National Public Education

Great Ideas, not Implemented

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Peter Dodington

Jan. 28, 2015



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