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Dissolve the district school system… and reimagine what public education looks like in Buffalo

By Matthew Ricchiazzi:
We hear a lot about education reform these days, but “reform” is much too mild an approach to take. Chronic underperformance, deficient management systems, a culture of tolerating incompetence, and a widespread lack of accountability as an institutionalized operating norm make nothing short of a full scale restructuring necessary.
Step One: Empower students by making them customers
By funding schools in the form of a voucher, students and parents are empowered with choices in a competitive market context in which schools compete for students based on best service, the specialization of curriculum, campus amenities, and value added programing.
Schools will have an incentive to innovate, always looking to provide higher quality services at a lower cost. Giving parents and students options will make them the most powerful decision makers in the education system. They will decide which schools close and which grow.
Only through a market based consortium of independently managed and governed schools will we achieve a delivery structure that allows for increased efficiency through mass customization – which cannot be accomplished in the context of today’s one-size-fits-all government imposed monopoly.
Only in a market driven context will schools have the incentive to specialize their campus to the unique needs and interests of an identified sub-segment of the student population. Rather than attempting to teach a broad curriculum with little depth, schools will be providing a very specific and deep curriculum to students with those self-selected interests customized to their needs.
Step Two: Empower principals by making them chief executives
Principals have been disempowered – made impotent as little more than liaisons to a Central Office bureaucrat. Instead we need to give principals all of the tools and capacities of a Chief Executive: to allocate their own budgets; to hire and fire their own staff; to structure their own calendar; to design their own curriculum; to market their own institution; and to respond to emerging challenges.
With the capacity to allocate their own budgets, principals will have the ability – and incentive – to innovate in every aspect of education. For too many years, the School Board has been pulling the system in the wrong direction, towards an excessively centralized, excessively hierarchical organization causing much dysfunction.
We can decentralize decision making while improving oversight with the establishment of independent governing boards for each school, giving the principal a board of trustees, directors, or managers that bring their expertise, contacts, and insights to the table. That empowers the principal while adding an enormous level of accountability at each school.
Step Three: Treat teachers like high level professionals
Teachers should be treated like high level professionals, with a pay scale competitive with law, medicine, and finance. For decades teachers have been underpaid and underappreciated – in large part because women had fewer options in the workforce and were willing to tolerate the lack of income and status. Times have changed – and in order for us to attract the highest quality talent – the system must change too.
That change should obviously include performance based bonuses – because great teachers should be rewarded, and because we need incentives in place that keep professionals energized and motivated over the longevity of a career.
In order for performance based bonuses to work and to improve behavior as intended, we must make sure that we’re not simply giving extra money to teachers who get assigned studious pupils and penalize those who are unlucky enough to be assigned less studious pupils. We must measure student performance in a given year relative to that same student’s performance in the previous year in the same subject. We can develop statistical systems that can control for student performance variables that measure teacher performance fairly and accurately.
We must end tenure as we know it. It corrupts all of the incentive structures that we must put into place to improve performance and to eliminate chronically underperforming teachers. Instead we should offer tenure only to faculty holding a PhD in a non-education discipline, as an incentive for faculty to pursue graduate studies, adding depth and breadth to the knowledge base that teachers bring into the classroom.
Perhaps even as important as an improved pay scale is how we treat teachers. We owe them respect and should spotlight high performers with district wide annual award shows, honoree banquets, and civic prizes. We need to create the cultural shift that bestows the prestige that this profession deserves.
Step Four: Pervasively implement real time data systems
Without data, no one can manage anything effectively. We need to be able to understand analytically – in real time – what programs are working, and which are not. We need to be able to evaluate where spending the next dollar has the most impact on student performance. We need to be constantly evaluating and reevaluating how best to allocate resources, which we have no effective means of doing today.
Data that takes months to collect, evaluate, and analyze is useless. We need advanced data tracking systems that monitor student, teacher, and school performance in real time – and capable of performing customized multiple regression analysis on an ongoing basis day-to-day. Data will become a tool for teachers, who will be empowered with analysis and tracking systems that will inform their teaching style, will identify specific student needs, and will improve labor productivity.
One can imagine the same software platform being used to develop all kinds of value added services: from text messaging grades home to parents automatically; to electronic submission of homework assignments in digital drop boxes; to making all course curriculum and syllabi available online.
Step Five: Redefine the role of the Central District Office
Dissolving BPS into a consortium of independently managed and governed schools fundamentally changes the role of a central office. Rather than being a manager – something that it has never done well – the central office would transform itself into a performance monitor and data publisher. The new role would be to evaluate schools and to publish those evaluations in aim of helping parents and students make informed decisions in a robust marketplace.

Written by Buffalo Rising

Buffalo Rising

Sometimes the authors at Buffalo Rising work on collaborative efforts in order to cover various events and stories. These posts can not be attributed to one single author, as it is a combined effort. Often times a formation of a post gets started by one writer and passed along to one or more writers before completion. At times there are author attributions at the end of one of these posts. Other times, “Buffalo Rising” is simply offered up as the creator of the article. In either case, the writing is original to Buffalo Rising.

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