Monday, December 06, 2010

Re-imagining local control

Checker Finn, one of the few reformers who can still count Ravitch as a friend, rebuts her recent WSJ op ed:

Writing earlier this week in the Wall Street Journal, my friend and long-time former co-author, Diane Ravitch, challenged resurgent Congressional Republicans to return K-12 education to "local control" and to repudiate and reverse the nationalizing/federalizing tendencies of No Child Left Behind, Race to the Top, Common Core standards, etc. Appealing to the GOP's history as "the party of local control," she urged the re-empowerment of local school boards and teachers-as-professionals as the proper remedies for what ails American education.

As in her much-discussed book, The Death and Life of the Great American School System, Diane has it half right. She pinpoints genuine shortcomings in NCLB and failings in a number of other federal education programs, and correctly observes that many of the school-reform efforts and innovations of recent years have not yielded the desired achievement gains.

But she's wrong about the remedy for these failures and about the course that Republicans (and, for that matter, reform-minded Democrats) should follow in the days ahead.

The weak and generally stagnant academic performance of most American school kids, our scandalous achievement gaps, the country's sagging performance vis-à-vis other countries, the skimpy preparation of many teachers and principals, the shoddy curricula, the fat and junky textbooks, the innovation-shackling union contracts, the large expenditures with meager returns—these are not the result of an overweening federal government. They are, in fact, almost entirely the product of state and local control of public education—as it has traditionally been defined and structured in the United States. They are the product of failed governance, bureaucratic mismanagement, and the capture of the K-12 system by powerful organizations of adults who assign lower priority to kids' needs than to their own interests. They are maladies caused by, and worsened under, the aegis of the very system that Diane trusts to cure them.

It's never smart to expect those who cause, or even those who tolerate, problems to be any good at solving them. Blithely consigning America's education fate to the traditional structures of "state and local control" won't work any better tomorrow than it did yesterday, and Republicans (and Democrats, too) should spurn such advice.

What they should do instead is re-imagine local control, clear out the dysfunctional bureaucratic underbrush, disentangle the responsibilities of different levels of government, make everyone accountable for their performance (as gauged primarily by student learning gains), quit throwing good money after bad, and unshackle education innovators and entrepreneurs so they can give their all to solving problems and creating alternatives.



Re-imagining local control

by Chester E. Finn, Jr.

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