Governance

No one said it would be easy. Two years ago, Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson, along with the city’s business, philanthropic, and education leaders, came to Columbus and asked Governor Kasich and the General Assembly to help them with legislation to reform the city’s long-struggling school system. The result, the “Cleveland Plan,” has drawn attention from around the state and across the nation.

The effort held promise that it would allow Cleveland to emerge from the bottom of the national heap in student achievement. The summer legislative victory in Columbus was followed by a successful levy campaign in Fall 2012, and the school district was off to the races busily trying to implement the components of the plan.

Reform plans, if they’re actually going to work, change the way a school district does business—and as anyone who follows education reform knows, that’s hard to do. It should come as no surprise, then, that Cleveland Schools CEO Eric Gordon’s implementation of the plan has come under fire. Let’s take a look at some of the most recent challenges.

Impatience

Rising expectations are essential for a struggling school district trying to improve its academic performance, but when the improvement plan requires additional local support from the community through a property-tax levy, those expectations extend beyond the schools and to every corner of the community. As reported by the Cleveland Plain Dealer, test scores in Cleveland’s investment schools (the lowest-performing schools “targeted for extra attention for improvement”)...

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Mike and Michelle discuss the “opt-out outrage,” good news from Kansas, and hope for the quagmire that is the United States Congress. Amber has the goods on exactly how generous public pension plans are. Amber's Research Minute Not So Modest: Pension Benefits for Full-Career State Government...

When it comes to SIG, my mind is obviously made up. So I’d forgive you for skipping anything I write about it; you have every reason to think I’m going to be bearish. That goes double for a post about a new federal study finding different but still discouraging SIG results.

Another opportunity for Smarick to beat up on this federal program? Pass.”

But if you’re still with me, please stay for a few more minutes. Yes, the new federal IES report A Focused Look at Rural Schools Receiving School Improvement Grants offers additional reasons to rue our decision to spend billions on “turnarounds.” But that’s not the big takeaway—at least not for me.

Over the last year or so, as my colleagues at Bellwether and I have worked on a large project related to rural K–12, I’ve become more attuned to the particular needs of rural communities and schools and how these needs differ from those of urban America. (In full disclosure: I have a personal interest in this subject, as one side of my family comes from a small working farm in a rural area.)

This study takes an in-depth look at the experience of nine rural schools that received School Improvement Grants; its goal is to understand how the schools’ rural location influenced efforts to improve student performance. The brief has limitations: it does not look at student achievement, and the nine schools are neither a representative...

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Sarah Rosenberg

When it comes to education reform, school boards are often the redheaded stepchildren. Over the last two decades, mayors have taken over nearly twenty major urban school systems. “School boards are an aberration, an anachronism, an educational sinkhole,” said Fordham’s own Checker Finn. “Put this dysfunctional arrangement out of its misery.” Even school board members themselves admit that they “throw temper-tantrums, use off-color language, throw things, [and] threaten or insult board members, the superintendent, staff, or the public.” The bigger question then is: Do school boards even matter? Should we even have them? Two researchers tried to answer that question.

In Does School Board Leadership Matter?, Arnold F. Shober and Michael T. Hartney matched school-board-member survey data from 2009 with data about each participant’s district. The goal of their analysis was to determine whether school board members’ characteristics and opinions correlated with their districts’ student achievement and whether their districts “beat the odds” and outperformed what their student demographics predicted. What they found was promising: school board members who believe that improving student learning is their most important priority were more likely to serve in districts that beat the odds.

Considering school boards control the vast majority of the nation’s 14,000 school districts, this is good news. But the research does require a few caveats. First, the survey did not interview entire school boards; instead, they interviewed 900 school board members from 417 school districts. School boards can—and often do—have members with...

