Voices in Education

Reinventing Public Education? Surprise! It’s Happening Already
Let’s start with a quiz. True or False:

1. Big city school systems are incapable of change.
2. The only way to move them is to vest power in a mayor or outsider superintendent.

The conventional wisdom, and most of the media, would answer yes to both questions. History tells us that the problem is not so easily answered.

In two recent Harvard Education Press books, my colleagues and I try to explode these conventional wisdom myths, which I believe are leading us toward shortsighted educational policies. In The Transformation of Great American School Districts: How Big Cities are Reshaping Public Education, we show that the history of big city schools conclusively demonstrates that the Progressive Era model of schooling has come to an end. In Learning from L.A.: Institutional Change In American Public Education, we show how the old institution was transformed.

Three key qualities of the Progressive Era institution, born in the early 20th Century, were local control, a professional hierarchy, and the myth of apoliticality. All are gone. Each of the districts we  examined—New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, Los Angeles and Washington, D.C.—exhibits a Byzantine mix of district, city, state, and national governance. Hardly local control! Each was headed by someone other than a career educator, who sought to break down the old professional hierarchy. And each district is chock full of interest groups, many with clear allegiances to politicians, political parties, and disparate ideologies that lead to gridlock. That’s politics at its worst.

Each of these huge public institutions is reinventing itself but in ways that are shaped by the particular politics of its city and state. New York is a city with strong mayoral control. Pennsylvania had an activist governor who intervened in Philadelphia. Chicago’s business elite has guided the district by remote control for more than a century. Los Angeles built a civic coalition around reform and then exhausted its energies.

But interest groups remain a constant. On the surface, reforms appear to be the product of a particular regime (Bloomberg , Daley, or Fenty) or superintendency (Vallas, Klein, or Rhee). But in reality something much bigger is taking place. The reforms don’t end politics; they just rearrange it. In Philadelphia, bringing in corporations and non-profits to run schools, which was supposed to substitute market forces for politics, did not do so. It just created new political actors.

Interest groups are a permanent fixture of the new public education. The presence of interest groups is not the problem; the problem lies in the way that politics is structured to focus interest groups on narrow self-interest, short-term goals, or wrongheaded conflicts. Why so perverse? It is not constitutionally ordained that politics should be structured to produce gridlock.

If big cities are experimenting with institutional change, as we believe they are, how do we learn from their experiences rather than bump from crisis to crisis? If interest groups are here to stay, how do we make their interactions productive?

Please write about your experiences—successful or not—in creating constructive political behavior that supports improved public education. I’ll respond.

About the Author: Charles Taylor Kerchner is research professor at Claremont Graduate University. His blog can be found at http://www.mindworkers.com.