The competition for Race to the Top–District (RTTT-D) grants was fierce, with 372 applications representing 1,189 districts (of about 14,000 total in the U.S.). After whittling these down to sixty-one finalists, the U.S. Department of Education selected sixteen winners. Among these were two consortia of rural districts, three charter-management organizations, and just one large district (Miami-Dade). But when we took a closer look at the districts that opted to apply in the first place, a picture of union influence emerged.
There were fewer applications from districts in states with stronger unions than from districts whose unions are weaker. While 10.2 percent of districts from states with the weakest unions applied to the program, only 5.2 percent of districts from states with the strongest ones did the same.* And though other factors (such as geographic location and the political leanings of the states) may explain some of the variation in application rates, it does seem like states with weaker unions had more opportunity to apply.
This opt-in bias stemmed from one condition of the 2012 RTTT-D competition: applicants must have union support in order to participate. And there are several examples of this stipulation deterring districts from applying. Other districts, such as Glendale Unified and L.A. Unified, each had their applications dismissed because they could not procure the required signature from a union official. Elsewhere, union leaders expressed concern
When Harold Kwalwasser looks at Montgomery County, he sees something entirely different than does Checker Finn.
Checker Finn’s recent attack on Montgomery County superintendent Joshua Starr surprised me. In my new book Renewal: Remaking America’s Schools for the 21st Century, I profiled several dozen schools and school districts that were working for kids, and Montgomery County was not just one of them—it was one of the best.
In fact, as Mr. Finn acknowledges, in 2009, the district was a finalist for the Broad Award for the most improved urban district in America, and just two years ago, the district won the prestigious Baldrige Award for its excellent performance. The National Institutes of Science and Technology, which endows the award, cited various statistics that leave no doubt that the district is serving its students well: For example, in 2010, half of the district’s graduates received a college-readiness score of three or higher on at least one Advanced Placement (AP) exam while in high school. That is nearly twice the state rate∂ and three times the national rate, and the rate for minority students is among the highest in the nation. Also, an independent analysis by Education Week found that Montgomery County had the highest graduation rate of
The latest addition to the swelling chorus singing the tune that “governance is a major part of what’s wrong with American K–12 education” is University of Washington economist Katherine Baird, who has just published a perceptive and worthwhile book on how to harmonize our discordant school system. The author brings some unusual economics-style analysis to bear, including identification of the “two principal shortcomings” of today’s governance structure, which she dubs the “Principal-Agent Problem.” The “Principal” is “society as a whole, but parents and students in particular” (that is, those who benefit from the system), while the “Agent” is the mix of adult interests, structures, and organizations that run the system. The Agent is supposed to advance the interests of the Principal but mainly doesn’t, in part because the Agent has way too many levels, components, and competing interests. Baird’s remedy is to raise standards radically—national standards—and decentralize control of the system to the building level. (She insists that national standard-setting does not also require “the federal government to determine schools’ coursework, textbooks, hiring choices, or even instructional practices.”) There’s more to her analysis and prescription, of course, but the governance parts alone repay attention.
SOURCE: Katherine Baird, Trapped in Mediocrity: Why Our Schools Aren't World-class and What We Can Do About It (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, Inc., 2012).
America has nearly 12,000 school superintendents, of whom the overwhelming majority are career educators who have taught in the classroom and risen through the administrative ranks of public education. Most are middle-aged-to-older white males—and almost half say they will retire within five years.
Joshua Starr has emerged as a fully fledged anti-reformer.
Photo from WAMU 88.5.
You wouldn’t necessarily expect them to be ardent change-agents. They’ve lived and worked within this system and will benefit from its pensions in retirement. Why make waves?
To be fair, some are earnest, tireless, and imaginative reformers, bent on altering public education so that it better serves the country’s girls and boys. Among the most nationally visible of these have been Michelle Rhee, Joel Klein, Kaya Henderson, Tom Boasberg, John Deasy, Jean-Claude Brizard, and Andres Alonso. (Several of these, of course, followed non-traditional paths to the corner office.) Others, just as committed to major overhauls, are well known only in their communities, such as Cleveland’s Eric Gordon, Cincinnati’s Mary Ronan, and Dayton’s Lori Ward (if only she had a supportive board). These people strike sparks and light fires.
But thousands of superintendents are more set in their ways, sometimes firefighters but rarely kindlers. They preside (often ably) over “the system as we know it”: holding staff
About the Editor
Michael J. Petrilli
Executive Vice President
Mike Petrilli is one of the nation's foremost education analysts. As executive vice president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, he oversees the organization's research projects and publications and contributes to the Flypaper blog and weekly Education Gadfly newsletter.
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