One of the billion-dollar questions in education improvement these days is whether change is better served through mayoral control or strong superintendents. To many, traditional superintendent/school board structures are merely the last line of defense for the status quo, with supes looking to protect the same old structures and programs, because that’s the way we’ve always done it.
Mayors, on the other hand, have a bully pulpit unlike any superintendent. They can force through real change, rallying key stakeholders (like the business community and philanthropy) that may otherwise back away from the same-old, same-old. They can push through the new, even if it may face resistance from those defenders of the status quo. They can put new leadership in place, layer in the necessary oversight, and do what is needed.
So it seems obvious that, at least for struggling urban school districts, mayoral takeover is the way to go. But as Eduflack wrote last month, such moves aren’t necessarily slam dunks. For every New York City success (and I realize that there are many who doubt the NYC DOE miracle), there is a Detroit. Even recent research out of the Brown Center found no real school improvement impact coming from mayoral takeovers.
Apparently, the Wall Street Journal sees things a little differently. Late last week, under the banner headline, “For More Mayors, School Takeovers Are a No-Brainer,” reporters John Hechinger and Suzanne Sataline describe how “more U.S. cities are considering scrapping a longstanding tradition in American education, the elected school board, and opting to let mayors rule over the classroom.”
For its case studies, WSJ offers up for mayors and their education successes. In Boston, where Mayor Tom Menino took over the schools in 1992, they credit the takeover with major achievement gains in national math tests and the opening of charter schools. In Chicago, Mayor Richard Daley took over in 1995 and is credited with improvements on state test scores. NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s 2002 takeover is credited with raising high school graduation rates by 11 percentage points. And in DC, the new kid on the block, Mayor Adrian Fenty’s 2007 takeover is also credited with raising graduation rates in a majority of high schools.
I learned long ago, courtesy of my friends up at Gotham Schools, to be careful when defending the improvements in NYC. For the record, I believe that Mayor Bloomberg and Schools Chancellor Joel Klein have done a great deal when it comes to improving NYC schools. We’ve seen the data and heard it retold by folks like the Broad Foundation. Student achievement gains may not be exploding, but they are moving forward. And such progress is a significant achievement in a system as large and entrenched as NYC. Yes, I recognize that some teachers and parents have taken issue with the approaches Bloomberg and Klein have taken. But at the end of the day, I continue to appreciate Klein’s unapologetic approach, particularly when he says there is nothing wrong with teachers teaching to a test if such a test is a fair measure of student performance.
Eduflack is really scratching his head, though, when it comes to branding DC as a successful mayoral takeover model. If anything, Fenty and DCPS Chancellor Michelle Rhee have earned significant incompletes at this point. Yes, Fenty has given Rhee the power. But she still is fighting to implement a new staffing structure and is now preparing for what could be a bloody showdown with Randi Weingarten and the American Federation of Teachers over tenure and teacher incentives. And while Rhee declared victory over the summer for first-year student achievement gains, the real win only comes when such gains are demonstrated year-on-year-on-year over the next three years or not.
But how can DC claim victory when it comes to raising high school graduation rates? Most education researchers will tell you that student dropouts occur primarily between eighth and ninth and ninth and 10th grades. The common belief is if you can get a student into the 11th grade, you probably can get them to stick around. So how, exactly, does Fenty take credit for raising high school graduation rates in a majority of high schools when he only has one year of data (2007-08) to look at? If more kids graduated during the first year of his mayoral control, is that due to mayoral leadership or to efforts put in place by the former superintendent and current high school teachers three or four years ago? Most would say 2008 graduation rates are due to 2005 activities, those interventions taken years before Fenty took over.
I recognize we want to see Washington, DC’s schools succeed. Even though DCPS is the smallest of the four school districts spotlighted, it carries a cache that Boston and even Chicago does not. It is our nation’s capital, and a school district long seen as a disaster that simply cannot be fixed. We embraced Rhee’s year one student achievement gains last summer as proof of success, even through we knew, in our heart of hearts, that a lion’s share of the success probably belonged to Cliff Janey and the previous regime. We want and need DC to succeed, so we grab onto whatever we can. We cannot afford for DC to become another Detroit, at least when it comes to mayoral control and school success.
WSJ does the field a disservice, though, by declaring such victory in Washington, DC. Yes, we can look at places like Boston, Chicago, and NYC and look at five or more years of progress and results. Any ed researcher worth her salt will tell you we need that much data to truly know whether a reform has been successful or not. A year’s worth of data is meaningless. We need some year-on-year information, a longitudinal view, to truly measure.
I’m the first to stand up and say we need to do whatever it takes to improve opportunity and success in public schools in our urban centers. We have too much at stake, and too far to go, to pussyfoot around or nibble around the edges when it comes to real reforms and measurable improvements. If it takes a mayor to take those steps, all the better. It provides us a strong leader who can be held accountable for such efforts. Let’s model best practices where there is evidence of real success. If that comes as a result mayoral control, terrific.
But we have to remember that for every mayoral success, we have equal parts failure or lack of impact. Now is certainly not the time to declare premature victory or to misrepresent data that is, or is not, even there. Although year’s worth of information is interesting, it is a far cry from a school improvement victory. DC still has many miles to go before it is ready to even think about declaring a major win as a result of mayoral takeover of the schools.