Board's Eye View

One of the recurring themes at the recent Program on Education Policy and Governance conference on improving education was that the more you expand the franchise (i.e. allow people to vote), the better the education. Good education seems to be one of the first things people with voting power demand.

Good education seems to be one of the first things people with voting power demand.

This is why I tend to see America’s current education free-fall as a sign of a diminished democracy as much as it is a pedagogical failure. And this is why a fight in East Ramapo Central School District, a growing suburb of New York City (just twenty miles north of Manhattan), is so fascinating.

As the New York Times’ Peter Applebome describes it in Saturday’s paper, Orthodox Jews have taken over the district’s school board (they have seven of nine seats). The problem? Eighty-five percent of the students in the district schools are black or Hispanic. Even worse, reports Applebome, most of the Jews in the district send their children to private schools (where the enrollment is 19,000, compared to 8,000 students in the public schools).

Not surprisingly, a group called Padres Unidos has petitioned the State Education Department to remove the Jewish board members and, also not surprisingly, Ramapo board president David Schwartz called the group, in Applebome’s words, “chronic complainers.” The cultural, ethnic, and socio-economic divide problem is complicated by finance questions. Not only has board president Daniel Schwartz suggested eliminating...

The other day I noted that an expert panel had decided, according to Education Week, that “the skills considered necessary for the 21st-century workplace” were “critical thinking and analytic reasoning,” “teamwork and complex communications,” and “resiliency and conscientiousness.” I was skeptical, not because those aren’t important skills, but because they didn’t have much to do with the twenty-first century. 

Ben Franklin
Who better to speak to contemporary American youth than one of the nation's most prolific inventors and entrepreneurs?
Photo by Andrew Malone.

Then along came an email from Dee Selvaggi, a former member of a New Jersey school board and a contributor to The BEV Challenge, recommending “a very interesting book,” Benjamin Franklin on Education (edited by John Hardin Best, Teachers College Press, Columbia University, 1962). Wrote Dee, Franklin’s “concern [was] about the content presented to youth so they could function well in the new contemporary America.”

Who better to speak to contemporary American youth than one of the nation’s most prolific inventors and entrepreneurs? According to Franklin

The good Education of Youth has been esteemed by wise Men in all Ages, as the surest Foundation of the Happiness both of private Families and of Commonwealths. Almost all Governments have therefore made it a principal Object of their Attention, to...
Dee Selvaggi
Former school-board member

This post is part of a series by guest bloggers who know first-hand the strengths and flaws of America's dominant form of education governance: the local school board. Each author will draw on their personal experiences to answer the question posed for the Board's Eye View Challenge: Can school boards improve schools?

Guest blogger Dee Selvaggi served on the Matawan-Aberdeen (NJ) Regional School District board from 1990--1991, attended board meetings in the Holmdel (NJ) Township School District from 1991-1998 (as a parent), coordinating over 200 volunteers for the district’s Operation Get Out the Vote initiative and serving on multi-year district committees. She also coordinated a statewide (NJ) information network for board members and parents and engaged in advocacy as an individual at state board of education meetings and legislative hearings. She also served on the Monmouth Academy Board of Trustees, Howell, NJ, from 2005-2008.

What’s it like, trying to improve schools from the inside?

Perplexing, frustrating, and exhausting. Yes, I’ve taken on issues, but the idea of “winning” seems elusive—you’re defeated either by blatant digging-in-of-heels by opponents or by quiet subterfuge.  Thus, I’m inclined to pass on an analogy made by a former board colleague, who said it was like walking on a beach and leaving footprints which are then washed away by the waves.

What’s it like, trying to improve schools from the inside? Perplexing, frustrating, and exhausting....

I wince every time I read something like this:

The committee found the skills considered necessary for the 21st-century workplace generally fall into three categories: cognitive, such as critical thinking and analytic reasoning to learn “deeply”; interpersonal, such as teamwork and complex communications; and intrapersonal, such as resiliency and conscientiousness.
The “political life,” as Thucydides described it, was the way out of poverty.

That’s from a recent Education Week story titled, “Panel Parses Out Skills Needed for 21st-Century Workplace.” I realize I’m not the only one to notice, but the problem—didn’t one need cognitive, personal, and intrapersonal abilities in the twentieth-century workplace? Or the nineteenth? Or the second?—was brought home not long ago when I saw that Earl Shorris had died. Shorris, a writer and social critic, as the headline on the New York Times obituary had it: “Fought Poverty With Knowledge.” And it was not the knowledge that proponents of twenty-first century skills are pushing; it was “rigorous readings and explications of Aristotle on logic, Plato on justice and Kant’s theory of morality.”

Shorris came to this insight about poverty while working on a book in the early 1990s, when he met Viniece Walker, a female inmate in a New York State prison, a “graduate of crackhouses,” as he would later write in a masterful 1997 piece for Harper’s. By that time he had concluded that

numerous forces—hunger, isolation, illness, landlords, police, abuse, neighbors, drugs, criminals, and racism, among many others—exert themselves on...
Gene Maeroff
Senior fellow at Teachers College

This is the inaugural post in a series by guest bloggers who know first-hand the strengths and flaws of America's dominant form of education governance: the local school board. Each author will draw on their personal experiences to answer the question posed for the Board's Eye View Challenge: Can school boards improve schools?

Gene I. Maeroff has adapted this excerpt from his book School Boards in America: A Flawed Exercise in Democracy. He is president of the board in Edison, N.J. and is serving his second term as a member. He is a senior fellow at Teachers College, Columbia University. His biographical and contact information are available at www.genemaeroff.com.

