Updates and Insights: Vol. 1, No. 3

Mailing Date: 
May 6, 2005
Vol. 1, No. 3May 6, 2005Jon Schroeder, Editor

Welcome to the third edition of Education|Evolving’s new electronic newsletter -- UPDATES AND INSIGHTS.


As is true in countless states across the country, a number of critical issues are competing for the attention of Minnesotans as the State’s Legislature approaches the end of its regular session. Surely near the top of that list is K-12 education. This year’s debate, perhaps not surprisingly, is focusing largely on money -- not whether to increase spending for K-12 education, but how much.

Just beneath that debate, however, there is growing discussion all around the country about the need for significant improvement in American public education -- and the basic assumptions underlying the current theory for how that improvement is most likely to occur.

One theory, absolutely central, is that the country can get, will get, the schools it needs as the districts transform the schools they own and run. This theory was always more asserted than demonstrated. But it was widely accepted and is the basis on which the Federal "No Child Left Behind" legislation now rests.

It is not clear this theory will prove valid. There are reasons to believe it cannot work well -- certainly not well-enough. And, clearly, the risk involved is not one the country is compelled to take.

That’s because the effort to transform existing schools need not be the only line of strategy for the improvement of K-12 public education... as Education|Evolving’s co-founder Ted Kolderie explains in the attached end-of-session "Note to Policy Leaders in Minnesota."

This message applies equally to policy leaders -- and followers -- in your state, as well.

As always, your comments and reactions are welcomed and should be directed to info@educationevolving.org.

And, for much more on new schools and new ways of schooling -- including information on Ted Kolderie’s new book, Creating the Capacity for Change, published by Education Week Press -- go to www.educationevolving.org.


If you believe in the effort to improve public education through 'systemic reform', it is time to be concerned. Already the strategy promising to "leave no child behind" is coming apart.

The much-touted law is essentially an order to improve, backed by the prospect of losing federal aid. Pressed by their districts, states have been evading and are now challenging the law. This was predictable. If people cannot do what you order them to do, they probably will evade and disobey.

To improve performance 'school' has to change. But districts cannot really change school very much. Asked to defend his assertion that education "did too" change, the head of the superintendents' association in Minnesota once answered: "Pregnancy leaves for teachers". Challenged, he exclaimed: "Well, thank God education doesn't change!"

The tradition, the culture of K-12, is with subjects and courses, with teaching as 'instruction'; with kids moving together in classes, from teacher to teacher from year to year, remembering and repeating on tests. With adult interests often put ahead of student interests, as the sad experience with seniority in Minneapolis shows. And with schools getting larger: Three-grade, 3,000-student high schools are common all around the Twin Cities suburbs.

Change takes money, some say. But money doesn't produce change. The National Science Foundation spent a third of a billion dollars to create 'deep and lasting change'. "An abysmal failure", says a person close to that program. Another, involved with its evaluation, when asked if it accomplished its objective, said: "Absolutely not".

But without change the system cannot reach its goals, and will be unsustainable economically. "The only way for a district to pay great teachers significantly more is to have fewer of them", says Charlie Kyte, now head of the Minnesota Association of School Administrators.

The issue is whether the country should have a one-bet or a two-bet strategy for change.

Systemic reform tries to get states to get districts to transform existing schools. Experts assure us this will work. But businesses with powerful executives, facing competition, can't change existing operations in really significant ways. Who realistically would argue that districts can make significant change when well-managed businesses cannot? The high schools, especially, seem intractable.

Most change comes as new organizations appear doing things differently, and as people decide they like what the new organizations do. Next-day delivery came from FedEx, not from the Postal Service. Higher rates on savings came from money-market funds, not from banks. It was new companies building microwave towers that changed long-distance service. Some new things don't work well at first, but most improve: Think about airplanes, transistor radios, computers, the internet, the web.

States are now quite understandably moving to add a second improvement strategy; allowing new organizations to start new public schools which students can choose. Minnesota has been the pioneer in withdrawing the districts' traditional 'exclusive', unbundling the old public-utility arrangement.

Unfortunately, just as the districts resist changing existing school, their associations - boards, superintendents, principals and teachers - resist the state's effort to open the institution. Let kids enroll in another district? No. Offer a post-secondary option? No. Open to chartered schools? No. Pass a law delegating meaningful authority to the school? No. Disclose revenue and expenditure by school? No.

The associations' insistence that education remain in its public-utility form runs directly against the public interest. And, it is time to say, does not stem entirely from a public interest.

Though their members work in the public sector, these associations are private organizations, protecting and advancing their members' position, control, and (boards excepted) jobs, incomes and security. These are legitimate interests. But they are private interests.

Fortunately, governors and legislators have been willing to stand against this pressure and for the public interest. As Capitol political reporters have noted, a series of Minnesota governors - Wendell Anderson, Al Quie, Rudy Perpich, Arne Carlson, Jesse Ventura - all started tight with the K-12 establishment; then recognized it had to be challenged. As have many courageous legislators in both political parties.

The new-schools strategy will take time. Many people still 'believe' existing schools can change, as if 'hoping' were a strategy. Many don't want school to change. And there will be controversy. To see what works well things will have to be tried, and while some things-tried will succeed, some will not. Many people will of course expect the new to be perfect.

We see this mixed record now with the new schools appearing. In some, students are not learning well or finances are not managed well. Some, however, are demonstrating the potential waiting to be realized: smaller, autonomous, schools able to fix their problems overnight; more use of the internet and web; students more motivated; schools safer and with discipline problems reduced as their culture improves; teachers getting professional opportunities; costs controlled.

Through the final weeks of the 2005 legislative session this is the struggle to watch. State leadership is trying to move with both strategies: expanding its open, new-schools, sector while also doing what it can to improve existing schools. Against this stand the big associations, trying to stop change-by-starting-new, trying to confine policy to a fix-the-existing strategy that cannot work, educationally or financially.

The country's effort to improve education is going to turn on the ability of state policy leadership to add the new-schools strategy that is essential to provide K-12 with the capacity to create 'deep and lasting' change.


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