If The Aim Of Public Education Is To Provide Opportunity — How Should $150,000 Per Student Be Spent?

Governor Ted Strickland, two years ago, in his public forums on reforming Ohio’s system of public education, challenged participants to attempt to think afresh.  He challenged his listeners to imagine: Suppose the present system could be wiped clean, and we could start anew, what would the new system look like? He said:

“This is our opportunity for us to think together and to think boldly — I want to think about transforming our schools. Now, we are not an artist looking at an almost finished painting and wondering where to put that last brush stroke in order to make it a little better. What we are is an artist looking at a blank slate and asking what is the best thing we can create here.”

I doubt the governor ever got many serious proposals for systemic change.  When Strickland finally revealed his education plan, I was disappointed with the results.  I wrote,“Strickland is basically saying that the present system is OK, but, that it needs more money, more rules, that the bureaucrats in the system need more authority, etc..” Wiping a slate clean and transforming a system of public education is a daunting task, and, because Ohio’s educational establishment is one of Strickland’s biggest political supports, it is not surprising that Strickland failed to follow through with his blank slate idea.

As the President of the Kettering Foundation, David Matthews, points out, the quality of public education in a community depends on the vitality of the community’s democracy.  The transformation of public education, I believe, is possible through an awakening of democracy — via the exertion of grassroots’ local control.  A middle American community like Kettering, where I live, where public schools are now deemed “Excellent with Distinction,” I believe, is the most likely place for a new model of public education to emerge.  Social improvements are best built on stability and strength.

I love the idea from W. Edwards Deming that most every improvement we can wish for in this world depends upon our figuring out how to imagine and how to implement better systems.  Every system is built around an aim or mission.  What does a community seek to accomplish when it willingly taxes itself to finance a system of public education?  In Kettering, a K-12 education costs more than $150,000. A community should ponder:  What is the common good that justifies this taxation?

Citizens in a democracy willingly tax themselves to finance a system of public education because they believe that every citizen deserves an equal opportunity for a good life.   To maintain a democratic society, there must be a sufficient consensus that the system is fair, so the opportunity for an education is equated with the opportunity for prosperity.

The problem is, it is impossible for a system of public education to create opportunity.  Regardless of doing everything asked on them, many young people who showed proficiency in a curriculum and graduated from Ohio’s schools are floundering with little hope for economic success.  And it is doubtful that their plight is temporary.  All evidence points to the conclusion that if the purpose of the resources given to public education is to create opportunity, then, how those resources are spent should be reconsidered.  And if the purpose of resources given to public education is to create engaged and thoughtful citizens, it is shocking that only 20% of voters ages 18 – 30 voted in the recent election.

Tinkering, making a more rigorous curriculum with stiffer accountability — more rewards and punishments — will not matter.

Suppose we take up Governor Strickland’s challenge and wipe the slate clear. It would be fun to imagine a system built on principles that we know have power — free enterprise, entrepreneurship, personal responsibility, mutual cooperation. Suppose we design a system whereby each child, through a responsible guardian, has access, over 13 years, to $150,000. And, suppose to each parent is given these instructions: “Please spend this money in the best way to provide this child with the foundation for a prosperous adult life, and the foundation to become as an adult, a  thoughtful, informed, and active citizen.” Such a system, of course, would need to include a structure for accountability, based on an Individual Education Plans, that abundantly would satisfy taxpayers.  It would be fun to think through what such a system might look like

One push for success is the reality that we live in an exciting time for school renewal. The whole world seems to be looking for good solutions to how to design an effective system of public education. A community that chose to exert control over its local system of education, in its efforts to make systemic change, in the current climate, I believe, would be financially rewarded via much outside support and encouragement. There would be a lot of rewards for a community to show leadership and point the way to meaningful transformation and the promise of such rewards might, in a community like Kettering, help move the process along.

I hope to get the ball rolling in Kettering via a series of public meetings in March / April of this next year. The idea is that the output from these meetings would be included in a book — “Kettering Public Education In the Year 2022” — posted on line. The thought is to attempt to make a plan for the transformation of Kettering public education the basis for community discussion in the 2011 school board election campaign.  It’s an ambitious thought.

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2 Responses to If The Aim Of Public Education Is To Provide Opportunity — How Should $150,000 Per Student Be Spent?