America’s school boards are too easily diverted from larger purposes. They may get bogged down in issues better left to staff. Some school board members want to meddle and they get more involved in administrative matters than they should. Boards sometimes invest precious hours in matters of little consequence. In other words, school boards too readily waste time and effort.

School boards too readily waste time and effort.

Ultimately, a school board should be held accountable for ensuring that the district makes needed improvements. Instructional success should be the members' paramount concern. They ought to look in the mirror when they seek to affix blame for the district's failures.

The school board should specify objectives and then leave it largely to the professionals...

Given that bipartisan agreement went extinct sometime in the previous decade, the fact that conservatives and liberals have both concluded that our country suffers from a troubling lack of social mobility might be reason enough to celebrate. The problem, as I wrote yesterday, is that few commentators on either side of the political spectrum have recognized the obvious: This problem begins with our schools. And it could potentially end there, as well. In my experience with public schools and the culture that surrounds them, we won’t close the social mobility gap unless we recognize three facts:

1. Our schools don’t value merit

The idea of merit implies the idea of non-merit; we can’t all be winners.

As we know, the idea of merit implies the idea of non-merit; we can’t all be winners. Yet, that is exactly the kind of talk I hear in schools all the time: We are all winners. As Thomas Edsall wrote in his Times essay,In the business sector, particularly, other less benign qualities emerge as essential to meritocratic success: aggressiveness, ruthlessness, dominance-seeking, victimizing behavior, acquisitiveness and the disciplined pursuit of self-interest.” How do we possibly reconile the hard-edged reality of merit in the real world with the "all winners" ethos of our public schools? We don't. We have to get real at school and start rewarding merit there. It need not be cut-throat, but it needs to be something better than giving everyone a blue ribbon.

2. Our schools don’t value knowledge

In...

Mike seems to have touched off a flurry of discussion (or at least landed in the middle of it) about meritocracy with his “Can schools spur social mobility?” essay from last week, which was prompted by a recent appearance at Fordham by Charles Murray, to talk about his new book, Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010. Simultaneously, Chris Hayes was getting attention for his new book, Twilight of the Elites: America After Meritocracy. There followed two pieces by David Brooks (“Why Our Elites Stink” and “The Opportunity Gap”), a report from the Pew Foundation (“American Dream”), Jason DeParle’s page-one story in last Sunday’s Times (“Two Classes, Divided by `I Do’”), followed by some good piling on by journalism professor Thomas Edsall, also in the Times, who takes out after Mitt Romney for suggesting we have a “merit-based society.”

Shake It, Start Over

I’m sure there was more, but the gist of the current hand-wringing is the news that the nation is no longer the equal opportunity society it once was. The social mobility gap is growing while our faith in boot-strap capitalism, where hard work (i.e., merit) can get you a spot at the table of the elite, is waning. My concern, at least with...

In my recent post on the end of geography I described some of the Promised Land of portfolio management governance, as explained by Rick Hess and Olivia Meeks in their paper for Fordham’s recent symposium on education governance. (At the time I was not aware of CRPE’s portfolio convention in Seattle—more on their initiative at another time.) The idea is that the brave new world of education governance should be driven by function not geography. The implications are enormous.

How do we get to the Promised Land and what can we do to smooth the course?

How we get to the Promised Land—and pay for the trip, lacking manna from heaven—and what we can do to smooth the course is the subject of this post. And some good answers to those questions come to us via the Koret Task Force on K-12 Education, and its report, Choice and Federalism. I mentioned the report last winter, in a slippery slope back to mediocrity essay, following the House Education and Workforce Committee’s states’ rights proposals for ESEA reauthorization. I wondered then whether states’ rights were “being invoked to cover up the very inequities—the `soft bigotry of low expectations’—that No Child Left Behind was determined to remedy.” And I was heartened to know that Koret—which includes some very smart people, including our own Checker Finn, Task Force Chair—shared some of those concerns.

But the important message of the Koret report—at least, the summary of it written by member Grover...

Many people believe that school boards—nearly 14,000 of them in the U.S—are what’s wrong with our education system. Many believe they are what stand in the way of school improvement.

I spent five years on a school board and don’t think they are the problem, but do believe that more often than not they stand in the way of school improvement. Are there any other school board members who have tried to reform their districts? 

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?

If you are out there, I’d love to hear from you. Please follow this link and get in touch with me, pmeyer@edexcellence.net.

Thank you,

Peter Meyer

Of the thirteen papers presented at Fordham’s Rethinking Education Governance for the 21st Century last December, one that had particular resonance for me was Rick Hess and Olivia Meeks’s analysis of the school district dilemma.

Hess and Meeks envision an education world organized around function not geography.

Nobody seems to like school boards (except me, perhaps), and the authors begin with a crisp summary of some of the sharper arrows shot their way. But Hess and Meeks do a brilliant job of taking us by the hand and leading us gently through the weeds of school board governance and the foothills of the popular alternative of mayoral control, until we reach the mountain top where they show us a place where we “organize schooling around function rather than geography.” It’s an amazing view.

Today, they argue, “every school district is asked to devise ways to meet every need of every single child in a given area,” and it doesn’t work. Districts are simply not capable of “build[ing] expertise in a vast number of specialties and services” or “juggl[ing] a vast array of demands [that] require them to become the employers of nearly all educators in a given community.”

Hess and Meeks are too practical to suggest the end of geography (i.e., all virtual all the time), but they understand that current school district impotence is a symptom of a problem not its cause. Importantly, their analysis of the causes also makes them doubtful that suggested alternatives to school...

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