Governance

Now Look What You’ve Done

Mike and Michelle acknowledge that school board members, for better and sometimes worse, affect student outcomes in their districts. But they don’t have to accept the misleading headlines on Indiana’s standards debacle (a case study in the hazards of politicization if there ever was one), nor must they wholeheartedly back Arizona’s ESA program. Amber wonders if high-flyers maintain their altitude—and has déjà vu all over again.

Amber's Research Minute

The Icarus Syndrome: Why Do Some High Flyers Soar While Others Fall?” by Eric Parsons, Working Paper, July 2013.

In an Education Week commentary essay about school boards in 2009, I wrote, “[M]y sense of things, after two stints on my local school board…is that school boards have been overtaken by the ‘educatocracy,’ by powerful trade unions, certified specialists, certification agencies, state and federal rule-makers and legislators, grants with strings, billion-dollar-contractor lobbyists, textbook mega-companies, professional associations, and lawyers—the list could go on.”

I am quite gleeful, therefore, that the new report from Fordham entitled Does School Board Leadership Matter? asks most of the right questions about school boards—and provides some very interesting and helpful answers for progress moving forward.

Complaints about school boards are legion—and well known—and they carry on. A few titles in the new report’s endnotes spell it out: “School Boards: A Troubled American Institution” (by Jacqueline Danzberger), School Boards in America: A Flawed Exercise in Democracy (by Gene Maeroff), and Beseiged: School Boards and the Future of American Politics (William Howell). The dates of these publications range from 1992 to 2010. And, of course, Checker Finn beat them all, suggesting in a 1991 Education Week commentary that we should probably “declare local boards and superintendents to be archaic in the 1990s, living fossils of an earlier age…. Local school boards are not just superfluous. They are also dysfunctional.”

“Under these circumstances,” I wrote in my 2009 Ed Week commentary, “it doesn’t surprise me that many people think school boards are irrelevant. They are. Boards do a lot of moving the chairs around on...

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Are the nation’s 90,000-plus school board members critical players in enhancing student learning? Are they part of the problem? Are they harmless bystanders?

Those are the questions that Fordham’s newest study, Does School Board Leadership Matter?, seeks to answer. Among the takeaways are the following:

  • Board members, by and large, possess accurate information about their districts when it comes to finance, teacher pay, collective bargaining, and class size. Whether they were knowledgeable from the outset or surround themselves with savvy staff and administrators, many are making decisions from an informed point of view. 
  • But such knowledge is not uniformly distributed. Surprisingly, members who were never educators themselves are more accurately informed than their peers who once were (or still are) educators. Likewise, political moderates appear to have more accurate knowledge than their liberal or conservative counterparts.
  • A district’s success in “beating the odds” academically is related to board members’ focus on the improvement of academics. Unfortunately, not all board members have this focus.
  • Board members elected during on-cycle, at-large elections are more likely to serve in districts that “beat the odds” than those chosen by voters off-cycle or by ward. In some localities, how board members are elected may deter the best and brightest from taking on these key roles. 

What does this mean for education governance? School board members and their attitudes do matter—so it’s important to take seriously who gets elected and how. Even as we strive to bring about structural...

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My doubts and disgruntlements with elected local school boards span three decades.

I don’t dislike boards or board members. However, this whole governance structure—the local “district,” the elected board, the board-appointed superintendent, and so on—strikes me as archaic, an arrangement that made more sense in 1914 than in 2014, when most of the money comes from states and more and more of the decisions are (or should be) made at the state level, the building level, and the family level.

My discontent also stems from the fact that too many communities—especially those facing the greatest education challenges—now have boards consisting not of the ablest and most civic-minded people in town but, rather, of aspiring politicians, single-interest cause pushers, and disgruntled former employees of the system itself.
In my view, we're overdue for a comprehensive governance overhaul of American public education.

Nevertheless, I also recognize that the vast majority of U.S. kids today attend schools that remain under the purview of elected local school boards and their members. Call it reality.

That being the case, it does matter who ends up on these boards, where they come from, how they're chosen, how much they know, and what their priorities are. Indeed, it can matter a great deal—as our new Fordham analysis shows. This means that so long as school boards are in charge, we should take their members seriously, recognizing that children...

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By Arnold F. Shober and Michael T. Hartney

Foreword by Dara Zeehandelaar and Amber M. Northern

Are the nation’s 90,000-plus school board members critical players in enhancing student learning? Are they part of the problem? Are they harmless bystanders? Among the takeaways are the following:

  • Board members, by and large, possess accurate information about their districts when it comes to finance, teacher pay, collective bargaining, and class size. Whether they were knowledgeable from the outset or surround themselves with savvy staff and administrators, many are making decisions from an informed point of view.
  • But such knowledge is not uniformly distributed. Surprisingly, members who were never educators themselves are more accurately informed than their peers who once were (or still are) educators. Likewise, political moderates appear to have more accurate knowledge than their liberal or conservative counterparts.
  • A district’s success in “beating the odds” academically is related to board members’ focus on the improvement of academics. Unfortunately, not all board members have this focus; some prefer a broader approach, such as developing the “whole child.”
  • Board members elected during on-cycle, at-large elections are more likely to serve in districts that “beat the odds” than those chosen by voters off-cycle or by ward. In some localities, how board members are elected may deter the best and brightest from taking on these key roles.

