Mayoral, or in the case of Prince George’s County, county executive control of local school systems, is not a new idea. For years, civic leaders have argued that centralizing control of the school district can maximize organizational effectiveness and minimize school board politics. Many school districts, including Chicago, New York, Cleveland and of course the District of Columbia, have tried it. In other cities, most recently Bridgeport, CT, voters chose to keep their elected school board.
When considering County Executive Rushern L. Baker III’s recently announced school takeover plan, residents of Prince George’s should consider a few things.
In Chicago, for example, community organizers argued that the appointed school board is unresponsive and only implements top down reforms like school closings, narrowing of the curriculum and ineffective parent engagement. Tensions rose so high that they organized to place a non-biding referendum on the ballot in which 87 percent of voters endorsed the idea of having an elected school board.. Other studies show that rather than minimizing political conflict, mayoral control just shifted the locus of the politics from the many (elected school board members) to the one (mayor). Meanwhile, this increased the influence that people in power (business leaders, reform organizations, etc) on schools (they only had one office to work with), but decreased the access parents and community members had to engage in their schools. But the key finding is this: Across the range of studies on the results of mayoral control, there is no conclusive evidence that improved organizational effectiveness resulted in better student learning or more equitable education systems- especially if you care about measures beyond test scores.
We do know a lot about what it takes to create a great school system. Regardless of the one person, or committee of people at the helm, there are a series of design principles that should be at the center of any reform effort.
In a recent report critiquing federal school turnaround efforts, my colleague Tina Trujillo, an assistant professor of education at the University of California, Berkeley, and I argue that to truly provide all students with equitable opportunities to learn and participate in society, we as a nation need to intentionally shift to a broader democratic approach to public education. This is no simple task in a racially and economically stratified society but it can be done without transferring school control from school boards to mayors or county executives.
To be viable, education reforms need to start by ensuring stable and sufficient federal, state and local funding for public education. Reforms also should focus on the hard work of improving the quality of teaching and learning rather than repeated attempts to change structures around schools. Educational success and progress must be measured with multiple indicators- apart from just test scores- that reflect the multiple purposes of schooling and the range of skills and knowledge required to demonstrate mastery in school and out-of-school.
Efforts to transform public education need to engage the entire school community- teachers, students, parents, community organizers, and others- in planning, implementing and owning the reform. While these cross-sector partnerships requires resources and time, when done right they ensure the long-term sustainability of the reform. There is evidence from cities like Los Angeles, Chicago and New York that engaging a community directly in designing, implementing and monitoring a reform creates unique capacity to make it last, in a way that a top down mandate from a mayor or superintendent with limited staff just can’t.
Struggling schools need more learning time and comprehensive wrap-around supports that link students to resources like healthcare, social services, college counseling, and real world learning opportunities. And finally, we should engage researchers as partners with practitioners and community leaders in studying these efforts and ensuring that lessons learned inform improvement and transformation.
I realize that this comprehensive list is too long to trend on social media sites or show up in 30-second political speeches, but it is evidenced based and honest. There is no silver bullet or bomb, for that matter, that will radically fix every school, or school district in the nation. Real reform takes real work it won’t come from any one moment, a single leader, school board or policy but rather from many people rolling up their sleeves and working together in a messy process called democracy.
Michelle Renée, is a principal associate at the Annenberg Institute for School Reform at Brown University.