More State Control—And Why That’s A Good Thing

TN Chief Huffman

Christina Samuels posted an EdWeek story about how States Creating New Districts to Steer Turnarounds.  This is an important trend.  We got NCLB largely because states were derelict in fulfilling the good school promise—that every family deserves access to at least one good school.  School accountability is politically and technically challenging.  School turnaround success is limited and capacity is thin.
What we have demonstrated conclusively over the last ten years is that closing chronic failures and opening good schools is a proven pathway to improved achievement and graduation rates.  New York and New Orleans are the best examples of the power of new school development linked to school accountability.
Christina notes that “Michigan and Tennessee are drawing on the experiences of Louisiana’s Recovery School District, which took responsibility for most of the schools in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina devastated the city in 2005 and which now includes schools from other districts across the state.”   These Recovery Districts recognized that bad governance was part of the problem that resulted in chronic failure.
Tennessee chief Kevin Huffman (former TFA policy lead) has hired charter stud Chris Barbic, founder YES Prep, to be the superintendent of the Achievement School District.  Expect great things from these two talented and courageous reformers.
It’s worth noting that stronger school accountability is on the growing list of levers that states have grabbed in the last 15 years.  Launched with A Nation at Risk, propelled by a few edu-governors and the Summits of ‘89 and ‘96 (where Clinton gave one of the most politically astute speeches I’ve seen).  During the second half of the 90s, most states took at least partial control of the seven big levers:

  • standards,
  • assessments,
  • data (see DQC),
  • accountability,
  • authorizing,
  • finance, and
  • staffing (at least certification, sometimes pay).

In case you wondered, I think this is a good thing.  America is saddled with an ineffective and anachronistic education governance scheme (now embraced by strange bedfellows on either extreme of the political spectrum).  My friends at Fordham are the only ones taking this fundamental flaw, see Rethinking Education Governance for the Twenty-First Century.
This gradual shift in control to the state also occurred in the UK with generally positive results.  However, in addition to eviscerating LEAs, they were more aggressive about pushing budgets to schools than any of these United States have been to date.
With the great unbundling of NCLB, control is being ceded back to states and they continue to aggregate control from districts.  State leadership matters more than ever.  Every state should have a Chief for Change like Huffman at the helm.  Every state should have an RSD led by a proven operator like Barbic.  Every state should have a robust authorizing shop with pathways for high performers, first timers, innovators, improvers and conversions.
See this PBS Frontline story for a great recent history of reform

Tom Vander Ark

Tom Vander Ark is the CEO of Getting Smart. He has written or co-authored more than 50 books and papers including Getting Smart, Smart Cities, Smart Parents, Better Together, The Power of Place and Difference Making. He served as a public school superintendent and the first Executive Director of Education for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

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