Thursday, November 03, 2011

DC vs. New Orleans

A VERY interesting email from a friend about lessons from DC and New Orleans about how to fix a broken school system.  I'm not sending this around to critique Rhee – in fact, in a short period of time under very difficult circumstances, she did a remarkable job, as this article by Harvard Professor Paul Peterson highlights:  Rather, I think my friend raises excellent points about the importance of having the right strategy (a portfolio approach) vs. being good at execution:


I'm not an expert on the IMPACT system, but I don't think that government should be telling principals and other managers how to manage their teachers.  IMPACT appears to be very prescriptive, which takes a lot of necessary freedom away from the teachers.  I get why Rhee and others want to do this: they need to provide a seemingly objective counterweight to the union's complaints that management is unfair.  So they develop a very imperfect system that anyone can poke holes in (because any uniform system for 100+ schools with a huge range of students will have huge holes) so that they can get rid of some bad teachers.  IMPACT is probably very good at getting rid of bad teachers, but developing a rule or a system that applies to all in order to deal with the lowest performers is what bureaucracies do, not what well-run organizations do.  Well-run organizations develop rules to maximize the performance of the high performers, and treat the negative exceptions as exceptions.


I think that IMPACT and other such systems are, ultimately, symptoms of a malady that plagues lots of superintendents:  they feel the need to run things.  Whether for ego reasons or just because they believe this is truly the way to change things, superintendent after superintendent repeatedly tries to FIX failing districts.  You can't FIX failing districts for a zillion reasons, including:


-          Most of them have civil service laws, and even if they don't, there are LOTS of central office folks who need to be replaced, and to do so effectively (a baseline requirement if trying to turn around a district) will take forever.

-          The teacher contract inevitably prevents the superintendent from giving principals real power. 

-          They are monopolies, and thus inherently complacent (and will revert to complacence as soon as the reformer leaves).

-          Per that last point, they resist change and they revert to form unless enormous continuous pressure is applied, making reforms unsustainable.


This is why I believe the New Orleans system, and the approach Klein wanted to take system-wide and did on a limited basis in NY -- the portfolio approach -- is the ONLY way to fix a big failing district.  And the sad thing is, Rhee had that opportunity in DC because there's a HUGE charter sector.  Yes, most of them are of low quality, but then again so were most of the post-Katrina startups in NOLA.  But what if, instead of wasting her time developing rigid management systems, she had decentralized everything to the school or CMO level (in a unionized system that's only possible through chartering the whole damn thing), and then gone out and recruited great operators (DC has lots of appeal, it would've been relatively easy), put in place systems that ensure equity, closing of bad schools, and directed resources to proven operators.  If she had, I think it's likely that by now DC would have made REAL progress, like NOLA has -- and sustainable progress that couldn't be dialed back, because once parents have school choice, they will NEVER revert to the district.  Instead, we're stuck arguing over whether Rhee outperformed Cliff Janey in DC. 


To me, the role of a superintendent/district/government agency should be the following:


-          Ensure equity by managing or monitoring enrollment.

-          Close bad schools.

-          Reward operators of good schools with buildings, expansion money, etc.

-          Get the hell out of the way.


The role is NOT:


-          Try to manage to excellence a billion-dollar enterprise that's rife with patronage, protected employees, decades of underperformance, a horrible brand, and ridiculous incumbent practices.


As we look at superintendents for districts going forward, I think we do ourselves a disservice if we only look at whether they are generally reformers and will generally execute well.  They also need to have a good strategy, and not just try to prove they have the cojones to do the impossible.  As evidence, consider the incredible results of NOLA post-Katrina.  It was NOT due to superior execution, but rather the right strategy.

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