National Public Education

“None of the Above” on Educational Reform

Who is going to lead educational reform in America?  To answer this question, let's look at some successful reform efforts for other public programs in this country.

When I first moved to New York City with my wife and small children in the early 1980's, my father-in-law told me that he thought there was "no hope" for the city.  He had just seen a subway train rumble by, all covered with graffiti and dirt, and the sight of that train convinced him that the city as a whole was incapable of succeeding.

But ten years later the subways were doing well, with new cars, new track, and increased ridership.  What happened?  Several things, to be sure, but one major improvement was that the city hired some administrators who knew what to do.  David Gunn, Richard Kiley, and others, knew how to fix the system.  They got rid of the graffiti, fixed the track, and got new state laws passed which enabled them to hire better workers and managers.

Up to that point, no one had worked very hard on the graffiti, for example, because they didn't think it was their job.  The entire system was run by people who had come up through the ranks as trainmen and conductors, and they didn't see how graffiti made that much difference.  After all, it didn't slow down the trains.

What Gunn et al. realized was that if you want to make new improvements, you needed to have new sources of revenue, and that this could only come from the people who were not currently taking the trains: new passengers out there in the general public.  People like my father-in-law.  And, for those people, the graffiti was all they knew about the trains. It was what they saw, period.  So if you wanted to access their funds, you had to fix the graffiti.  And it wasn't that hard; you just had to hire more cleaners.  Once the trains simply "looked" better, people started to think that the system now knew how to solve its problems and so started having more confidence in it, and thus were more willing to support it through fares and taxes.

The same strategy could work for public education.  New improvements have to come from the support of the general public, not the people who already have children in the school system.  How does one influence them?  Perhaps by showing them how they benefit from their support of the schools: the better workers, less crime, and better public health that public education does provide us all.  Where is this data currently?  It doesn't exist.  Solving that problem, like the graffiti, would go a long way towards improving support from the general public.

But here's the problem for the public schools.  Who is going to do this?  Unlike the subway system, there is no one person who is the director of the system.  There is no job title that is set up to solve this kind of a problem.  We can't just hire someone good for that job; it doesn't exist.

We have a decentralized, state-run public school system.  The leaders of that system are the 50 governors and 50 state superintendents of instruction.  Each of them is only in charge of 1/50 of the problem.  They don't have the authority to do any more than make a few minor adjustments.  And the local school leaders have even less power.  They control a tiny fraction of the problem.

And what about the national leaders, the ones that everyone seems too think are calling the shots?  They are forbidden by law from doing almost anything.  All their laws and edicts have to be worded as "recommendations" for the states, since we have a decentralized system.  Even when they threaten to take away federal funding from a state that doesn't follow their recommendations, they are only talking about 10% of any state's education budget.  90% of the system is run by state and local funds raised by the states themselves, not the federal government.

So there is no job title, currently, which we could fill with some excellent leader who would bring about the kind of reforms that improved the subways.  None of the current options would work.  There is no one, actually, fully in charge of our public school system.  So, of course, it is going to be quite difficult to improve it.

The solution, then, is to change that system.  We have to create, first, a position for a leader of the entire school system.  Someone whom we all agree will be in charge of the program.  Someone like the head of a national school board.  Then we would at least have the chance at improving the schools.

People say that they don't want a national leader for their school; they want local control. But such a position would not be a leader of the schools, but a leader of the school system.  It's a bureaucratic position; a way to make the much-maligned bureaucracy work better, not a management position for the schools themselves.  Gunn didn't worry about what was happening in the trains; he worried about the relationship between those trains and the general public, the source of their support. This is what the schools need.  A leader for improvements in the school system, not the schools themselves.  Then the schools will be able to improve.

Peter Dodington

March 25, 2017



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