Too many cooks, too many kitchens

Click to watch the webcast of our event on education governanceDespite 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 a “layer cake,” others as a
“marble cake” (because the jurisdictions and zones of control of different
governments and agencies are so jumbled). Still others favor the image of a
“loosely coupled train” where movement at one end doesn’t necessarily produce
any motion at the other. We find a more apt analogy in a vast restaurant or
food court with multiple kitchens, each thronged with many cooks, yet with no
head chef in command of even a single establishment much less the entire
enterprise.

It’s well past time to rethink, re-imagine, and
reinvent education governance for the twenty-first century.

 
   
 

Consider so seemingly straightforward
a decision as which teacher will be employed to fill a seventh-grade opening at
the Lincoln School, located in, let us say, Metropolis, West Carolina. One
might suppose that Lincoln’s
principal, or perhaps the school’s top instructional staff, should decide which
candidate is likeliest to succeed in that particular classroom. But under the
typical circumstance, the most the principal might be able to do is veto wholly
unsuitable candidates. (And often not that, considering seniority and “bumping
rights” within districts, their collective-bargaining contracts, and,
frequently, state law.) The superintendent’s HR office does most of the vetting
and placing, but it is shackled by the contract, by state licensure practices
(which may be set by an “independent”—and probably union and ed-school
dominated—professional-standards board), by seniority rules that are probably
enshrined in both contract and state law, and by uniform salary schedules that
mean the new teacher (assuming similar “credentials”) will be paid the same
fixed amount whether the subject most needed at Lincoln is math or music.

Washington gets into the act, too, with
“highly qualified teacher” requirements that constrain the school. By the end
of the process, at least a dozen different governing units impede the
principal’s authority to staff his school with the ablest (and best suited)
teachers available.

And teacher selection is
but one of many examples of the “too many cooks” problem. Much the same litany
can be invoked for special education, for the budgeting and control of a
school’s funds, or for approved approaches to school discipline. (Not to mention
a more literal “too many cooks” issue: What to serve for lunch in the school
cafeteria?)

What
great leader or change-agent would want to become a school principal under
these circumstances? Or a local superintendent? Or even a teacher? Well, maybe
in a comfy (and probably smug) suburban setting. But not in the places that
most need outstanding talent.

No,
American education doesn’t need czars or dictators. Separation-of-powers and
checks-and-balances are important elements of our democracy. Kids and communities
do differ and there needs to be flexibility in the system to adapt and adjust
to singular circumstances, changing priorities, and dissimilar needs. But
today, our public-education system lacks flexibility and nimbleness of all
sorts. Surely that’s not what the founders—or Horace Mann—had in mind. And it’s
most definitely not what our children need.

It’s well past time to rethink, re-imagine, and
reinvent education governance for the twenty-first century. We’d better get
moving.

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Click to listen to commentary on the today's education-governance system from the Education Gadfly Show podcast.

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