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  • Horizon Science Academy in downtown Toledo has been entangled in a months-long process to secure a new facility by buying the building currently housing the YMCA. Despite a signed contract and a use permit approved by two of three needed city entities, the deal has stalled. They are opposed in this effort by a neighborhood group which would prefer Toledo Public Schools take over the space for a Head Start program and affiliated services, regardless of the fact that TPS has no funds on hand to do so. You can read the whole saga as it has unfolded on the Ohio Gadfly Daily, but the vote last week in city council to grant final approval for the use of a school in the building tied at 6–6. The city’s new mayor D. Michael Collins declined to cast the deciding vote at the time; he has two weeks in which to do so.
  • Kudos to Chris Woolard, Director of Accountability at the Ohio Department of Education, for winning the 2014 State Data Leader Award from the Data Quality Campaign. Chris and his team were recognized for their efforts to ensure Ohio teachers and administrators have easy access to timely, relevant student data, as well as training in how to appropriately and meaningfully use those data to improve results for students. You can check out an audio interview with Chris, where he discusses the vital work of bridging the gap between data systems and the teachers who use them.
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The Massachusetts Business Alliance for Education was born in response to A Nation at Risk, and in a 1991 report, it pointed the way toward the Bay State's much-praised 1993 education-reform act. What happened thereafter is widely known: with an entire suite of reforms in place, the “Massachusetts Miracle” propelled that state to a level of educational performance that rivaled leading nations elsewhere on the globe. The past few years, however, have seen some stagnation and backsliding on the ed-reform front in the Bay State, and the MBAE recognized that the time has come for a new kick in the pants. So they engaged Sir Michael Barber and his Brightlines colleague, Simon Day, to prepare the present report, a status update and road map to the future. Even a jaded report reader might fairly term the result thrilling. It acknowledges the stagnation problem and depicts six gaps as the main challenges facing Massachusetts: the employability gap (the dearth of needed skills for success in the modern economy); the knowledge gap (a lack of crucial Hirsch-style content); the achievement gap (similar to NCLB concerns); the opportunity gap (i.e., poor kids don’t get a fair shake); the global gap (the state will lose its international ranking as countries with strong education systems forge ahead); and the top-talent gap (failure to address the education needs of gifted youngsters). For each of these gaps, an audacious but convincing set of remedies is proposed. I've no idea whether the Bay State has the will, the...

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Anyone concerned with improving the achievement, efficiency, operations, or other performance of school districts inevitably asks: Shouldn’t the board be responsible for doing this right? How much do school boards matter, anyway?

In the past, school boards have been characterized both as key partners in improving education and as foes of reforms that would benefit children. More recently, they’ve also been depicted as beside-the-point, structural relics of early-twentieth-century organizational arrangements that have little effect on what actually happens in classrooms or on what kids learn.

So which is it? When it comes to the elected leaders of most of the 14,000 school districts in the U.S., are board members critical actors in enhancing student learning, protectors of the status quo, or simply harmless bystanders? If they are critical, are they well suited to delivering the best results for students? And if they are indeed capable and willing to focus on student learning, do such qualities at the board level bear any relationship to academic results in their districts?

Until now, nobody had much evidence one way or the other. So, building on a large-scale survey (done in collaboration with the NSBA and ISBF), we set out to see whether school board members’ characteristics, knowledge, and priorities could be linked to district performance. To explore these questions, we enlisted Arnold F. Shober, associate professor of government at Lawrence University, and Michael T. Hartney, researcher in political science at the University of Notre Dame. Both have conducted significant previous research into...

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Mike and Michelle acknowledge that school board members, for better and sometimes worse, affect student outcomes in their districts. But they don’t have to accept the misleading headlines on Indiana’s standards debacle (a case study in the hazards of politicization if there ever was one), nor must...

In an Education Week commentary essay about school boards in 2009, I wrote, “[M]y sense of things, after two stints on my local school board…is that school boards have been overtaken by the ‘educatocracy,’ by powerful trade unions, certified specialists, certification agencies, state and federal rule-makers and legislators, grants with strings, billion-dollar-contractor lobbyists, textbook mega-companies, professional associations, and lawyers—the list could go on.”

I am quite gleeful, therefore, that the new report from Fordham entitled Does School Board Leadership Matter? asks most of the right questions about school boards—and provides some very interesting and helpful answers for progress moving forward.

Complaints about school boards are legion—and well known—and they carry on. A few titles in the new report’s endnotes spell it out: “School Boards: A Troubled American Institution” (by Jacqueline Danzberger), School Boards in America: A Flawed Exercise in Democracy (by Gene Maeroff), and Beseiged: School Boards and the Future of American Politics (William Howell). The dates of these publications range from 1992 to 2010. And, of course, Checker Finn beat them all, suggesting in a 1991 Education Week commentary that we should probably “declare local boards and superintendents to be archaic in the 1990s, living fossils of an earlier age…. Local school boards are not just superfluous. They are also dysfunctional.”

“Under these circumstances,” I wrote in my 2009 Ed Week commentary, “it doesn’t surprise me that many people think school boards are irrelevant. They are. Boards do a lot of moving the chairs around on...

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