Opinion and News Analysis
Opinion: The anacronism of school boards
E. Finn, Jr. and Amber
local school board, especially the elected kind, is an anachronism and an
outrage. We can no longer pretend it’s working well or hide behind the mantra
of ‘local control of education.’ We need to steel ourselves to put this
dysfunctional arrangement out of its misery and move on to something that will
work for children.”
With that statement on the record, we’re doubly admiring of
Anne Bryant and her colleagues at the National School Boards Association (NSBA)
for welcoming us into their recent project—“School
Boards Circa 2010: Governance in the Accountability Era”—a survey of roughly
900 school board members. We went into it willing to have our previous
impressions of local school boards overturned. For the most part, that hasn’t
Because we’re serious about America’s need for bold school
reform, we came away from the survey data dismayed that so many board members
appear hostile to some of the most urgently needed reforms—and accepting of timeworn
(and for the most part unsuccessful) tweaks to the current system. Substantial
numbers view charter schools, intra-district choice among schools, and
year-round calendars as “not at all important” to improving student learning.
They’re cool toward teachers entering classrooms from “nontraditional”
directions. Yet they’re warm-to-hot when asked about the value of such
primordial yet unreliable “reforms” as smaller classes and more professional
development. And they’re more agitated about school inputs—funding above
all—than about academic achievement.
Putting it bluntly, would public education come closer to serving the country's needs in 2011 if it were run by visionary, reform-driven leaders rather than by cautious, community-based fiduciaries?
One must wonder whether this is because they’ve grown
acculturated to traditional educationist views of education—half of all board
members have served in their current districts for more than five years—or because
more than a quarter of them are current or former educators themselves. Could
it be because so many of them in large districts (more than one in three)
indicate that unions contribute to their campaigns and presumably expect something
in return? Or is it that they regard their role like members of corporate
boards of directors, chiefly concerned with the well-being of the organization
itself (particularly its revenue streams), rather than like education
policymakers, much less reformers?
There’s evidence in the NSBA data for all these
possibilities—and a good many more.
Even as we applaud school board members for their service,
much of it time-consuming and selfless, we cannot but wonder about some of
their core values and priorities for K-12 education.
• School board members tend to cite inadequate inputs as
the main barrier to improved school outcomes. Three quarters of them view
insufficient funding as a strong or total barrier to raising
achievement. That’s about twice as many as point to collective-bargaining
agreements—and more than three times as many as identify “community apathy” as
a major barrier. Yes, economic times are perilous, but stressed finances call
for exploring uncharted waters, not waiting for manna from the taxpayers.
• Board members also favor intangible outcomes. Asked to
rank education goals, three-fourths of the surveyed group say that “help[ing]
students fulfill their potential” or “prepar[ing] students for a satisfying and
productive life” is number one. Just 16 percent chose preparing students for
the workforce or for college. One wonders, in our globally competitive world,
how their sense of what’s important got so skewed. Do they really not put much
stock in the most tangible outcomes of schooling? Are they possibly hiding from
results-based accountability by selecting goals that cannot readily be
• School board members have only a vague awareness that
learning levels must rise. Though two-thirds concur that “the current state of
student achievement is unacceptable,” barely one-quarter “strongly agree” with
that statement. A whopping 87 percent agree or strongly agree that “defining
success only in terms of student achievement is narrow and short-sighted; we
need to emphasize the development of the whole child.” And a full one-third are
nervous about placing “unreasonable expectations for student achievement in our
These data also show that board members are conscientious
citizens who take the job seriously and work hard at it. They want to serve
their communities, and they want kids to have good lives. Demographically, they
comprise a fair cross section of middle-aged, upper-middle-class America.
They’re better educated than most of the population, and their household income
is greater than most. They’re moderate to conservative in their politics,
they’re professionals or businessmen/women in their careers, and they serve on
the board—they say—for altruistic, public-spirited motives, which is borne out
by the fact that just 36 percent have children in school in the district whose
board they’re on. (Of course, 70 percent are fifty or older.)
These well-meaning, solid citizens, however, do not
manifest great urgency about changing the education system for which they’re
responsible, certainly not in disruptive ways. Yes, they want it to do better.
But they also cite myriad obstacles to changing it, obstacles they find outside
themselves and their communities and thus obstacles that they, almost by
definition, are powerless to overcome. Moreover, they’re principally
concerned—the “board of directors” syndrome again—with the viability of the
school system as an institution, fiduciaries, one might say, of a public trust
rather than change agents on behalf of a compelling societal agenda.
