Opinion: The (in)competence of government
We now know that the massive recent recall of salmonella-tainted eggs—launched after 1500 people had taken sick—likely could have been prevented had one federal agency (Department of Agriculture) communicated what it knew about egg-farm sanitation failings to another federal agency (Food and Drug Administration) with responsibility for food safety. But that communication didn’t happen. Never mind that, according to the Wall Street Journal, “the two agencies have a formal understanding about the USDA giving the FDA notice over sanitary issues.”
This is the same federal government that we now want to turn around our schools, produce racial balance in Advanced Placement classrooms, manage millions of college loans, make certain that all teachers are effective—and equitably distributed among schools—not to mention spur classroom innovation, report accurate performance data at every level, and engage in a hundred other major-league education missions.
Sober up, folks. How competent is government to carry out its most basic duties and responsibilities, much less tackle truly complex problems over which it has very limited authority?
I’m not grumping only about Washington. Governments at every level. Can municipalities fix potholes, keep the traffic flowing, prevent subway trains from crashing, and ensure that utility companies reliably supply our homes with electricity and clean water even when snow falls and wind blows? Can states make certain that only people who really know how to drive are on the highways—and that those highways have enough lanes to accommodate the population? Can they take children away from parents who mistreat them—and put them somewhere better? See that their pension systems are funded? That their bridges don’t fall down? That their prison walls are tight and their courts efficient?
As for Uncle Sam, can he get the mail delivered to the right addresses in timely fashion? Keep airplanes from colliding? Guard against banks going bust with our savings? Adequately arm, supply, and protect our troops in harm’s way? Defend our borders? Keep our omelets and hamburgers from sickening us?
One is fairly reminded of those who demand that schools impart complex yet nebulous “21st century” skills to kids who cannot even decode words or add and subtract. We may laud the ambition and even share the dream, but if teachers who cannot get the basics right take on such challenges as creativity, “media awareness,” and “working together” they will surely fail. The basics will never get learned. And the kids’ lives will be blighted.
Ditto government. If it can’t do the basics, how can it realistically be asked to do the complicated stuff?
Yes, I’ve fretted before about over-reaching and over-promising government. But far from going away, this problem worsens. Today more than ever, many Americans expect miracles from government, solutions and riches from on high, not unlike “cargo cults” in the New Guinea highlands. This is exacerbated by elected officials—plenty of these on the Obama team and on Capitol Hill—who keep raising hopes and escalating promises. (Think health care reform.)
Our government does have some virtues. It’s rarely corrupt and eventually completes much of what it sets out to do, though the pace is slow and plodding, the costs are almost always higher than expected, and implementation is invariably accompanied by unwanted and undesirable consequences. Think of it as a wobbly horse and buggy that shouldn’t be asked to operate like a jet plane.
Surely this mismatch between government promises and government competence helps to explain the Tea Party’s traction and its recent electoral successes. Millions of Americans know from experience and/or feel in their gut that government isn’t the solution to all our problems and that, as it takes more onto its plate, costs will rise, the “basics” will suffer, implementation will worsen, and personal responsibility, sense of community, and civil society will all erode.
It’s one thing for government leaders to call attention to a problem. (Think “A Nation At Risk.”) That’s what the bully pulpit is for. It’s quite another matter for them—or anyone else—to suggest that government will solve that problem.
Consider the inflated pledges made at Charlottesville in 1989 about where American education would be by the year 2000. Consider NCLB’s promise to have every child proficient by 2014. Its commitment that kids stuck in bad schools could shift to better ones. That every classroom would boast a “highly qualified” teacher. (That rhetoric has now inflated to “highly effective.”)
Even modest-seeming promises don’t get kept. Arne Duncan sensibly wants us to focus on turning around the lowest-performing 5 percent of U.S. schools. Seems far more doable than NCLB’s labeling more than half our schools as needing surgery. Yet who really believes that the Education Department’s program of School Improvement Grants will yield this result? Nobody from Washington is flying out to turn around individual schools—as if any of them knew how—yet practically nobody outside the Beltway has a clue how to do it, either. Another dashed hope and unkept promise? Another issue for the Tea Party? Part of the reason for the (idiotic) calls to eliminate the Education Department altogether?Government, in short, finds it difficult to fulfill its current responsibilities, coordinate its various parts, and honor its core obligations, many of which are vital just to keep us healthy, safe, and alive. How many more things should it try to do? Are not more promises by government a formula for failure and disappointment? A boost to libertarians who would have government cease and desist from just about everything? What if we just settled for scrambled eggs that don’t make us ill?
