Governance

According to today's New York Times Chris Christie went to ?the heart of liberal darkness? yesterday ? and kept his cool.? The occasion was a lecture at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and Christie was on his best behavior as he praised his audience for being ?among the leaders of our educational future.?

He also admitted to having ?struggled a lot? with the issue of the combative and abrasive language he often uses in talking about education. Apparently, not for long. According to reporter Richard Perez-Pena, Christie ?said he would not change his tone until the teachers' union, the New Jersey Education Association, agreed that schools are in crisis and showed more willingness to make major changes.? Said Christie:

I have to convince the public that the house is on fire.

And he got an ovation from the crowd, according to the report, when he said, ?The reason I'm engaging in this battle with the teachers' union is because it's the only fight worth having.?? That should make the transportation department, parks and recreation, corrections, banking and industry, and the other? state agencies very happy.

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[caption id="" align="alignright" width="250" caption="Click to watch a video of this commentary, as part of Fordham's recent event Are School Boards Vital in the 21st Century?"][/caption]

The shortcomings of elected local school boards are only the most obvious of the many problems of education governance in the United States in 2011.? To be sure, those boards are a fundamental part, maybe the largest part, of our customary governance arrangements, but my discontent with them is just part of my larger dissatisfaction with all traditional governance and structural arrangements for K-12 education on these shores.

These arrangements, though they differ some from place to place, generally display four characteristics that make them obsolete at best and dysfunctional at their all-too-common worst:

First, while formal constitutional responsibility for educating kids belongs to the states, the actual delivery of that education falls squarely on local education agencies, typically called districts, which are geographically defined, most often by the boundaries of a city, town, county, or other municipality. Kids are generally educated in public schools operated by these districts.

Second, though states have shouldered some responsibility for financing public education, usually by decreeing a minimum or ?foundation? level of per-pupil spending, sizable portions of education revenue are locally generated through property taxes, bond levies, and such. Those amounts differ enormously from place to place within the same state and are uncommonly vulnerable to interest group manipulation...

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The Education Gadfly

Education ?reforms? abound today, yet the sluggish pace of actual changes wrought by those new policies, programs, and practices demands a fresh look at public education's basic structures and operating arrangements. What America needs in the twenty-first century is a far more fundamental approach to ?re-forming? K-12 education. Our ?marble cake? policy structure of overlapped local, state, and national responsibility for schools has proven more adept at blocking or slowing needed change than at advancing it?a problem aggravated by our practice of (in most places) separating ?education governance? from the regular leadership structures (and election cycles) of cities and states. Indeed, ?local control? as traditionally construed needs a makeover, too. We are gearing up a three-year effort?in partnership with the Center for American Progress?to put governance at the center of the education-reform conversation. Expect to see much more from us on this important topic in the coming months.

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In a generally positive profile of Jean-Claude Brizard, Mayor-elect Rahm Emanuel's pick for new Chicago school system chief, the Sun-Times applauds the nominee for ?the charismatic way? in which he refused to talk to the paper's reporter, who then notes that that?.

?is typical of the ambitious former physics teacher who emigrated from Haiti as a boy, used the U.S. education system to drag himself up by the bootstraps from housing project poverty, then applied the same zeal to reforming the system that helped him, say friends and enemies alike in this upstate New York city of 210,000.

This jumped out at me in part because of the recent Joe Nocera Limits of Reform op-ed column in the NYT ? please see my Education Unbound* and the accompanying Comments (other interesting Comments on the Education Next version) and my Culture of Poverty?or the Poverty of Culture? post in Flypaper last October.

My argument about poverty is simple: there are too many millions of people like Brizard who ?used the U.S. education system? to drag themselves out of poverty to count them as exceptions that prove some demography is destiny rule.? (I'm sure Randi Weingarten would agree.) There are also too many charters and charter networks and private systems (e.g. the Catholics) that are getting the job done to dismiss them as anomalies.

No, these successful ? and, yes, increasingly replicable and scalable ? school (not social service!) systems are educating poor kids...

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Amy Fagan

In case you missed it, here is the video of our April 26 event, Are Local School Boards Vital in 21st Century America? It was a great discussion; our excellent panel consisted of: Anne L. Bryant, executive director of the National School Boards Association; Gene I. Maeroff, founding director of the Hechinger Institute, Teachers College, Columbia University and author of School Boards in America: A Flawed Exercise in Democracy; Christopher S. Barclay, president of the Montgomery County Board of Education, Maryland; and our own Chester E. Finn, Jr., president of the Fordham Institute. The group was moderated by Fordham Institute Executive Vice President Mike Petrilli.

