and that is causing the problem.

It certainly seems that Washington, Jefferson, et al. wanted schools that worked as fully public programs.  They were always talking about how the public, not just the parents and children, would benefit from schools.  As Washington said in his first State of the Union address, “Knowledge is in every country the surest basis of public happiness.”  It is the general public benefit, the overall level of “happiness” that the entire population gets from public education, that is important.

It is the adult graduates of the schools, the citizens that the schools will produce, that concern the Founding Fathers, not just what happens in the classrooms.  No one talks about test scores in the 18th century.  What they wanted, from the start, was precisely the kind of public benefit from the schools that I am saying we need to pay attention to today.  They had it right; they wanted a public program that benefited the whole community.  The schools they set up must have worked as successful public programs.  Somehow, though, we have gotten off track.

 

There are logical reasons, then, why the public schools are not improving, and these have more to do with the overall structure of the school system than any individual problems of teachers, schools, or students.  Once we focus just on that school system structure it is clear that it does not work the way a public program should, since it has no way to demonstrate its public benefit to its public supporters.  Those pedestrians on West 50th Street didn’t, in fact, know why they were paying my salary, and that is the central problem of our current school system.

Peter Dodington

July 25, 2016

 

10Jul/150

The Druids Dialogues II: The Top-Down Problem

A Friday at 4 pm.  The Druids bar is empty except for us four tired English teachers.

Limato: Pedro, you are so full of it.  We don’t need a better system of government control of the schools; we need to get the government out of the schools.  They can’t ever do it right.  It’s impossible.  We just need to give more responsibility to the teachers and the parents, and leave it at that.  Then things might get better.

Bob:     (nodding)  We’re addicted to these “top-down” simplistic solutions.  The bigger the better.  But none of them work.  “It’s the kids” (rueful smiles all around, since we hear this all day long.)  Well, it is!  They are the key; they are the goal.  We need to focus on them, and their families, not these government issues.

Tom:    It’s well established that local control works better than distant control.  Just look at the private schools.  People pay good money just to have a smaller, more responsive, more personal, organizational structure that can meet each individual’s needs.  You ever wonder why there are no private schools with 3,000 kids, like our behemoth?  They could never sell it to the parents.  We all want schools where you can see with your own eyes what the problems are, and that means local control.

Bob:     And what about the bureaucracy?  Everyone knows that this is the central problem of the school system.  How many times have we seen good programs fail due to the bungling of the bureaucrats?  Or totally ludicrous programs and “mandates” forced upon us?  Don’t get me started.  There has to be a way to reduce that, or we’ll never get anywhere.

Limato: Hear, hear. (raising his glass)

Pedro:  (also raising his glass, quietly) Quite so; everyone wants a private, or private-like, school.  What could be better?  Local control; total control of what happens to your own kid. Well and good.  But that is not the question here.  We don’t have a system of private schools; we have a public school system.  The question is not how to run any school, but how to run a public school.

So it’s not as simple as just doing away with the bureaucrats, as much as we may want to.  There is a difference between a public program and a private one.  A public school is run by the  collective efforts of the entire community.  For that collective effort to work, there has to be some kind of organizing principle in the center that brings it all together.  You have to have someone, or something, that speaks for the group, or you don’t have an effective group.

That someone in the center has to be, it seems to me, a “top-down” entity in some sense.  It’s not dealing with the individual specific needs of each member of the group, but the overall, the collective, the “top”, aspects of them all.

And, yes, doing that collective organizing effort involves some sort of bureaucracy. There’s no way around this.  Finding out what thousands of people want and putting this into action is complicated.  It takes time, and patience, and bureaucracy.

So that bureaucracy is part of the solution, not just the problem.  It’s all well and good to say we want local, not distant, solutions, but a public program, by definition, is based on distant sources, people who are not right there in the school but are out in the community.  They need a connection to the school, and that’s what the bureaucracy does.  Take it away and you won’t have a public program any more.

Tom:    So the key is to fix the bureaucracy, not just do away with it.

Pedro:  If we want a public program.

Limato: But that’s just it.  Do we want one?  Why not just have a collection of private schools.

Bob:     Like your friends, the Jesuits.

Limato: Hey, they didn’t do such a bad job.