It’s no surprise that Michelle Rhee has stepped down as Chancellor of the District of Columbia Public Schools. Advocates of “mayoral control” in education have always argued that such a governance arrangement provides a clear line of accountability, straight through the mayor's office. Upshot: Adrian Fenty loses; his schools chief is out. Simple as that. But that doesn't make the outcome any less unsettling for D.C., and especially for its most vulnerable children. As the Washington City Paper editorialized before the election, “When it comes to reforming a failed school system, you either go monomaniacal or go home. It’s naïve to think that you can do it while simultaneously making nice with the old guard.” Vincent Gray, Washington’s next mayor, will test this argument with his promise to push reform but also seek greater buy-in from stakeholders. There’s little reason to be optimistic about this approach—can anyone name a single city where “reform with a smile” has turned around a failing school system?—but here’s hoping for the best. And, if you’re really committed to looking for a silver lining, it’s this: Michelle is gone, but D.C.’s charter schools remain, and within a few years they will serve a majority of the city’s children.This piece first appeared in slightly different form on the National Review Online blog, The Corner. It also appeared on Fordham’s own blog, Flypaper.
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution cracked open the sealed box of school boards—and didn’t like what it saw inside. While many Atlanta-area board members are experienced and educated leaders, others are untrained in budget creation and execution. Some have documented histories with money mismanagement; forty percent have personal financial problems, even as they control multimillion dollar education budgets. Investigations by the AJC also uncovered nepotism—at least 35 percent of school board members polled had family members who worked in their district—and a failure by the state to police training requirements for board members. To ease these woes, the paper highlights suggestions for reform: Set education requirements for school board members and mandate training for new and incumbent members alike. Unfortunately, these weak-kneed changes—which aren’t likely to occur, anyway—cannot get at the heart of the issue so well-articulated by the AJC. Instead of inconsequential changes like requiring school board members to have a high school diploma, why don’t we saw the lid off the box, empty it out, and truly rethink the way we structure school governance?
Over the past decade, New York students made dramatic gains on state tests. This progress helped propel Michael Bloomberg to his third term as New York City mayor in 2009. But, as we learned a few months ago, some of those gains were illusory—products of shoddy tests and slipping standards. This long New York Times article gives the back story and digs into the dirty details. There were plenty of design and process flaws, but the biggest problem, it seems, is that New York made it too easy to teach to the test. By making the tests public after the fact, and not switching the format from year to year, it encouraged teachers to prepare students for narrow assessments, rather than teach them more broadly. Experts such as Daniel Koretz sounded the alarm long ago, but to no avail. Until now. For those of us who believe that test-based accountability is an indispensable tool, let us learn these lessons or live to regret it.
Without decisive action taken to improve our nation’s public schools, the American dream will fade into a “distant, elusive memory.” These hard-hitting words end the “letter to America” issued Sunday by sixteen large-district leaders, hailing from the North, South, and Midwest, from red and from blue states. It may not be revolutionary; the supes’ recommendations—focused on teacher quality—aren’t necessarily new ideas. (Among them: End the “glacial process for removing an incompetent teacher,” and give parents a better portfolio of schools from which to choose.) And the push for giving district leaders (i.e. the authors) more control to reach these goals isn’t subtle. But the tone and message are commendable in more ways than one. The piece doesn’t rival King’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail, but it’s hard not to appreciate the spirit through which the signing leaders came together and willingly denounced the system’s many failings. This pronouncement took a bit of courage, too, though perhaps there’s some safety in numbers.
Review: Literary Study in Grades 9, 10, and 11: A National Survey
This paper—a follow-up to an earlier, Arkansas-based study—answers two simple questions: What are high school students being asked to read today and is that material challenging enough for them? The short answers: a hodge-podge of texts, and no. These findings derive from a survey of 406 ninth, tenth, and eleventh grade English teachers across the country who were asked what reading material they assigned in their “standard” and “honors” classes (not in basic, elective, or AP/IB courses since analysts were particularly interested in the experiences of the “middle third”). And the responses are plenty disconcerting. First, literature and reading curricula are not uniform but “idiosyncratic”; in fact, only three titles (Romeo and Juliet, To Kill a Mockingbird, and The Crucible) appear to make it into even 20 percent of high school English courses. Second, what students are assigned is generally not challenging enough for high school-level reading skills: only four (Julius Caesar, The Scarlet Letter, The Odyssey, and Macbeth) of the twenty most frequently-assigned titles have a high school-readability level (Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men, often assigned at eleventh grade, weighs in at a fourth-grade level!). Third, in a check-all-that-apply question, 70 to 80 percent of teachers report that they choose the major novels, plays, and poems that they assign (only 30 to 40 percent say they are influenced by their departments or school curriculae). Finally, most teachers don’t engage students in close, analytic reading of the assigned texts, instead utilizing “reader response”—which asks students to render a personal response or discuss the context of the piece—to determine textual understanding. The authors make several recommendations, one of which exhorts states to develop literature and reading standards that help shape a progressively more challenging curriculum. And though the study does not mention it, the Common Core Standards lay an excellent foundation.
