Opinion
School & District Management Opinion

Coherence, Innovation, and Local Control

By Justin Baeder — September 12, 2011 2 min read

It will be very difficult to raise the status of the education profession if our goal isn’t to have an education system that’s on par with the best in the world. At present, our school districts merely have to compete with each other for talent, so the profession isn’t very competitive compared with other career options for the bright and driven. Many still choose it, but not in the numbers we see in Finland and Singapore, which have national “top-third” teacher recruitment strategies. If teacher salaries and status are going to increase, it’s going to be due to a large-scale strategy to make the US more globally competitive. Local school boards have neither the incentive nor the resources to make these changes.

But would it really be better to end local control and impose a more top-down form of federal control of schools? Even if it were constitutional, would it be possible, and ultimately, would it work?

An interesting exchange took place last week between David Cohen & Mike Petrilli via blog posts. I’ve been thinking lately that a dramatic change in the status of the teaching profession will require a substantial financial investment, which at present it appears only the federal government can make. I was delighted to see such erudite minds, on both sides of the political spectrum, weighing in on this issue.

Petrilli started the discussion by commenting on Cohen’s forthcoming book, Teaching and Its Predicaments. Petrilli argues that we need both a robust culture of innovation and a stronger degree of state control and national coherence. He proposes that we develop a more coherent education system, but one that allows people to opt out:

We build national standards (à la Common Core), we develop a handful of national curricula, we connect pre-service and in-service training to the standards, and we tie accountability for schools, teachers, and students to them, too. We continue to minimize the role of the 14,000 school boards (if not eliminate them outright) by empowering states to take an ever-larger role in all aspects of educational improvement. And through these mechanisms, we make the "default" option in American public education--the "typical" public school--much better than it is today. At the same time, we make it easy for educators and parents to opt out of this One Best System. We grow the charter and digital sectors aggressively and remove the barriers that are keeping them from achieving their full, dynamic potential.

While I haven’t read enough by Petrilli to draw conclusions about his overall perspective, he seems to believe that fully local control—that is, by local school boards—can’t create the degree of equity and excellence that state-level coherence can. If we look at the recent international comparisons with (small) nations like Finland and Singapore, it’s easy to understand why having 14,000 systems instead of one coherent system seems unwise.

In his response to Petrilli’s post, David Cohen explains that the reason we don’t already have such a system is that our form of government is “artfully designed to impede coherent action in domestic affairs:"

The problems that we face are enormous, because solving them would require that we somehow devise means to build state, local, and classroom educational capability in a system of government that has long frustrated such things, and that we find ways to build coherence in a political system that prohibits making one size fit all.

Petrilli isn’t actually proposing a one-size-fits-all national system, but stronger state control, and more voluntary national movements to build coherence in our education system (a la CCSSI). Cohen doesn’t address this issue directly, but seems to concur that federal-level control wouldn’t really help:

In my 2009 book (The Ordeal Of Equality: Did Federal Regulation Fix The Schools?), Susan L. Moffitt and I recounted the great difficulties that the "top-down" approach to coherence, with which you associate my work, encountered as Title I of the 1965 ESEA was refashioned to leverage much greater central influence on schooling. Susan and I concluded that increased federal regulation had not fixed the schools, and had caused some real damage along with some important constructive effects. We did not see central coherence as The Answer.

A promising start, then, is to ask what states can do to raise the status of the teaching profession and start to create education systems (plural) that are more globally competitive. What do you think states can do?

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