Education Gadfly Weekly
Volume 11, Number 46
December 1, 2011
Opinion + Analysis
Too many cooks, too many kitchens
And too many people who can say “no soup for you”
Two steps forward, one step back
Charterin' ain't easy
How dollars flow down Santa Monica Boulevard
A funding-philosophy battle royale
Not “truly stupid”
We’re talking work study, not coal mining
Romancing the stone
A charter-like governance arrangement for LAUSD
Rockin' the suburbs
Middle-class parents deserve choice, too
Does School Autonomy Make Sense Everywhere? Panel Estimates from PISA
Which came first, development or autonomy?
Testimony on the Federal Role in Education Research: Providing Relevant Information to Students, Parents, and Educators
Russ Whitehurst, pulling no punches
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.
Despite 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 education-policy decisions are made in so many places—each with some capacity to initiate change but with even greater capacity to block it—that there’s really nobody “in charge.” Some will say that’s a tribute to our traditions of democratic control, checks and balances, pluralism, and federalism. Others will say it’s just a mighty wasteful and ineffectual way to run a system that is widely believed to need a thorough makeover.
Some have described education governance in the United States as
Since Ohio’s first charter schools opened in 1997, they have been at the center of some of the state’s hottest and most politically contentious debates about education. The past year brought still more examples of charter-linked controversy.
The 2010 elections were very good for Buckeye Republicans, with John Kasich winning the governor’s race (replacing Ted Strickland who had been a charter adversary throughout his four-year term). Republicans also took control of the House while expanding their Senate majority.
Almost immediately, GOP lawmakers set out to make the Buckeye State more inviting to charter schools. Governor Kasich’s budget proposals offered a solid plan for not only increasing the number of charters in Ohio but also boosting their quality. Crucial elements included:
- Encouraging successful operators to clone good schools and channeling fairer funding into them;
- Leaning hard on authorizers to fix or close failing schools and banning their replication; and
- Placing schools’ ostensibly independent governing boards clearly in charge of any outside organizations that they engaged to run their education programs.
This vision for quality along with quantity excited us and many others in Ohio and beyond. The Buckeye State was finally positioning itself to become a true leader in the charter sector rather than a troubled sector plagued by too many mediocre schools.
Then the House issued its version of the budget in April and with it came an enormous risk that charter advocates in Ohio would again shoot themselves in the foot—and their pupils in the heart. The House proposal, pushed by friends of
December 1, 2011
Do well-heeled parents have the right to heap donations on their students’ public schools to pay for teacher aids, extra library hours, or a media lab? Of course—though, as the Los Angeles Times explains, expect a fight. This week’s example comes from the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District, where the PTA at one Malibu elementary school adds over $2,100 per pupil to the school’s coffers compared with a mere $96 raised at another district elementary twenty miles down the road. The school board is mulling a plan to centralize all PTA donations, allowing for more equitable student funding. Our position on school financing is clear: Funding formulas should include weights that ensure that more public resources be allotted to higher-need students. But, when it comes to private dollars, districts and states should tread carefully. If parents want to donate more, so be it. Barring wealthy parents from education-related giving will only push them to invest instead in private extracurriculars—or even private schools—thus completely undermining the equity-based intentions of the embargo. Instead of this tack, here’s another solution for the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District: Ride the current wave of “philanthropy philosophy.” (Think: TOMS Shoes, in which you purchase one item for yourself at a higher cost, so that the second can be donated.) Or go one further, adopt a “sister
December 1, 2011
Newt Gingrich has issued some crazy statements since he first took public office in 1979. Yet his latest claim—that we shouldn’t be “entrapping kids in…child labor laws, which are truly stupid”—isn’t one of them. In a speech at Harvard’s Kennedy School, Gingrich suggested a “work study” program for K-12 education: Students could provide low-cost alternatives to unionized janitors, giving these youngsters work experience, money, and pride in their schools. This proposal to slacken child-labor laws has drawn plenty of headlines, and even more scorn. But there’s something to his logic. Nonprofits like YouthBuild and the ISUS charters in Dayton, OH, in which students work to complete high school while learning construction skills, already offer successful models of dual academic/job-training programs. The Cristo Rey network of Catholic schools allows their low-income students to offset tuition costs—and gain practical job skills—through once-a-week corporate internships. These models provide more than a paycheck and some on-the-job carpentry or accounting skills: They give students a better sense of the working world than any personal-finance or economics course ever could. Gadfly isn’t advocating for eight-year-olds to don hard hats on Alaska’s oil pipeline—and he doubts that’s what Newt had in mind, either. But there’s value in skills training and career preparation. Be careful not to blithely dismiss creative ideas like this.
“Individual Los Angeles Schools Gain New Autonomy,” by Howard Blume, Los Angeles Times, November 29, 2011.
December 1, 2011
As originally conceived twenty years ago, charter schools were to offer alternatives to the traditional public-school model—maybe Betsy wants a school that focuses more on drama than the football team or Davey wants one that prioritizes STEM learning. Somewhere along the way, however, many states restricted charters to “high need” communities awash in disadvantaged kids and failing schools. As a result, 70 percent of charter students are on free or reduced-price lunch, and most charters are urban. But that’s starting to change. Greater numbers of suburban students are venturing into the halls of charter schools—central Ohio alone had more than 10,000 suburban and rural students attend charter schools last year—sparking what Fordham’s Terry Ryan dubbed a “second generation” of charters. And it couldn’t come fast enough. Like their urban counterparts, kiddos in suburbia deserve the ability to choose schools that are right for them. Just ask any of the original architects of the charter theory.
“Charter schools lure suburban kids, too,” by Jennifer Smith Richards, The Columbus Dispatch, November 27, 2011.
Tyson Eberhardt / December 1, 2011
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 education is governed matters for students. But we told you that already.
|Click to listen to commentary on this NBER paper from the Education Gadfly Show podcast.
Eric A. Hanushek, Susanne Link, Ludgar Woessmann, “Does School Autonomy
Schooling in the Workplace: How Six of the World’s Best Vocational Education Systems Prepare Young People for Jobs and Life
Laura Johnson / December 1, 2011
In February, the “college-for-all” movement was dealt a mighty blow with the publication of Harvard GSE’s Pathways to Prosperity report. This new book from Nancy Hoffman, VP of Jobs for the Future, offers yet another forceful whack. (Insider power-couple scoop: Ms. Hoffman is married to a lead author of Pathways.) Though a seemingly admirable crusade, she contends, “college for all” is ill-advised for a country interested in having an “appropriately skilled and employed workforce.” (It’s also an anomalous goal, not shared by other countries.) As Hoffman explains, unemployment rates currently soar, even as employers complain of difficulty finding candidates with the right skill set. Americans have often shied away from promoting Vocational Education and Training (VET) programming, viewing it as classist, even elitist—a system that perpetuates social and fiscal disparities. However, strong VET initiatives in other nations are redefining post-secondary options for students. These programs are thoughtful, rigorous pathways to careers—no longer the “throwaway” tracks for the least effective students. And they seem to be effective: In Switzerland, 42 percent of students attaining the highest scores on the PISA exam chose VET enrollment. High-performing Australia enrolls about 60 percent of its eleventh- and twelfth-year students in VET programs. Through six case studies, Hoffman articulates lessons for America as we think through expanding our own work-based learning programs. The biggest: Ensure constant employer participation in curricula and certification development and in apprenticeship placements. For those ready to revisit the “college-for-all” mandate, this book provides a useful starting point.