Breaking edu-news out of New York City. NYC Schools Chancellor Joel Klein has resigned, after eight years of helming the nation’s largest public school system. And never one to miss a beat, NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg has already named Klein’s permanent replacement — Cathie Black, the chairwoman of Hearst magazines and the publisher of USA Today.
Do mayors run better urban school systems? That is the question the Wall Street Journal asked yesterday as it used Rochester (NY) Mayor’s Robert Duffy’s bid to take over his struggling city schools as a launching pad to discuss the merits of mayoral control.
Duffy is lobbying the New York Legislature to take over his schools, seeking to dissolve the current elected school board and replace it with a board appointed by himself and the city council. The pressing demand? The need to close failing schools and reopen new ones better aligned with student needs and learning expectations.
For those that read the WSJ’s education coverage, this is a regular drumbeat. Back in March of 2009, the Journal wrote (and Eduflack opined on) an interesting piece on the growing embrace of mayoral control, riffing off of the notion that President Obama and EdSec Arne Duncan were advocating for mayoral takeovers in order to implement their aggressive school improvement plans. As it did 17 months ago, the Wall Street Journal cites successes in New York, Boston, and Washington DC to make its case for giving the keys to the schools to the municipal leader.
Interestingly, yesterday’s article by Joy Ressmovits seems to note there has been no mad rush to add to the powers of our nation’s mayors. Despite last year’s declarations, we are not seeing huge numbers of urban districts turning to mayoral control. Despite efforts in cities like Detroit and Milwaukee, such moves seem to be the exception, not the rule.
First, there is no clear “mayoral control” model for which one can buy the playbook and just implement the plan. In New York City, Mayor Bloomberg had a particular plan in place, and he and Chancellor Joel Klein have implemented it step by step. In our nation’s capital, Mayor Adrian Fenty and Chancellor Michelle Rhee have tried to crib from NYC and build a NYCDOE South in DC. But leaders in Boston have behaved very differently, both in leadership style and in organization. The same can be said for Chicago.
Second, because there is no one-size-fits-all model, there is no guarantee of success. Just look at Cleveland, where student performance on NAEP has actually declined since the mayor’s office took control of the schools. Or look at NYC, where despite an historic increase in test scores, many still believe that the current regime isn’t working, even seizing on the recent realignment of the state assessment to discredit recent gains. And in DC, after two years of real gains, this year’s scores seem to have flatlined some.
Third, there are real political ramifications for taking over the schools. Case in point here is Washington, DC, where Fenty is in the re-election fight of his life this fall. One of the central issues to the campaign? Control of the schools. Fenty’s chief opponent, City Council Chairman Vincent Gray, has made major issue of how the DC Schools are run. So much so, in fact, that he has strongly suggested one of his first orders of business when elected mayor would be the removal of Rhee as schools chancellor. Who would have thought a superintendent would be a major campaign issue for an urban mayor?
If we just look at the NAEP, clearly mayoral control is not the answer to school success. The top districts (including Charlotte, NC and Austin, TX) on the NAEP TUDA are those run by school boards. Mayoral control superstars like NYC and Boston are still posting scores below the national NAEP average (though above the large city average).
In hearing Mayor (and hopeful NY LG) Duffy tell his tale, one has to believe there has to be a middle ground. Can’t we adequately deal with failing schools without needing to seize control of the district? Can’t school boards be held to the same accountability as we expect of the superintendent and the principals? Aren’t there incentives (beyond the current federal dollars) to get school districts to make the necessary changes to turn around histories of failure? Aren’t there ways to bring in the reforms Duffy seeks without having to go to the state legislature and ask for the nuclear option to deal with the schools? And as we assess our ability to turn around struggling districts, what measures should we use, besides NAEP, to determine success?
Lots of questions. But who has the answers?
Over the weekend, Eduflack was fortunate enough to break from the mugginess of our nation’s capital to enjoy the mugginess of the capital of the world — New York City. After a busy and tough summer, I was fortunate enough to take in my fourth Mets game at Citi Field, this time preceded by the opportunity to be down on that perfect brown dirt and beautiful green grass, with my Fred Flintstone feet touching the same hallowed ground as my beloved New York Mets (before they all took to the DL this year). I even got to meet David Wright, a great treat (though odd since he is a few years younger than my youngest sister).
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.
We are a nation of lists. We love lists. To do lists. In lists. Out lists. Check offs. Top 25s. Up and comers. Give us a list, and it is something that we can embrace.
Educators are very big on the concept of modeling. We find what is effective in a similar situation (with a school, a class, or a student just like mine) and put it into practice in our own situation. Makes sense — if it is works for someone else, it just may work for me.
Back in November, NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg released a report card grading all of the city’s public schools. It was a bold move at the time, though the impact of grading the schools took a few months to come to a boil. Now we are seeing it, as New York parents are now taking exception with the grades their neighborhood schools received.
That should come as no surprise. As Eduflack has written previously, we all want to believe our own schools are doing just fine, even if the system around it may be falling apart. We believe in our teachers and our administrators, taking solace that our child is receiving a top-notch education, regardless of the conditions around us.
When Bloomberg announced the grades, he did so in an attempt to do something about underperforming schools. And we can’t do anything about such schools if we don’t first identify them. So he issued them grades, grades based on student achievement. After all, shouldn’t we measure our schools based on how well they do their primary job — educating our kids?
To be expected, the critics are now hitting back against Bloomberg and his report cards. It took a little time, but we are now hearing the hollow refrains of high-stakes testing, teaching to the test, and abandoning “non-essential” courses like art, music, and the like. Such grading must be unfair because it doesn’t align with our popular thinking.
Let there be no doubt, we should be grading our schools. Every parent has the right to know if their school is achieving and if their school compares with the school across town, across the state, or across the country. Every student has the right to an effective education, and education as good as any other student is getting. Every superintendent has the right to know how his schools compare to each other, and which are getting it done and which need additional help, support, and direction. And every taxpayer has the right to know that our tax dollars are going to effective education and demonstrable student achievement.
So how do we measure that? What’s the most effective rubric to get the job done? And more importantly, if Bloomberg’s way is wrong, what is right?
It all comes down to whether we grade the process or the outcomes. Measures like parental involvement, per-pupil expenditure, class size, teacher experience, tutoring programs, transfers, grade promotion, and such are all good process measures. But we can check the box on all of those and more, and still be left with a failing school. it is frustrating, yes, but true. We can do it all “right,” and still not demonstrate results. What good is that?
Which gets us back to the Bloomberg formula of outcome-based grading. It sends a strong message to virtually every stakeholder audience in a school district to say we measure our schools based on student achievement. Our schools (and our teachers) succeed when our kids do. How we get there is important, sure, but our primary objective is where we went. Did our kids learn what is necessary to succeed in school and in life? If not, our schools aren’t doing as good a job as they should. There is room for improvement.
We can quibble about what tests should be used to grade a school, whether there are multiple quantitative measures and such. We can dream of a national standard by which every school in the country is graded. We can even look to models like Quality Counts or Newsweek and US News & World Report’s top high schools rubrics. But we all should agree that our schools should be evaluated, graded, compared, and appropriately improved.
If you have a better idea for determining whether our schools are effective or not, I’m all ears. I’m sure there are folks far smarter than I who are exploring such issues at think tanks, NFPs, and universities across the country. But until we have a better way, shouldn’t we use the best way we have now? Let’s grade our schools, and let them figure out how to earn the extra credit and do the make-up work necessary so they all achieve.