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Who Calls the Shots in Urban Education?

In gang and prison culture, there are no elected leaders. Instead, whoever has the muscle and political savvy to gain power becomes the one in charge. These people are referred to as the "shot-callers," because they make the important decisions. It seems to me that in American education, in spite of all our hopes about the change Obama may bring, we may be continuing to move towards a culture in which powerful figures call the shots.

Case in point: the news this week that Education Secretary Arne Duncan said Tuesday that mayors should take control of big-city school districts where academic performance is suffering.

Duncan said mayoral control provides the strong leadership and stability needed to overhaul urban schools.

"At the end of my tenure, if only seven mayors are in control, I think I will have failed," Duncan said.

He offered to do whatever he can to make the case. "I'll come to your cities," Duncan said. "I'll meet with your editorial boards. I'll talk with your business communities. I will be there."
"And you wonder why school systems are struggling," Duncan said. "What business would run that way?
After the forum, Duncan told The Associated Press that urban schools need someone who is accountable to voters and driving all of a city's resources behind children.
"Part of the reason urban education has struggled historically is you haven't had that leadership from the top," he said.

I know in my city of Oakland, the current mayor has far too much on his plate to take on the school district. When then-mayor Jerry Brown tried to run the district about 8 years ago, he quickly found himself in way over his head, and wound up backing away from the whole project.

I also wonder about the people who Duncan has indicated he will be talking to about this. Business leaders and editorial boards. Apparently these are the shot-callers in our cities. And while he says he wants power in the hands of someone "accountable to voters," he is focusing his effort not on voters, or on the school boards they do elect, but on unelected business leaders who seem to be calling the shots these days.

And what about teachers? What kind of the place of the table is for us when mayors are in charge? Most of these big city mayors seem to decide very quickly that our unions are the biggest obstacles to reform. And it has not been my experience that the trouble with reform efforts is that they are not top-down enough. It seems to me that we have had top-down reforms for years, and what we need is not more of the same. We need leadership from the bottom up! Isn't that the "Yes, we can" model championed by our president?

UPDATE: Since I wrote this, historian and policy expert Diane Ravitch published an opinion piece in the New York Times providing deeper context to this issue. And my colleague teacherken has also explored the flaws in this approach in a new blog entry on the DailyKos.

So what do you think? If you are from a city where the mayor has taken control of the schools, how has that helped or hurt? Who calls the shots in YOUR community?

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