Board's Eye View

"But you must remember, my fellow-citizens,
that eternal vigilance by the people is the price of liberty,
and that you must pay the price if you wish to secure the blessing.
It behooves you, therefore, to be watchful in your States as well as in the Federal Government."
—Andrew Jackson, Farewell Address, March 4, 1837

At some low point in my tenure on the board of education in my small school district, a friend advised, “Don’t worry. You are like gravity. They always know that you are there.”

Much good can come from keeping institutions honest.

Though I aspired to being more than a reminder of some facts of life as member of a board of education, gravity was at least a starting point. And I appreciated my friend’s larger message: that much good can come from keeping institutions honest. In fact, as I reflect on the last five years of public service, I’m thinking that keeping governments honest may be the single most important duty of every citizen.

And in honor of the holiday, I offer five lessons learned, which to my mind seem close to self-evident truths, about school governance:

1. Don’t underestimate the value of information

My claim to fame at board meetings was asking questions. What does this project cost? When would it be finished? By whom? What happens if it doesn’t get done? Does the program improve student achievement? How? “What is this, a Congressional hearing?” one colleague once complained. Watching boards in action...

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Just in case I buried the lead in my last post, I would love to hear from fellow reform-minded members of boards of education. 

Are you out there? What is it like trying to turn around a tanker with a paddle? Are you a flamethrower or consensus builder? Did you win any fights? Were you able to improve your district? Have you come away from your experience as believer in boards of education or a determined skeptic?

Send your essays (or questions) to me, petermeyer@edexcellence.netpmeyer@edexcellence.net. Your story should be between 250 and 800 words, though, as mentioned, a good haiku or other creative verse will be considered. We will publish as many as we can and, at the end of the summer, Fordham staff will choose the seven best. The seven, in honor of the number of board members on my board of ed, will then convene, by email, and suggest what governance policies are most necessary to improve our public education system.

Tell your friends!

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There’s nothing worse for a rogue member of the school board than sitting on a stage with graduating high school seniors, looking into an auditorium packed with adoring friends and relatives. The speeches gush with encomiums for the school that you (i.e. me) have been criticizing for years. “Don’t listen to the negative,” the congressman tells the class. “Unity,” gushes the valedictorian, recounting all the things he has learned from “the great teachers” he has had. The salutatorian cries. Applause.

I have been trying to “fix” my little district (2,300 students fifteen years ago, less than 1,900 today) ever since my son entered first grade (he is now finishing his third year in college). I ran for the board, won, quit, helped start a charter school (which crashed on the shoals of racial politics), started an email listserv dedicated to watching the district, and ran again for the board, winning another five-year stint—and a warning from my wife: Don’t quit again. I didn’t.

Three nights ago I attended my final meeting as a member of the board, after five years and some several thousand meetings. I had outlasted two superintendents and a good half-dozen board members. But despite being the senior person on the board, I leave sitting in the same seat, literally, as when I began—the very last place in the always-awkward line-up of tables and chairs stretching across whatever room we were in; seven board members, the superintendent, the assistant superintendent, the business manager, the student representative. In...

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After reading about the eleventh-hour teacher evaluation deal brokered by Governor Andrew Cuomo (see the New York Times report here) in my local newspaper (which I’m not divulging, to protect the innocent), I turned the page and was drawn to a regular section of the paper called “Restaurant Inspections.” Like its cousin, “Police Blotter,” this is where the dirt is, so to speak. And I read about many of our local restaurants, in detail that I’m sure did not make the owners very happy. Here's one with five violations:

…the restaurant was found to have a dirty slicer with dried food debris, a dirty floor with grease and food debris accumulation around equipment and inside the walk-in refrigerator, no visible thermometer in the prep refrigeration, absorbent tablecloths stored on the shelf underneath the cook’s prep table with dried food debris on the baking supply rack, and a can of wasp/hornet spray stored in the kitchen on the shelf next to a flour storage bin.

I wondered, What if these restaurant inspection results were sent only to the restaurant’s patrons? Why do they have to be published in the paper for all to see?

That is essentially what the New York State United Teachers (NYSUT) convinced the state legislature to do for its public schools last week: Only the parents of students in a teacher’s classroom shall know if the teacher is serving up unrefrigerated content.

Only the parents of students in a teacher’s classroom...
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Catching up on some reading, I discovered some stories that may be old news to some of you, but merit a second look:

Pineapplegate

pineapple
Oh, the pineapple.
 Photo by Richard North.

I would like to skip this one, so named for the test question used by a big testing company, Pearson, and subsequently used by a number of states, including New York, for its 8th-grade English language arts exams, that asked kids to analyze a story adapted from one written by popular children’s book author Daniel Pinkwater about a “race” between a hare and a pineapple. Leave it to the intrepid Leonie Haimson, the anti-testing and class size matters pit bull, to uncover this dastardly deed, issue a scathing condemnation that “The ONLY right answer is Pearson; for getting paid $32 million from NY State for these recycled, annoying and pointless exams,” and force the NYS education commissioner to discount the answers on the pineapple test question. The horror of it. Wrote Ms. Haimson a few weeks later, in the New York Times: “…few people who heard about a test question involving a talking pineapple could help but question the judgment of those who would include this material on a standardized test used to determine the future of children and schools.” There is but one reply to Ms....

