Who should control education? That’s the subject of a new study analyzing forty years of polling data assessing public opinions on education governance. Michigan State University researchers Rebecca Jacobsen and Andrew Saultz mostly examined survey results from the often-cited annual Gallup poll to conclude that “the public often expresses strong support for local control.”

Who should control education?

Gallup poll questions aren’t known for nuance and complexity. So it’s no surprise that the conclusions from this study are just as simplistic.

Jacobsen and Saultz begin their report by carping that folks like Fordham’s Checker Finn say that school boards and current notions of local control have become antiquated in the twenty-first century. Reformers and policymakers, Jacobsen and Saultz argue, should realize that the public sees a role for federal and state governments in education, but not when it comes to local decision making.

But the authors suggest the only alternative to the status quo of “local decision making” is federal or state control. In fact, Finn has argued for a re-invention of local control, and more recently wrote in the journal National Affairs that enhanced levels of parental influence and choice have allowed new forms of local control...

Move to the head of the class

Mike and Rick reunite to talk social mobility, the NEA’s membership woes, and what sequestration would actually mean for schools. Amber explains where parents stand on digital learning.

Amber's Research Minute

Learning in the 21st Century: A 5 Year Retrospective on the Growth in Online Learning - Project Tomorrow

Einstein famously opined that one only understands a subject that he can explain to his grandmother. If that’s the case, then Council for Great City Schools chief Michael Casserly understands a great deal. This AEI Outlook by Casserly culls the findings from the CGCS’s dense report on urban school improvement (released late in 2011), making them accessible to the grandmother in all of us. The study, which analyzes fourth- and eighth-grade NAEP scores for reading and math, finds that urban school districts have improved student outcomes more in recent years (2003-07) than has the nation as a whole, but that some have been markedly more successful than others. To probe the reasons, study authors profiled four districts: Atlanta (which made great gains in reading achievement, assuming its test scores are to be believed), Boston (which significantly boosted math achievement), Charlotte-Mecklenburg (a consistent high performer), and Cleveland (a persistently low performer). Researchers found several common characteristics that worked in tandem to create a purposeful and coherent “culture of reform” in the first three of those districts. Each had: strong leadership, robust accountability systems, a standard and consistent curriculum over the study period, meaningful professional development, solid central-office support, and clear data and assessments. Notably, each...

Many people believe that school boards—nearly 14,000 of them in the U.S—are what’s wrong with our education system. Many believe they are what stand in the way of school improvement.

I spent five years on a school board and don’t think they are the problem, but do believe that more often than not they stand in the way of school improvement. Are there any other school board members who have tried to reform their districts? 

Are you out there? What is it like trying to turn around a tanker with a paddle? Are you a flamethrower or consensus builder? Did you win any fights? Were you able to improve your district? Have you come away from your experience as believer in boards of education or a determined skeptic?

If you are out there, I’d love to hear from you. Please follow this link and get in touch with me,

Thank you,

Peter Meyer

Mike is from Mars; Kathleen is from Venus

Kathleen and Mike wonder how to hold states accountable in twenty-seven different ways and debate whether gender-specific curricula make sense. Amber dives deep into census data on edu-spending.

Amber's Research Minute

Public Education Finances Report - United States Census

Of the thirteen papers presented at Fordham’s Rethinking Education Governance for the 21st Century last December, one that had particular resonance for me was Rick Hess and Olivia Meeks’s analysis of the school district dilemma.

Hess and Meeks envision an education world organized around function not geography.

Nobody seems to like school boards (except me, perhaps), and the authors begin with a crisp summary of some of the sharper arrows shot their way. But Hess and Meeks do a brilliant job of taking us by the hand and leading us gently through the weeds of school board governance and the foothills of the popular alternative of mayoral control, until we reach the mountain top where they show us a place where we “organize schooling around function rather than geography.” It’s an amazing view.

Today, they argue, “every school district is asked to devise ways to meet every need of every single child in a given area,” and it doesn’t work. Districts are simply not capable of “build[ing] expertise in a vast number of specialties and services” or “juggl[ing] a vast array of demands [that] require them to become the employers of nearly all educators in a given community.”...

"But you must remember, my fellow-citizens,
that eternal vigilance by the people is the price of liberty,
and that you must pay the price if you wish to secure the blessing.
It behooves you, therefore, to be watchful in your States as well as in the Federal Government."
—Andrew Jackson, Farewell Address, March 4, 1837

At some low point in my tenure on the board of education in my small school district, a friend advised, “Don’t worry. You are like gravity. They always know that you are there.”

Much good can come from keeping institutions honest.

Though I aspired to being more than a reminder of some facts of life as member of a board of education, gravity was at least a starting point. And I appreciated my friend’s larger message: that much good can come from keeping institutions honest. In fact, as I reflect on the last five years of public service, I’m thinking that keeping governments honest may be the single most important duty of every citizen.

And in honor of the holiday, I offer five lessons learned, which to my mind seem close to self-evident truths, about school governance:

1. Don’t underestimate the value of information...

Just in case I buried the lead in my last post, I would love to hear from fellow reform-minded members of boards of education. 

Are you out there? What is it like trying to turn around a tanker with a paddle? Are you a flamethrower or consensus builder? Did you win any fights? Were you able to improve your district? Have you come away from your experience as believer in boards of education or a determined skeptic?

Send your essays (or questions) to me, Your story should be between 250 and 800 words, though, as mentioned, a good haiku or other creative verse will be considered. We will publish as many as we can and, at the end of the summer, Fordham staff will choose the seven best. The seven, in honor of the number of board members on my board of ed, will then convene, by email, and suggest what governance policies are most necessary to improve our public education system.

Tell your friends!...

Curriculum nerds

Kathleen Porter-Magee makes her podcast debut, debating reading requirements with Mike and explaining why the new science standards need improvement. Amber wonders whether upper-elementary teachers outshine their K-2 peers.

Amber's Research Minute

School Based Accountability and the Distribution of Teacher Quality Among Grades in Elementary School by Sarah C. Fuller & Helen F. Ladd - Download PDF

There’s nothing worse for a rogue member of the school board than sitting on a stage with graduating high school seniors, looking into an auditorium packed with adoring friends and relatives. The speeches gush with encomiums for the school that you (i.e. me) have been criticizing for years. “Don’t listen to the negative,” the congressman tells the class. “Unity,” gushes the valedictorian, recounting all the things he has learned from “the great teachers” he has had. The salutatorian cries. Applause.

I have been trying to “fix” my little district (2,300 students fifteen years ago, less than 1,900 today) ever since my son entered first grade (he is now finishing his third year in college). I ran for the board, won, quit, helped start a charter school (which crashed on the shoals of racial politics), started an email listserv dedicated to watching the district, and ran again for the board, winning another five-year stint—and a warning from my wife: Don’t quit again. I didn’t.

Three nights ago I attended my final meeting as a member of the board, after five years and some several thousand meetings. I had outlasted two superintendents and a good half-dozen board members. But despite being the...