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Education policy maven Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute think tank offers straight talk on matters of policy, politics, research, and reform. Read more from this blog.

School & District Management Opinion

School Boards as a Symptom, Not the Cause

By Rick Hess — August 12, 2010 1 min read
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For the past year, our earnest Secretary of Education has been banging the drum for mayoral control. As I’ve noted many times, I’m very sympathetic to the argument that mayoral control, done smart, can be a useful step in turning around troubled school systems. But I’ve been concerned about the tendency to romanticize its promise and to overlook its potential problems--especially the likelihood that mayoral control will limit access to independent metrics and performance data.

Over at Flypaper, my good pal Mike Petrilli voiced some second thoughts about mayoral control earlier this week after reading a WaPo column from a school board member in Montgomery County. Mike confessed, “The typical narrative of reformers is that the union elects the school board, the school board turns around and hands out favors to the union, and the heroic change-agent superintendent is blocked at every turn. We view school boards as impediments to reform. But what if they are simply impotent? Irrelevant? Incapable of promoting or defeating reform? If the true power lies with the bureaucrats, what does that imply for accountability?” To me, this points out the problem with the simple “school boards are bad” narrative.

In fact, the mayoral control versus school board debate too often blinds us to the reality that the who, what, and how of the arrangement matter as much as the simple declaration of mayoral control. Moreover, they distract us from more important questions about the nature of districts themselves. Look: the bigger question here is not just how to govern districts, but whether districts are a good or useful way to organize the delivery of K-12 schooling. Count me a skeptic on that score. As I argued earlier this spring in Phi Delta Kappan:

School boards govern school districts. That raises two linked questions: the desirability of boards as a form of governance and of districts as a way to organize schooling. Reform proposals routinely ignore this second question. This is a mistake, and it complicates governance challenges with organizational ones.... Debating governance reform or the merits of mayoral control may be too narrow a response to the challenge of crafting school systems equal to today's challenges. After all, even the "radical" challenge of mayoral control leaves untouched the assumption that schools should be governed by a series of contiguous bureaucratic monopolies. Many of the supposed frailties of boards aren't caused by democratic governance, but by the anachronistic structure of the district itself. School districts were institutionalized in the 19th and early 20th centuries, a time when travel and communication technologies that we take for granted didn't yet exist. In 1900, just 8,000 automobiles were registered nationwide, and just 17 out of every 1000 people had access to a telephone. While our districts have grown through consolidation since then, their shapes, norms, and roles are the products of an era when coordinating and overseeing teaching and learning from a distance of even 50 miles would have been costly and difficult and when there was no sensible alternative to geographically compact school systems. Having all-purpose operations focus on serving a given geographic community was common in the early 20th century and hardly unique to schooling. But that's no longer the way providers in most sectors are organized. Today, the world is dotted by providers that specialize in doing a few things well... Advances in communications, transportation, and data management technology have made it possible for one provider to oversee outlets in thousands of locations--and to offer the same specialized service in each of them. Yet, districts aren't permitted to operate in the same way. Delivering a new reading program or replacing a problematic human resources department requires sending a handful of administrators to go visit an acclaimed district for a few days, and then asking them to mimic it locally with existing staff and some consulting support. Today, every school district is asked to devise ways to meet every need of every single child in a given area. Since they can't tailor their service to focus on certain student needs, districts are forced to try to try to build expertise in a vast number of specialties and services. Districts then must also become the employers of nearly all educators in a given community. They are not able to selectively hire educators who agree on mission, focus, or pedagogy. With this grab-bag of faculty, leaders must then strive to forge coherent cultures. This is needlessly exhausting work. Transforming any sprawling, underachieving organization is enormously challenging under even the best circumstances; it may well be impossible under such conditions. Once a provider has developed the ability to solve a problem or effectively service a population, why wouldn't we not opt for arrangements that allow them to do so in more and more locales? A sensible configuration would allow providers to deliver the services (with their own staffs) directly to a growing population of students or across a range of schools and geographies. Such arrangements are made untenable by the geographic district monopoly."

Those tired of Band-Aids and inclined to rethink tired debates should keep an eye out for my forthcoming book The Same Thing Over and Over (due out this fall from Harvard University Press).

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The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.