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This is my first post in two months and I must thank the contributors to TBQ (The BIG Question) for keeping the governance issues on the front burner in my absence (more on what I was doing “on sabbatical” in subsequent Board’s Eye View posts). We had a wonderful group of contributors, from arch reformer Jay Greene to arch establishmentarian Anne Bryant. Michelle Rhee wrote, as did John Chubb, Harold Kwalwasser, David Harris, John Kirtley, Tim Kremer, Darrell Allison, Mark Anderson, and Robyne Camp. It’s an impressive group of people who think hard about the mechanisms of education governance.

Shake It, Start Over
Read all the TBQ essays.

Camp, who just lost a tight re-election race for the board in her small Westchester County, NY, district, offers a fascinating perspective on school reform, suggesting that reform may be harder for the rich. “Education reform here in the leafy suburbs,” she concludes, “will have to trickle up from New York City’s poorest schools.”

Tim Kremer, who directs the New York State School Boards Association, is a steady advocate of local control, suggesting that “many boards have a healthy dose of skepticism about grand, top-down initiatives such as Race to the Top, Common Core Standards and the new Annual Professional Performance Review or APPR.” But he offers a...

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Robyne Camp


Guest blogger Robyne Camp served three years on her board of education in Irvington, New York, losing a tight race for re-election in May. Her first career was in financial services, specializing in complex lending to insurance companies. Her second career began in her 40s, after she was widowed, when she became a lawyer. She has worked as a pro-bono assistant district attorney in Brooklyn, representing abused and neglected children in appeals cases and prosecuting domestic violence crimes.

Three years ago, in a landslide election six months after the crash, I won a seat on my local school board in Westchester County. This May I lost my bid for re-election in a hotly contested five-person race for two open seats. I learned some lessons.

When I ran, I was a reform candidate in an affluent district where reform candidates rarely run (and don’t win if they do), but the village was then in turmoil, and the rules had been suspended. I was swept into office and assumed responsibility (along with four colleagues) for oversight of a district whose salient demographics can be registered in a glance:

Projected enrollment school year 2012-13: 1740

Projected per pupil spending 2012-13: $29,400

Reduced-Price Lunch: 2 percent

Limited English Proficient: 2 percent

Black/Hispanic: 6 percent

Asian or Native Hawaiian/Other Pacific Islander: 9 percent

White: 83 percent

Small, affluent, majority...

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Timothy G. Kremer

Guest blogger Timothy G. Kremer is the executive director of the New York State School Boards Association.

Mark Twain once famously remarked "I'm all for progress, it's change that I can't stand."  Of course, Twain fully understood progress does not happen without changes to the status quo.

What constitutes progress for a school board? Hiring a great new superintendent and forging a harmonious partnership? Often, school board progress is defined in the form of a strategic plan that the entire staff and community rally around. Both are reasons to be proud because they can lead to great accomplishments.

School board members must welcome all rational forms of change that serve the goal of raising student achievement.

Ultimately, though, progress has to be measured in terms of student achievement gains. Unlike Mark Twain, school board members must welcome all rational forms of change that serve the goal of raising student achievement.

School boards have generally been supportive of the New York State Regents Reform Agenda, although it is fair to say that that many boards have a healthy dose of skepticism about grand, top-down initiatives such as Race to the Top, Common Core Standards and the new Annual Professional Performance Review or APPR.

Isn't it interesting that after all these years, New York and seven other states recently were granted a waiver from the punitive, one-size-fits-all requirements of No Child Left Behind that have proven to be, in the words of...

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Darrell Allison

Guest blogger Darrell Allison is president of Parents for Educational Freedom in North Carolina, which supports greater educational choice for all parents and students across the state. For more information, please go to www.pefnc.org.

As president of a statewide organization devoted to ensuring that ALL children—regardless of income or zip code—have access to a quality education, I hear plenty of opposing talking points…that we need to spend more on public education, that education reform measures will lead to the death of public schools, that public tax dollars are being used for private gain.

In spite of tremendous spending, our poorest kids are still missing the mark. And this is totally unacceptable.

When I hear this type of rhetoric I think of how North Carolina has spent over $35 billion on education over the last five years, yet only 50 percent of poor elementary and middle school students passed state tests—compared to nearly 80 percent of their wealthier peers.

In spite of tremendous spending, our poorest kids are still missing the mark. And this is totally unacceptable.

I’m all for “public education,” but I believe “public education” should consist of a system based more on the quality of schooling a child receives and less on the particular educational model. In an op-ed that was published across North Carolina earlier this year, I wrote that each of our state’s educational models, including our traditional public schools, help to support...

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Guest blogger Michelle Rhee is the founder and CEO of StudentsFirst, a bipartisan grassroots movement working to improve the nation’s schools. She previously served as chancellor of Washington D.C. schools and before that founded The New Teacher Project, which helps districts recruit effective teachers to challenging schools. Michelle began her career as a classroom teacher in Baltimore.

Too often decisions are made and policies are set based on the interests of adults in the system rather than student needs.

As I spend time visiting and studying school systems across the country, I see many bright spots. But I also see far too many places where children are being educationally shortchanged. That’s reflected in the still-enormous gaps between what poor and minority students know and can do academically and the performance of their wealthier, white peers. And it’s also reflected in the growing gap between American students and their peers overseas.

So how did we get here and what do we need to do to give our kids—all our kids—the twenty-first century education they deserve? 

I can’t point to any one policy that is responsible for holding our kids back. But I can assure you that there is an overall approach to education policymaking that is hurting children. And that is this: Too often decisions are made and policies are set based on the interests of adults in the system rather than student needs. 

Consider how we conduct teacher...

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