Tom:    There’s the small problem of the First Amendment.

Bob:     And talk about a bureaucracy.  The Church invented the concept.

Tom:    And what about equity?  Which one of our students would be going to a school paid for by his own parents?  The only way these kids are going to get an education is through a public system, one where we all share in the costs.  No one wants a private school system.

Pedro:  And there are good, logical reasons why we have public schools.  They’re not just watered-down private schools: public programs solve problems that are beyond the scope of private, market-driven, solutions.  Let me give you an example.  Are there public restaurants, supported by taxes and run by the government?

Limato: Good God, no.

Pedro:  Why not?  Because there is no public benefit when I get a good meal at a restaurant.  I buy it, and only I benefit.  It’s a straight market-based transaction.

But there are many other things I buy that do benefit the public, such as police protection.  When they solve my robbery they are also helping everyone else, since they are taking a criminal off the streets.  There is a public benefit from police work, as there is from putting out fires, or building a new road, or curing someone’s TB.  We all benefit from this kind of work, so we all help pay for it.  In these areas it makes sense to have public, not private, programs.

Tom:    Yeah, I see.  And education is in that public benefit category.  It doesn’t just benefit the kid and his parents, but the entire community.  It produces a public good, as you say, so ought to be paid for in part by the general public.  Through a public program.

Pedro:  A school is not like the cleaners, where you just pay your money and get your clothes.  It’s a cooperative effort, sort of like a bake sale at church, where the actual sale transaction is only part of the benefit that is being produced.  The rest is perhaps more vague and undefined, but many would say is the more important part.  We have public schools not simply because they educate the kids, but because they benefit everyone; not just the parents, but the entire community.

Limato: Okay.  And once we agree that we want this public good, we then have to have it run by the government, and have some bureaucracy, and have a “top-down” flavor to it.  Otherwise it will never work as a public program.  So logic requires that rather than complain about these attributes of a public school system, we try to do something about making them work better. You see, the Jesuits did teach me a few things.

Pedro:  Quod erat demonstrandum.

Limato: Yeah, right.

 

Peter Dodington

July 10, 2015

 

20Jun/120

Subways and Schools

When I first came to New York, about 30 years ago, I was walking in my neighborhood with my father-in-law when a 1-train subway went by.  He looked at the graffiti and dirt-covered cars and said, "You know, I don't think there is any hope for New York."  The subways were thought to be a typical urban problem that had no solution.  People had tried for years to get them to run on time and to clean up the graffiti, but nothing seemed to work.

Today, though, that same subway system is doing fine, with increased ridership, better service, and new cars.  What happened was something we should pay attention to in our efforts to improve the public schools.

One of the first things the leaders of the subways did was fix the graffiti.  This was not all that hard, since it just meant hiring more cleaners and better equipment for them, and soon the cars were looking better.  No one had done this before because no one thought it was all that important.  After all, graffiti does not stop a train from running; it doesn't affect its speed or operation.  To the guys working inside the trains it seemed like a small matter.

But the leaders knew that graffiti was what the public saw, so was crucial to getting their support.  This was key because it is the public who had the money.  They were the source, the origin, of all improvements.  Fixing the graffiti showed the public that the system was working, and most importantly, that it could be improved.  The rest of the improvements then followed.

In public education, the "graffiti" is what the public sees of the program, that is, the data on its success.  This is what has to be fixed if we are going to get the public behind further improvements.  Right now people look at that data and say, like my father-in-law, "there is no hope."  What the public sees of the school system, through that data,  is a dysfunctional unsolvable problem.

But we know how to fix that.   The core problem with the data is that it doesn't address the needs of the public, because it doesn't say anything about the public benefit they receive from the school system.  To do this the schools would have to track the graduates and this is impossible under the state system, as we have shown.  Once we fix that, and start showing the public how they do, in fact, benefit, they will be much more willing to support improvements.

It is not what happens inside the schools that matters at this point, any more than it mattered what happened inside the trains back then.  It's the outside that matters; what can be seen by the public, the supporters, the ones with the money.  That's where our emphasis should be.  And that's why we have to change to a national system that can accurately demonstrate the public benefit of the schools.

Peter Dodington

June 20, 2012

1Jul/110

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