This is the inaugural post in a series by guest bloggers who know first-hand the strengths and flaws of America's dominant form of education governance: the local school board. Each author will draw on their personal experiences to answer the question posed for the Board's Eye View Challenge: Can school boards improve schools?
Gene I. Maeroff has adapted this excerpt from his book School Boards in America: A Flawed Exercise in Democracy. He is president of the board in Edison, N.J. and is serving his second term as a member. He is a senior fellow at Teachers College, Columbia University. His biographical and contact information are available at www.genemaeroff.com.
America’s school boards are too easily diverted from larger purposes. They may get bogged down in issues better left to staff. Some school board members want to meddle and they get more involved in administrative matters than they should. Boards sometimes invest precious hours in matters of little consequence. In other words, school boards too readily waste time and effort.
School boards too readily waste time and effort.
Ultimately, a school board should be held accountable for ensuring that the district makes needed improvements. Instructional success should be the members' paramount concern. They ought to look in the mirror when they seek to affix blame for the district's failures.
The school board should specify objectives and then leave it
Given that bipartisan agreement went extinct sometime in the previous decade, the fact that conservatives and liberals have both concluded that our country suffers from a troubling lack of social mobility might be reason enough to celebrate. The problem, as I wrote yesterday, is that few commentators on either side of the political spectrum have recognized the obvious: This problem begins with our schools. And it could potentially end there, as well. In my experience with public schools and the culture that surrounds them, we won’t close the social mobility gap unless we recognize three facts:
1. Our schools don’t value merit
The idea of merit implies the idea of non-merit; we can’t all be winners.
As we know, the idea of merit implies the idea of non-merit; we can’t all be winners. Yet, that is exactly the kind of talk I hear in schools all the time: We are all winners. As Thomas Edsall wrote in his Times essay, “In the business sector, particularly, other less benign qualities emerge as essential to meritocratic success: aggressiveness, ruthlessness, dominance-seeking, victimizing behavior, acquisitiveness and the disciplined pursuit of self-interest.” How do we possibly reconile the hard-edged reality of merit in the real world with the "all winners" ethos of our public schools? We don't. We have to get real at school and start rewarding merit there. It need not be cut-throat, but it needs to be something better than giving everyone a blue ribbon.
Mike seems to have touched off a flurry of discussion (or at least landed in the middle of it) about meritocracy with his “Can schools spur social mobility?” essay from last week, which was prompted by a recent appearance at Fordham by Charles Murray, to talk about his new book, Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010. Simultaneously, Chris Hayes was getting attention for his new book, Twilight of the Elites: America After Meritocracy. There followed two pieces by David Brooks (“Why Our Elites Stink” and “The Opportunity Gap”), a report from the Pew Foundation (“American Dream”), Jason DeParle’s page-one story in last Sunday’s Times (“Two Classes, Divided by `I Do’”), followed by some good piling on by journalism professor Thomas Edsall, also in the Times, who takes out after Mitt Romney for suggesting we have a “merit-based society.”
I’m sure there was more, but the gist of the current hand-wringing is the news that the nation is no longer the equal opportunity society it once was. The social mobility gap is growing while our faith in boot-strap capitalism, where hard work (i.e., merit) can get you a spot at the table of the
In my recent post on the end of geography I described some of the Promised Land of portfolio management governance, as explained by Rick Hess and Olivia Meeks in their paper for Fordham’s recent symposium on education governance. (At the time I was not aware of CRPE’s portfolio convention in Seattle—more on their initiative at another time.) The idea is that the brave new world of education governance should be driven by function not geography. The implications are enormous.
How do we get to the Promised Land and what can we do to smooth the course?
How we get to the Promised Land—and pay for the trip, lacking manna from heaven—and what we can do to smooth the course is the subject of this post. And some good answers to those questions come to us via the Koret Task Force on K-12 Education, and its report, Choice and Federalism. I mentioned the report last winter, in a slippery slope back to mediocrity essay, following the House Education and Workforce Committee’s states’ rights proposals for ESEA reauthorization. I wondered then whether states’ rights were “being invoked to cover up the very inequities—the `soft bigotry of low expectations’—that No Child Left Behind was determined to remedy.” And I was heartened to know that Koret—which includes some very smart people, including our own Checker Finn, Task Force Chair—shared some of those concerns.
But the important message of the Koret report—at least, the
- Stretching the School Dollar
- Common Core Watch
- Ohio Gadfly Daily
- Board's Eye View
- Choice Words
About the Editor
Peter Meyer is an adjunct fellow with the Thomas B. Fordham Institute. Since 1991, Meyer has focused his attentions on education reform in the United States, an interest joined while writing a profile of education reformer E.D. Hirsch for Life. Meyer subsequently helped found a charter school, served on his local Board of Education (twice) and, for the last eight years, has been an editor at Education Next.
Sign Up for updates from the Thomas B. Fordham Institute
- Daniel Willingham: Science and Education Blog
- National School Board Association’s School Board News Today
- National Governors Association Center for Best Practices
- Texas Association of School Boards
- New York State School Board Association
- Florida School Boards Association
- California School Boards Association
- Program on Education Policy and Governance
- The Center for Research on Education Outcomes