School & District Management Opinion

Teeter-Totter: Ed Reform in 2.5 Minutes

By Charles Taylor Kerchner — April 15, 2014 3 min read
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Child’s play can tell us a lot about how to reform a giant school district.

Some weeks ago, Robin Kramer, chief of staff to two Los Angeles mayors, asked me to chat with the staff at the United Way, which is becoming a powerful strategist in public education politics. But keep it short, she said. So how could I capture years of studying the Los Angeles Unified School District in 15 minutes (reduced to 2.5 in the animation above)?

My talk went something like this: Successful school reform is like having fun at teeter-totter. Only three rules!

First, pushing your end down once doesn’t work.

No matter how politically heavy you are, one action is never enough. The opposition pushes back, and you are left dangling. The game is about constructive back and forth, and persistence counts.

Thus, even $100-million in philanthropic push and a 7-0 vote on the school board in the 1990s reform called LEARN could not flip LAUSD’s traditions off the end of the teeter-totter. Similarly, efforts at capturing the school board with a reform slate lasted only one or two election cycles.

At the beginning of the LEARN reforms in 1993, the reform community pledged that they were in the game for the long run. Seven years later, they were all gone. My rule of thumb is: don’t even think about getting into education reform politics unless you or your organization are willing to give two decades to the effort.

Recently, reformers in Los Angeles and other cities have become heavily invested in regime politics, supporting a particular superintendent, mayor, or other leader along with their agenda. The problem with regime politics is that it tends to be short lived and egocentric. I remember testifying before a prominent governor, saying that the kind of labor-management cooperation he was contemplating would probably take a decade to establish. His dismissive response was, “that would be longer than my term in office.”

Second, it’s more productive to flip a ball than lift a brick.

Put a ball on the other end of the teeter-totter and it’s likely to roll on its own. A brick will just push back against you. In organizational-political terms, the brick is analogous to picking a single indicator of success, such as higher graduation rates, and arranging incentives and punishments around it. No Child Left Behind does that to a large extent.

The ball is analogous to a simple system, a virtuous circle where one thing leads to another. Thinking about high school graduation in systemic terms requires thinking about the key educational experiences that lead to it. Reading well by the end of third grade is a powerful influence on high school success. So is English fluency for those students new to the language, because it is the key to a student’s placement in substantive high school courses. High school support programs, like AVID, also help.

The most complex politics is that of production system or institution changing. Most reformers say that this is what they want, but they seldom think in systemic terms of one thing leading to another and form self-reinforcing circle. If your reforms are trying to change the system, then you as a reformer need to start with the system in mind, even if you can’t change it all at once.

Third, you get more leverage if you have the long end of the board.

Particularly if you are up against political heavy weights, leverage is essential. Build coalitions. Create relationships. Go to the playground and make new friends.

Education reformers often think people should like them just because they say they are on the side of children. Some openly despise politics and democracy. But education is full of interest groups that are not going away. While one may gain some comfort from hewing to either the corporatist or the neo-romantic view of schooling, rallying around either flagpole won’t get much done. At least in L.A., education reform has been politically deadlocked for 15 years. No one has put together a winning coalition.

Los Angeles has had big civic coalitions at several times during its history, and a close reading of the LEARN-era politics illustrates a rather masterful construction of a broad-scale coalition. The interesting historical question is why it did not persist?

The above rules are simple, and arguably simplistic, but they are frequently violated, and would-be school reformers get angry, bitter, and cynical when they don’t follow them, and their plans don’t work.

They would do better to remember child’s play.

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