  1. Stan Hirtle says:

    Many people may have seen the controversial film “Waiting for Superman” that played at the Neon. The film follows several children, mostly poor, hoping to better their educational futures through a lottery for admission to some high performing charter schools. It is clear that we are to care about these likable kids, who should have bright futures ahead of them, and upset at the high likelihood that these bright futures will not be realized in their present school environment. The film’s point is that we should care more about kids more than adults, and should therefore be able to mass produce these desirable schools. The film tugs at the emotions although its premises can be questioned. We can ask whether the film overly promotes charter schools as a solution given that their performance so far is pretty much the same as traditional public schools with similar students and resources We can ask whether the teachers unions are unfairly scapegoated for the failings of urban schools (teachers good, unions made up of teachers bad). The film is not really clear about the issues dividing the adults, particularly featured reformer, DC Superintendent Michelle Rhee, the community people who vigorously oppose her, and the teacher’s union president, who is never really questioned about issues raised in the film. It is not clear whether firing underperforming teachers (depicted in cartoons as lemons and turkeys) is the best solution without some efforts at improved training, mentoring, collegiality with other teachers and a better work environment. Even the featured charter school reformer Geoffrey Canada admitted it took him a few years to develop his craft as a teacher. It is also not clear that the featured charter schools can be replicated in other schools as easily as the filmmakers suggest. Could these high performing schools result from a particular alignment of kids, teachers and other staff, parents and the community that can appear and then seemingly dissipate? (Some may recall a brief period of success at the Edison school in Dayton during the 90s). Might this resemble a sudden good season by a usually mediocre sports team, say last year’s Bengals or this year’s Reds.

    Bock should appreciate that “Waiting for Superman” does not limit itself to criticizing schools set in urban poverty. It also shows a school in an affluent suburban where tracking limits the performance for many kids, and makes a charter school an alternative choice.

    The lottery scenes are dramatic in the film, but a lottery system is not that much different from the way we select who gets into our elite colleges, a system where free enterprise, entrepreneurship, and choice prevail. There are many highly qualified applicants for each position and while there may be no lottery balls used, it is not clear that the bottom line is all that different. The major difference is that, while getting into Harvard is a big deal for the future of anyone who gets in, a disappointed applicant can also go to Oberlin, or Ohio State, or UD, or Wright State, or any number of other places, and still get what they need to succeed in life. This is considerably less true in our urban poverty settings.

    The film does point out that, as the world has made low skill manufacturing jobs accessible to cheaper laborers abroad, America’s standard of living arguably depends on having a higher skilled, higher educated work force than in the past, and therefore we can be less tolerant of the education results of the past, where dropping out has been common. A related issue may be reaching the preschoolers in areas of concentrated poverty whose lack of preparation at home creates major problems for schools when they arrive. Geoffrey Canada is shown recruiting in his community for a “baby college” but we don’t see if he persuades those whose kids need it most, or that they are likely to apply for his lottery.

    Mike Bock proposes that we replace the money spent running a school system and provide each parent with their share of the money, and let the marketplace with free enterprise, entrepreneurship, personal responsibility, mutual cooperation provide the supply side of schools. Bock suggests that school transformation might start in Kettering, an inner ring suburb with public schools that are called “Excellent with Distinction,” but lack the overwhelming poverty and segregation of Dayton, the growing pains and tax resistance of say Springboro, or the reputation of being the area’s most elite school system. “Social improvements are best built on stability and strength.” We can ask whether there is enough profit in schools to create the capitalist dynamic we have in say fast food (a business which has its own films criticizing it). One problem seems to be that teaching kids is an art or series of relationships as much as a science, and may particularly not be amenable to the mass production of a factory. An acceptable system of evaluating teacher performance that is not open to favoritism, patronage, subjectivity or arbitrariness remains a barrier, although this might be overcome if teachers, school authorities, academics and others in the community could come together in ways that overcome their inherent mistrust of each other.

    A bigger problem may be whether people will be willing to educate well those who are costly to educate. They need to think the relevant economy will produce enough educated jobs, so that they are willing to invest in other peoples’ kids the way they do in their own. There are many reasons to do so. The cost of undereducated people in the prison system is substantial. The benefits of a large educated workforce for attracting high skilled jobs and creating a high powered economy, though somewhat speculative, should be attractive to communities like Dayton, where traditional manufacturing has deserted and what Friedman calls “spike areas” of intense education and technology threaten to leave them behind. However this confronts the “tragedy of the commons” scenario that is dependent on the cooperation of others. This may seem an uphill battle in our mistrustful, angry, “big sorted” and individualistic times.

  2. Eric says:

    Policy suggestions in Waiting for Superman are mostly wrong. We expect more economy of public schools than the featured charter schools deliver.

    The (wrongheaded) tracking comments are addressed by Tom Loveless in Tracking Wars.

    The film simplifies too much to allow for accurate diagnosis. But at least it exposes a problem.

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