Assessment Opinion

Doug Christensen: Local Initiative, Self-determination and Leadership are the ONLY Thing

By Anthony Cody — November 15, 2010 9 min read
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Few people were as successful as Doug Christensen in resisting federal encroachment on education. As Commissioner of Education in the state of Nebraska from 2002 to 2008, Christensen oversaw the development of a system of locally based assessments that were created by teams of teachers, as he described here.

In light of the recent election results, it occurred to me that one possible silver lining might be a return to more local control of our schools. Could this be the basis for educators, parents and students to regain some of the initiative we have lost under NCLB and Race to the Top? I asked Dr. Christensen to share his views.

Question: Do you see movement nationally toward more local control of schools?

I see some “movement.” It may be more rhetoric than movement. But, at least we are hearing some policy leaders in Washington talking about less government, less intrusion into the work of the states, and more about partnerships with states in doing certain kinds of work like public education, social services and family supports.

I think some policy leaders and education leaders at the national levels are starting to see the effects of tightly wrapping states and local schools in a “bubble wrap” of regulations and consequences centralized at the federal level. I think some are seeing that if we keep winding this wrap tighter and tighter something is got to give and implosion is the likely outcome.

I think some others are starting to see that even though policy and regulation (and money) from the federal level may have good intentions, you can not treat schools, districts and the educators in them like puppets on strings and make them dance according to who is doing the string pulling and how the strings are pulled. I think some are seeing that leading “from afar” and by “remote control” does nothing to stimulate local engagement--initiative, local leadership and local discretion. You simply can not make people act, even when it is in their own self interest, by force. Prescriptions may be good for medications when we are ill, but even prescriptions require that we manage our own lives if we have any hope of getting better.

I am hopeful that we are seeing the beginnings of a more Jeffersonian notion about the role of the federal government. Jefferson would not be pleased to observe the goings on in our nation’s capitol and the intrusive nature of the decision making at the federal level. If we really want to improve our schools, and I think our schools need to improve and I think we all want better educations for our children and grandchildren, we can’t keep on the same course of prescriptive policies and funding to induce compliance as neither does anything to change the knowledge, skills and dispositions of those who lead our schools at the local levels. Jefferson was right when he stated something like this: “when we find individuals incapable of discretion in their own self interest, it is not appropriate to take the discretion away. It is our responsibility to inform the discretion."(paraphrase)

On the other hand, we have invested so much in what is now federal policy on steroids through NCLB and Race to the Top, including their first cousins in ARRA, i3, and the national assessment consortia, that it will be hard to advocate for dumping all of the effort and investment that has been made. It may not be the time to “cut and run,” but it is sure time to find a different way to “run the race” and find ways to achieve a more appropriate balance at all three levels--local, state and federal.

Even with the elections as they unfolded this past week, it will be hard to do much with ESEA. It is already behind in its re-authorization. It will be hard to develop coalitions of support in such a divided congress. And, ESEA now has a huge price tag compared to what it was just two years ago. It is even more centralized than NCLB of 2001 with decision-making and discretion the sole province of the U. S. Department of Education than NCLB 2001 was.

Sometimes I see the stars starting to align and that we will come to our senses and get the federal government back to the place of leading policy in education through targeted funding. Some argue that that is what we are now doing. NCLB-RTT is targeted funding that comes with massive amounts of prescription and regulation and severe consequences for non-compliance. While the money is discretionary, the current financial status of our states and schools make the huge amounts of money so seductive we have sold our souls to the almighty dollar. RTT is buying compliance with huge sums of badly needed money at the state and local levels.

The policy makers in Washington make their case for regulation of our schools based on an overly simplistic notion of accountability. One, they make the case that if you take “federal money,” you have to be accountable for it. What in the world is “federal money?” It is money that was paid in taxes from local taxpayers to hold in trust for those things the nation sees as a priority. It is not “federal money.” If the money comes from local taxpayers, should not the accountability be back to the local taxpayers not to the federal government? I think the answer is that we have forgotten about accountability at the local level and these are the people who are paying the bills, not the federal government.

