Indian Milkmen and Public School Administrators

Recently the Wall Street Journal told the tale of former Indian milk deliveryman D.T. Walkar who faithfully comes each day to the Worli Dairy to NOT deliver milk:

Most days, he and his fellow drivers at the government dairy sign in, then move to the rest area. While others read the paper, nap or play rummy, Mr. Walkar likes to do the Sudoku puzzle in the Maharashtra Times, unless someone else has gotten to it first. He then wanders around the complex and talks to friends. The last delivery trucks were sold last year. “The trucks are all gone so we just sit around and talk,” says Mr. Walkar, 50 years old. “We are bored.”

Have Indians stopped drinking milk? Hardly, it is still a key ingredient in Indian cooking and in religious rituals. So what happened? The Wall Street Journal explains:

In 2001, the Indian government started opening the dairy market in Maharashtra to competition. Private carriers with higher quality milk swiftly won customers by delivering milk to doorsteps. The government milkmen have always been restricted to delivering mostly to curbside milk stalls so they could cover a greater area.

At the same time government workers are protected from layoffs– Walkar is reluctant to move to the private sector because he claims he needs the government housing his job provides and so Walker sits every day with nothing to do until he can retire in about 8 years.

As I read this essay—poignant in its description of human energy being wasted—I began to think of American “milkmen.” The first group that came to mind was public school administrators.

No, I am not claiming that public school administrators “read the paper, nap or play rummy.” No doubt though, most schools would be better off if that is all that they did—after all, ask many public school teachers and they will tell you that any effective teaching that they accomplish in their classrooms is frequently done despite the interference of administrators.

Former New York State teacher of the year John Taylor Gatto has been a harsh critic of public schools. He tells a tale about complaining about waste while he was still a teacher:

An assistant principal once said to me, “It’s not your money. What are you getting excited about?”

What if I told you that he was the second best school administrator I met in thirty years? He was. That’s the standard we’ve established. The waste in schools is staggering. People are hired and titles created for jobs nobody needs. There’s waste in services, waste in precious time spent moving herds of children back and forth through corridors at the sound of a horn. In my experience, poor schools waste much more than rich schools, and rich schools waste more than you could believe.

The only public aspect of these places is that they function as a jobs project, although large numbers of these jobs are set aside as political patronage. Public schools can’t understand how the average private school can make profit on a per-seat cost less than half the “free” public charge; they can’t understand how the average religious school makes do on even less.

The answer is of course that their administrative costs are a fraction of the administrative costs in public schools. Not only that, but also they are free to innovate without the stifling rigidity that only layers of bureaucracy can provide.

Back to India—in monopoly conditions, it made perfect sense to milk industry bureaucrats that milk be delivered only to centrally located, unrefrigerated, broken-down stalls and not to homes; and it made perfect sense that the quality of their product could not be improved.

Once we reflect on Indian milkmen, we can understand why the public school lobbyists fight so hard against any form of school choice for parents. Simply put, once parents have a choice, many of the choices that school administrators and politicians have made will not stand. These are just a few of the conditions that can only exist under the near-monopoly that public schools enjoy:

  • Funding a large, bloated bureaucracy.
  • Using quick fixes for disruptive behavior, like helping to place almost five million school children on Ritalin—which some researchers say has a more potent effect on the brain than cocaine.
  • Operating many urban schools without providing a basic, safe environment for learning.
  • Designing curricula that leave many high school graduates unable to handle college level work and unable to compete for employment opportunities that exist in a post manufacturing society.
  • Designing curricula that leave may high school graduates ignorant of the basic principles of political and economic liberty.

Even the veteran insider, the late and former American Federation of Teachers President, Al Shanker has observed:

It’s time to admit that public education operates like a planned economy, a bureaucratic system in which everybody’s role is spelled out in advance and there are few incentives for innovation and productivity. It’s no surprise that our school system doesn’t improve: It more resembles the communist economy than our own market economy.

