Testimony prepared for delivery to the Committee on Science, U.S. House of Representatives, August 4, 1999.

The Education Gadfly

Chris Cerf, New Jersey’s acting commissioner of education, stopped by last Thursday’s Rethinking Education Governance conference to deliver a thought-provoking address on the role of governance in improving public education’s outcomes. Drawing on his experience with education systems in New York City and the Garden State, Cerf gave his take on “a new and improved model of government.”

Want more? The first and second panels can be viewed online and we’ll be releasing the rest of the footage tomorrow on Flypaper.

The Education Gadfly

The second panel at last Thursday’s Rethinking Education Governance conference examined one of the most entrenched aspects of our governance system: local control. From interstate standards to mayoral control, experts Margaret Goertz, Kathryn McDermott, Ken Wong, Rick Hess, and Jeffrey Henig evaluated our other options in a lively discussion.

To learn more, download drafts of participants’ full papers and watch the first panel on Flypaper.

If you missed last Thursday’s Fordham-CAP Rethinking Education Governance conference, you’re in luck: In the coming days we’ll be posting all the action here on Flypaper. To start off, Cynthia Brown, Michelle Davis, Marguerite Roza, and Steven F. Wilson provide a primer on what’s wrong with our governance system, breaking down how it hinders innovation while perpetuating inefficiency and inequity.

To learn more, download drafts of participants’ full papers and keep an eye on Flypaper for more footage from the conference.

t was a bit odd to see Charles Blow (of the New York Times)
take out after Newt Gingrich for saying that “really poor children in
really poor neighborhoods have no habits of working and have nobody
around them who works.” I had just returned from an inner city school
where teachers and administrators and parents were saying the same
things as Gingrich.  In fact, I’ve been hearing these complaints from
teachers – and business leaders – for years.  Teaching children the
“habits of working” is a growing part of the school reform movement.

For the last couple of weeks Gingrich has been tossing read meat to
the liberal wolves in ways that only the Grinch who stole Christmas
can.  He has also suggested that poor kids do janitorial work in school –
and earn money doing it.  According to,
the former West Georgia State College history professor told a Kennedy
School of Government audience that. It’s worth an extended quote,
because Gingrich needs context to make up for the  lightning-bolt
phrases he drops in throughout:

This is something that no liberal


Ending the AEI lockout

Mike and Rick come out swinging after their
Thanksgiving respites. In Pardon the Gadfly, they attack our current governance
model, sympathize with Newt Gingrich, and consider what to do about private
donations to public schools. Amber brings autonomy down to the school level and
Chris requests a State of State Moral Standards.

Click to watch the webcast of our event on education governanceDespite America’s
romantic attachment to “local control of public education,” the reality is that
the way it works today offers a worst-of-both-worlds scenario. On the one hand,
district-level power constrains individual schools; its standardizing,
bureaucratic, and political force ties the hands of principals, stopping them
from doing what’s best for their pupils with regard to budget, staffing, and
curriculum. On the other, local control isn’t strong enough to clear the
obstacles that state and federal governments place before reform-minded board
members and superintendents in the relatively few locales where these can even
be observed.

Sure, remarkable
individuals can sometimes make it work, at least for a while: Michelle Rhee
(backed by Adrian Fenty) in the District of Columbia; Joel Klein (backed by
Michael Bloomberg) in New York City; Arne Duncan (backed by Richard Daley) in
Chicago; Jerry Weast (abetted by a rising budget) in Montgomery County,
Maryland. Readers can surely cite additional examples. But these are the
exceptions that prove the rule.

The rule is that

As education governance rises on the policy
agenda, should American reformers be looking toward greater decentralization or
centralization—or a judicious mix of both? Eric Hanushek, Susanne Link, and
Ludger Woessmann argue that, in a country like the U.S., greater school-level
autonomy offers the best shot at boosting student achievement. Using the four
available rounds of PISA data (2000-09), the trio compared achievement in forty-two
countries with their levels of school-based autonomy, as reported by principals.
(Specifically, they analyzed autonomy of academic content, personnel decisions,
and budget allocations.) Dividing the countries up by GDP per capita, the
authors find that developed nations tend to see spikes in student achievement
when school autonomy increases, while scores in developing countries drop with
greater decentralization. Autonomy works when local leaders have both
an interest in making decisions that benefit students and the capacity to do
so. The stronger governmental institutions and the rule of law, the logic goes,
the more likely leaders are to align their interests to those of their
students. Thus, in richer countries, pairing greater autonomy with test-based
accountability magnified the bump in scores. In short, how...

Reading Thomas Friedman in this morning’s New York Times,
I couldn’t help but think of the Shel Silverstein classic, “Clarence
Lee from Tennessee,” a 1993 poem suggesting that kids could trade in
their parents for new ones.

Clarence Lee from Tennessee
Loved the commercials he saw on TV.
He watched with wide believing eyes
And bought everything they advertised

I used to read this to the kids whom I tutored in reading and also
brought it with me to classrooms, to share with whole groups of
students.  The poem introduced these youngsters to narrative rhyme —
and  the ubiquity and charms of advertising:

Powder for his doggie’s fleas,
Toothpaste for his cavities,
Stylish jeans that fit much tighter.
Bleach to make his white things whiter
Spray to make his hair look wetter
Cream to make his skin feel better

It was a set-up, of course, to the punchline: parents were just like
toothpaste: trade ‘em in for better ones. And, of course, it was funny
because the kids Silverstein addressed actually loved their parents,
despite the fact that they...

Bob Bowdon
Founder of Choice Media

Guest blogger Bob Bowdon is the founder of Choice Media, a non-profit education news service, and directed the award-winning documentary “The Cartel.” In this post, he responds to the debate touched off by Mike’s argument against school boards in Monday’s “Dealing with disingenuous teacher unions: There are no shortcuts.”

was intrigued to see the democracy defense offered by the
Establishment Reactionary Dynamic Duo of Ravitch & Weingarten, as
if to say it’s okay to sentence children to chronically failing and
dangerous schools, as long as unions succeed in getting the vote out on
off-peak election days.

Apart from the underpinnings of their logic, can we at least hope
that they’ll remain consistent in applying this “Democracy First”
philosophy no matter where the chips fall? Not so much.

When the elected legislature in Georgia authorized the state’s
chartering of schools, the Georgia Association of Educators union wasn’t
so happy with the voice of the people. They later filed a brief in
support of a lawsuit to strike down the law — and that suit prevailed.