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Federal Opinion

What Can We Learn From L.A.?

By Charles Taylor Kerchner — October 17, 2008 6 min read
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When I told former Mayor Richard Riordan that I was studying school reform efforts such as his city’s Los Angeles Educational Alliance for Restructuring Now, he replied: “That’s easy—LEARN failed.” Riordan, like most observers, saw education reform as a project, a coherent, relatively short-term set of fixes to the existing system. After half a dozen years, it was easy to conclude that the project had not lived up to expectations.

The view that one project after another has failed leads to a “spinning wheels” notion of reform in which nothing gains traction. Our historical study of the Los Angeles Unified School District and studies in other districts around the country lead my colleagues and me to a different conclusion. We believe that the whole institution of public education is in flux, abandoning old ideas born in the Progressive Era of the early 20th century and trying out new ones.

Projects produce great headlines, but their histories fall into a familiar rise-and-fall pattern. Paying too much attention to short-run change dulls the ability to see longer-range transformation. As former President Bill Clinton put it, “There’s a big difference between the trend lines and the headlines.”

The expected pattern of change from reform projects is diffusion, what has become known as “going to scale,” from pilot project to districtwide implementation. Projects, and the regimes that foster them, usually last from three to five years—seven years is a long horizon—and are associated with a specific reform program and the superintendency that implements it. Electoral support and foundation support often coincide to limit the patience for results and the time any reform program is given for its audition. In some situations we studied, the time from a project’s launch to announcement of its demise is often measured in months, and hardly ever in decades. Thus, “going to scale” usually means small-scale or short-term.

Institutional change follows a different time frame. It occurs infrequently and takes longer. Indeed, if we are right, the dismantling of the old Progressive Era institution began in some districts 40 years ago. The process of institutional change is simultaneously evolutionary and revolutionary. Instead of innovation within existing structures, institutional change is more likely to involve creative destruction, the breakdown of old authority and operating systems and the reconstruction and replacement of a system’s basic structures and operating procedures.

The old Progressives gave us an institution built around four ideas. The most visible was the banner of politics-free education, which in effect meant elite rather than populist politics. Elite politics fed local control of schooling, which is still an item of political faith, if not practice. In this context, school administrators professionalized, promising both effectiveness and efficiency in the application of the public trust. That they were seen as both legitimate and effective leaders led to a “logic of confidence,” in which would-be critics of the institution were held at bay.

It is these ideas that we have found challenged at every turn. The myth of politics-free education gave way to the reality of interest groups. Even though sponsors of reform projects talk of driving out destructive politics, which usually translates into diminishing the power of the teachers’ union, they find that they have re-created a world full of competing interests. Philadelphia’s attempt to escape urban politics by replacing the elected school board provided only a temporary respite, and that city’s diverse-provider model of education introduced for-profit and nonprofit school operators as new political interest groups. New York City, Chicago, and to a degree Los Angeles have recoupled public education and mayoral politics.

Even though local control is still used as a political symbol, it has effectively vanished in the face of increasingly activist federal and state governments. In Los Angeles, the share of operating revenue produced by local property taxes has declined by 80 percent. And in New York and Chicago, the strongest of the strong-mayor cities, the city’s elected leaders had to head to their respective state capitals to gain legislation necessary for their reform ideas.

Even though reformers applaud the emergence of strong singular leaders—represented most recently in the near-celebrity status accorded Chancellor Michelle Rhee in Washington—professional educators have been supplanted by outside policy entrepreneurs in many big cities. In turn, these leaders have reached outside the district bureaucracy to firms and organizations that sell their services and maintain separate identities or commercial brands, such as KIPP (the Knowledge Is Power Program) or Green Dot. Districts operated this way become networks rather than bureaucracies, explicitly in Philadelphia and New Orleans and de facto in Los Angeles.

Even though educators fervently wish for a return to a “logic of confidence” and its high-trust environment, there is none on the political horizon. It has been replaced by a logic of inspection and consequences. Even if the No Child Left Behind Act were to be replaced as federal policy, the notion of external accountability through tests and other means is so much a part of the new culture of consequences that it would be unlikely to be replaced. In large part, the critical public believes that public education cannot be relied upon to replace the century-old practice of bell-curve sorting with universal high standards.

Each of the new ideas is both troubled and ambitious. The mixture of revolutionary ideas that have moved to replace the Progressive Era ones is matched with a series of imperfect but increasingly sophisticated efforts at their realization.

For social scientists and policymakers, one of the problems with such long-wave evolution is that the changes are often invisible. The process is not unlike the experience of the apocryphal boiled frog that does not notice the temperature in the pot slowly rising. But, like the frog, public education is well and truly being cooked, and policy entrepreneurs—the very ones who advocate turning up the heat—can benefit from an institutional worldview.

The way forward involves a combination of short- and long-term thinking, both evolution and intelligent design, if you will. It is clear that the finance and taxing system needs reworking in ways that support effective use of money in addition to its equitable distribution. It is clear that educational federalism will have to be reworked in an era when local control of policy initiation has been greatly diminished, but when the consequences for implementation rest almost entirely at the school and district levels. And it is clear that the process of teaching and learning will require substantial redesign, for the irony of our research was how few changes we found in the basic technology of instruction despite major changes in governance and operations.

Given the need for system design, it is also clear that the change process is messy, and that what happens and at what speed varies substantially. But it is fair to conclude that we are not headed toward the disappearance of public education, but rather toward multiple hybrid forms as each large system moves away from the Progressive ideal along similar but not converging tracks.

A version of this article appeared in the October 22, 2008 edition of Education Week as What Can We Learn From L.A.

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