Public school governance IS the problem.

Anyone making a study of the deficiencies in the manner in which public school systems are governed in Maryland and in much of the United States might do well to schedule a visit to the Baltimore metropolitan area.  Right now we have in this area a smorgasbord of the problems that come with a style of governance that tends to produce local boards of education that either try to micromanage school superintendents or hire peripatetic superintendents with a top-down management styles who parachute into school systems and introduce “innovative” programs advertised as quick fixes to long-standing problems, or both.

The unique way in which American public elementary and secondary schools are run served us fairly well for about the first 100 years after Massachusetts established the first compulsory school laws in 1852.  In the past 50 years or so, however, there has been a rather steady decline in the performance of our schools, particularly in comparison to schools in developed countries in Europe and Asia.  According to one well known study of developed and developing countries in 2015, 15-year-olds in the United States ranked 38th out of 71 countries studied in math proficiency and 24th in science.

Whatever we are doing now isn’t working all that well.  Even our “best” schools are fairly mediocre by international standards.  It seems to me that it is tough to argue that it isn’t time to try a different approach.

The United States used to be known for its adaptability and willingness to move past ways of doing things that no longer were working as well as they had in the past.  Now, however, we seem hide-bound by the influence of special interests and politics.  What is it about the governance of public schools that needs to be changed, and why?

A local board of education stands in a relationship with the local superintendent of schools that is different in kind from the relationship that exists, for example, between the typical board of trustees of a public university and the president of that university.  The role of the board of trustees of a university generally is limited to approving the mission and broader goals and objectives of the university and to evaluating the performance of the president.  The president usually is delegated complete authority for the day-to-day management of the university and for the establishment of policies and procedures that govern the educational programs and other operations.

In contrast, local boards of education are charged by law with taking a much more direct role in the governance of a school system, obligated to review various decisions made by the superintendent in administering the schools.  Maryland law specifies that a local board shall “determine, with the advice of the county superintendent, the educational policies of the county school system.”  With boards so deeply involved in issues affecting day-to-day governance there can be a fine line between board members carrying out their legal duties and micromanaging local superintendents.

In my opinion, elected boards are less likely to manage that balance judiciously; politics being what it is there is more pressure on elected board members to second-guess a superintendent.  The patience necessary to sit back and allow a superintendent to do his or her job is not a common attribute of contemporary politicians.  Let’s not pretend that elected school board members are not politicians of one sort or the other.

Micromanagement of a superintendent seldom ends well.  If you are looking for an example of what happens when a local board of education loses sight of the difference between its role and the role of the superintendent in a heated rush to try to changes to a school system you need to look no farther than Howard County.

In Howard County three newcomers defeated the incumbents in the three seats on the seven-member Howard County Board of Education that were up for election in November.  The new board majority immediately went to war with Superintendent Renee Foose over control of the school system with Superintendent Foose filing a suit alleging that board members are overstepping their bounds and interfering with her ability to run the school system.

The latest casualty in the war is a scholarship program initiated by Superintendent Foose in cooperation with McDaniel College.  In what only can be described as a fit of pettiness and pique the new board ended the program so precipitously that McDaniel is considering its own legal action.  At present the governance of Howard County schools is hopelessly polarized – like a lot of other institutions run by elected officials.

Local boards of education, even appointed ones, tend to feel the pressure to try to solve problems  in the short term even when longer term fixes are required.  Quick fixes are sought in the form of charismatic superintendent candidates who come with credentials as “change agents.”  If you are looking for an example of that phenomenon you need look no farther than Baltimore County.

An article in The Baltimore Sun titled “Dance resignation leaves his school initiatives in question” suggested that the resignation of Dallas Dance as Baltimore County school superintendent imperiled programs that he had introduced since he was hired in 2012.  The article noted that “Dance’s tenure has been marked by ambitious changes that were enacted quickly — in some cases with uneven results.”  That observation could be applied to the tenure of school superintendents in hundreds of public school systems around the country and in Maryland.

Not all Baltimore County teachers were displeased to learn of Dr. Dance’s departure.  I can’t help but wondering if some of the lack of confidence in him among teachers had to do with his lack of classroom experience.  Dr. Dance was 30 years old when he was hired as superintendent and had spent precious little of his brief educational career actually teaching students.

Can you imagine a 30 year old with very little experience doing surgery being hired as Surgeon-in-Chief at Johns Hopkins Hospital who then proceeds to tell other surgeons how to do their jobs?  I don’t know why it would be any different in a public school system.

The top-down management style – rolling out a series of new ideas and then expecting dubious principals and teachers to implement them – is hardly unique to Dr. Dance in the world of elementary and secondary education.  If you are looking for an example of how badly that style can miss the mark you need look no farther than the City of Baltimore.

The Henderson-Hopkins School, a public “contract” school opened in 2014 and operated for the Board of Baltimore City School Commissioners by John Hopkins University with further expertise provided by Morgan State University, was an attempt to build a showcase K-8 school in East Baltimore.  It was designed, built and run by the best and the brightest that Baltimore has to offer.  That is why I was stunned when I read the excellent series of articles by Liz Bowie of the Baltimore Sun about the school and its struggles and learned that the design included open-space classrooms.

Open space classrooms were a fad of the 1960’s and 1970’s that proved to be a wretched and costly failure in Anne Arundel County where I lived and worked for 43 years.  It has taken many years and millions of dollars to undo the folly there, and Prince George’s, Carroll and Calvert Counties had similar experiences.  In 2013 David Lever, long-time executive director of the Maryland Public School Construction Program noted that there was general agreement across the state that open-space classrooms are not “optimal learning environments.”

