Governance

Six inches of squish

On this week's podcast: A lunch fight, a School Choice Ohio lawsuit, the DOE's My Brother's Keeper initiative, and Amber reviews NCTQ's Roll Call report.

Amber's Research Minute

Roll Call: The Importance of Teacher Attendance by Nithya Joseph, Nancy Waymack, and Daniel Zielaski, (Washington, D.C.: National Council on Teacher Quality, June 2014).

Here follows the second entry in Fordham’s “Charter School Policy Wonk-a-Thon,” in which Mike Petrilli challenged a number of prominent scholars, practitioners, and policy analysts to take a stab at explaining why some charter sectors outpace their local district schools while others are falling behind.

If I were made omnipotent for a day and charged with creating a single high-performing city charter sector, my playbook would probably look similar to that of other charter supporters…but with one major exception.

Here’s what I’d do based on the lessons of the last two decades.

Acquire as much educator talent as possible

No system of schools can thrive without the best teachers and school leaders. New York City (during its Klein-era heyday), Boston, and New Orleans have been magnets for talents, and they’ve benefitted accordingly. National organizations such as Teach For America and TNTP have been indispensable educator pipelines in leading cities, and a number of homegrown initiatives have also been valuable.

Recruit and build high-quality school operators

Blessedly, we finally have a critical mass of organizations that can start and operate high-performing, high-poverty urban schools. Cities with outstanding CMOs such as KIPP, Uncommon, and Achievement First have a huge head start. These organizations reliably develop and scale successful schools. But there are still too few of these national operators, and it would be understandable if a city were to balk at the idea of having a public school system comprised entirely of “outside” operators. Great charter school incubators like those...

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Last week, I participated in two events that challenged my ideas on one of urban education’s trickiest and most combustible issues.

Those who know only a caricatured version of my views might be surprised by both the subject and those who’ve caused my ruminations. But I wrestled with this issue in my book, and while I don’t always see eye-to-eye with my interlocutors of last week, they have valuable insights into this issue.

I’m writing about it here both because it’s important and because, frankly, I need help figuring out the right answer.

The question is, “How do we protect the ‘public’ in public education?”

On Wednesday, I participated in this discussion at the AFT’s Shanker Institute. At a conference the following day, I moderated a conversation between urban school leaders, and similar issues kept bubbling up.

There are many ways to define a school’s “public-ness” (Rick Hess expertly unbundles the issues here). But the aspect I’m most concerned about relates to governance, whether the public—the adults in the geographic area served by the system of schools—is able to shape the contours of the system.

The very specific issue I’m interested in is how this can happen absent locally elected school boards.

Per state constitutions, ensuring a system of public education is the responsibility of state governments. They, however, have created local school districts and boards, thereby delegating K–12 authority...

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The Massachusetts Business Alliance for Education was born in response to A Nation at Risk, and in a 1991 report, it pointed the way toward the Bay State's much-praised 1993 education-reform act. What happened thereafter is widely known: with an entire suite of reforms in place, the “Massachusetts Miracle” propelled that state to a level of educational performance that rivaled leading nations elsewhere on the globe. The past few years, however, have seen some stagnation and backsliding on the ed-reform front in the Bay State, and the MBAE recognized that the time has come for a new kick in the pants. So they engaged Sir Michael Barber and his Brightlines colleague, Simon Day, to prepare the present report, a status update and road map to the future. Even a jaded report reader might fairly term the result thrilling. It acknowledges the stagnation problem and depicts six gaps as the main challenges facing Massachusetts: the employability gap (the dearth of needed skills for success in the modern economy); the knowledge gap (a lack of crucial Hirsch-style content); the achievement gap (similar to NCLB concerns); the opportunity gap (i.e., poor kids don’t get a fair shake); the global gap (the state will lose its international ranking as countries with strong education systems forge ahead); and the top-talent gap (failure to address the education needs of gifted youngsters). For each of these gaps, an audacious but convincing set of remedies is proposed. I've no idea whether the Bay State has the will, the...

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Anyone concerned with improving the achievement, efficiency, operations, or other performance of school districts inevitably asks: Shouldn’t the board be responsible for doing this right? How much do school boards matter, anyway?

In the past, school boards have been characterized both as key partners in improving education and as foes of reforms that would benefit children. More recently, they’ve also been depicted as beside-the-point, structural relics of early-twentieth-century organizational arrangements that have little effect on what actually happens in classrooms or on what kids learn.

So which is it? When it comes to the elected leaders of most of the 14,000 school districts in the U.S., are board members critical actors in enhancing student learning, protectors of the status quo, or simply harmless bystanders? If they are critical, are they well suited to delivering the best results for students? And if they are indeed capable and willing to focus on student learning, do such qualities at the board level bear any relationship to academic results in their districts?

Until now, nobody had much evidence one way or the other. So, building on a large-scale survey (done in collaboration with the NSBA and ISBF), we set out to see whether school board members’ characteristics, knowledge, and priorities could be linked to district performance. To explore these questions, we enlisted Arnold F. Shober, associate professor of government at Lawrence University, and Michael T. Hartney, researcher in political science at the University of Notre Dame. Both have conducted significant previous research into...

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Are Local School Boards Vital in 21st Century America?

Are Local School Boards Vital in 21st Century America?

Some education reformers contend that elected local school boards are anachronisms that maintain the status quo rather than change agents bent on ushering U.S. education toward a brighter future. Their supporters argue that they embody democracy, give voice and power to the local community, and are more reliable and trustworthy than any other school-governance structure.

Wherever you may stand on this issue, please join some thoughtful leaders for a lively debate about the role of school boards in today’s public-education system—and in tomorrow’s.  

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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