School & District Management Opinion

NOLA Argument #11: The False Choice and the Role of Leadership, Part II

By Douglas N. Harris — October 15, 2015 3 min read
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In the last post, I addressed the argument that today’s discussions about portfolio reforms tend to present a false choice between traditional and reform/portfolio districts. This is a reasonable argument in that there are many options in between, and others that are completely different.

Another reason it’s partly a false choice is that the system isn’t all that matters. In our June conference, this topic came up in a video-taped session entitled “Traditional v. Portfolio Districts (and Everything in Between).” The superintendent of Atlanta Public Schools, Meria Carstarphen, objected to the session title. She emphasized that many “traditional” districts are already adopting “reform” principles. This is no doubt true, as I emphasized in my last post. But that doesn’t mean the idea of a traditional school district is no longer relevant. Indeed, the vast majority of school districts in the country have no charter schools, still use zone-based attendance, still have detailed union contracts, and so on.

Carstarphen also argued that “it’s less about the structure and more about serving families and children"--again, the idea is that the system doesn’t really matter. “You just have to have the ability and the will,” she added, implying that it’s more about leadership within a given system.

As the moderator, I pressed this point with some others on the panel. Former New Orleans superintendent Paul Vallas argued that Detroit was also a reform or “portfolio” model but had not generated the same results as New Orleans. He also emphasized the importance of certain specific strategic choices: avoiding the disruption of feeder patterns when turning around schools and replicating successful school models, taking a best practices approach.

So, Carstarphen and Vallas seem to agree that leadership, strategy, and implementation are important. That makes sense given their positions and backgrounds--strong leaders like them are going to talk about how leadership and strategic vision matter.

And they are right, at least as far it goes. Of course, leadership, strategy, and implementation all matter, but the question though is will these three elements be done better in the long run when schools are governed by school boards versus some alternative governance structure?

The answer almost certainly depends on what the “other” system is. Paul Vallas argued that the role of the state should be to transform failing schools, not to continually operate schools. That is, the role of the state in running schools should be temporary--get in and get out.

In New Orleans, the state “gets out” by giving schools autonomy, but it also “stays in” by maintaining control over governance--especially decisions about opening and closing schools. For better or worse, school closure and takeover is much less likely in systems governed by a school board--it rarely happens outside of cases of extreme fiscal distress and based more on political factors than educational effectiveness.

The closure question is also important to the role of charter schools. Charter closure is especially unlikely in places like Detroit where there are strong financial incentives to keep schools open, regardless of performance. This issue of school accountability was also a major factor in the recent policy changes in Ohio, which increased transparency and accountability for charter schools. It’s not often that a teacher’s union and charter advocates can agree on charter reform, but they did in Ohio. If those sides can agree that the system has to change, then clearly the system matters.

As we have showed in New Orleans, the more detailed decisions about funding, accountability, and student enrollment are also especially important. I’ll write more about these in the future.

The bottom line is that leadership, strategy, implementation, community support, and other factors all matter--but these are substantially determined by the system itself. We shouldn’t wait for heroic school leaders to save the day, especially given that those leaders tend to come and go. Instead, we have to create systems that make it easy to be a hero.

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