America’s Reform Challenge

By 02/13/2012

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Education reform does not suffer from lack of energy or activity. Everywhere you look—Congress, state legislatures, local school boards, wherever—scores of eager-beavers are filing bills, proposing solutions, calling for change, and otherwise trying to “push the ball forward.” Yet for all the effort, for all the pain, we see little gain. What gives?

The conventional answer, in most reform circles, comes down to: “the opposition of special interests.” Teachers unions, school administrators, colleges of education, textbook publishers, and other defenders (and beneficiaries) of the status quo fight change at every step and guard their selfish prerogatives jealously.

That may all be true, but our challenges are much more fundamental. It’s not that the wrong people are in charge. It’s that there are so many cooks in the education kitchen that nobody is really in charge. And that is a consequence of an antiquated governance structure that practically forces all those cooks to enter and remain in the kitchen.

We bow to the mantra of “local control” yet, in fact, nearly every major decision affecting the education of our children is shaped (and mis-shaped) by at least four separate levels of governance: Washington, the state capitol, the local district, and the individual school building itself.

Consider so seemingly straightforward a decision as which person will be employed to fill a seventh-grade teacher opening at the Lincoln School, located in, let us say, Metropolis, West Carolina. One might suppose that Lincoln’s principal, or perhaps the top instructional staff at that school, should decide which candidate is likeliest to succeed in that particular classroom. But under the typical circumstance, the most the principal might be able to do is reject wholly unsuitable candidates. (And often not even that, considering seniority and “bumping rights” within the district, its collective-bargaining contract and, frequently, state law.)

The superintendent’s HR office does most of the vetting and placing, but it is shackled by the contract, by state licensure practices (which may be set by an “independent”— probably union and ed-school dominated—professional-standards board), by seniority rules that are probably enshrined in both contract and state law, and by uniform salary schedules that mean the new teacher (assuming similar “credentials”) will be paid the same fixed amount whether the subject most needed at Lincoln is math or phys ed.

Washington gets into the act, too, with “highly qualified teacher” requirements that constrain the school. By the end of the process, at least a dozen different governing units impede the principal’s authority to staff his school with the ablest (and best suited) teachers available.

Yet teacher selection is but one of many examples of the “too many cooks” problem. Much the same kitchen congestion afflicts special education, the budgeting and control of a school’s funds, and the handling of school discipline. (Not to mention a more literal “too many cooks” issue: what to serve for lunch in the school cafeteria?)

Reformers look at this mess and try to rationalize it, but never quite seem to succeed. In Colorado, for example, Senator Mike Johnston marshaled a very thoughtful teacher reform bill through the legislature. It untangled some of the worst problems of the old system but added new complexities and actors, too. It’s a case study of why the history of reform often looks like an archeological dig somewhere in Greece or Jordan: one layer of policy change on top of another.

Now some reformers want a “parent trigger” (in Colorado and elsewhere) so the system’s “consumers” can cut through all the red tape and intransigence of the local and state bureaucracy and force change to happen, now. The impulse is great (and in my view it’s a mechanism worth trying, along with “recovery districts” and the education equivalent of “enterprise zones,” all of them ways of snipping through the tape), but it adds yet another dimension to the educational tug of war.

So is there any way to clear out the kitchen so that everyone involved in education can just focus on teaching and learning? Utopia may not be achievable but surely we can do better than we do today. A good place to start is with the concept of subsidiarity. The Oxford English Dictionary defines this as “the idea that a central authority should have a subsidiary function, performing only those tasks which cannot be performed effectively at a more immediate or local level.”

In education, that would mean:

  • Empowering building-level educators to make nearly all of the key decisions about how their schools operate (including which curriculum to use, how to hire, pay, and evaluate teachers, what to invest dollars in, etc.);
  • Giving parents the right to choose among schools in order to find a good match with their own preferences and values;
  • Raising the funds for our schools at a central level, then redistributing them in an equitable manner to individual schools—in return for acceptable academic results.

This implies an “every school a charter school” system, or even a voucher approach (if private schools are to be included), combined with an accountability framework and weighted-student funding. Note that teachers unions, school districts, and top-down reforms (like a statewide teacher evaluation system) don’t have a place in this new model.

This wouldn’t solve all of our problems. Some schools would make good decisions, others would fail. But there would be fewer cooks. And the ones that remained would have greater control over their kitchens. Why not give it a try?

