Anthony A. Williams wants to be like his fellow big-city mayors in Chicago, Boston and Cleveland and take charge of appointing school board members and a school superintendent. He argues that since the mayor and D.C. Council control the District schools' budget, the board should reflect the mayor's priorities. That would put an end to finger pointing between city officials and the hapless elected school board that has failed to turn around abysmal academic performance--or so the theory goes. Williams has embraced the current magic word of school reform: accountability.
Not so fast, opponents say.
They counter that elected boards are more democratic and that the District, controlled by the federal government for more than a century and a half, has so few elected officials, why do away with a three-decade-old elected body? To which the mayor has responded that "it's elitist to talk about broad principles of democracy [while] the children aren't being educated. Every child deserves an equal education. That's democracy. And right now, it ain't happening."
Both sides are misguided.
When I was a teacher at Cardozo and Roosevelt high schools, and an administrator in the D.C. public schools in the 1960s and 1970s, I worked under an appointed board and later under an elected board, which was the only democratic body in a city governed by Congress. In Arlington County, where I was superintendent for seven years until 1981, I served under an appointed school board. Based on almost two decades of experience in public school systems, and my knowledge of school boards over the past century, I have concluded that, when it comes to academic achievement or improved teaching and learning, it makes no difference whether a school board is appointed or elected.
As a high school history teacher, what I did in my classroom was largely between me and my students once I closed the door. I would decide which parts of the curriculum I would teach and how I would teach them, without the involvement of the appointed or elected school board, the superintendent, the assistant superintendent in charge of curriculum, the principal or my department head. No one in authority ever came to my classroom, with the exception of the principal, who sat in once a year for 20 minutes to evaluate me. The people I looked to for guidance were other teachers wrestling with the same classroom issues.
When I prepared to leave teaching in the District in 1972, an elected school board had been in place for five years. I had seen reform after reform tumble forth from that board with little coherence and with few resources. None of those reforms altered what I did in the classroom.
As superintendent in Arlington County working under an appointed school board, I heard both positive and negative stories from colleagues in neighboring districts and elsewhere in the country--regardless of how their boards were formed. I learned that my experience in Arlington was exceptional: The county's board members were keenly sensitive to constituents' demands. One in particular, I recall, responding to a parent's complaint, went down to a bus stop at 7:30 a.m. every day for a week to make sure the students were picked up on time.
It was also a school board united behind a clear agenda for improving academic achievement in a district getting smaller and more diverse at the same time. Conflicts arose continually over closing down schools and removing poorly performing principals or teachers. For the years that I served as superintendent, the board consistently mobilized the necessary resources, kept the public fully informed about the agenda, and provided rich opportunities for teachers and principals to gain more skills as it pressed staff to stick to that agenda. And academic achievement in the elementary schools soared, although improvements in secondary schools were limited.
My personal experience convinced me that neither way of choosing a school board ensures that students will learn well or that teachers will teach well.
My convictions become even stronger when I examine the record of academic achievement in other big cities--some with appointed, some with elected boards. Chicago is promoted as the shining example of a city where a mayorally appointed school board and superintendent turned around low-performing students, but few champions of mayoral accountability point to Baltimore. Between 1991 and 1999, in a school system very similar to the District's, Kurt Schmoke, who was then mayor, appointed school board members and played a major role in hiring and firing superintendents. Schmoke's reform agenda even included a contract with a corporation to run nine Baltimore schools. During his tenure, there was little improvement in the poor academic performance of most Baltimore public school students.
Or consider Atlanta, another school system similar to the District's. During the '80s and '90s, an elected board and various superintendents instituted reforms that raised Atlanta's high school graduation requirements, concentrated upon basic academic skills and flunked students who did poorly on tests. The result was the worst set of outcomes: Atlanta's high school dropout rate increased, the number of high school graduates admitted to college decreased, and the schools remain in the academic doldrums.
Why is it that appointing or electing school board members matters little to improving teaching, learning or academic achievement? Because there is no single formula for making city schools effective. Grafting a reform like appointed school boards from one district to another just doesn't work, even when cities face common constraints of serving a mostly poor and minority population and a declining economic and tax base.
So what does matter?
Context counts. Each district is different. For example, in Houston (elected school board), Chicago (appointed school board) and Charlotte (elected school board), the business communities have been major players in school reform. Unlike Charlotte, which merged its schools with those of Mecklenburg County, the District's political boundaries with Maryland and Virginia are unbreachable. School reforms have to be tailored to the contours of each jurisdiction's history, political boundaries and different players.
A firm grip on the primary problem also matters. Williams has framed the basic problem in the District as an elected school board incapable of raising student scores on standardized achievement tests. Many factors, including a family's income, shape to a large degree how teachers teach and how children learn in city schools across the nation. And yet, nowhere in the call for an appointed school board, for example, is there a suggestion of bringing the District's bureaucracies together to create decent jobs, better housing, and improved medical and social services to reduce the grim effects of poverty on family life. A mayor accountable for getting children ready for school and providing the necessary support they need outside of the classroom can be a powerful argument for an appointed board in the District. Thus far, this argument is missing in action.
A short agenda for a long time is essential. Because schools are viewed as central to a city's economic vitality, city leaders and educators, desperate to do something about continuing low academic performance, have created charter schools, have wired schools for new technologies, and now press for appointed school boards. What is needed is not more reform, but less. What is needed is a list of key school reforms that community leaders can agree upon, confident that the changes will improve teaching and learning. Then the leaders must mobilize city resources to carry out the reform agenda for at least a decade--regardless of the nature of the school board.
There is nothing magical about changing school governance. If anything, the hullabaloo over that reform can divert attention from the classroom and academic achievement. Appointing a school board is a symbolic act that promises much. But academic achievement is not symbolic, it is real.
Larry Cuban, a professor of education at Stanford University and a former D.C. public school teacher, is the author of "How Scholars Trumped Teachers: Change Without Reform in University Curriculum, Teaching and Research, 1890-1990" (Teachers College Press).