One day, American consumers of schools, like the “liberated” consumers of milk in India, will have a choice. No doubt, we will be told that the redundant school administrators have to be kept on the payroll anyway. And just like the Indian milkmen, most will choose to put in their time until retirement. When that day comes, at least we can be thankful that, like the Indian milkmen, they will be no longer serving up a sub-standard product.


11 Responses to Indian Milkmen and Public School Administrators

  1. Doug says:

    I was tasked with building a debate on campus last year about Governor O’Malley’s “budget shortfall”. I was amazed to notice that 1.7 billion of the deficit was solely based on the needs of the Thornton education plan, a mandate put into effect just before Ehrlich’s administration. It was designed to “scale” to meet costs each passing year, and is required to be funded.
    Somehow, these “costs” went from, I believe 190 million or so around 2002, to 1.7 billion in 2008? Last time I checked, we were not in a national baby-boom, or even a Maryland baby-boom. Down the street, half of Perry Hall High School’s classrooms are still in trailers, teachers have no pay raises, and MD schools still rate as some of worst in the country (mainly Baltimore City.)
    I would love to know exactly what “costs” are associated with these increases, because as far as I can tell, this is just plain old school-administrator fat cat pocket lining.

  2. E says:

    In principle, I concur. However, I’m more than happy with my Fairfax County education; which is to say, though I know they are bleeding money through bureaucracy, they’re not doing a bad job. I think some of it comes down to personal and familial responsibility. You can pour ten thousand, twenty thousand, thirty thousand dollars a year into an education but if the kids don’t want to learn, or aren’t from a learning environment, it would be as if you threw the money into a fire. I hs, I used to hear “do we have to do all that homework?” when teachers would say, “for tomorrow, read 56-66” (ten measly pages).

  3. Doug,

    I appreciate your fine example.


    An interesting thing about the WSJ article is that milkmen like Walkar were quite popular with consumers. Nevertheless the Indian consumer fled for the superior product as soon as they had a choice.

    Much does come down to personal responsibility, yet my heart goes out to those who are forced to attend school in an unsafe environment, while a bloated bureaucracy continues to expand.

  4. igli1969 says:

    As I have said for many years, one must judge the schools on what their actual goal is, not what the press releases say. Public schools in America have the dual goals of providing good-paying jobs (and read Thomas Sowell on teachers for how overpaid many are in relation to their competence; the administrators, as noted, are much worse) and turning out complacent sheeple without basic knowledge of how the world works and an inability to think independently. They’re doing a damn fine job at that.

    Yes, some students get a good education. Those are from education-oriented families who are also self-starters. My daughter, a senior in high school, has done so despite many teachers I considered incompetent. Being in accelerated courses was tough, fast-paced with a lot of homework, but is paying off. And our conversations helped leaven the book-learning with other perspectives, which she has been willing to explore.

    Less-motivated or less-skilled students get only the one-size-fits-all crap typical of government solutions. Or worse yet, the latest edu-fad. (I find it appalling that so much of what gets pushed in schools is introduced without ANY prior empirical testing to see if it actually works. It’s indicative of the thought processes – if what goes on in their minds can be characterized as thought – of public school administrators that these educational fads are often approved for use because they sound good. Ritalin, for example.

    I hope that there will be later generations that will shake their heads in disbelief that we put up with state schools for so long.

    Chris C.

  5. Chris,

    Indeed, there are only shades of difference between many public schools and the former state run food stores in the former Soviet Union selling mostly fatty low-quality sausage and very little else.

  6. Frank v2 says:

    Dr. B et al,

    Your discussion on waste in bureaucratic-bloated institutions such as schools is right on the mark. Unfortunately, most government “owned” institutions have similar waste and bloated payrolls with people twiddling their thumbs like the infamous Maytag repairman. Interestingly, private companies after World War II headed in that direction as well, but fortunately global competition forced most private organizations to improve efficiencies and leverage and engage all of their internal resources, and in particular, their people. Employees that can’t or won’t add value to a business today end up going the way of the do-do bird.

