Monday, July 09, 2007

Educational Gridlock

The D-News’ John Florez says here that the very structure of our education system stifles innovation and prevents the kind of changes required to meet the needs of students in today’s world. Florez discusses how the various parties involved have created the unwieldy behemoth of a system we have today.

Florez’s article springboards off the current issue of “Provo School Board member, Sandy Packard,” who is being stonewalled by the bureaucracy in her attempt to fulfill her duty to oversee finances. Having studied organizational behavior and having worked in government bureaucracies, the district is simply doing what bureaucracies do: erecting “bureaucratic barriers government agencies create to protect and insulate themselves from public scrutiny.”

Locally elected school boards often create their own barriers or accept ones suggested by the bureaucrats. “Professional education administrators,” says Florez, “have created volumes of policies and procedures to pump up school board member egos and "protect" them from having to make decisions.” Many school boards won’t let a board member bring up any issue without consent from at least one other member. This prevents one malcontent from dominating meetings, but it also stymies discussion of important matters.

Districts are not the only problematic part of the equation. Florez asserts that “legislators unknowingly contribute” to the problem. By proliferating legislative committees that seek to increase accountability, they actually “dilute the responsibility so everyone and no one is accountable for whatever the education system is supposed to produce.” I’m sure that legislators take a different view of this.

Voters also fall into the crosshairs of Florez’s blame thrower. “[I]f you ask most citizens to name their board representative, they would draw a blank.” Presumably most voters also have little idea of what their board members do.

The whole system works together to prevent positive change. So what solution does Florez propose? Well, he doesn’t really propose any solution other than to say that we need a governance structure that can adequately respond to the constantly evolving need for educational change. That paints a lovely warm and fuzzy picture. I guess Florez might respond, “Hey, I pointed out the problem. Let somebody else come up with the solution.”

Florez does include two specific pieces of advice. The first is that partisan school boards won’t change the underlying problem. The second is that we need to get rid of local school boards. They’re a sham anyway, he says. And replace them with what? Oh, I know, let’s have a single district at the state level. Well, hey, if a high level district is good, why not just have one big national district? Well, gee, maybe because huge monolithic government programs are the least efficient most unchangeable organizations on the face of the earth.

If you want an educational system that is flexible enough to meet the needs of students in a modern world, the answer is more local control and less high level control, not the opposite. The ultimate local control is personal consumer choice. We ought to be considering how to get closer to this goal, not further away from it.


David said...

“Voters also fall into the crosshairs of Florez’s blame thrower. '[I]f you ask most citizens to name their board representative, they would draw a blank.'”

This implies that it would be a good thing for citizens to know who their local school board members are. Assuming this is true (and I think it is) then there are two immediate ideas that jump into my mind about how to improve our educational gridlock (well-named by the way). First, our school boards should be local, as in more local than they are - like you have suggested. Second, citizens need to be more informed and active in choosing their school board members.

My experience is that those running for school board do almost nothing beyond submitting a bio and distributing yard signs - then again they often run unopposed. We need more citizens involved as candidates for these positions. That would be more likely with smaller districts. Very few people want to commit the time necessary to serve on the board of a large district where they will have little access to individual parents and be overwhelmed by the complexities of a large system.

Reach Upward said...

Those on the other side will argue that smaller districts duplicate costs and drive costs higher by reducing ability to achieve economies of scale. This would all sound very damning to the small district concept if big government had much success demonstrating that it actually achieves efficiency and improved services by employing economies of scale and if consumer choice actually minimized quality and efficiency, which it does not.

Jesse Harris said...

Economy of scale always has a sweet spot. If you're too small, you suffer a lot of duplication. If you're too big, however, you have to go more top-heavy to manage the size of the organization. The trick is to figure out what's just right and run with it.

I have to echo that David is correct: many school board positions nationwide are uncontested. Most of them that are contested are a war of yard signs with little substance. I think the level of disinterest has to do more with the overwhelming number of elected officials accountable to us. There's the local school board, state board of education, county council/commission, city/community council, state legislators, the county mayor, the city mayor, the governor... how on earth does any sane person keep tabs on all of these people managing things? It seems like you pretty much have to get together with a group of interested neighbors and start divvying up who watches what.

Tom said...

Provo is a relatively small district. (Compared to, say, Alpine.) I really think the Board members *are* seen as local. Perhaps you meant your comment to refer only to the larger districts.

You pointed out the time commitment involved. It is my understanding that a typical week for my local board chair is around 20 hours. In addition to his full-time job, and all for $3k/yr. Other board members put in a significant number of hours too.

I think the legislature did a wise thing in allowing local boards to determine their own salary (they have taxing authority, after all). It will help make service less of a burden, and something families not as financially well off can afford to participate it.

As for involvement: While I've seen more people than I was expecting in my last several precinct caucus meetings, most of those present couldn't name their representatives in the state legislature, let alone the school board. It's part apathy, part time, part interest, and part trust (misplaced or not) in "watchdog" organizations like the PTA. Yes, it's worse in super-large districts, but even in a district as small as Provo, I don't know that I've heard of a plan that I think will inspire more voter involvement.

Reach Upward said...

Thank you all for your input. I have to agree with Jesse's and Tom's assessments of why people tend to know little about their school boards.

Also, I think people tend to get involved A) when they have personal interest in something and/or B) when they are seriously dissatisfied with something. But there is a caveat to B. Dissatisfied people will only get involved if they think they can actually effect change.

If my theory is correct, then we either have a lot of people that are generally satisfied with the current state of education or we have a number of dissatisfied people that think that changing school board members is ineffective. (These conditions are not necessarily mutually exclusive, however.)

Florez's assertion that the very structure of the system is the main problem would tend to work well with the idea that people are dissatisfied but think that they are powerless to enact meaningful reform. If most people are generally satisfied with education, we need to ask why that is the case when much seems to indicate that we're facing a crisis situation.

Tom said...

While there are improvements that could be made, it is mainly in serving "at-risk" populations, most notably "free/reduced lunch" students (highly correlated to parental education, household salary, and a predictor of future educational success).

For us middle-class folk, our kids still graduate from high school on time, and still get accepted to college, often with significant AP credit. Our local scope and daily experience demonstrates there is nothing wrong with public education.

Those that aren't "middle class" are also less likely to become involved. Language barriers, working long hours, social disenfranchisement are all reasons for under-representation.