Saturday, February 11, 2017

The Failure of Top Down School Management

Bill Bernstein
By Bill Bernstein - Last week the Metro Public School system released their “Transition Team” (available by clicking the link) report.  Incoming Director Dr Shawn Joseph commissioned the report, an effort by 47 members of a committee drawn from the MNPS system, the Nashville community, and experts in education outside that community.  The report runs only 20 pages and contains 100 recommendations in four areas.  Some recommendations are marked “short term” and some “long term.”  Additionally there are four appendices that present a somewhat fuller discussion of the issues.  These are not easy to find.

I quote four recommendations here in bolded text just to give a flavor of what the report contains.  The report itself fits in with a wider theme in public education—the knee-capping of reform efforts by an entrenched educational establishment that has been largely unaccountable to parents, taxpayers, and in Nashville to city government.

“Strengthen proactive communications with the city and the state.” MNPS Transition Team Report, Short-term Recommendation, page 14.

In 2007 Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg pledged $100M to help Newark NJ's school system.  That pledge was met with matching funds from other sources.  The combined $200M was to go to a school system with an annual budget of $940M and a reputation for failing students.  Only one third of the system's third graders could read at grade level (the same as Nashville's public school system, incidentally).  In 2016 veteran Washington Post reporter Dale Russakoff published “The Prize” detailing the gift, how it was spent and what improvements came to Newark's school children. The distressing answer was, there was no improvement whatsoever.  The money was frittered away on studies, on five year plans, and on salaries for consultants etc.  Each power center, from Gov. Christie to Mayor Corey Booker, to the unions on down saw the gift as an opportunity to push whatever agenda it had.  And that agenda did not include improving education.  Zuckerberg's gift was not the first entry of philanthropy into public schools, nor would it be the last.  But its history is instructive for school reformers of all types.

“Identify clear goals and objectives for the HR Department that contribute to the accomplishment of the district’s goals.” MNPS Transition Team Report, Long-term Recommendation. p.16


This week Democrats in the Senate staged a 24 hour gabfest on the floor of the Senate to block President Trump's nominee for Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos.  In fact an unprecedented grass-roots effort was launched to persuade GOP senators to change their vote and deny DeVos the position.  Social media urged people to wear black on the Monday before the vote.  It urged calls, emails and letters to senators.  And there were demonstrations.  It was a remarkable performance. After all, likely very few of the people wearing black or sending emails to their senators could name the outgoing Secretary of Education or three significant things he had done, without consulting Wikipedia.  Education is one of those backwater Cabinet departments that gets press only when things go dramatically wrong.  Its effect on local schools is minimal, and on parents' and students' lives close to none at all. Yet those opposing DeVos acted as though American Education in toto would become the equivalent of Chernobyl if she were confirmed.

DeVos is an ardent advocate for school choice, charters, and vouchers.  She never received a degree in education. She never managed a school district.  DeVos is an outsider to the educational establishment and as such arouses their ire.  Her views challenge their orthodoxy that public schools are bedrock institutions and suffer only from lack of funding and community support.  Anyone questioning those views is demonized and declared unfit.

Strategically manage the performance of employees in the district by developing a talent management report that includes the performance of each employee and other relevant employee data (such as employee assignments, attendance, etc.) to identify employees’ relative areas of strength and needs for growth.  MNPS Transition Report, Long-term Recommendation. p. 17

The experiences of Zuckerberg and DeVos came to my mind this week after Metro Schools published the report of the Transition Team, which the new Director Dr Shaun Joseph empowered almost as soon as he took office last July.  The report itself is only 20 pages and contains 100 recommendations in four different areas: school choice, student achievement, human resources and talent management, and communications.  There are also appendices, which are more revealing of what the authors were reacting to when they wrote their recommendations.  The report starts with photos of suitably diverse and happy students.  It outlines the characteristics of the district, the poverty levels, the number of non-native English speakers, and special ed students.  It does highlight the lagging performance of students in general and the racial gaps between student groups. Included in this are three misleading graphs.  The first is labeled “Proficiency in Grades 3-8.”  But you have to zoom in to read the Y-axis label which tells you the numbers reflect students scoring proficient or higher, presumably on the NAEP assessment but there is no indication that was the source.

A more accurate graph might  have shown those failing to score at least proficient.  Even those graphs paint a terrible picture, especially for minority students.  Sixty five percent of black students grades 3-8 failed to score proficient or higher in math, 70% in English (which seems odd because typically math scores are lower).
The appendix for the student achievement section lays out in fairly dire language the biggest problem facing MNPS:

First and foremost is the academic attainment of its students. However one wants to measure it, student achievement in core subjects is lower than anyone would like. The district’s academic attainment is below statewide averages and it also appears to be below national averages. At the same time, there has not been much movement in performance levels over the last several years. This is particularly true of reading, but probably also true in math.

So not only are students in the district performing poorly, they have been doing so for years, and this is despite rising per pupil expenditures.  In fact between 2010 and 2017 per pupil expenditures in MNPS have doubled.  The appendix also scores the school district and the board for failing to pay attention, for launching programs without much support or follow up, and for failing to maintain a coherent policy to improve student outcomes.  The question is whether this report and its 100 recommendations will help solve those problems.  I am not optimistic.  The recommendations are heavy on jargon.  Some of them are incomprehensible. 

Consider augmenting the work with the Arbinger Institute and Gallup by designating someone as a senior-level “culture czar” in the district.  MNPS Transition Report, Short-term Recommendation. p.14

And some of them just seem silly.

As we saw with the Zuckerberg gift to Newark's school district, entrenched educational interests, with an agenda that does not include educating students, can deflect and dither away any real effort at reform.  And they can still claim to be “doing something” about education.

Tellingly I have never seen a price tag attached to this report.  I called the Tennessean's reporter who has covered this story from the beginning and asked him if he knew the cost of the effort.  He admitted he didnt and added that he would be certain the cost of various consultants, travel, etc would  not have been grouped under one budget item.  Diffusing costs and diffusing responsibilities are both ways to avoid accountability.  MNPS problems have been going on for decades and they are not budget-related.  Expecting a top down system like this to reform itself is putting fantasy over any experience.

Bill Bernstein first came to Nashville in 1980 as a freshman at Vanderbilt. After finishing he spent time in graduate schools in Classics. He returned to Nashville in 1992 and has been a firearms dealer and Second Amendment advocate for over a decade.

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