Three new briefs from CRPE shed light on the debate.
Good Governance Starts and Ends with Strong Schools
CRPE is a policy shop. We study governance systems and propose policy solutions at the systems level, but I start every presentation about CRPE’s work with this list of the attributes not of effective systems, but of effective schools.
I also tell new CRPE employees that one of the most important reports they can read is High Schools with Character, a study by Paul Hill and his former RAND colleagues. The study compares New York City Catholic, magnet, and zoned high schools, to learn what factors allowed some schools to succeed at serving low-income students and others to fail. The attributes identified in effective schools are similar to those in high-achieving charter schools. In order for schools to succeed, they need to have a clear and commonly understood definition of a graduate’s character and skill set. They need to be able to develop a team of people who agree on a common plan for achieving those goals. They need a fierce determination to solve problems at home or at school that might interfere with learning. They need to set and enforce norms about learning and behavior that all adults and students agree on. They need to be able to use time and money in ways that make sense for their school and their students. And they need to be responsive to parents and accountable for results.
At CRPE, we work our way from a vision of a school toward a central hypothesis: that the urban school systems we have today make it difficult, if not impossible, for schools with these attributes to thrive. School boards are focused on pleasing various constituencies instead of what should be their priorities: monitoring performance, closing schools that don’t work, and replicating schools that do. Union contracts assign teachers to schools based on seniority, not fit with the school’s mission or needs. District officials don’t allow parents to select schools that know how to meet their child’s unique needs. States don’t consider performance when funding programs or personnel, and give schools almost no control over their resources. District central offices create rules and directives, not supports for school improvement and incentives to innovate.
Rather than treating schools like generic outposts of bureaucracy, we need to foster their evolution into engines of innovation, by providing a high degree of trust, nimbleness, and coherence.
One can always find a few star schools in any given urban school district, but rarely more. These schools are usually highly dependent on “mad dog” principals who are not cowed by the system and can make it work for them—and they often lose their distinct culture as soon as that principal retires or takes another job. They are almost never replicated.
The central question for CRPE, then, is how we can ensure that all public schools operate with focus, with teamwork, with urgency, with responsiveness, and with character on behalf of all students. We study and support bold new approaches to district and state governance so it can promote, not inhibit, performance and innovation. We study innovative and effective new school and staffing models to learn how they can scale up effectively and serve all students equitably. We model ways public funds can be used more strategically and productively. We posit ideas about promising new approaches to governance, but we follow evidence wherever it leads. We like to be the first to say when an idea we thought might work doesn’t.
All of the central policy proposals today, in my view, could benefit from more grounding in what makes for strong schools and strong systems of schools. The push for statewide evaluation systems too often ignores the need for schools to be able to set their own teacher performance metrics. We’ve become so focused on trying to control for teacher quality that we’ve forgotten that good teachers stay in effective organizations with strong leaders. The push for new state accountability systems ignores the critical role of districts and charter authorizers in taking responsibility for overseeing performance. Most new state funding formulas fund districts, not schools. It’s easy to forget that schools matter
If I want people to keep talking to me at a cocktail party, if I want teachers to think I earn an honest living, or if I want my own mother to understand what I do, I can’t say that I study school governance. It’s a terrible word that connotes board meetings, accountability frameworks, regulatory requirements, and a whole host of other terms that are meaningless to most people who simply want to know how schools can get better. But CRPE was founded on the notion that governance matters. We study school systems and ways to govern those systems so that great people can do great work on behalf of students and their families.
Studies blaming long-standing problems in public education on charter schools make it harder to identify real solutions.