Review: Between Public and Private: Politics, Governance, and the New Portfolio Models for Urban School Reform
The concept of portfolio management in K-12 education (PMM)—a diverse array of public schools overseen but not directly run by a central office—has many advocates. The authors of this new edited volume, including Henry Levin and Josh Edelman, examine its strengths and weaknesses via case studies of Chicago, New York, Philadelphia, and New Orleans, each of which has employed at least a limited version of PMM. Their findings: the portfolio approach can jumpstart change in dysfunctional districts but is no silver bullet. In New York City, for example, the Bloomberg-Klein regime saw genuine academic gains through its PMM model but the changes made turn out to have less to do with the model itself than with the political and economic strength of Bloomberg and Klein. In New Orleans, the portfolio approach to education has coincided with increased student performance. However, the district now spends more on education than it did during its pre-PMM days, and lacks a coordinated governance structure because of it. Education policy, the authors argue, often suffers from an unchecked rush to judgment on new ideas. However, they also argue that, absent a willingness to try new approaches, we are stuck with the status quo.
Review: Bumping HR: Giving Principals More Say Over Staffing
Through an analysis of its extensive teacher-union contract database, this National Council on Teacher Quality policy brief explains that, when it comes to school staffing, districts sharply limit the authority of principals. Multiple contractual and bureaucratic obstacles get in the way of HR moves by school principals. Perhaps most problematic is the practice of giving senior teachers “bumping rights”—forcing principals to fill empty slots with teachers they may not want. All is not lost, however. The brief also suggests solutions and points to a few districts that are putting them into practice: For example, end forced placements of teachers, as in New York City, and make better use of teacher evaluations, as in D.C.’s new teacher contract, which links final-year evaluations to firing practices. In and of themselves, these solutions won’t revolutionize entrenched district HR practices; but they offer tangible mechanisms for how school leaders can gain some control over staffing.
Review:Cutting to the Bone: How the Economic Crisis Affects Schools
This web-based report from the Center for Public Education—an initiative of the National School Boards Association—investigates the short- and long-term impacts of the Great Recession on state and local budgets and education funding. Its findings, at first glance, may be termed sobering: In 2010, forty-eight states faced budget shortfalls, with thirty-three of those states (and D.C.) cutting education spending. At the local level, 78 percent of districts cut their budgets. Nor do figures seem likely to improve for a while. As the CPE report states: “Federal ARRA and Education Jobs funds are simply tourniquets for hemorrhaging local and state education budgets.” That’s all true, but what do we make of it? Rather than face the music, CPE simply pleads for more bailouts. For instance, instead of using this moment to push for health-care benefit and pension-package reforms, the CPE laments these benefit reductions. The report concludes with an appeal for a “serious national conversation” to drum up ways to provide more funding for education. Yes, a serious national conversation on how to manage school funding is overdue. But we also must be candid about the economic realities of our education system—and do a better job of making lemonade out of this lemon of a situation.
The Education Gadfly Show Podcast will return next week. Same fly-time, same fly-channel.
Flypaper's Finest: Opportunities abound with online learning
This week, Fordham’s newest board member, Caprice Young, is spending some time in Ohio and her visit could not be timed more perfectly…. Yesterday’s news headlines read almost as though Ohio reporters knew she was on her way. The Dayton Daily News ran a piece about the exorbitant costs of college dropouts in Ohio ($300 million) and, while the article didn’t theorize much on the causes of these dropouts, the fact that many students leave high school unprepared and in need of serious remediation seems like one reasonable hypothesis (30 percent of students drop out of four-year programs after one year)….
Flypaper's Finest: Build a better teacher
Two education-related articles appeared in the Outlook section of yesterday’s Washington Post. One is worth reading. In “Why aren’t our teachers the best and brightest,” Paul Kihn and Matt Miller—who, with Byron Auguste, coauthored for McKinsey & Company the recently published report “Closing the Talent Gap”—explain why more of America’s “smartest, most accomplished college graduates” do not “want to become teachers.”…
Wondering how budget woes can become opportunities? Join Fordham and a top-notch group of panelists on October 26, 2010 from 12:30 to 2:00PM for “Cost-Cutting Strategies and Opportunities for Schools and Districts.” RSVP here.
A scant thirty-one words, the Pledge of Allegiance both unifies and divides. Take a trip through the Pledge’s history in a dandy new book by Peter Meyer—a Bernard Lee Schwartz Policy Fellow here at Fordham.
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