    But monopolistic organizations such as schools, the IRS or even the INS (as a Naturalized American I could write pages of the horrors and out of pocket expenses on that process, but I’ll save that for another blog. I will say however that it is no wonder folks just run across the boarder and chose to live as illegals! Government bureaucracy dictates that they do) are full of people that for the most part are uninterested and not accountable for their actions, and as such over time garner a “why bother” attitude toward their work. I’m not suggesting that everyone in a civil service role is that way, just that the system is tainted and it can’t help over time to affect the individual in a negative fashion. A healthy dose of market competition I believe would cure that problem.

    And finally, thinking about our education system reminded me of an article my father wrote in 1983. Granted this is more from the classroom perspective rather than the bureaucratic side of the equation, but perhaps if we had as a society adopted some of these principles in the 1980s, that today our teachers might not be afraid of entering a classroom and getting assaulted and hospitalized by kids. Furthermore, if we adopted a privatized system and which eliminated waste, rules can be laid out for all. If parents didn’t like those rules, then they wouldn’t have to send their kids there. Getting some discipline and eliminating the bureaucratic waste the might bode well in terms of attracting top-notch educators that have a passion for their profession.

    Enjoy the “Soyawannabee article”!



    An Educator (circa: 1983 – Keith v2)

    The great joy of being an educator has all but vanished: there is little satisfaction in expounding theories to a group of largely disinterested students. To be effective, education must be a “closed loop” system; a transmitter, a receiver and feedback. The almost impossible task of being able to succeed in communicating to each and every student in a classroom has most educators discouraged. It shows clearly in the general attitude where teachers no longer wish to negotiate their own status in life, but prefer to use the services of unions to get higher wages, shorter working hours, smaller classes and a less strenuous curriculum. The ever-prevalent attitude that everyone is equal and should be treated equally if fine in theory but poor in practice. The result of this thinking is to lower the standard to accommodate the slowest learner. Meanwhile the gifted students become bored, disinterested, discouraged and simply opt out.

    I can’t help wonder what has happened to good old discipline, dedication and respect. For an educator the supreme joy is in having a group of knowledge hungry minds where the feedback ‘vibes’ are electrifying. No amount of take home pay can compensate!

    We parents are constantly reminded that today’s youth are better informed than we were and are consequently better able to make decisions on their future at a much earlier age. “Rat Droppings!!” – the scope of technical knowledge makes it even more confusing and virtually impossible to make a conclusive decision about one’s future.

    What then is a feasible answer? Obvious! Set a stiff curriculum of solid basic knowledge that makes it stimulating and exciting and a challenge worth accomplishing. Abolish student counseling until after Grade XII – it is not only expensive and useless, it is destructive. We teach our youth that if something is the least bit conducive to physical or mental discomfort it should be circumvented. What’s wrong with hard work and a few set backs at an early age. Personally, I think it builds backbone and character.

    Is it not just possible that the educators out of sheer frustration have been passing the buck to councilors, advisers and committees as well as to the students for an answer that can best be established by the people closest to the action – the educators themselves.

    While my area of expertise is industrial instrumentation and my experience as an educator limited to this field, the courses on this subject are tailored to the ‘knowledge requirements’ of the industry. We tell our students what they need to know. That is our duty and responsibility for being allowed in the theater.

    Perhaps all educators should look in the mirror. A murky image might well be indicative of a misdirected career. The “education field” is like many other fields, overcrowded. But never, ever overcrowded with competent, dedicated educators. There are simply not enough.

