America’s reform challenge

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?

For
all the effort, for all the pain, education reformers 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.

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?

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