This is not too surprising, considering that the “theory”
behind elected local school boards as a public-school governance system was to
induce selfless civic leaders to preside over and safeguard a valuable
community institution, keeping it out of politics and out of trouble while
solving whatever problems it encountered. The theory did not expect individuals
elected to these roles to function as innovators, much less as revolutionaries.
The question that needs to be
asked again, however, is whether American education in the twenty-first century
would be better served by a different arrangement, one more apt to tally the
considerable challenges facing communities, states, regions, and the nation as
a whole and then reshape key institutions to meet those challenges. Putting it bluntly,
would public education come closer to serving the country’s needs in 2011 if it
were run by visionary, reform-driven leaders rather than by cautious, community-based
fiduciaries? We’re inclined to think it would.
News Analysis: The leadership illusion
Gadfly has long harbored doubts about school
turnarounds. The inertia
of low-performing schools is great, and the middling reform efforts meant
to alter their trajectories never go far enough. But at least, he surmised,
even the softest districts almost always replace the leaders of their failing
schools, right? Nope. According to a recent New
York Times analysis (based on data from eight states), 44 percent of
schools receiving federal turnaround money retained their principals. In
Michigan, that figure spikes to 68 percent. The Times concludes that there simply aren’t enough high-quality
principals available to lead these efforts. (If there were, we probably
wouldn’t have quite so many failing schools.) But that doesn’t have to be the
case; surely the outdated, onerous licensure requirements for principals are
keeping many talented leaders (including corporate-style turnaround artists)
out of the labor pool. So before we conclude that we’re facing a real “human
capital” shortage, let’s tear down the wall keeping lots of good people out of
News Analysis: An a-OK form of edu-governance
When it comes to rethinking education
governance, Oklahoma is stepping it up. Big time. The recently elected,
majority Republican, state senate is set to pass a bill that would eliminate
the state board of education. (To our knowledge, OK would be just the third
state to go sans-state board, joining MN and WI.) Instead, legislators would shift
responsibility of the Oklahoma Department of Education over to the Sooner
State’s elected superintendent. The move came after new state supe Janet
Barresi, also a Republican, found it hard to get her policy initiatives
approved by the Democratic-leaning state board (whose members were mostly
appointed by the previous governor). Defenders of state boards of education (and
frankly, we’re not sure who they are) might claim that these bodies are
essential guardians of the public trust. But, as with local boards, they strike
us more as anachronistic features of a system perfectly designed to maintain
the status quo.
News Analysis: Pushing away from CBAs
Reform-minded legislators in a number of states
have begun to challenge teacher evaluation and tenure practices, and some aren’t
stopping there. Lawmakers in Idaho, Illinois, Indiana, and Tennessee have all
recently introduced bills that would either limit the scope of collective
bargaining to wages and benefits or ban the practice altogether. Proponents argue
that eliminating the ability to bargain—particularly over policies such as
class size and schedules and hours—will allow school leaders more freedom to
set policies best fitted for their schools. In doing so, schools will be able
to spend money in a more efficient and targeted manner. Teacher unions, not
surprisingly, are none too keen on the idea of losing their right to be at the
table. But any lawmakers who think they can ease the grip of teacher unions
simply by eliminating collective bargaining should think again. As veteran
analysts of the education politics of Right to Work states can attest, teachers
groups simply get protections written into state law. While collective-bargaining agreements no doubt add to the restrictions under which most schools
and school systems operate, they’re just one piece of a larger puzzle.
Review: The 2010 Brown Center Report on American Education: How Well Are American Students Learning?
Despite a slightly tardy release, the 2010
report from Brookings’s Brown Center does a lot in a little space; PISA, NAEP,
Race to the Top, and the Common Core all get top billing. One key thesis
emerges through the report’s tripartite analysis: Test scores aren’t always
what they seem. Part I tackles international assessments, with
author Tom Loveless convincingly debunking two “myths”: first, that U.S.
performance on international assessments has declined over time, and, second,
that Finland is alpha on international rankings, with China and India quickly
rising. To disprove the former, Loveless tracks U.S. results and progress on
international math assessments dating back to 1964. During the First
International Math Study (FIMS), the U.S. ranked eleventh out of twelve participating
countries. Compared to those same eleven FIMS countries, the U.S. now scores
close to average, marking an upward trend in student achievement. The second
myth he counters by decoupling Finnish scores on PISA from those of TIMSS and
other more content-oriented tests. While Finland’s students excel when tested
on their PISA-like “literacy” learning, they fall to the middle of the pack on more
traditional tests of math and science prowess such as TIMSS. As for China and
India, Loveless reminds us that neither country has ever participated in an
international assessment. (Shanghai, he asserts, doesn’t count.)
