Re-Imagining Local Control

By 12/06/2010

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Writing last week in the Wall Street Journal, my friend and long-time former co-author, Diane Ravitch, challenged resurgent Congressional Republicans to return K-12 education to “local control” and to repudiate and reverse the nationalizing/federalizing tendencies of No Child Left Behind, Race to the Top, Common Core standards, etc. Appealing to the GOP’s history as “the party of local control,” she urged the re-empowerment of local school boards and teachers-as-professionals as the proper remedies for what ails American education.

As in her much-discussed book, The Death and Life of the Great American School System, Diane has it half right. She pinpoints genuine shortcomings in NCLB and failings in a number of other federal education programs, and correctly observes that many of the school-reform efforts and innovations of recent years have not yielded the desired achievement gains.

But she’s wrong about the remedy for these failures and about the course that Republicans (and, for that matter, reform-minded Democrats) should follow in the days ahead.

The weak and generally stagnant academic performance of most American school kids, our scandalous achievement gaps, the country’s sagging performance vis-à-vis other countries, the skimpy preparation of many teachers and principals, the shoddy curricula, the fat and junky textbooks, the innovation-shackling union contracts, the large expenditures with meager returns—these are not the result of an overweening federal government. They are, in fact, almost entirely the product of state and local control of public education—as it has traditionally been defined and structured in the United States. They are the product of failed governance, bureaucratic mismanagement, and the capture of the K-12 system by powerful organizations of adults who assign lower priority to kids’ needs than to their own interests. They are maladies caused by, and worsened under, the aegis of the very system that Diane trusts to cure them.

It’s never smart to expect those who cause, or even those who tolerate, problems to be any good at solving them. Blithely consigning America’s education fate to the traditional structures of “state and local control” won’t work any better tomorrow than it did yesterday, and Republicans (and Democrats, too) should spurn such advice.

What they should do instead is re-imagine local control, clear out the dysfunctional bureaucratic underbrush, disentangle the responsibilities of different levels of government, make everyone accountable for their performance (as gauged primarily by student learning gains), quit throwing good money after bad, and unshackle education innovators and entrepreneurs so they can give their all to solving problems and creating alternatives.

Local control, properly re-imagined, is vested in individual schools—“mom and pop” charters are examples—that control their own personnel, budgets, schedules, and curricula, that are voluntarily attended by children whose families choose them, that are fully funded and freed from nearly all regulatory and collective-bargaining shackles, but that are absolutely transparent and accountable with regard to what they do, how they spend their money, what goods and services they buy from where, and, above all, how well their pupils do (or don’t) achieve.

Local control, properly re-imagined, is vested in parents free to choose among—and fully-informed about—a wide array of quality schools (and other education delivery systems, including virtual education), and in financing systems that vary the per-pupil amounts according to kids’ differing needs but then send every single dollar to the schools they actually attend, instead of allowing that money to get caught up in bloated central offices and unnecessary bureaucracy.

Local control, properly imagined, abolishes the quasi-monopolies of “school systems,” “central offices,” and system-wide collective-bargaining contracts. It treats every successful school as an independent, self-propelled entity, accountable for its governance to those who work in and attend it but accountable for its results to state-level performance-monitoring systems with authority and wherewithal to pull the plug on bad schools. Those state-level systems, in turn, are united—at least those that wish to be are—by voluntary national academic standards and high-quality tests, the results of which can be compared from school to school and state to state, and communicated to teachers and parents. Other unifying forces—and reasons to discard traditional districts—include well-run CMO’s and the burgeoning “virtual” options that leap across municipal and state borders.

Yes, Uncle Sam’s future role in all this is far less intrusive than today. Washington supplies additional funds to underwrite the education of disadvantaged and special-needs kids, it pays for innovation through competitive-grant programs, it conducts research and supplies a wealth of assessment and other data, and it safeguards individuals from violations of their civil rights. That’s about it.

What do such structural recommendations have to do with the successful teaching and learning that must be at the core of any well-functioning education system? First, they remove all sorts of obstacles and constraints. Second, they concentrate the resources and decision-making authority where they belong (as close as possible to the kids—Diane has that part right). Third, they clarify expectations and make everyone’s performance transparent. Admittedly, in the near term that doesn’t prevent a foolish teacher or ill-run school from selecting a bad reading program or substituting silly social studies for real history. It doesn’t ensure brilliant lesson planning or inspired instruction—but it does allow for tailored instruction and flexible teaching models. In the medium term, however, it frees principals to make changes and liberates parents to exit. And in the long run it makes the school’s very existence hinge on whether it delivers the goods.

That ought to be an approach for tomorrow that Republicans (and reform-minded Democrats) can embrace. But it’s a very, very different model than “restoring” the failed systems of yesterday.

—Chester E. Finn, Jr.

Comment on this article
  • Jo-Anne Gross says:

    I couldn`t agree with you more!To discuss reform with explicit training of teachers is a fraud and I don`t like Diane`s ideas of returning to the old ways-that`s what got us here!We need accountability testing.

    It`s all about training teachers in the complexities of teaching Reading!
    I don`t know anything about math.

    Jo-Anne Gross
    Remediation Plus Train the teachers!

