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Authority vs. Capacity in Education

October 15, 2013 By Michael Diedrich, Education Fellow

Most people can agree that we have an equity problem in education outcomes. Agreeing on the causes of the problem has proved more difficult, to say nothing of agreeing on solutions.

To me, Minnesota’s education equity problem is summed up by our disparate graduation rates. Our four-year graduation rate gaps between white students and their black and Latino peers are the largest in the country. (And, as I’ve noted many times before, even if we had the smallest equity gaps in the country, we should still grapple with the problem.) Our six-year gaps aren’t much better. The lack of a diploma has lifelong consequences, and will drive future inequity.

Obviously, graduation rates are just one warning sign about a larger set of problems. The same goes for our test score gaps. We’ve started having a debate about the nature of those problems, but we’re still a long way from agreement.

There is a set of hypotheses that guides the dominant group of education reformers, who we might term the choice-and-accountability reformers. These include:

  • We have examples of schools beating the odds for students from particular racial and socioeconomic groups, so most other schools should be able to do the same.
  • Public schools, historically a near-monopoly, have little incentive to become great and address equity problems.
  • Too many school and district leaders are hamstrung by licensure requirements and teachers’ contracts that make it difficult to hire desirable teachers, remove ineffective teachers, and reward great teachers.
  • Improving the education system requires constant attention to student outcomes, preferably backed by the ability to remove teachers and close schools connected to bad outcomes.

A common theme running through these hypotheses is that most of the core problems resulting in educational inequity stem from an authority and governance problem. Basically, the rules do not put the right people in charge of the right parts of the system, and they allow (perhaps even encourage) schools to be unresponsive to equity problems.

From this assumption of an authority problem stems one group of policies that change who’s in charge of schools and districts: competition-oriented school choice, New Orleans style “recovery school districts,” vouchers, parent trigger laws, and so on. It also leads to a different set of policies that change existing rules in an effort to emphasize performance: the sticks of No Child Left Behind, the carrots of Race to the Top, the inclusion of “value-added” calculations in teacher evaluations, school closures over performance concerns, etc.

Most choice-and-accountability reformers only support some of these policies, and there are advocates for these policies that aren’t choice-and-accountability reformers. I am not suggesting a one-to-one correlation here. I am suggesting that there is one set of assumed problems driving many choice-and-accountability reformers that leads to these policies.

The track record for this is mixed at best. Since the assumption is that the rules are the problem, “success” for many choice-and-accountability reformers is defined by changing the rules. The assumption is that, having fixed what they’ve diagnosed as the core problem, the major work is done. All that’s left is for the benefits to trickle down to kids.

That’s not as clear. Milwaukee is a great case study in long-running school choice (vouchers for over 20 years, charter schools and open enrollment for over 15). If you want to change schools in Milwaukee, the law has given you lots of options. The result has been a diffusion of mediocrity into the charter and private school sectors. Plenty of other cities have also seen school competition and test-driven “accountability” fall flat.

What if the problem isn’t a matter of who’s in charge and what the rules are? What if it’s a matter of communities’ and schools’ capacity to serve students? Here I look to the Department of Defense Education Activity schools, which have consistently achieved more equitable test scores for students of color—both in absolute terms and relative to white students—than any state has managed to do. Their schools are unionized, with a clear command structure. They’re also outcomes-driven and responsive to student needs without requiring competitive pressure.

What DoDEA schools and communities have is capacity. Students’ families have income, housing, and health security (even if that income isn’t particularly high). There are high-quality early childhood programs and an employer who requires families go to conferences. Students’ neighborhoods on base are relatively safe and low in crime.

There are also successes like Union City, New Jersey, which focused on building the capacity of its schools from the ground up, investing in (among other things) early childhood and putting teachers in charge of revamping curriculum instead of trying to “teacher-proof” instruction with overly scripted curriculum. It poured effort into capacity building—both the capacity to offer services and its employees’ and families’ capacity to deliver—and explicitly rejected a close-and-fire approach.

We need to take a look not just at who’s running our school system and how they’re doing it, but at what we’re doing to build the capacity of our people and services in schools and communities.

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