What does this mean for education governance? School board members and their attitudes do matter—so it’s important to take seriously who gets elected and how. Even as...

Encouraging integrated schools in the District of Columbia?

Encouraging integrated schools in the District of Columbia?

A discussion on the merits and pitfalls of "controlled choice"
 
 
"Parents would express preferences among a cluster of schools, and an algorithm would make matches by balancing personal preferences with the shared civic goal of maximizing socioeconomic integration."
 
That's how controlled-choice zones would work in Washington, D.C., as suggested by Sam Chaltain, Richard Kahlenberg, and Michael Petrilli in a recent Washington Post op-ed. Why try such a policy in our nation's capital? Many believe in the value of integrated schools and communities as tools for teaching tolerance, encouraging critical thinking, and strengthening our democracy. Some research shows that children of different socioeconomic backgrounds benefit from learning together.
 
But others argue that "controlled choice" isn't all that different from the "forced busing" of yesteryear, in that it restricts families' education options and imposes a top-down, government-run social-engineering scheme on school assignment policies. Some worry that it might also impede the economic revitalization of the city.
 
Join the Thomas B. Fordham Institute and The Century Foundation for a lively debate on the merits and pitfalls of controlled choice.

Encouraging integrated schools in the District of Columbia?

Encouraging integrated schools in the District of Columbia?

A discussion on the merits and pitfalls of "controlled choice"
 
 
"Parents would express preferences among a cluster of schools, and an algorithm would make matches by balancing personal preferences with the shared civic goal of maximizing socioeconomic integration."
 
That's how controlled-choice zones would work in Washington, D.C., as suggested by Sam Chaltain, Richard Kahlenberg, and Michael Petrilli in a recent Washington Post op-ed. Why try such a policy in our nation's capital? Many believe in the value of integrated schools and communities as tools for teaching tolerance, encouraging critical thinking, and strengthening our democracy. Some research shows that children of different socioeconomic backgrounds benefit from learning together.
 
But others argue that "controlled choice" isn't all that different from the "forced busing" of yesteryear, in that it restricts families' education options and imposes a top-down, government-run social-engineering scheme on school assignment policies. Some worry that it might also impede the economic revitalization of the city.
 
Join the Thomas B. Fordham Institute and The Century Foundation for a lively debate on the merits and pitfalls of controlled choice.

Today, the U.S Department of Education released Year-Three reports on the 12 states that won funding via Race to the Top’s first two competitions. Here are the five things that jumped out at me.

1.   Common Core implementation, front and center

While politicians and talking heads have been warring over the new standards, these states have been neck-deep in implementation. States are approaching implementation differently—some focusing on training, while others are producing model units and lesson plans—but all of them seem to have kept their eye on this ball.

2.   Will the training work?

A number of states placed huge bets on professional development, spending enormous sums to train their teachers and school leaders. In a few cases, states have served tens of thousands of educators; Florida’s report claims 134,000 educators attended their training sessions. Given the not-so-encouraging research on the efficacy of professional development, we have to wonder if this money was well spent. But as one state leader told me, “We had to take a chance on PD…how else were we going to get our teachers ready for new standards and assessments?”

3.   Teacher-evaluation troubles

Many of the reports highlight the challenges these states face in faithfully implementing the teacher-evaluation promises they made in their applications. This includes not producing growth scores on time, having trouble differentiating teachers as expected, and more. Georgia is probably in the worst shape on this front—it may lose funding because it hasn’t developed the compensation system it promised, and it...

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Late last year, the U.S. Department of Education’s independent research arm, the Institute of Education Sciences (IES), released a preliminary but highly informative report on the School Improvement Grant program (SIG).  Its findings help explain why the program is failing so badly and foreshadow IES’s much-anticipated comprehensive analysis of this multi-billion dollar program.

This report focuses on inputs, three “levers” for school improvement: school-level operational authority; state and district support; and state monitoring. Its findings are based on a survey and interviews of school, district, and state administrators.

The most notable finding is that there is very little difference between the goings-on of SIG schools and similarly low-performing schools that didn’t receive SIG funding. SIG schools were marginally more likely than non-SIG schools to have authority over professional development and the length of the school day, but there were no statistically significant differences in other areas. Moreover, in most areas studied (such as student discipline and curriculum), the majority of SIG and non-SIG schools both reported that they lacked primary authority.

Similarly, SIG and non-SIG schools reported receiving generally the same types of district and state supports.

The report is careful to point out that the sample studied was not randomly selected, meaning these results don’t necessarily reflect SIG as a whole.

But when you consider these findings alongside the state-level implementation findings and the dismal student-achievement results released so far, the picture comes into focus: SIG was a terribly...

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The Adele Dazeem edition

Mike and Dara “Let It Go” with student free speech, Obama’s federal budget request, and Louisiana’s CTE revamp. Amber confirms the obvious: location matters to prospective teachers.

Amber's Research Minute

New Evidence on Teacher Labor Supply,” by Mimi Engel, Brian A. Jacob, and F. Chris Curran, American Educational Research Journal 51(36): pp. 36–72.

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