American politics involves periodic regime change. Democrats and Republicans trade control of Congress, governorships, and statehouses. School board majorities shift, big-city mayors wrest control from elected boards, and states take over failing districts. From one party to the other, from one agent to the next, these changes are part and parcel of the American electoral landscape. As these shifts occur, it’s worth asking whether simply changing who’s in charge foreshadows improvements in America’s schools.
As a professor and a nonprofit director, we come at this question from different perspectives. Yet we’ve reached the same conclusion: Elections can change players and public commitments, but what they can’t guarantee is results that matter for students. The problem is larger than the ambitions, skills, or powers of individual political leaders. The problem lies in the dynamics of educational governance itself.
By governance, we mean the policymaking and public administration that define problems, articulate goals, adopt strategies and programs, raise and allocate resources, oversee service delivery, and shape accountability. In short, governance creates the conditions in which schools operate and students learn.
In this light, governance is the purview of elected officials and policy-level administrators. It also is the responsibility of the electorate, the citizens who send their representatives to office. In education, good governance means sustained support for learning-centered polices that promote continuous improvement. Unfortunately, governing bodies frequently fail to achieve this standard. Why is this so hard?
The theories, institutions, and processes that shape governance as a whole in this country—representative democracy, federalism, the separation of powers—also define the governing field for America’s schools. These arrangements are sources of strength and integrity, but they do have a cost. The dynamics they generate shape the context of schooling in ways that impede its success. Consider the following characteristics of governance in America:
• Dispersed authority, fragmented structures, and a large scale. Think: checks and balances, local-state-federal policy arenas, and the like. This division of labor often pulls the system in different directions, promulgates policies that seem incoherent from the vantage point of schools, and applies standard solutions in nonstandard circumstances. The result is uncertainty about who’s in charge, policy incoherence, and a compliance mentality at the top and bottom alike. In sum, structural dynamics impede system coordination.
• Conflicting interests, competition for resources, and bargaining and coalition-formation. These political dynamics are the bread and butter of governmental decisionmaking, but they often lead to a squeaky-wheel selection of problems, shifting agendas, and underfunded services.
What’s more, electoral politics trade responsiveness on the part of our representatives for interest-group and voter support. That’s all right as long as citizens know who is being responsive to whom and can track results. Things go awry, however, when the private interests of adults in the system trump the public interest in student learning, and the way we do business clearly stacks the deck in favor of the adults. Political dynamics ensure activity but not results.
• Dependence on individuals. Elected officials promote agendas, calculate risks and rewards, and attempt to distinguish themselves from their predecessors. These individual dynamics encourage officials to tackle problems, but also to avoid controversies. Officials may toss aside good policies and programs in order to claim credit for their own solutions. Individual dynamics favor symbolic actions, short-term fixes, and disruptions in reform continuity.
Operating across regimes, these governance dynamics have changed policies and structures, but have had little impact on the core patterns of schooling or student success. Governing schools this way has accomplished less than expected.
Watching the starts and stops of education reform has taught the two of us something about these dynamics. We know that states and communities can get better results. The key is finding a way to temper the structures, politics, and incentives that impede student success, while at the same time fostering the public’s engagement with education. How?
We think states and communities can accomplish more by infusing the system with a dose of organized citizen participation. We have in mind long-running, nonpartisan coalitions of informed citizens that pressure governing regimes across time to focus on important results, invest wisely, and commit to effective implementation and reform continuity. These coalitions would augment governmental processes by watching closely, studying issues, disseminating information, engaging communities, and disciplining those in power. The idea fits with larger notions of representative democracy, where the onus for effective government lies with citizens, not elected officials.
Can this work? Yes, Kentucky’s Prichard Committee for Academic Excellence, for one, has been playing this public-oversight role for 25 years. Its experience is instructive.
The group’s primary contribution, as an independent, nonpartisan organization of citizens working to improve education in the state, has been to sustain attention to educational needs and reforms and to stabilize educational governance enough to allow those reforms to develop. Kentucky’s comprehensive school reform has been among the most stable in the country, and the state’s students continue to improve on state and national measures of achievement.
The Prichard Committee consciously set about changing the dynamics of governance by building citizen pressure on educational decisionmakers. It did so in the following ways:
• By using community organizing, policy analysis, and legal action, the committee ignited and channeled public demand for student success.
• By modeling community activism and building citizen capacity to hold politicians accountable, it expanded public support for education and attention to reform continuity.
A citizens’ coalition can elevate student learning above narrower interests and develop civic capacity to recognize, support, and engage promising reforms.
• By engaging opinion leaders, maintaining bipartisan membership, and operating at the level of principle—more resources but not particular taxes, for instance—the committee dampened partisan conflict and kept interest-group divisiveness from breaking apart reform.
• By focusing Kentuckians on good research and achievement data, the committee fostered a culture of evidence that allows the system to learn and adapt within a coherent reform context.
• By communicating aggressively with policy and public audiences and setting priorities for political candidates, the committee enhanced system coordination and smoothed electoral transitions that otherwise might have stripped reforms of their coherence or derailed their progress.
This experience demonstrates to us that a citizens’ coalition can elevate student learning above narrower interests and develop civic capacity to recognize, support, and engage promising reforms. It can demand better information and reasoned argument, coordinate reforms across levels of government, and protect reform from regime change, even when school change runs slower than election cycles.
Is the notion of widespread, nonpartisan citizen coalitions naive? We think not. Pressure is the fundamental currency of politics. In effect, we’re proposing coalitions large enough to override narrow interests. Think of these coalitions as a citizens-based “check” on the dynamics of educational governance.
As Kentucky’s experience attests, the key idea behind accountability-driven reform isn’t just that educators will understand and respond to school achievement data; it’s also that parents and citizens will track results, too, and—here’s the hard part—do something about what they see. When accountability applies to everyone, political responsibility is enlarged.
Improving results for America’s students isn’t just about changing who’s in charge. Success also depends on our collective ability to discipline educational governance from the outside, creating conditions in which schools can succeed and students can learn. Organized citizen oversight can reach beyond the limitations of governing structures, political processes, or individual ambitions. It can temper the underlying dynamics that limit the promise of education reform. It’s time to apply these lessons more broadly.
A version of this article appeared in the December 05, 2007 edition of Education Week as Reform and the Dynamics Of Governance