National Public Education
25Mar/170

“None of the Above” on Educational Reform

Who is going to lead educational reform in America?  To answer this question, let's look at some successful reform efforts for other public programs in this country.

When I first moved to New York City with my wife and small children in the early 1980's, my father-in-law told me that he thought there was "no hope" for the city.  He had just seen a subway train rumble by, all covered with graffiti and dirt, and the sight of that train convinced him that the city as a whole was incapable of succeeding.

But ten years later the subways were doing well, with new cars, new track, and increased ridership.  What happened?  Several things, to be sure, but one major improvement was that the city hired some administrators who knew what to do.  David Gunn, Richard Kiley, and others, knew how to fix the system.  They got rid of the graffiti, fixed the track, and got new state laws passed which enabled them to hire better workers and managers.

Up to that point, no one had worked very hard on the graffiti, for example, because they didn't think it was their job.  The entire system was run by people who had come up through the ranks as trainmen and conductors, and they didn't see how graffiti made that much difference.  After all, it didn't slow down the trains.

What Gunn et al. realized was that if you want to make new improvements, you needed to have new sources of revenue, and that this could only come from the people who were not currently taking the trains: new passengers out there in the general public.  People like my father-in-law.  And, for those people, the graffiti was all they knew about the trains. It was what they saw, period.  So if you wanted to access their funds, you had to fix the graffiti.  And it wasn't that hard; you just had to hire more cleaners.  Once the trains simply "looked" better, people started to think that the system now knew how to solve its problems and so started having more confidence in it, and thus were more willing to support it through fares and taxes.

The same strategy could work for public education.  New improvements have to come from the support of the general public, not the people who already have children in the school system.  How does one influence them?  Perhaps by showing them how they benefit from their support of the schools: the better workers, less crime, and better public health that public education does provide us all.  Where is this data currently?  It doesn't exist.  Solving that problem, like the graffiti, would go a long way towards improving support from the general public.

But here's the problem for the public schools.  Who is going to do this?  Unlike the subway system, there is no one person who is the director of the system.  There is no job title that is set up to solve this kind of a problem.  We can't just hire someone good for that job; it doesn't exist.

We have a decentralized, state-run public school system.  The leaders of that system are the 50 governors and 50 state superintendents of instruction.  Each of them is only in charge of 1/50 of the problem.  They don't have the authority to do any more than make a few minor adjustments.  And the local school leaders have even less power.  They control a tiny fraction of the problem.

And what about the national leaders, the ones that everyone seems too think are calling the shots?  They are forbidden by law from doing almost anything.  All their laws and edicts have to be worded as "recommendations" for the states, since we have a decentralized system.  Even when they threaten to take away federal funding from a state that doesn't follow their recommendations, they are only talking about 10% of any state's education budget.  90% of the system is run by state and local funds raised by the states themselves, not the federal government.

So there is no job title, currently, which we could fill with some excellent leader who would bring about the kind of reforms that improved the subways.  None of the current options would work.  There is no one, actually, fully in charge of our public school system.  So, of course, it is going to be quite difficult to improve it.

The solution, then, is to change that system.  We have to create, first, a position for a leader of the entire school system.  Someone whom we all agree will be in charge of the program.  Someone like the head of a national school board.  Then we would at least have the chance at improving the schools.

People say that they don't want a national leader for their school; they want local control. But such a position would not be a leader of the schools, but a leader of the school system.  It's a bureaucratic position; a way to make the much-maligned bureaucracy work better, not a management position for the schools themselves.  Gunn didn't worry about what was happening in the trains; he worried about the relationship between those trains and the general public, the source of their support. This is what the schools need.  A leader for improvements in the school system, not the schools themselves.  Then the schools will be able to improve.

Peter Dodington

March 25, 2017

 

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