The other two parts of the report, one cross-tabulating NAEP gains to Race to
the Top winner status (part II) and one comparing NAEP assessments to the
Common Core frameworks (part III), are also worthy of perusal. (Our take on
part III here).
Check them out—and before we’re any further into 2011.
Review: A Measured Approach to Teacher Preparation
Teacher preparation programs are pumping out 300,000
teachers a year, many of whom enter classrooms ill-prepared and ineffective. This
Education Sector policy brief outlines the major criticisms of the current
teacher-prep system: It doesn’t heed the labor needs of states and districts,
nor does it offer sufficient focus on practical skills or rigor in selecting
candidates and conferring degrees. The brief then outlines a three-part
strategy to improve teacher preparation—with each of the recommendations
pointed directly to the federal government. While the authors readily admit
that the “legal and political capacity of the U.S. Department of Education to
force all 50 states to simultaneously build strong accountability systems…has
been limited,” they believe their outlined “new paradigm” will extricate
federal policy from its current muddle. First, create a new federal framework
for evaluating and enhancing teacher preparation programs. Second, establish a
revised set of competitive grants to encourage states to assess and revamp
their programs by building off the Teacher Quality Partnership Grants and
School Improvement Grants programs. And third, streamline financial aid
programs to improve quality of the teacher workforce. While the authors’ push
for outcomes-based accountability requirements and their recommendations for
collecting and using data are admirable, their naive faith in Uncle Sam’s
ability to cause these policy changes to occur is disheartening, to say the
Review: Value-Added Measures in Education: What Every Educator Needs to Know
“Hold people accountable for what they can
control”—a simple, yet foundational premise in Douglas N. Harris’s
comprehensive new book on value-added measurement (VAM). With the AFT’s Randi
Weingarten authoring the foreword, Harris remains impressively neutral in
explaining the benefits and drawbacks of this controversial new teacher
evaluation tool. The book attempts to “clear away the fog” surrounding VAM,
which is no simple task. In three sections, it offers a detailed explanation
and contextualization of VAM (including an overview of its potential value when
done right), a description of the challenges that arise in applying VAM in the
real world, and potential solutions to these problems. Empirical analyses that
support Harris’s points are intertwined throughout; the book’s stated goal—to
translate this multi-faceted and contentious system into comprehensible language—is
handled admirably. Harris concludes with recommendations for using VAM
appropriately and effectively, as well as ways to create and report these
evaluation metrics. This book serves as a worthy users’ manual for value-added
and is a welcome addition to the teacher-measurement debate.
Review: The State of Charter Authorizing: A Report on NACSA's Authorizer Survey
This third annual survey of charter authorizers from the
National Association for Charter School Authorizers (NACSA) is its largest to
date—and replete with interesting findings. For instance, the survey found that
charter agreements with lengthier terms—ten years, say, versus five—led to more
weak schools remaining open, since authorizers tend not to close schools mid-charter.
We also learn that large authorizers (in charge of ten or more schools) are likelier
to implement best practices than their smaller counterparts. And with roughly
700 authorizers overseeing only one or two schools each, questions of
authorizer efficacy and resource adequacy abound. Perhaps the most consequential
finding—and one that deserves additional study—is that authorizer oversight of charters
run by management companies (both nonprofit and for-profit) remains weak. This
is a key issue, especially in situations where incapacity at the
school-governance level renders the management company more powerful than the body
accountable for a school’s success.
From The Web
The Education Gadfly Show Podcast: Mike slashes bad ideas
With vocal deftness, Mike and Rick—Amber, too—discuss
leadership in school turnaround efforts, collective-bargaining rights, and the
need (or lack thereof) for state boards of education. Daniela channels Tom
Loveless, noting that the U.S. has never been on top in international tests,
and Chris reminds us that schools shouldn’t be like Santa Claus.
Click to listen to the podcast on our website. You can also download the podcast here or subscribe on iTunes here.
Flypaper's Finest: Superintendents to the woodshed!
By Peter Meyer
New York hates to be behind its Hudson River
rival—New Jersey—but new Empire State Governor Andrew Cuomo is doing a nice job
keeping up with his Garden State comrade-in-chief Chris Christie with education
blasts. This morning, Cuomo makes an appearance on the front page of the New York Times, uttering unsympathetic
comments about the salaries of some of New York’s school
Click to read the rest on Flypaper.
