By Nancy Jester: We’re all familiar with the old adage about doing the same thing over and over but expecting different results. So why are we hiring District School Superintendents the same way and “governing” large school districts the same way?
Yes, we’ve seen Superintendents being hired from outside of the educational establishment, but it has become commonplace and is no longer an innovation. Most significantly, Superintendents with non-traditional backgrounds perform similarly to Superintendents that come from within the educational establishment.
Could it be that the structure of what is managed and governed by Superintendents and Boards is the heart of the problem?
Neerav Kingsland, chief strategy officer for New Schools for New Orleans, recently published a letter on this very issue in EdWeek. Mr. Kingsland argues that we need superintendents who are the “Great Relinquishers.” Under “No Child Left Behind” and other accountability measures, the knee-jerk reaction of administrators has been to strengthen their grip on districts and schools. It’s an understandable response to the demands of accountability, but it’s the opposite of what will produce results for children and taxpayers. Tight administrative grip stifles and chokes out real progress and innovation. When central authority imposes what it determines to be a successful strategy on all schools, uniformity and regimented reporting become the management tools.
While this approach seems rational from the outside, it lacks the agility to address the unique issues that occur within each school and classroom. It entangles the school level and classroom level professionals and is an obstacle to doing what works best for their communities.
Modern district administration has clung to almost every management fad that business schools have spewed over the last decade. The truth is these management techniques, so carefully codified in management literature, are often themselves unreproducible and yield poor results for businesses who implement them. Click here for a brief review of failed business fads, some of which we still see being tried in school districts today. If these management fads weren’t successful at producing results for businesses why do Superintendents and their training courses rely so heavily on them?
What we do know from the time of Adam Smith until today, is that the invisible hand works. No Superintendent or central office bureaucrat can engineer an outcome as optimal as allowing the producers and consumers in the marketplace of education to simply operate as they see fit. If command and control systems worked to produce the best possible outcomes for society, we would all be speaking Russian today! Sadly, the educational establishment is trying to make us all speak edu-babble and the business jargon du jour. When will they learn?
Mr. Kingsland is spot on. We need The Great Relinquishers. We need more independent charter schools. The last 100 years has been the era of The Great Consolidators. We have gone from more than 100,000 school districts nationwide to less than 15,000 today. An ever growing percentage of school funding is paid to administrators. The reformation of education in our state and nation will occur when we move in the opposite direction.
We must free schools and communities from the iron grip of bureaucracies. No matter how well intentioned, a centrally directed policy, method or program, will fail to maximize educational outcomes for our children. We need to look for Relinquishers to lead school districts now. They need to be aggressive in seeking to divest districts of their centrally coordinated practices. I look forward to the day when philanthropic money rewards the Relinquisher and foundations incentivize leaders to see themselves as the purveyors of educational freedom.
Nancy Jester, a former DeKalb County School Board member, is an advocate for public school reform.