Education governance for the twenty-first century

Too many cooks
There are too many cooks in the education kitchen—and nobody's really in charge.

To anyone concerned with the state of America’s schools, one of the more alarming experiences of the past few decades has been seeing waves of important reforms and promising innovations crash on the rocks of failure. Why this persistent failure? One major cause is our flawed, archaic, and inefficient system for organizing and operating our public schools. To their discredit, education reformers in the U.S. this past quarter century have largely neglected the issues of governance and structure—widely regarded either as politically impractical to touch or as too boring to get anyone interested. Yet the very structures and governance of our K–12 system often prevent other badly needed changes from taking place, enduring, or succeeding.

Perhaps the biggest failing of the education system is its fragmented approach to making decisions; there are too many cooks in the education system, and nobody is really in charge. Despite America’s romantic attachment to local control, the reality is that the way it works today represents the worst of both worlds. On one hand, district-level power constrains individual schools; its standardizing, bureaucratic, and political force ties the hands of principals, keeping them from doing what is best for their pupils with regard to budget, staffing, and curriculum. On the other, local control is not strong enough to clear the obstacles that state and federal governments place before reform-minded school board members and superintendents in the relatively few situations where these can be observed.

Sure, remarkable individuals can sometimes make it work, at least for a while: Michelle Rhee (backed by Adrian Fenty) in the District of Columbia, Joel Klein (backed by Michael Bloomberg) in New York, Arne Duncan (backed by Richard Daley) in Chicago, and Jerry Weast (abetted by a rising budget) in Montgomery County, Maryland, stand out. Readers can surely cite additional examples. But these are the exceptions that prove the rule. The rule is that education-policy decisions are made in so many places, each with some capacity to initiate change but with even greater capacity to block it, that there is nobody in charge.

Despite America’s romantic attachment to local control, the reality is that the way it works today represents the worst of both worlds.

Some describe education governance in the United States as a marble cake (because the jurisdictions and zones of control of different governments and agencies are so jumbled). Still others favor the image of a loosely coupled train, where movement at one end does not necessarily produce any motion at the other. We find a more apt analogy in a vast restaurant or food court with multiple kitchens, each thronged with many cooks yet with no head chef in command of even a single kitchen, much less the enterprise.

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 the most likely 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 that, considering seniority and “bumping rights” within the district, its collective-bargaining contract, and, frequently, state law.) The superintendent’s human resources office does most of the vetting and placing, but it is shackled by the contract, by West Carolina’s inflexible licensure practices (which may be set by an “independent—and probably union- and education 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 needed at Lincoln is math or music.

By the end of the process, at least a dozen different governing units impede the principal’s authority to staff his or her school with the ablest (and best suited) teachers available.

Teacher selection is but one of many examples of the “too many cooks” problem. Much the same litany can be invoked for special education, for the budgeting and control of a school’s funds, and for approved approaches to school discipline. (Not to mention a more literal “too many cooks” issue: what to serve for lunch in the school cafeteria.)

What great leader or change agent would want to become a school principal under these circumstances? Or a local superintendent? Or even a teacher? Well, maybe in a comfy (but probably smug) suburban setting, but not in the places that most need outstanding talent.

American education does not need czars or dictators. Separation of powers and systems of checks and balances are important elements of our democracy. Children and communities do differ, and there needs to be flexibility in the system to adapt and adjust to singular circumstances, changing priorities, and dissimilar needs. But today, our public education system lacks flexibility and nimbleness of all sorts. Surely that is not the education the creators of universal public schooling had in mind. And it is most definitely not what our children need at this point in the nation’s history.

This piece is adapted from Education Governance for the Twenty-First Century.

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