The First Thing We Do, Let’s Kill All the School Boards

That’s the interesting premise of an article by Matt Miller in this month’s Atlantic Monthly. Miller’s argument, at its core, is that American education is badly hampered by our tradition of local control of schools and that, in order to improve student success rates, we need some degree of national oversight of curriculum and testing.

He makes his most compelling case when he addresses the issue of curriculum. He writes:

Local control has kept education from attracting the research and development that drives progress, because benefits of scale are absent. There are some 15,000 curriculum departments in this country—one for every district. None of them can afford to invest in deeply understanding what works best when it comes to teaching reading to English-language learners, or using computers to develop customized strategies for students with different learning styles.

It’s an outstanding point. My district is currently in year one of a planned six year process to redevelop our curriculum. Six years. That’s half the time that one cohort of students will spend in the Helena School District. How can help but wonder why our students are struggling when there is no developed, cohesive, vertically aligned curriculum in place, and no plan to have a fully developed one for another five years?

More importantly, why should my district and the other 14,999 all try to develop individual curricula? The answer may not be a federally mandated curriculum (God knows what students would learn about evolution and government under the Bush Administration), but certainly there is a more efficient system than thousands of districts working individually. In Montana, the problem is magnified by state standards that are so vague, districts have almost no guidance in terms of developing their programs.

Unfortunately, Miller misses the point when he proposes eliminating school boards as a solution for what ails the schools. Despite his hope that the schools would soon be run by tough government officials, a far more likely result would be that the administrative bureaucrats who run school districts will continue in much the same way, enriching themselves, adding to their ranks, and continuing to rely on bureaucratic solutions to people problems. If anything, in my experience, the problem is not that school boards meddle too much in education, the problem is that they offer insufficient oversight over the ever-growing machine of the technoeducrats ((Yes, I made that up)) who run the schools.

The Helena School District offers a compelling example. In the past six years, as the number of students and test scores have steadily declined, the number of people employed as administrators has steadily increased. ((Original Chart here))

  2001-02 2002-03 2003-04 2004-05 2005-06 2006-07
Students 8166 8105 8084 7977 7992 7943
Teachers 553.85 535.75 531.39 532.55 528.69 536.65
Administrators 32.5 35 36 36 37 37

Admittedly, it’s just one district, but it’s an instructive example. We’re not going to solve the problems of our schools by further empowering the bureaucratic class that manages the schools. They’re hardly likely to do anything to make schools leaner and more effective, unless it means reducing the number of people directly involved with educating kids.

As a society, we have an enormous task ahead of us to improve schools and improve the results of our educational system. Developing research-tested core elements of curriculum is certainly an excellent starting point, but removing community oversight and further empowering the bureaucrats who run schools is anything but a positive step. Yes, it is absolutely the time for authentic innovation in our schools, but are the people who’ve been running them for the past 50 years really the best equipped to do that?

If you appreciate an independent voice holding Montana politicians accountable and informing voters, and you can throw a few dollars a month our way, we would certainly appreciate it.

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Don Pogreba

Don Pogreba is an eighteen-year teacher of English, former debate coach, and loyal, if often sad, fan of the San Diego Padres and Portland Timbers. He spends far too many hours of his life working at school and on his small business, Big Sky Debate.
His work has appeared in Politico and Rewire.
In the past few years, travel has become a priority, whether it's a road trip to some little town in Montana or a museum of culture in Ísafjörður, Iceland.

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