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Governing American Education: The Challenge

Last week, the Center for American Progress released a paper they had commissioned from me called Governing American Education: Why This Dry Subject May Hold the Key to Advances in American Education.  In it, I argue that this country is very unlikely to match the performance of the top-performing countries without major changes to its system of education governance.

The top performers recognized years ago that their education systems had been designed to produce graduates to meet the needs of a mass production economy.  Most needed only an 8th or 9th grade level of skills, a smaller number of skilled workers was required, and an even smaller number needed the strong academic skills required of future senior managers and professionals.  But these countries realized that the changing dynamics of the global economy had drastically changed this requirement.  High wage countries would see their standard of living decline unless they were able to provide a kind and quality of education to almost all their students that they had previously thought necessary for a small minority.  And they would have to do this at a per student cost no greater than the cost of the old system.  That, obviously, required a ground-up redesign of their education systems.

So they turned to their education ministries, both to come up with the redesigned education systems, and then to lead and manage their implementation.  In some cases, these ministries are at the state or provincial level.  In others, they are at the national level.  Either way, they are the place where the education policy buck stops.  That is, it is the ministry that has the responsibility for the effectiveness of the education system as a whole and the authority needed to exercise that responsibility.  In the top-performing countries, ministry officials have a high status in the education community.  Working there carries prestige.  Officials are paid well.

There are no such agencies in the United States.  No one wants the United States Department of Education to have the powers of a ministry of education.  Our legislatures long ago delegated many of the state powers in the education arena down to the local boards of education.  Those powers that are retained at the state level have been parceled out among many different boards, agencies and commissions that are not responsible to each other or to any single official or agency.  Certainly our local boards of education are in no position to do what ministries of education do in other countries.

And there is more.  Until the George H. W. Bush administration, the federal government was content to see its role as aiding the states in various ways, with the states clearly in charge.  But, with the discussion of national goals in education, and then national standards and then national accountability systems, the federal government began to claim a progressively central role in redesigning the basic structure of the American education system, and, when it did that, it came into direct conflict with the states over which level of government, the states or the federal government, was in charge of the design of the nation's education system.  That conflict has not been resolved.

Meanwhile, over the last 15 years or so, the average size of the state department of education staff has been slashed by 50 percent or more, even as the federal government was demanding more and more of these agencies.  Thus the one agency in government that could take on the role that ministries of education have in other nations, weak to begin with, has been made steadily weaker still.

And there is one last point to consider when comparing the American style of governance to that of our most successful competitors.  Back in the 1930's, reacting against the evils of the ward heeler style of government and the award of teachers' jobs to political loyalists by political bosses, Americans decided to get education out of politics.  The result is not at all what they intended.  Small interested minorities can easily capture school board elections, because very few voters vote in them.  Governors have no direct control over the single largest item in their budget and one of the single most important tools they have to bring new business into their state.  Mayors likewise have no control over the single largest government employer in their city and one of the most important tools at a mayor's disposal to improve the quality of life of the citizens of his or her jurisdiction.  Local big city boards are sometimes run by people who do not even have a high school diploma and who, no less than the old time mayors, view jobs in the system as patronage slots.  Boards in some rural communities work to keep education achievement low in order to prevent out-migration of their graduates and keep workers' wages down.  Superintendents cannot make their transportation programs more efficient, because board members beholden to small local contractors would force them out of their jobs.  Boards make textbook decisions based on which companies offer them and their families' all-expense-paid vacations in the tropics when the weather turns cold.  Reform Era 'reforms" did not get the politics out of education.  They just made that politics even more parochial than the politics that preceded it.  Certainly, there are boards made up of highly qualified people who work hard at their jobs and do them well.  But there are far too many boards of the kind I have just described.  

But the biggest problem with local control is its connection to the way we finance our schools.  The top-performing countries have all found a way to provide more resources to the hardest-to-educate students than they provide to those who start out with more advantages.  We do the opposite.  By basing most of the funds that go to our schools on the property wealth of the district, we make it possible for groups of wealthy people to congregate together in their own district.  They get to charge themselves a low tax rate and still produce a very large school budget on a per student basis.  So the richest people pay relatively low tax rates and use the proceeds to buy the best teachers in the state and build the most expensive facilities and supplies.  The United States will never enter the ranks of the world's top performers with those policies.  It is local finance that lies at the heart of 'local control.'

In my next blog, I will share the solutions I offered in my paper to the problems just described.
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