  7. Jim D says:

    While my wife and I have personally had a recent poor experience with a private Catholic school (and for lack of more affordable choice are sending our daughter to public school), we believe deeply that government is the most expensive and least effective way to accomplish just about anything, schooling included. The unions and administrators scream about what vouchers and other choice programs would do to certain schools. The same thing the market does to every other failing institution–they are dismantled so those resources can be more effectively used elsewhere. Those poor teachers would indeed have a difficult time getting jobs at better institutions; if they weren’t such poor instructors, their school wouldn’t have been shut down to start with. Our schools in Anne Arundel County aren’t bad (on the whole), but I hear more and more consultants being hired (to the tune of $300,000 per year), but I don’t see the quality of my child’s education improving. What I do believe makes a difference is when I help her with the homework and explain why learning these things is important. Choice in schools is the extension of parents being enabled to take responsibility in making sure their kids get a good education. And the only way that will ever work is if we can get useless governement administrators out of the way!

  8. Frank and Jim,

    You both very ably point to the importance of competition in helping to promote a quality product. It is amazing that the self-serving anti-competitive arguments of the public school lobby are not laughed at by the general public.

  9. igli1969 says:

    I think that this particular “government failure” problem is explained by Public Choice theory. Or, for that matter, by noting that the feedback mechanism in state schools (as in any government institution) is either broken or actually perverse.

    When you throw in monumental stupidities such as No Child Left Behind, Zero Tolerance, and parents who have abdicated their responsibilities for child-rearing to the state, what would you expect other than an intractable mess?

    My wife’s older sister is an elementary school teacher in Baltimore County. She has regaled us many times over the years with stories about stupid/evil/insane administrators, parents who are unclear on the concept, and colleagues who do not have her monomaniacal dedication to real education. (Her least favorite part of the job is having an adult come up to her and tell her he/she was in her second-grade class X years ago.) Yet she willingly goes along with many of the (IMHO) nuttier edu-fads. As Frank pointed out, “go along to get along.”

    My wife works for a Federal judge in Baltimore. Somewhat different situation, in that there are some metrics for performance, and her workaholic boss typically blows those out of the water. Then you get into the quality of decisions, and I generally cannot fault the majority of his (he was the one who struck down the Maryland legislature’s Wal*Mart bill, for ex.).

    What I’m trying to say is that, while (again, as Frank noted) it is possible for government employees to act as if they were in a free-market job (with real feedback, such as from profits), it is very difficult, and is personality-driven, rather than explainable by particular agencies.

    Chris C.

  10. Lincoln Steffens says:

    Sounds like ad hominem government-bashing. How about some apples-to-apples comparisons on cost, quality and accountability between public and private? There’s a lot more to be said than the age-old bromides that all government is wasteful.

    I know people who teach in both arenas – private and public. The private teachers are marketing themselves 100% of the time; instruction is secondary to looking good. Governance consists of mercurial, parent-driven “Boards of Trustees” that make a lot of shoot-from-the-lip decisions without considering the downstream consequences for fiscal stability or academic growth. Teachers have no formalized performance review, other than getting a contract for the following year if enrollment allows.

    The public teachers are, indeed, within a wasteful system, paralyzed by a bureaucracy that will thin the ranks of teachers to cut costs but not eliminate its own perks. There can and should be more accountability in the public system, but it is not automatically flawed beyond repair any more than private schools are necessarily wonderful – or effective.

    A more nuanced and rational approach to the educational dilemma by both private and public adherents is needed, if any constructive change is to be realized.

    @Soyawannabee: Hey, bring on the “stiff curriculum of solid basic knowledge that makes it stimulating and exciting and a challenge worth accomplishing” – educators the world over will thank you for it. It must be easy, right, since it’s so obvious to you? If, however, you don’t have that curriculum ready to deploy (I assume you *have* taught before?), you may want to lose that imperious tone. It really hurts your credibility.

  11. Lincoln,

    Thanks for your comments.

    I have written in other posts about the wonderful public school my children are attending.

    You too are against the wasteful bureaucracy, but as long as there is no school choice the waste will continue.

    About curriculum: The Well-Trained Mind by Bauer and Wise is outstanding. Although written for home educators, its wisdom can be generalized.

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