Governance

As much as it pains me every time I hear Checker Finn say it, school boards may indeed be irrelevant.? And Checker's new essay in National Affairs lays out a pretty persuasive case for why they will disappear; not, why they should go away, but why they will simply die on a vine that is no longer part of a healthy education system.? What is most unnerving about Checker's argument, is that this will happen, somewhat counterintuitively, while making ?education local again.?

In short, the new essay, ?Beyond the School District,? is an ambitious rethinking of school governance, top to bottom, that weds the best of our past (true local control) with the best of our present (charters, vouchers, mayoral control, technology) to create a workable school system for the 21st century.

And I hate say it, but from where I sit, on a local school board, it makes sense.

As Checker says, with an understatement that should require no argument, our current system isn't working. ?And his attribution of cause surely matches my experience: we have a ?confused and tangled web? of local, state, and federal rules and regulation, not to mention a web of ?adult interests? like teacher unions, textbook publishers, tutoring firms, bus companies, and the like, that has thwarted the best of reform intentions. Despite spending billions of dollars to fix things, the results continue to be lousy: ?millions of children still can not read satisfactorily, do math at an acceptable level,...

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So, it's official:? today the Obama Administration, according to Sam Dillon at the New York Times, ?will offer to waive central provisions of the No Child Left Behind law for states that embrace his educational agenda, essentially ending his predecessor's signature accountability measure, which has defined public school life nationwide for nearly a decade.?

Sounds pretty drastic.? And, indeed, Rep. John Kline of Minnesota, head of the House Education and Workforce Committee, says it

sets a dangerous precedent. Make no mistake ? this is a political move that could have a damaging impact on Congressional efforts to enact lasting reforms to current elementary and secondary education law.

But before leaping for joy about the death of the wicked NCLB witch of the east (or west), or condemning the waiver option, we need remember who NCLB was meant to help; that is, kids.? Of course, the law's reach was farther than its grasp. Of course, its standards were onerous. Of course, teacher unions hated it.? Of? course, state and district education bureaucrats saw it as a nettlesome intrusion.? But there are today tens of thousands of students who have had an opportunity to get educated that they would not have had without NCLB; there are thousands of special ed kids who have been given the opportunity to learn what their more abled compatriots learn; and many more thousands of poor and minority children have been brought to the front of the bus of putative integrated schools thanks to...

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What was so odd about Dennis Walcott's announcement that New York City was opening 50 new middle schools is that the most recent research suggesting that a middle school ?grade configuration (generally, 6?8) is probably not the way to go was done in his city.? In last year's fall issue of Education Next Columbia Business School researchers Jonah Rockoff and Benjamin Lockwood reported their findings from a review of almost ten years of data for Gotham school children who were in grades 3 though 8, in all different school grade configurations, and concluded rather ominously:

In the specific year when students move to a middle school (or to a junior high), their academic achievement, as measured by standardized tests, falls substantially in both math and English relative to that of their counterparts who continue to attend a K?8 elementary school. What's more, their achievement continues to decline throughout middle school. This negative effect persists at least through 8th grade, the highest grade for which we could obtain test scores.

I found other research that supports the Rockoff and Lockwood findings -- that grade configuration matters --? in my report for Education Next earlier this year.? I traced the history of the modern middle school movement, known as ?middle schoolism,? which was born with a Cornell University speech by educator William Alexander in 1963.? It is a movement that came of age in an era in which the psychological society teamed up with the sociological one and...

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We were about half-way through our four-hour school board ?Governance Team Retreat? when I saw an opening.? ?The facilitator, sent to us by the New York State School Boards Association (for a nice fee), had handed out a 27-page document that covered the standard ?roles and responsibilities? of...

  • school board members (four major roles: representative, leader, steward, advocate),
  • school boards (?four macro responsibilities: ?set the district's direction?, ensure alignment of strategies, resources, policies, programs, and processes with district goals, assess and account for progress?, continuously improve the district,?),
  • board president (?leader of leaders,? ?presider,? ?communicator?)
  • superintendent (advisor, executive, leader, manager, advocate, communicator)

.... but in the nitty gritty world where we lived, as the governance discussion proceeded, the big issues were ?chain of command,? "being part of the team," "being negative," and one of the major themes of that first hour and a half was, as our facilitator reminded us, the board's role as ?overseer, not micromanager.? The board "should not second-guess? the administration's recommendations ?except in extreme circumstances,? we were told. It should ?trust the professionals.?

That was my opening. ?That's exactly what we've been doing for ten years,? I blurted, "trusting the professionals. We were 83rd out of 86 districts in the region ten years ago and we are 83 out of 86 today ? by letting the professionals do their work.?

There was a slight silence, but not a heavy one. In fact, our facilitator rather quickly replied, ?That's the board's fault.?

...

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As the author of a generally upbeat 2008 report for Education Next on Michael Bloomberg and his takeover of New York City's schools in 2002, I felt a bit sad reading this morning's New York Times poll report showing that New Yorkers are now ?broadly dissatisfied? with their school system and that ?most say the city's school system has stagnated or declined since Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg took control of it nine years ago.? ?Ouch.? I recalled the comment of veteran Gotham educator Sy Fliegel, who once told me, ?I met with the mayor early on and I said to him, ?You want to take over the city's schools? And be held accountable for how they do? Are you crazy?'?

It's a tough town.

