Hey Nancy,

What's Up With That

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We’re all familiar with the old adage about doing the same thing over and over but expecting different results.  So why are we hiring District School Superintendents the same way and “governing” large school districts the same way?

Yes, we’ve seen Superintendents being hired from outside of the educational establishment, but it has become commonplace and is no longer an innovation. Most significantly, Superintendents with non-traditional backgrounds perform similarly to Superintendents that come from within the educational establishment.

Could it be that the structure of what is managed and governed by Superintendents and Boards is the heart of the problem?

Neerav Kingsland, chief strategy officer for New Schools for New Orleans, recently published a letter on this very issue in EdWeek. Mr. Kingsland argues that we need superintendents who are the “Great Relinquishers.” Under “No Child Left Behind” and other accountability measures, the knee-jerk reaction of administrators has been to strengthen their grip on districts and schools.  It’s an understandable response to the demands of accountability, but it’s the opposite of what will produce results for children and taxpayers.  Tight administrative grip stifles and chokes out real progress and innovation.  When central authority imposes what it determines to be a successful strategy on all schools, uniformity and regimented reporting become the management tools.

While this approach seems rational from the outside, it lacks the agility to address the unique issues that occur within each school and classroom.  It entangles the school level and classroom level professionals and is an obstacle to doing what works best for their communities.

Modern district administration has clung to almost every management fad business schools have spewed over the last decade.  The truth is these management techniques, so carefully codified in management literature, are often themselves unreproducible and yield poor results for businesses who implement them. Click here for a brief review of failed business fads, some of which we still see being tried in school districts today.  If these management fads weren’t successful at producing results for businesses why do Superintendents and their training courses rely so heavily on them?

What we do know from the time of Adam Smith until today, is that the invisible hand works.  No Superintendent or central office bureaucrat can engineer an outcome as optimal as allowing the producers and consumers in the marketplace of education to simply operate as they see fit.  If command and control systems worked to produce the best possible outcomes for society, we would all be speaking Russian today!  Sadly, the educational establishment is trying to make us all speak edu-babble and the business jargon du jour.  When will they learn?

Mr. Kingsland is spot on.  We need The Great Relinquishers.  We need more independent charter schools.  The last 100 years has been the era of The Great Consolidators.  We have gone from more than 100,000 school districts nationwide to less than 15,000 today.  An ever growing percentage of school funding is paid to administrators.  The reformation of education in our state and nation will occur when we move in the opposite direction.

We must free schools and communities from the iron grip of bureaucracies.  No matter how well intentioned, a centrally directed policy, method or program, will fail to maximize educational outcomes for our children.  We need to look for Relinquishers to lead school districts now.  They need to be aggressive in seeking to divest districts of their centrally coordinated practices.  I look forward to the day when philanthropic money rewards the Relinquisher and foundations incentivize leaders to see themselves as the purveyors of educational freedom.

(5) comments
  1. Nancy, you do need to run again at next election. But maybe, after having read your post, I think you are too smart for that. If you ever need a reference for sending your kids to Woodward Academy, let me know.

  2. No, Nancy, you should homeschool your kids.

  3. Thank you Jonathan! I appreciate your kinds words.

  4. Hi, Nancy – I have been studying your remarks with great interest; you really can tell some amazing truths. Thank you, Nancy, for turning your brilliance on the poorly-run DeKalb and without you (and you only), I shudder to think where we’d be in DeKalb. You somehow managed to put the brakes on some of them some of the time. If you had not, then what? You have a wonderful reputation and I’m very proud of you. I can’t even imagine the abuse you’ve taken for speaking out. I would like to have a private meeting with anyone who has been nasty to you, and we”ll see what kind of evil coward sthey are!.One of the best qualities you have is lack of fear. That is rare. I would really fight hard for you to be named supt. I especially like your remarks to that idiot Thurmond upon his “inauguration.” If he had any sense, he would have listened. If also think your graphic on “Circle of Trust.” is remarkably profound. I like forward to an even more brilliant career. Congratulations to a remarkable woman – Best regards always

  5. The only thing that really works is true local control of School Districts. How can that happen with 100,000 student countywide Districts. The Constitution must be changed to get rid of the arbitrary limit on the number of school districts. School Districts work best when they are one high school with its feeder schools large. The elected boards, then serve like Condo Boards for free ( perhaps a small stipend). A school board should be made up of multi-disciple professionals from the community. Experts, unconnected to Friends and Family, who can use their expertise to keep their eyes on the Education Professionals.

    The top performing states are primarily made up of this type of district. Even in the close-in suburbs of large cities. I went to one of these, some of my nieces and nephews go to this district. Some of my nephews go to the district next door. This was once a larger district, but in 1960 when it needed a new high school to accommodate growth, the district was split. Both districts thrive at education. People don’t constantly fret about having some administrator 30 + miles away who has no sense of what the local community desires and needs. Those that live in Dunwoody have no idea or desire to live in South DeKalb. Have most of us Northsiders even been down to the Southside of DeKalb or Fulton ( other than the Airport), no. Or just the opposite. If I had not worked for 20 years off Clifton Rd., would I have any idea that the folks who live nearby in DeKalb are the most liberal. Not a fit with the Republican WASP’s of Dunwoody, combined with a large Jewish community. Then there is the ever changing Buford Highway area. At one time we would refer as going to our Buford Hwy offices at work as I am going to Chambodia. Now as the Asians have become more affluent they have moved up to Gwinnett and then the Walton District in Cobb, backfilled by Hispanic immigrants. North of Peachtree Dunwoody is the new affluent city of Brookhaven. South is a different world. How can the needs be meet by Central Office Employees who are related by Friends and Family from one side of town. It simply can’t be. Just as in houses of worship, so many still choose to self segregate in neighborhoods. Those neighborhoods must take responsibility for their own schools, instead of sending off the gifted and then the connected to the schools where parental responsibility is a way of life.

    It is too bad the board would not just vote to dissolve the school system, and give each High School cluster their own district and a real chance at greatness. Too bad a few words of self serving politicians in the Constitution are the sticking point. Too bad, all the unnecessary Adult make work positions would go away. Overhead payroll and contracts would shrink overnight. All the Coaches supervisors would go puff. Transportation costs would shrink dramatically. All of those vehicles to drive from one side of the county to another would not be needed. No huge contracts to be corrupted by the corrupt Pat Popes of the Reid.

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