Obviously you can watch the video in full. But here's?one overview/summary that was written about the event. NSBA has posted a write-up about it, too.?And below we've pulled together a few highlights of our own as well?. thanks to Fordham's Daniela Fairchild, who tweeted the entire event. (paraphrased)

Anne Bryant: School boards are the connection to the community. ? Not all school boards are perfect. Nothing is perfect. Checker Finn isn't perfect. (laughter erupts) ...School boards are transparent and accountable to public and members want reform.

...

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Forgetting for a moment the perhaps unfortunate coinincidence of another Bush governor taking his state education formula national (remember NCLB?), we have a pleasant story in today's Times about former Florida governor Jeb Bush traveling the country talking education.? In fact, there is much to admire about what Florida has done ? see Checker's Let's Hear it for Florida! and Eric Hanushek's Florida Positions Itself at the Forefront ? and this story mentions some of them:

He has hopped around the country to campaign for candidates, hold meetings and lobby for Florida-style changes. They include private-school vouchers, online courses and requiring third-graders to pass reading tests before they move up to fourth grade, rather than being pushed along with their peers ? or ?social promotion.?

We learn that Bush's Foundation for Excellence in Education ?received $2.9 million in 2009 from the Gates and Broad foundations, ?among others,? and that he has been ?closely involved? in education reform initiatives in a half dozen states, including Minnesota, Indiana, Oklahoma, and Utah. Go, Jeb, Go.

Is he running for president?? Of course not.

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Unfortunately, in his Limits of School Reform essay this morning, the newest op-ed columnist for the Times, Joe Nocera, shows the limits of logic in thinking about the subject ? or writing about it.? After throwing up the standard straw men ? ?At its core, the reform movement believes that great teachers and improved teaching methods are all that's required to improve student performance, so that's all the reformers focus on,? ?reformers act as if a student's home life is irrelevant,? ?Dodd [the teacher] does everything a school reformer could hope for?? ? he rolls out the woefully tired and hopelessly unhelpful nostrum: ??What needs to be acknowledged, however, is that school reform won't fix everything.?

Thanks, Joe. I didn't know that.

In fact, Nocera, who wrote the Talking Business column for the Times before landing the plum assignment on the paper's prestigious op-ed page, will one day see this essay as beginner's jitters.? He does hit all the high notes ? the ravages of poverty, the lessons of James Coleman, the further lessons of Richard Rothstein, even bringing in Joel Klein as the heartless reformer who thinks a student's home life is ?irrelevant? ? but ends up being completely off-key,? forgetting that we now have dozens, if not hundreds, of schools that are succeeding in educating poor children. He also conveniently forgets that the Catholics have been doing it rather successfully for many decades, if not centuries. And, in fact, Nocera ignores most of the last...

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Though Mike wouldn't allow me anywhere near today's Fordham event, Are Local School Boards Vital in 21st Century America? I will answer the question here: Yes, more so than ever.? But if you're not in Washington this afternoon and can't make it over to 16th Street, tune in on the Web, 4pm.

The discussion features Anne Bryant, head of the National School Boards Association; Chris Barclay, president of the the Montgomery County (MD) Board of Education; Checker Lost at Sea Finn; and Gene I. Maeroff, Founding Director, Hechinger Institute, Teachers College, Columbia University and author of School Boards in America: A Flawed Exercise in Democracy.

Here's the quick argument for ?more so than ever?: ?If we are able to create differentiated instruction for children using digital technology, we should be able to use computers to put the demos back into education governance.? Like it or not, school boards as an expression of our democratic values and practices are vital.

--Peter Meyer, Bernard Lee Schwartz Policy Fellow

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The Fordham panel on school boards this afternoon, most of which I caught on the web, was an important one and I recommend it to anyone interested in school governance issues. (We were told that the video should be available on the Fordham website by Thursday).

I would like to make four quick observations prompted by the discussion:

1.? Size matters.? It seems clear that we need to think along two tracks in redesigning school governance structures for the future: forms of direct democracy and those of representative democracy. Clearly, consolidation of authority (either through state-wide governance systems or mayoral control) will take us in the latter direction. The question for Americans, steeped in a culture that prizes autonomy and diversity, is whether we know how to do the consolidation thing very well.

2. Responsiveness matters. Whether it is responding to the parent with a concern about a teacher, digesting a research study on best practices, or meeting the challenges of a crumbling economy, the school system that can adjust to such varying kinds of inputs is no doubt better off than one that can't. The need to be responsive on these various levels is what should guide us in working out governance issues for the future.

3. Finances.? This is the toughest nut to crack and I got no special insights from our panelists on the subject today (though I admit to taking a couple of breaks and may have missed something). The best...

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