Second, the policy leaders at the federal level see accountability as a simple matter of “keeping score.” The scores they want us to keep are test scores and just like an athletic contest, all the score tells us is who is winning and who is losing. The score does not in any way inform the actions that need to be taken to either keep on winning or move from “loser status” (think “failing schools”) to better scores. Further, such focus on test scores ensures that the management of the system of schools will become a focus on the scores and doing whatever needs to be done to raise them by most any means possible. And, it means that management will become progressively more and more prescriptive thinking that narrowing the variation of instructional practice will ultimately produce the intended outcomes. Name a sport, where the score of the previous contest becomes the basis upon which the coach determines the content of the ensuing practice sessions?

Question: Do you see the movement towards local control as a positive thing?

“Is local control a good thing” is not the right question. We don’t need more “control” at the local level, we need more initiative, self-determination, discretion and leadership. “Local control” can mean that local folks can be satisfied with mediocrity. On the other hand, initiative, self-determination, discretion and leadership means that each community has a responsibility to “be the best they can be.”

In fact, local initiative, self-determination and leadership are the “only thing.”
No enduring change will occur in our schools until the folks at the local level who send their children to the schools and who pay bills are engaged actively in making decisions, initiating new programs and practices and providing leadership at policy levels.

Assessment and accountability must have their locus of action and policy at the local level and in the hands of educators and local policy leaders.
Name a profession that is not in charge of their own metrics of success and the metrics of what is good practice? Lawyers are in charge of theirs. Medical doctors are in charge of theirs. So are accountants, nurses, bankers, and even morticians. Why aren’t educators? Why aren’t the local folks in charge and accountable?

We could have a great three-way partnership of educators and policy leaders at the local, state and federal levels if we would dump the notions of “local control” and that accountability at the state and federal level is the only locus of public accountability. The local leadership should take the initiative and use their discretion to guide the operation of the schools at the local levels. The state leaders should provide policy direction and capacity so that we can have schools of both excellence and equity. The role of federal leadership should be to give energy, policy direction and capacity at the state level to serve those populations that are most difficult to serve, are currently under-served and/or for whom the issues of equity can best be addressed by policy and capacity from the federal level.

Question: What is the relationship between local schools and districts and the state office of education in Nebraska under your administration?

We began our work centering on continuous improvement in the early 1990’s and our relationships with local schools left a lot to be desired. We were the organization with the rule book in our hip pocket and school folks did what we asked them to do because they knew we could ultimately pull out the regulations when we needed them. We were not the “go to” agency that schools would come to for advice, for help and for much of anything other than money. In fact, in a survey we conducted in 1994, the Department was ranked 22nd in a list of agencies and associations where school people went when they had a question or needed help. We found the linkage of policy and practice from state to local level was fragile at best and non-existent in many cases. We knew we could not strengthen this relationship through more regulation, more pressure or any means which involved force--policy, regulatory or financial.

Through three major initiatives we were able to turn this around in a relatively short period of time, two years. One, we scheduled regional meetings with anyone and everyone who would come talk to us about their issues. The Commissioner and assistants, the program staff, the regulatory staff and the State Board of Education all participated in hosting regional meetings. The meetings were opportunities for us to listen and we did. The second strategy was to approach any of our “design” work as “adaptive” work where we engaged the stakeholders in the design of those programs, practices and regulations that affected them. We designed programs and practices, like reading and math with the full engagement of those who were going to teach in them and those who were going to be affected, like parents and students. We wrote or revised rules and regulations with the stakeholders at the table working out areas of conflict or disagreement until we had a draft that we could take to the State Board.

Third, we formed a working partnership with our regional educational service agencies who provided staff development, technology training, library and media resources and a host of other educational support systems for local schools. They were the agency that our schools trusted and turned to for help. They were the agencies that had the expertise and the people that local folks trusted to lead continuous improvement. Our partnership around continuous improvement was the central strategy.

When we repeated the survey two years later, we had moved from 22nd on the list to number 2 right behind the regional education service centers with whom we were full partners.

Question: Do you have any thoughts on how parents and teachers should approach the re-authorization of ESEA?

With educators and parents as major stakeholders in public education, how can we continue to ignore them. Educators and parents must demand a seat at the table. They must demand that they are part of the partnership. They are not the only voices that need to be heard but they are ones that count the most. Theirs are the voices that represent the core work of the school, i.e., teaching and learning. Theirs are the voices with the passion for doing this work, doing it well and doing it well for all of our children.

What do you think of Dr. Christensen’s views? Is local initiative the key to improving our schools? Can we get this message across to our leaders?

The opinions expressed in Living in Dialogue 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.