According to the Times poll only 34 percent of New Yorkers approve of Bloomberg's performance as the education mayor. ?And Blacks and Hispanics, whose children make up 70 percent of the enrollment in the city's public schools, says the Times, ?expressed the most dissatisfaction, with 64 percent of blacks and 57 percent of Hispanics saying they are generally not satisfied, compared with 50 percent of whites.?

Though reporters Sharon Otterman and Allison Kopicki concede that ?dissatisfaction with public schools in New York is longstanding? and that in the 1990s through the first few years of Bloomberg control ?few residents were satisfied,? one thing is clear: the bloom is off.? The third term has been especially hard on the billionaire mayor, notably...

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The New York Times continues to provide a generous medley of education reporting, including, of course, from their controversial "On Education" columnist Michael Winerip.? Alas, Winerip is not among the three recent stories I want to highlight here:

Troubled Schools Mimicking Charters This is an intriguing piece by Sam Dillon, about school reform in Houston, but I stopped short when I got to this line:

In the first experiment of its kind in the country, the Houston public schools are testing whether techniques proven successful in high-performing urban charters can also help raise achievement in regular public schools.

First of its kind?? I ran this by my friend Hal Kwalwasser, who has just finished a book (for which I provided some editing advice), describing improvement strategies in many traditional school districts.?? Writes Hal in an email:

There are lots of districts around the country that are doing the things that Houston is now about to do. Nothing new here?.? The big question is not that Houston is trying them out now, but why hundreds if not thousands of districts have not done the same thing - and not done it many years ago.

Time to Revive Home Ec This is a gem of an essay, written by Michigan State historian Helen Zoe Veit.

Reviving [Home Economics] and its original premises ? that producing good, nutritious food is profoundly important, that it takes study and practice, and that it can and should be taught through the

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In the middle of his column today, ?David Brooks drops in this little nugget:

The United States became the wealthiest nation on earth primarily because Americans were the best educated. ?That advantage has entirely eroded over the past 30 years.

Though the ?advantage? he is referring to here is most likely the economic one, there is no doubt that Brooks sees the strong connection between the nation's economic and educational health ? and it should not be too much of a stretch (or putting words in his mouth) to say that the thirty-year erosion applies to our education system as well.? Brooks might also have added that they (our early 20th-century American educator ancestors) created the world's most educated people by educating lots of poor kids.? In Henry Luce's phrase the ?last century was ?the American century? and as Brooks might have said, it's because our educators were predominantly no-nonsense on at least this point: that we get wealthy by educating the poor, we don't get educated by making the poor wealthy.

Brooks's larger point here is positive -- and slightly different than the one Mike makes in his When public education's two Ps disagree (which is to stop thinking parents ?are dummies for liking their schools the way they are?). But they share the same common sense suggestion:? that we can't and shouldn't govern from the fringes.? Says Brooks,

It will take an active government to reverse this stagnation ? from prenatal and early childhood

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Last year, Kansas City Superintendent John Covington made headlines when he stabilized the hemorrhaging Kansas City School District (which had lost 75 percent of its students in the past four decades) by shutting half of the district's schools, selling the central office building, and axing close to a quarter of the administrative staff. And he did all of this with the backing of the school board and community leaders. So imagine their surprise (and ire) when Covington, who has been at the helm of KC schools for about two years, abruptly resigned last week?only to take the wheel of Michigan's nascent state-run ?reform school district,? the Education Achievement System (EAS). Finger-pointing and fist-shaking aside, there are a few big takeaways to be drawn from Covington's departure?and his arrival in Motown.

First: KC should have seen this coming?and should have planned for it. The lifespan of an urban supe is akin to that of an American Newt (which, for the non-zoologists out there is about three years). And it's even shorter for those, like Covington, who are brought in as transformational leaders. Dynamic leadership can jumpstart a district's success, but it needs to be buttressed by a smart?and painstakingly articulated?transition plan. The Center for Reinventing Public Education made this point (though they were speaking specifically to charter schools) back in December in their report ?You're Leaving? Sustainability and Succession in Charter Schools.?

Second: When it comes to high-quality district leaders, the educational landscape is reasonably...

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This is not a good time to be taking on the anti-bullying legions, but Winnie Hu does a terrific job describing the newest runaway behavioral modification fad in schools in her front page New York Times story from the other day, Bullying Law Puts New Jersey Schools on Spot. The law,? according to Hu,

  • Has 18 pages of ?required components? for the antibullying policy that each school must adopt;
  • Requires each school in the state to have an antibullying specialist and an antibullying coordinator;
  • Sets up a system to grade each school on its antibullying efforts and ?educators who failed to comply could lose their licenses.?

There's more, of course.? ?I think this has gone well overboard,? Richard Bozza, head of the New Jersey Association of School Administrators, tells Hu. ?Now we have to police the community 24 hours a day.?

If schools have felt burdened by being turned into social service agencies, their new anti-bullying duties should seal the deal:? they have to do everything.? (I would be curious to know what Geoffrey Canada thinks of this.)

In my February post, Stop the Anti-bullying Bus, I Want to Get Off, I wrote,

In the hell of good intentions, the anti-bullying campaign has got to be on one of the lower rings.

In that post I detailed the anti-bullying policy in my own district, in New York, which was nine, single-spaced pages long (one-third the length of the district's entire Code of Conduct)...

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