Governance

The Fordham panel on school boards this afternoon, most of which I caught on the web, was an important one and I recommend it to anyone interested in school governance issues. (We were told that the video should be available on the Fordham website by Thursday).

I would like to make four quick observations prompted by the discussion:

1.? Size matters.? It seems clear that we need to think along two tracks in redesigning school governance structures for the future: forms of direct democracy and those of representative democracy. Clearly, consolidation of authority (either through state-wide governance systems or mayoral control) will take us in the latter direction. The question for Americans, steeped in a culture that prizes autonomy and diversity, is whether we know how to do the consolidation thing very well.

2. Responsiveness matters. Whether it is responding to the parent with a concern about a teacher, digesting a research study on best practices, or meeting the challenges of a crumbling economy, the school system that can adjust to such varying kinds of inputs is no doubt better off than one that can't. The need to be responsive on these various levels is what should guide us in working out governance issues for the future.

3. Finances.? This is the toughest nut to crack and I got no special insights from our panelists on the subject today (though I admit to taking a couple of breaks and may have missed something). The best...

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Though Mike wouldn't allow me anywhere near today's Fordham event, Are Local School Boards Vital in 21st Century America? I will answer the question here: Yes, more so than ever.? But if you're not in Washington this afternoon and can't make it over to 16th Street, tune in on the Web, 4pm.

The discussion features Anne Bryant, head of the National School Boards Association; Chris Barclay, president of the the Montgomery County (MD) Board of Education; Checker Lost at Sea Finn; and Gene I. Maeroff, Founding Director, Hechinger Institute, Teachers College, Columbia University and author of School Boards in America: A Flawed Exercise in Democracy.

Here's the quick argument for ?more so than ever?: ?If we are able to create differentiated instruction for children using digital technology, we should be able to use computers to put the demos back into education governance.? Like it or not, school boards as an expression of our democratic values and practices are vital.

--Peter Meyer, Bernard Lee Schwartz Policy Fellow

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Unfortunately, in his Limits of School Reform essay this morning, the newest op-ed columnist for the Times, Joe Nocera, shows the limits of logic in thinking about the subject ? or writing about it.? After throwing up the standard straw men ? ?At its core, the reform movement believes that great teachers and improved teaching methods are all that's required to improve student performance, so that's all the reformers focus on,? ?reformers act as if a student's home life is irrelevant,? ?Dodd [the teacher] does everything a school reformer could hope for?? ? he rolls out the woefully tired and hopelessly unhelpful nostrum: ??What needs to be acknowledged, however, is that school reform won't fix everything.?

Thanks, Joe. I didn't know that.

In fact, Nocera, who wrote the Talking Business column for the Times before landing the plum assignment on the paper's prestigious op-ed page, will one day see this essay as beginner's jitters.? He does hit all the high notes ? the ravages of poverty, the lessons of James Coleman, the further lessons of Richard Rothstein, even bringing in Joel Klein as the heartless reformer who thinks a student's home life is ?irrelevant? ? but ends up being completely off-key,? forgetting that we now have dozens, if not hundreds, of schools that are succeeding in educating poor children. He also conveniently forgets that the Catholics have been doing it rather successfully for many decades, if not centuries. And, in fact, Nocera ignores most of the last...

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In a major profile of the new chancellor of New York City's schools, the Sunday Times headline writer sums up Dennis Walcott nicely: A Schools Chief With a Knack for Conciliation. While, over in the Windy City, the Tribune went to slightly greater length to explain the appointment of Jean-Claude Brizard to head its schools:? New CPS chief leaves old district mired in questions, controversy.

Other than the size of the challenge (New York's is the largest school district in the nation; Chicago, the third largest), one of the things the two appointments have in common is that they are creatures of mayoral authority.? Michael Bloomberg, who stumbled into his third term as major domo of the Big Apple (no one calls it that any more), tripped badly when he tried to force another non-educator on the system.? He recovered quickly and moved one of his loyal deputies,? Walcott, into the job.

Chicago, on the other hand, is about to get a new mayor, Rahm Emanuel, who, while no slouch in the politics department (serving six years in Congress and several as a senior advisor to two presidents, including two as Barack Obama's chief of staff), has never run a city, much less an education system.? He might do well to talk to Adrian Fenty, the one-term mayor of Washington, DC., as well as Bloomberg, since, at first glance, Emanuel seems to have tripped coming out of the gate (he's not sworn in until next...

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The Centennial State has a great track record in education reform--bipartisan, even--which is why it was so disappointing to so many people when Colorado didn't win Race to the Top funds last summer, and now it looks like we're going to be disappointed once again. Not by Washington this time but by the state's very own Board of Education, which yesterday named a thoroughly lackluster pair of finalists for the key role of education commissioner.

No doubt they're both swell fellows. One is a veteran school administrator (and current acting commissioner), the other a former Air Force general who has recently been running a mid-size district in suburban Denver. They have acceptable credentials. But there's precious little evidence that either is a dedicated reformer, a visionary leader, a rocker of education boats, or a fit colleague for the burgeoning crop of "chiefs for change" in places like NJ, NM, TN, LA, VA, RI and on and on and on.

Never mind Colorado's honorable past as a reform leader in charter schools, teacher evaluations and more. This is no time to rest on laurels. The heavy lifting is really just getting underway. (There's reason to worry, for example, that IMPLEMENTATION of historic Senate Bill 191 is off to a vexed start; there's reason to fear backsliding on "common core" standards; there's talk of canceling future assessment of student writing; the state's U.S. history standards suck. Etc. Etc. Etc.)

In short, it's a time for forceful reformist energy...

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This article originally appeared in the April 21 edition of The Education Gadfly newsletter. You can sign up for The Education Gadfly or read an overview of the latest newsletter.

