Trapped in Mediocrity: Why Our Schools Aren't World-class and What We Can Do About It

Trapped in MediocrityThe 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).

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