Does the heroic reform model work?

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School Choice Models & Public School Reform from Mike Dean on Vimeo.

With the recent electoral defeat of Mayor Adrian Fenty, a strong advocate of school reform and school choice, and the subsequent resignation of DC schools chancellor Michelle Rhee, many have reflected on the attempt to fix the DC schools from within. The recent release of the film Waiting for ‘Superman’ has, while drawing attention to the plight of children trapped in mediocre public schools, also advanced the motif of the “heroic superintendent.”

I’ve never been terribly convinced by the “heroic superintendent” line of thinking. And my guess is that the long line of foundations and private investors who have bet the house on a single personality’s heroic endeavors may be less persuaded by its merits, now that they see the frail foundations of their project in DC.

There’s been a lot of talk about the “bad” Washington teachers union’s putting a target on the backs of Fenty and Rhee. Sure, the unions did not appreciate the DC School Chancellor’s coming in and trying to change the system that they owned. But didn’t we all know that was going to be the case? The really big conclusion to draw from the DC reform effort, however, was that there was a disconnect between Fenty/Rhee and lots of parents in DC. That’s why the latter gave the heroes an electoral vote of no confidence.

Perhaps you can explain that as Mayor Fenty’s growing aloof over time. But wasn’t it the lack of a strategy for interacting with parents? And I don’t mean “managing” parent interactions, but rather giving them a stake in the reform — having them own it? The same is true of principals and teachers. It can’t all come down from on high, and that was certainly the view of a number of principals in the system.

So, to the many people of good will who bet the education reform house on individual political actors — heroes — to change the schools, I would urge a longer-term view that decentralizes management but holds schools accountable. A reform effort that is quieter and steadier, and that builds on choice and standards, while empowering principals and teachers.

I’ve always found the quieter work of Angus MacBeath, former superintendent of the Edmonton Public Schools (Alberta, Canada), more convincing as a long-term strategy for reforming our schools. In Edmonton, there was lots of recognition that advancing strong student performance required, yes, clarity about expectations and consequences a la Rhee, but also engaging parents through choice, as well as empowering principals and teachers. Edmonton took empowering principals and teachers really seriously, decentralizing the budget to the point where 92 cents on an education dollar fell under schools’ control, rather than the control of the central office.

Big structural changes that broaden out the base of reformers and engage parents are likely to have more sustainability than the broom-’em-out approach. But more on Edmonton another day.

At top is a video of the DC mayor, Anthony Williams, who preceded Adrian Fenty. Mayor Williams is now teaching at the Kennedy School of Government, and we had an opportunity to hear from him on his nationally recognized efforts to expand educational opportunities for the schoolkids in the District of Columbia.

His approach while mayor reflected some of the same focus on structural changes, as he oversaw a large expansion in the network of charter schools in DC. Even a casual observer of education news will note that while tumbleweeds are swirling around as regards the remains of the Fenty-Rhee reforms, no one is discussing undoing the relatively large contingent of charter schools.

In the video at top, Williams describes the challenges to improving public education as centered on political roadblocks and institutional inertia. His voice is an important one not only for the methodical way in which he approached reform, but also for the reasons why he had a change of heart on school choice.

To all a Happy Thanksgiving!


Crossposted at’s Rock the Schoolhouse.