  • Jaime L. Manzano says:

    The education of children in the U.S. will not improve by tinkering with changes negotiated and accepted by existing public educational leadership. Further, I doubt whether accepting the nostrums of popular innovators will work as well.

    At least, it will be slow and risky. Progress in design and implementation of systems will likely resemble the frog in the pan of water slowly being heated and cooked. Surviving in the warm bathos provided by an educational environment mandated and provided by empowered self-serving public “professionals” has demeaned and debilitated individual rights, responsibilities and development. The product, it now turns out is largely an uneducated, overweight, and unemployable workforce.

    And since students and parents are not swift enough, or authorized, to get out of the frying pan beforehand, they now end their mandated 12 years of education and enter the hard knocks school of employment. Or they enter the maw of continuing education, be it in trade schools, community colleges, or universities. These institutions supplement, or compensate for what public school education largely failed to deliver.

    Time and money has been lost. Now, however, post high school education comes to the rescue with more subsidies from the government, or the fawning concerns of monied parents The charade of learning goes on, only some of it for useful skills. More likely it goes to further consumption to be enjoyed while the support system lasts. A cost benefit system governing the use of public subsidies would help. What parents do with their own money, on the other hand, is their business.

    On the margin, having half the children in public schools swimming in mediocrity, and destined for a life of incompetence, unemployment or welfare just doesn’t cut it. As a citizen, tax payer, and parent, I want out! Now! For my money in support of education (and it is), just give it to parents with the understanding that it is to be used to educate their kids. After 12 years, if the kids fail, tough. That ends the educational entitlement which should be dependent on regular tests of performance.

    But that won’t happen unless the education establishment is paid off to relinquish their monopoly access to public funding. So just give parents opting out of the offerings of the public system 75 percent of the funds presently spent per child. That leaves 25 percent of the funds on the table for the establishment to redistribute to their organizational and professional dependents. If parents and students meet the expected learning early, let them keep the money to use as they choose. If they don’t meet tested expectations along the way, they ought not get the money.

    We would likely begin to watch the private sector and parents begin to leap like trout to the bait of the public funding cast on the waters. We could begin to see increases in voluntary private funding supplementing K through 12 learning to cover educational shortfalls in funding. Competition could improve efficiency. Quality could improve. Productivity could jump. Parents, teachers, and schools could benefit through improved unit costs, and allow for better budgetary allocations, like increases in pay for performance. Teachers could begin to take pride in the quality of the student they produce, and personal satisfaction in their service to society.

    And tax payers could be happier.

    Jaime L. Manzano
    7904 Park Overlook Drive
    Bethesda, MD 20817

    301 365 4781

  • Jim Mills says:

    You’re absolutely right that “local control” of education has plenty to answer for in our current predicament, and it has been surprising to see Ms. Ravitch lay so much of the blame on No Child Left Behind and federal involvement in education. As clumsy and unsatisfactory as it was in execution, NCLB at least highlighted the key issues of learning standards, measuring student achievement, and educator accountability. Surely people are beginning to realize that we cannot remake K12 education using a centralized prescriptive model, whether it is from the federal government, the state, or the local school district monopoly. Education represents one of the most important tasks that society undertakes — cultivating thoughtful, informed citizens with the skills and perspectives they need to be successful. Why would we think that such a complex endeavor could be conducted through central planning and granular presriptions involving every aspect of the delivery model, regardless of the goals and needs of individual customers? Where has that EVER worked? As in every other domain of modern life, we will get the best outcomes when we allow end-users to choose.

    Without choice, there can be no accountability.


  • FlashToso says:

    Local control is broken. A centralized approach reduces the duplication of local and state control bureaucracy and cost. It is this middle management cost, not federal cost, that we must recognize as reducing money reaching teachers. The main problem to this is people resisting government interference while failing to recognize opportunities such an approach would provide.
    We must allow federal government to provide resources other than money(research, libraries, advice). We must provide a way to discuss education in a way not limited to schools.

  • FlashToso says:

    We need to treat teacher unions as they are, labor unions, concerned with working conditions of labor. They support resources that support classrooms and teachers instead of learners.
    We need to research ways to improve learning first, not teaching. Even technology, like virtual schools, are skewed toward supporting teachers and schools instead of learners. Its no wonder we have lagged behind other countries for decades, long before NCLB.
    We need to put local control in the hands of parents and learners instead of teachers and schools.

  • FlashToso says:

    We need to find solutions that provide immediate benefits to all. Isn’t that the strength of technology like mass media and “BOOKS”? Instead we are pushing to fix “EACH AND EVERY” classroom, teacher and school”. This approach is time consuming and costly.
    Look at the high tech environment of learners outside the classroom from television to video games and explain to me why we don’t look at these as opportunities.
    We need education to prepare us for our future not our past!! we need opportunities that are openly available to all, even parents, not just those in “LOCAL” public classrooms controlled by a “LOCAL” school district.
    Mr. Wizard’s classroom was defined by mass media and was unlimited in size. Today our teachers whine when classrooms become larger than a couple or dozen students.
    Its no wonder our cost per student is so high with pitiful results!!

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