Is it Time to Rethink State Boards of Education?
Some political officials (Governor Sandoval of Nevada) and self-described policy wonks (Fordham Institute staff) are calling into question the usefulness of locally elected local school boards. Governor Sandoval suggested replacing them with governor-appointed boards, while Fordham has argued for years against locally elected school boards and for regional authorities, possibly appointed by governors and/or legislatures. Trust us, they say, we’re from Washington and know how to make your teachers accountable. Trust us, they say at the state level, we know how you should teach. That’s not how Massachusetts’ educational reform was ever envisioned – and the commonwealth’s reforms are well known as being the most successful educational reforms over the past half century.
Trust us, they say, we’re from Washington and know how to make your teachers accountable. Trust us, they say at the state level, we know how you should teach. That’s not how Massachusetts’ educational reform was ever envisioned – and the commonwealth’s reforms are well known as being the most successful educational reforms over the past half century.
Our reforms set agreed-upon standards and tests, but left a lot of flexibility to localities. Our standards were far less prescriptive on pedagogical method than the Common Core is. Our goal was to set a high bar and provide local professionals with the funding they needed to get the job done. In the 1990s, the Massachusetts Board of Education was a model for the rest of the country. Unfortunately, no one followed it.
If there are questions about education leadership, Fordham and the governors should be asking about the performance of the two highest strata of the nation’s federal system: the US Department of Education and our other state boards of education. After half a century and hundreds of billions of dollars into enlarging the federal role in education, where’s the measurable improvement in our schools? And, secondly, what about the performance of most state boards of education?
This kind of examination is especially timely, given the rising anger of parents and teachers across the country over the poorly written Common Core standards and the increasingly costly tests based on them that governor-appointed boards of education and appointed or elected commissioners/superintendents have imposed on local school districts.
So far, there is no record of even one state board or department of education listening to and then responding rationally to parents’ or teachers’ grievances about the Common Core standards and tests being imposed on their schools (although we have high hopes this may happen in Massachusetts this year).
Perhaps it’s time for many states to rethink quaint 19th century institutions developed with good intentions but which have outrun their usefulness. Even though there are irresponsible parents, are not most parents a better judge of the kind of education they want for their children than a state board of education, the state department of education, or the US Department of Education? Political scientists interested in questions of responsiveness to the body politic, as well as the role of outside money, would have a field day in studying the adoption of the Common Core by state boards and commissioners or superintendents of education.
Fordham and Governor Sandoval have it backwards—and that is likely because both have an interest in diminishing the power of local school boards and even local education professionals. Fordham has long wanted a strong federal role in driving content decisions; as a governor, Sandoval would perhaps love to have more of his friends determine how schools operate.
But if we look at what has worked in American education in the past 50 years, it would be clear that the federal government and most state boards have been ineffective in increasing students’ academic achievement, and they have also been unaccountable. Accountability should be in the hands of those who pay most of the bills for education. And the educators whose salaries they pay should be accountable only to them, not the federal government or state boards. Just a reminder: Teachers and principals are the ones interacting with students in the schools.