National Public Education

The Department of Public Education


The title of this post refers to something that does not exist.  There are no Departments of “Public Education,” either in our governments or colleges.  Instead, we have Departments of “Education.”  Yet we do have Departments of Public Health, Public Safety, Public Works, etc.  Why not in the field of education?  A small difference, you may say, but one that reveals a lot about our core problems in this field.

When we call these departments simply “education,” we imply that the core problems they deal with involve how to teach children well – the curriculum, the methods, the quality of the teachers, the level of test scores, etc.  Getting a degree in “education,” then, is similar to getting a degree in medicine; it deals with the whole range of issues in that general field.

Contrast this with a degree in Public Health.  Here it is understood that the courses deal with how this program needs to be run.  It is assumed that topics such as the government’s role in the program and how much public support it has will be a large part of the curriculum.  No one expects to solve public health issues by simply doing medicine better.  A new drug for cancer does not necessarily mean better care for the elderly.  It’s the application of this knowledge to a working public program that is the goal.

Yet in education, we ignore these differences and lump everything under the general term “education.”  We say we have an “education” problem in America, not a “public education” problem, and name our departments accordingly.  But this is not quite true.  We actually do education, per se, pretty well.  No one is complaining about our private schools or colleges, and there are numerous small public schools that do very well.  There are even whole state programs, such as in Massachusetts, which are among the best in the world.  We know how to teach every child well.

What we don’t know is how to run a viable public education program for everyone that is capable of improvement.  There are pockets of success, but the overall data for general public education is at best flat.  It is the public program that is not improving, not our knowledge of how to teach children or run a school.  Our problem is “public education,” not “education."

That we don’t have any departments of public education at either the federal or the state level, or our colleges, implies that these organizations do not feel that it is their job to address these public program issues.  There are several reasons why they feel this way.

The federal government would seem to be the logical agency to develop a working public education program for the entire country.  Yet the federal department of education has always restricted itself to merely suggesting voluntary measures for the various school districts and state programs.  The feeling has been that the 10th amendment to the Constitution, which reserves to the states all powers not specifically mentioned in the Constitution (such as education), mandates that the states control public education.

Consequently the federal program restricts itself to matters of general educational theory and practice, not the actual creation and control of public education program. They feel that the best they can do is make suggestions about the general topic of education and leave the job of controlling public education up to the states.

But the states, too, have their own reasons for shying away from the topic of public education, as I have argued in other posts.  The combination of the mobility of state residents and the long-term nature of educational public benefits make it impossible for states to improve their programs beyond an average level.  Why should state residents pay for a better program if so many graduates move to other states, taking the public benefit with them?  So the states, too, don’t want to emphasize the “public” nature of their work in education.  They, too, want to work on general educational topics such as how to teach the children and build new gyms.  If they called their programs “The Department of Public Education,” someone might reasonably want to know how the public was benefiting from this program, and the states know they cannot, given the mobility of their graduates, answer this question.  So they pull back to calling their program just “education.”

There are four states that do use the word “public” in the name of their departments, but these, too, illustrate the nature of the problem.  For these states (Wisconsin, North Carolina, New Mexico and North Dakota), all have departments of “public instruction,” not “public education.”  They agree, then, that they have a role in the creation of a public program, but it is a program of instruction, not education.  They want to deal with what the teachers and schools do, not what the children and the public receive.

Contrast this with the names for other government departments, such as” public health,” “public safety,” etc.  These titles emphasize the effect of these programs on the public.  It is the health and safety of the people out there in the public that will be improved, not simply the quality of the delivery system: the hospitals, doctors, police forces, etc., or, in the case of education, the instruction in the schools.  These other programs emphasize the effect of their work on the public; they put the public benefit from their program, the “health” or “safety” that will happen to the general public, right in their names.

A department of “public instruction” does mention the public, then, but in a way that keeps the emphasis away from the actual results the public will see, and puts it back on the quality of the schools and teachers, as the other departments of education do.  It, too, is not concerned with the actual creation of a working public education program.

For the colleges the question is a bit more complex.  Obviously they could make departments or even schools of public education if they wanted to, along the lines of their programs in public health and public safety.  That they don’t must simply mean that they, too, see no solution to the problems we have noted at the federal and state level.  Since there is no way to create a working public school program in this country, given our constitution and our mobility, there is not much point in creating a program to study it.

No wonder, then, we have a public education problem in this country. No one is working on it.  All the agencies in our governments and colleges have essentially given up on this problem before even trying to solve it.  As the names of their departments and programs indicate, they have all pulled back to working on the theoretical and most general levels of the problem, that is, how to “educate,” and left the problems of how to make a working “public education” program unsolved and unexamined.

How depressing, one might say.  But I don’t bring up these conclusions with that in mind.  Rather I want to urge that the current situation calls for what have always been considered “drastic” measures, such as the control of the schools by the federal government.  There is no other choice.  As the very names of our programs indicate, everyone already agrees that there is no solution to "public education" under our current system.   If we want improvements, we will actually have to change that system in ways that have always seemed impossible up to now.

Peter Dodington

Jan. 16, 2013