-Mike Petrilli

This blog entry originally appeared on the Fordham Institute’s Flypaper blog.

Comment on this article
  • John West says:

    I think our education system has several problems. One problem is a lack of a mission statement. Large companies have them. We want to educate our children, but to do what? We also have parents who don’t take part or have any interest in what’s going on with their kids. School is just government funded baby sitting to them. I believe we are trying to over-teach our children by forcing them to study large quantities of meaningless crap that amounts to nothing more than a gigantic waste of time and tax dollars. Add to that the sports programs of most school districts, and I wonder why we send our kids to school at all! We do need education reform alright. The first thing we should do is come up with a mission statement and work from there.


    This speaks the truth.

    Diane Ravitch: Do Politicians know anything about education?

    Here are some important questions that the media — and parents — should be asking candidates for the Presidency on down to local school board elections.
    By Diane Ravitch

    1. Both Republican candidates and President Obama are enamored of charter schools—that is, schools that are privately managed and deregulated. Are you aware that studies consistently show that charter schools don’t get better results than regular public schools? Are you aware that studies show that, like any deregulated sector, some charter schools get high test scores, many more get low scores, but most are no different from regular public schools? Do you recognize the danger in handing public schools and public monies over to private entities with weak oversight? Didn’t we learn some lessons from the stock collapse of 2008 about the risk of deregulation?

    2. Both Republican candidates and President Obama are enamored of merit pay for teachers based on test scores. Are you aware that merit pay has been tried in the schools again and again since the 1920s and it has never worked? Are you aware of the exhaustive study of merit pay in the Nashville schools, conducted by the National Center for Performance Incentives at Vanderbilt, which found that a bonus of $15,000 per teacher for higher test scores made no difference?

    3. Are you aware that Milwaukee has had vouchers for low-income students since 1990, and now state scores in Wisconsin show that low-income students in voucher schools get no better test scores than low-income students in the Milwaukee public schools? Are you aware that the federal test (the National Assessment of Educational Progress) shows that—after 21 years of vouchers in Milwaukee—black students in the Milwaukee public schools score on par with black students in Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, and Louisiana?

    4. Does it concern you that cyber charters and virtual academies make millions for their sponsors yet get terrible results for their students?

    5. Are you concerned that charters will skim off the best-performing students and weaken our nation’s public education system?

    6. Are you aware that there is a large body of research by testing experts warning that it is wrong to judge teacher quality by student test scores? Are you aware that these measures are considered inaccurate and unstable, that a teacher may be labeled effective one year, then ineffective the next one? Are you aware that these measures may be strongly influenced by the composition of a teacher’s classroom, over which she or he has no control? Do you think there is a long line of excellent teachers waiting to replace those who are (in many cases, wrongly) fired?

    7. Although elected officials like to complain about our standing on international tests, did you know that students in the United States have never done well on those tests? Did you know that when the first international test was given in the mid-1960s, the United States came in 12th out of 12? Did you know that over the past half-century, our students have typically scored no better than average and often in the bottom quartile on international tests? Have you ever wondered how our nation developed the world’s most successful economy when we scored so poorly over the decades on those tests?

    8. Did you know that American schools where less than 10% of the students were poor scored above those of Finland, Japan and Korea in the last international assessment? Did you know that American schools where 25% of the students were poor scored the same as the international leaders Finland, Japan and Korea? Did you know that the U.S. is #1 among advanced nations in child poverty? Did you know that more than 20% of our children live in poverty and that this is far greater than in the nations to which we compare ourselves?

    9. Did you know that family income is the single most reliable predictor of student test scores? Did you know that every testing program—the SAT, the ACT, the NAEP, state tests and international tests—shows the same tight correlation between family income and test scores? Affluence helps—children in affluent homes have educated parents, more books in the home, more vocabulary spoken around them, better medical care, more access to travel and libraries, more economic security—as compared to students who live in poverty, who are more likely to have poor medical care, poor nutrition, uneducated parents, more instability in their lives. Do you think these things matter?

    10. Are you concerned that closing schools in low-income neighborhoods will further weaken fragile communities?

    11. Are you worried that annual firings of teachers will cause demoralization and loss of prestige for teachers? Any ideas about who will replace those fired because they taught too many low-scoring students?

    12. Why is it that politicians don’t pay attention to research and studies?

    13. Do you know of any high-performing nation in the world that got that way by privatizing public schools, closing those with low test scores, and firing teachers? The answer: none.

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