Along with paralysis over the budget (and so much else), there's enduring paralysis on Capitol Hill?over federal education policy. While 2011 has brought a flurry of promising reform activity at the state level, we detect barely a heartbeat in Washington when it comes to updating the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA, currently NCLB), even though an overhaul is at least four years overdue and just about everyone agrees that it's not working very well.

A year ago, the Obama Administration offered a decent ?blueprint? for reauthorization; but in Congress there are major fissures within each party?and little evidence of desire to cooperate across the aisle. Most commentators agree?and staffers privately admit?that chances are slim for an update before the 2012 elections. Sadly, they are probably right. It's a major abdication of responsibility by our nation's lawmakers.

Click to read our ESEA briefing book

And what makes it especially painful is that there's a pretty obvious path forward, not too different from the Administration's proposal. We sketch it out in a new ESEA reform proposal released this week. It capitalizes on some key realities:

First, NCLB has done a pretty good job of sensitizing the country to the...

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No one ever said that education reform was easy.? And no one said that Race to the Top, the Obama administration's signature education law, was perfect.? But when David Steiner, a reformer's reformer, announced last week that he was giving up the reins as New York state's Commissioner of Education, the education world seemed to take a collective deep breath. Steiner's announcement, after less than two years on the job, was what Philissa Cramer of Gotham Schools called a ?rattling? surprise.

The announcement rattled me, since I was just finishing up a feature story for Ed Next on Steiner's brilliant leadership in taking the moribund Empire State to the RTTT winner's circle in nine short months ? the equivalent of turning on a dime in the education reform world.? Much of the credit, of course, goes to RTTT itself, which set broad but rigorous reform goals, then dangled a nice prize in front of cash-strapped states ($700 million in New York's case) that proved they were serious about attaining them.? States rushed to join in the competition. But no one gave New York much of a chance ? and in fact it finished far out of the money in Round 1.? Steiner arrived in October of 2009 and by the end of May the following year, at three in the morning, stood with Board of Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch and his deputy John King, in the State Assembly and watched the vote that raised the state's charter cap...

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There is a wonderful moment in Jonathan Mahler's arresting New York Times Magazine story this morning about an inner city public school, when its entrepreneurial principal wanted to start the school day ten minutes earlier than the union contract called for.? Instead of yet another account of union intransigence,?Mahler quotes principal Ramon Gonzalez:

The research says it's better to start your school day later?? But those researchers don't live in my neighborhood.

As Mahler writes, Gonzalez's neighborhood is in the poorest Congressional district in the nation and most of his students live in one of five sprawling nearby housing projects.? Violence is a big part of his students' lives and the reason for starting school earlier is a nod to the realities of the street: he wanted to create more time for tutoring after school so he could get the kids home before dark.?

The?story is deftly reported and admirably written, and the Times should be applauded for allowing Mahler the space to show the nuances of the small victories and major challenges that illustrate some of the?secrets of ?Gonzalez's success; there is no secret sauce,?it seems, other than that of grinding dedication, intense focus on details,?and hard work.? The title of the story is apt: The Fragile Success of School Reform in the Bronx. After seven years under Gonzalez, who opened M.S. 223 in 2003, as?one of Joel Klein's first new schools, ?student proficiency levels in math have jumped 360 percent and in English by 200...

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[caption id="attachment_16080" align="alignright" width="300" caption="Photos by GothamSchools and Louise Docker"][/caption]

Mike's on the road today, but he wanted to make sure Flypaper readers saw: Cathie Black is stepping down as chancellor of New York City schools, to be replaced by Deputy Mayor Dennis M. Walcott.

For those who don't remember, Mike predicted a pre-Easter Black departure in his 7 for '11 predictions back in December 2010:

1.????? Cathie Black will be gone by Easter. A betting man might say that New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg will stubbornly hold fast to his choice, but I foresee a breaking point a few months hence. It'll go down like this: Her gaffes continue, she loses support even among middle-class Gotham parents, she botches the release of teacher effectiveness data, and she stumbles with the politics of budget-cutting. Worried about a mass exodus of the Department of Education's senior staff, and sensing vulnerability on a marquee issue in his presidential run, Bloomberg finds an excuse to show her the door.

Black's gaffs might not have been as egregious as Mike originally anticipated, but her loss of support, even among middle-class Gotham parents is sure. A poll given earlier this week tallied her approval rate at a scant 17 percent.

So, go ahead and gloat a bit Mike?and be sure to buy a lottery ticket today. (If you win, I expect lunch for the office.)

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?David Steiner got none of the negative press that Cathleen Black received when he was appointed Commissioner of New York State's Education Department in October of 2009. ?But it seems that the boot that Black got this morning may also have hit Steiner, whose resignation (now set for the end of the year) was announced?this afternoon. ?

In fact, the two education leaders couldn't have been more different. Black was a non-educator; Steiner was the real deal and his appointment?was hailed by educators as a major step forward for New York.? In a few short months, he turned New York State from an also-ran?in the Race to the Top competition to a winner.? As I write in a forthcoming story for Education Next about Steiner, ?Perhaps not since William T. Harris, the 19th century's last U.S. commissioner of education and founder of the first philosophical periodical in America, have we had such a deep and agile mind in such a key position of public school responsibility.? ?

What happened???While the Black exit was predictable ? and predicted, by Mike Petrilli ? Steiner's departure came as a shock to many when New York State Chancellor Merryl H. Tisch announced it today.? The press release reads:

We recruited David because he is one of America's leading education reform visionaries, and as Commissioner he has delivered - leading New York's successful Race to the Top application and guiding this department through an amazing array of reforms.? As he approaches the

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