Flypaper's Finest: Unsung examples from international education
…The recent PISA results shocked America into
a heightened sense of global educational awareness. For the first time in a
Sputnik some have argued—policymakers and pundits are now, en masse,
peering into the bowels of education systems abroad. They’re dissecting
the teaching profession in Finland (it’s true that the Finns only accept
the top 10 percent of college graduates into teacher preparation programs) and ogling over
the curriculum in Singapore.
But they’re all missing key exemplars—and the point of the whole exercise to
Click to read the rest on Flypaper.
Gadfly Studios: Event video: Are Bad Schools Immortal?
If you missed our Groundhog Day event, if you just
need to see it again (and again, and again…), or if you want to show it off to
your friends, the video is now up. You’re welcome.
Gadfly Studios: What's up with that?: Robo-call back later
Chris Irvine explains why snow days are sacred—for
both students and parents.
Briefly Noted: Evolution and urban Catholic schools
marks the first House Education and Workforce Committee hearing on the
reauthorization of ESEA. Billed as ESEA
Renewal: 101 for novice committee members, it hints at an early commitment
percent of the nation’s biology teachers straightforwardly teach evolution.
And 13 percent actually advocate creationism.
- One Colorado Springs school district is putting
the kibosh on its central office. By scrapping the majority of central
office personnel, including the supe, the district is placing more authority in
the hands of its high school principals—and saving over $10 million over the
next five years.
- An external review (partially
funded by the NEA) found that the value-added metrics used in the L.A. Times’s celebrated exposés of
teacher effectiveness are “demonstrably inadequate.” While the Times stands
by its metrics and data, WaPo
reporter Nick Anderson raises
some legitimate red flags about its validity. The What and How of VAM just
got another degree more complicated. On the other hand, what’s the alternative?
with parents, students, and the higher power, urban Catholic schools are now
accountable to a new group: their
donors. And they—especially the Wall Street-types who pump $15 million into
the New York archdiocese—are an opinionated bunch, accustomed to running things
teacher-union groups—who oppose traditional union politics in favor of
education reforms—have popped
up in L.A. and NYC. With them, one has to wonder if the cracks in the union
monolith will widen.
Announcement: Webcast event: Taking a fresh look at education leadership
On February 21, from
6:00-7:45PM, Fordham President Chester E. Finn, Jr. will chair the Arthur M.
Blank Family Foundation Speaker Series panel discussing the superintendency and
what school districts need to compete in the twenty-first century. Focused on
Atlanta and vicinity, the event will be webcast live here.
Announcement: Building great schools "on purpose"
Investigate the “on purpose”
culture of some great schools with author Samuel Casey Carter on February 16
from 5:00-8:00PM. The discussion will be informed by Carter’s new book On
Purpose: How Great School Cultures Form Strong Character and will be
led by Jeanne Allen, president of the Center on Education Reform, and Chester
E. Finn, Jr., Fordham’s president. To learn more about the event and to RSVP,
Announcement: AEI event: Degrees of difficulty
February 15 should be provocative,
too, as AEI hosts a discussion of college degree-completion rates, the policies
hindering their progress, and state-level reform strategies in place during a
day-long conference. To register, click here.
Announcement: Loads of neat edu-jobs available
SCORE one for Tennessee
State Collaborative on Reforming Education (TN-SCORE) is searching for a new
executive director. If you think you have what it takes—an entrepreneurial
mind, high energy, relationship-building skills, and an ability to manage both
big-picture and day-to-day operations—then send a resume and cover letter to Sylvia Flowers. You can also learn
more about the position here.
The best in sight
Education’s School Turnaround Group is looking for an engagement manager,
program manager, and project coordinator. For those with experience driving
real change in school districts, or the motivation and know-how to work in a
high-energy, face-paced environment, you may want to check out these
possibilities. Do so here.
Choosing to work with parents’ choice
The Louisiana Department of
Education’s office of parental options is on the hunt for a smart, motivated
individual with a charter-school track record who is interested in managing
district-charter relations and recruiting national operators to LA. Learn more here.
Fordham's featured publication:
In July 2010, Fordham reviewed the English
language arts (ELA) and mathematics standards for all fifty states and the
District of Columbia—and found that the Common Core standards bested the
standards of a majority of states. For ELA, the Common Core standards are
clearer and more rigorous than thirty-seven states’ individual standards. For
math, the Common Core standards are superior to thirty-nine states’ standards.
As the forty-four states who have adopted the Common Core wrestle with issues
of alignment and implementation of these ambitious new standards, this Fordham
review will be an important resource.