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Governing American Education: Some Modest Proposals

In my last blog on this subject, I described a list of major structural problems with the way American education is governed.  These include the struggle for control of American education between the states and the federal government; the wide dispersion of authority for education among a large welter of state agencies; the very weak capacity of our state departments of education; the parochial character of local control and its pernicious effect on equity in school finance; and much more.  

I pointed out that the lack of a single agency at the state level with the responsibility, capacity and authority to create powerful, coherent and effective designs for the state education systems and to implement those designs puts the United States at an enormous disadvantage in the fierce global economic competition we are now experiencing.

In this blog, I will make some suggestions for steps the nation can take to address these problems.  All of these recommendations are based on the experience of the top-performing nations and are elaborated on in my recent paper, Governing American Education: Why This Dry Subject May Hold the Key to Advances in American Education.

First, and most important, the states need to strengthen their state education agencies by consolidating all important education functions in the state education agencies, abolishing state boards of education and having the state education agencies report, along with higher education agencies, to the governor as cabinet-level agencies.  Pay for state agency personnel needs to be improved and staffing levels need to be set at a level commensurate with the new agency responsibilities.  Many powers now delegated to local boards and superintendents need to be pulled back to the state level.  Finally, school finance systems based on local property wealth need to be abolished and new systems put in place in which the funds for schools are raised at the state level and distributed by the state directly to the schools on an equitable basis.

Second, local boards should be abolished.  District offices should be downsized in light of their reduced functions and they should report to the mayor, operating in policy frameworks set by the state.  School faculties should have considerably greater autonomy with respect to allocating budget resources, setting the curriculum, deciding on professional development priorities and so on.  

The federal government's role in education should be restricted to funding education research; monitoring national education performance; gathering and reporting a wide range of data on the American education system; providing funding intended to help low wealth states spend more money on education than they otherwise could, provided they are willing to make a tax effort equal to the tax effort made by wealthier states; and acting as a watchdog to protect the civil rights of Americans in the field of education.

A new intergovernmental agency should be established at which the top officials of the federal education department and the top education officials of the states meet together to agree on certain national functions that need to be carried out, such as the development and revision of national standards for student achievement; the development and maintenance of a national system for accountability in the schools and a national system for reporting student and school accomplishment.  Under this arrangement, the current contention for dominance in this arena between the states and the federal government would come to an end, for both would have to agree for any proposal to succeed.

I acknowledged in my paper that these proposals are likely to attract violent opposition from several quarters.  My purpose in offering them is not to see them carry the day in the form in which I have proposed them, but to spark a debate, which I believe is sorely needed.  These may or may not be the right proposals, but the current state of affairs is more responsible than any other factor for the fact that the last three decades have seen very little improvement in American students achievement, at the same time that we have seen enormous increases in real costs of the system.

We can no longer afford a system in which no one is in charge and no one can be held accountable for the performance of the system.  We can no longer afford a system that cannot possibly become coherent in design, because no one is in a position to design it.  We can no longer afford a system in which no one is in a position to design an implementation plan for the new design we do not have.  We cannot afford a system that is not a system.

We got here because of our deep distrust of government.  But government is the only tool we have to coordinate, plan and execute our strategies for improving our education system at scale.  If we fail to enable government to do the job, it will not get done.  It is as simple as that.
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