The conventional wisdom among reformers today is that “we know what to do, but we don’t have the political will to do it.” I’d frame it differently: We increasingly have good policies in place, but we don’t know how to turn them into reality. And because most policies aren’t “self-implementing,” we have to solve the problem of “delivery” if reform is going to add up to a hill of beans.
Those of us at the Fordham Institute (and our partners at the Center for American Progress) have been making the case that our governance structures impede our ability to do implementation right. Local school districts—with their elected school boards, susceptibility to interest group capture, and lack of scale—aren’t always inclined or well suited to turn legislative reforms into real change on the ground. I’ve wondered out loud whether we should abolish school districts and run the whole kit and caboodle out of state departments of education.
How about creating a “virtual education ministry” that school districts would choose to associate with voluntarily?
That’s still a tantalizing idea, but probably too radical for anyone to take seriously in the immediate future. So here’s an alternative: How about creating a “virtual education ministry” that school districts would choose to associate with voluntarily? (Creating more than one of these entities would even better.) Think of it as a private-sector department of education, but run much more efficiently and with higher-quality staff than the government ever could.
Such a ministry would be akin to the comprehensive school reform organizations of the 1990s (such as Success
Today, Fordham is releasing the fifth and final paper in its Creating Sound Policy for Digital Learning series, "Overcoming the Governance Challenge in K-12 Online Learning." Online learning and our current system of local education governance are at odds with one another, to say the least. In this paper, the Hoover Institute's John Chubb examines how local school district control retards the widespread use of instructional technologies. He argues that the surest way to break down the system’s inherent resistance to technology is to shift control from the local district—and thus the school board—and put it in the hands of states. He then outlines ten steps to get us to this brave new governance system:
- Set K-12 Online-Learning Policy at the State Level
- Create a Public Market for K-12 Online Learning
- Provide Students the Right to Choose Online Learning Full Time
- Provide Students the Right to Choose Online Learning Part Time
- Authorize Statewide Online Charter Schools, Overseen by Statewide Charter Authorizers
- License Supplementary Online Providers
- Fund All Learning Opportunities Equally Per Pupil
- Exempt Online and Blended Teaching from Traditional Teacher Requirements Including Certification and Class Size
- Establish Student Learning as the Foundation of Accountability for Online Schools and Providers
- Address Market Imperfections by Providing Abundant Information to Students, Families, Schools, and Districts
Download the paper to learn
Education reform does not suffer from lack of energy or activity. Everywhere you look—Congress, state legislatures, local school boards, wherever—scores of eager-beavers are filing bills, proposing solutions, calling for change, and otherwise trying to “push the ball forward.” Yet for all the effort, for all the pain, we see little gain. What gives?
For all the effort, for all the pain, education reformers see little gain. What gives?
The conventional answer, in most reform circles, comes down to: “the opposition of special interests.” Teachers unions, school administrators, colleges of education, textbook publishers, and other defenders (and beneficiaries) of the status quo fight change at every step and guard their selfish prerogatives jealously.
That may all be true, but our challenges are much more fundamental. It’s not that the wrong people are in charge. It’s that there are so many cooks in the education kitchen that nobody is really in charge. And that is a consequence of an antiquated governance structure that practically forces all those cooks to enter and remain in the kitchen.
We bow to the mantra of “local control” yet, in fact, nearly every major decision affecting the education of our children is shaped (and mis-shaped) by at least four separate levels of governance: Washington, the state capitol, the local district, and the individual school building itself.
Consider so seemingly straightforward a decision as which person will be employed to fill a seventh-grade teacher opening at the Lincoln School, located in, let us say, Metropolis, West Carolina. One might suppose that Lincoln’s principal, or perhaps the top instructional staff at that school, should
Everybody in Washington claims they favor more flexibility in federal education policy. They want to be “tight on results” and “loose on how to get there.” They agree that No Child Left Behind “went too far” in putting Uncle Sam in the middle of complicated and nuanced decisions.
Or so they say, until push comes to shove. And then many of the players discover that they don’t like flexibility after all. They want to change federal policy in theory but not in reality.
It’s not just the President’s bizarre State of the Union request that states raise their compulsory attendance age to 18. (Perhaps that would help to trim the dropout rate, though the studies suggesting so rely on 40-year-old data.) I’m assuming that he was merely using the bully pulpit to promote a pet idea, not suggesting a new federal mandate.
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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