The problems with the open space classrooms at Henderson-Hopkins were the impetus for an informative article on the dismal history of open space classrooms published by The Atlantic in its “CityLab” feature captioned “Who Thought ‘Open Classrooms’ Were a Good Idea?”  In that article the head of one of the nation’s leading architectural firms specializing in the design of education facilities and a major proponent of bringing back open space classrooms responded defensively to criticism of the open space concept by effectively blaming the principals and teachers who are the end-users of the design:  “The biggest obstruction to these spaces is that any change is terrifying for people.”  Don’t you just love it when an “expert” blames you for the flaws in a product?

I had to smile a bit when I read another article, this one published in 2015 by bizjournals.com and titled “Architecture review: Henderson-Hopkins School is succeeding, thanks in part to good design.”  The author, a Baltimore architect, obviously was not privy to the information gathered by Liz Bowie of The Sun and concluded his article as follows:  “Children are happy in their bright spaces. The award-winning design works.”  Children may have been happy but they were not learning at the expected pace.

The author quoted former Henderson-Hopkins principal Katrina Foster as praising the “spatial flexibility” of the design as allowing children to be moved “to different spaces based on their own progress and achievement.”  No teacher was quoted in the bizjournal article and no mention was made of the report by Ms. Bowie that teachers at Henderson-Hopkins “have found the school’s open spaces difficult to teach in.”

In the summer of 2016 Johns Hopkins moved to turn around the lackluster academic performance of Henderson-Hopkins by replacing three of the four key administrators, including Ms. Foster.  Johns Hopkins hired Deborah Ptak to replace Ms. Foster as principal.  Ms. Ptak, a veteran administrator with experience both in the city and Madison, Wisconsin, made a number of changes, including purchasing six-foot high partitions to divide classrooms.  This summer those partitions will be replaced by permanent walls.

Here is my hunch:  Had you asked any group of principals and teachers with experience teaching in the city whether it was good idea to build Henderson-Hopkins with open space classrooms the overwhelming majority would have said “Absolutely not.”  In a top-down environment ideas for change tend to originate at the top of the management hierarchy rather than evolve from the knowledge and experience of those working in the trenches.

The reason that style misfires so often in elementary and secondary school administration is because the most valuable source of information on how to teach lies in the system’s core of experienced principals and teachers that have a proven record of success – that is where the most important talent is, not at school headquarters.  Whether it is school design or changes to curriculum or grading policy principals and teachers too often are the last persons consulted.

Compounding the problem of the top-down style in education is the frequent absence of evidence-based decision-making.  Where was the evidence supporting the conclusion that open space classrooms provide a superior or even adequate learning environment?  Where is the research that supports the introduction of the dizzying array of programs under various lofty-sounding names that have come and gone in elementary and secondary schools over the past 30 years?  It is not always there or, if it is there, does not always meet established standards for trustworthiness and validity.

That does not mean that there is not a lot of research out there on teaching methods; there is a ton of it, some good and some not so good.  Organizations like the National Education Association (NEA) try to help educators sort the wheat from the chaff.

Indeed, with so many new ideas and so much research out there it is crucial that the perfect not be made the enemy of the good.  One thing that the evidence does not establish is that there is only one effective way to teach children.  More harm than good can be done by too-frequent changes that leave teachers confused and demoralized.  Even if a new superintendent believes that he or she knows a “better” way of doing things the best course of action may be to avoid forcing change too quickly.

At the end of the day there is one truth in public elementary and secondary education that everyone seems to acknowledge:  The key to success for a school is to have strong and competent teachers under the leadership of a strong and competent principal.  That is not surprising given that the formula for success in almost every organization is to appoint a competent leader, give that leader the tools necessary to do the job, and then hold the leader accountable for the results.

And, as a friend of mine pointed out, put a bunch of successful schools together and sooner or later you have a successful school system.  In other words, schools and school systems are built from the bottom up, brick by brick.  There is no quick fix or magic elixir for mediocre or failing schools, and boards of education have to keep that in mind.  Giving a superintendent or principal the tools to run a school or a school system sometimes means staying out of the way as much as possible – at least don’t make their jobs any harder than they already are.  It is my belief that, in too many cases, the style of governance employed by local boards of education actually detracts from the likelihood that principals and teachers will successfully educate the children under their charge.

In my opinion, there needs to be a paradigm shift in the governance of public schools to a model more similar to the one commonly used in institutions such as hospitals and colleges and universities.  The role of a local board should be to establish broad goals and objectives and then make sure that the system is working toward achieving them, staying away from setting detailed policies and procedures and staying out of the day-to-day control of the system.  The focus of the board must always be on getting the best professionals on the ground where the teaching is done, and then making sure that these professionals have the tools to do their jobs.

Board members should be appointed based on their proven ability to build successful organizations, not on the basis of specific educational philosophies and practices that they would like to see implemented or any other personal agendas.  Above all, board members should not be politicians looking to build their resumes and visibility for their next or, in the case of appointed members, their first runs for office.

I do not hold principals and teachers blameless for the state of American education.  Administrators and teachers unions make identifying and retaining only reasonably competent administrators and teachers much harder than it should be.  Also, there obviously are a multitude of social and economic factors that affect educational outcomes.  At the end of the day, however, I do not believe that public education (or any other governmental endeavor) is going to be any better than the manner in which it is governed.

Am I optimistic that a change to the governance structure will be made?  No.  In searching for ways to improve test scores and overall school performance we are going farther into the wilderness while cutting off the way back out.  The statewide movement to elected school boards means that we have created an entirely new class of politicians who will do whatever it takes to hang onto their turf and power.

April 30, 2017

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