The Political Science of School Reform

posted on July 20, 2018 by Center Staff

In The Allure of Order, Jal Mehta states “will we recognize that education is inherently a question of politics and justice, and that logics of efficiency will never replace the hard political choices that will be needed to give a better education to our most disadvantaged citizens.”  He contends that if we put more resources into creating better teachers and funding the schools adequately, then performance will improve for disadvantaged students.  The distribution of performance is a result of having under-resourced schools and affluent schools at the extremes of a bell curve with most students in the middle.  If we adequately resourced the schools where most poor performers are, then we would shift the curve.

Distribution of Student Performance

Distribution of student performance

“Good Money After Bad”

While investing more time and energy into the current system could have a positive effect, it is not a strategy that is likely to get traction.  Our current political frame of reference is framed by the prevailing belief that we have spent generously on schools and more money will not change the outcomes for kids.  For example, in New Mexico we have spent over $300 million over the last decade and results have been meager at best.  Most of the new spending has gone to building the 3 Tiered Licensure System for teachers and increasing their salaries commensurately.  Some could argue that we’ve done exactly what Mehta recommends.  In the mind of the public, spending more on teacher development has not improved the bottom line of student performance.

The System is Backward

In his critique of the current accountability system, Mehta speaks at length about the fact that schools are unable to improve because they are staffed with pseudo professionals, training to enter the sector is poor, disadvantaged children do not get social supports, and as a result performance is wildly uneven across communities.  Instead of realizing the structural problems with the teaching profession, policy makers resort to creating the perfect accountability model because they think it will create a coherency across the system, “we continue to be attracted to the idea that if we only get the right outcome targets in place we will be able to ‘order’ the whole system for the better.”

While I agree that higher standards and more metrics are not likely to lead to better outcomes for students, I do not think that investing more money in the current system is likely to gain traction with the public.  Instead, we should seize on the fact that our schools do not have answers for students at the end of the bell curve and there is a greater willingness to experiment with them given our dismal success in the past.  In addition, we find that the demand for innovation extends to students at the other end of the spectrum.  Families of privilege do not believe that the traditional approach of building rote knowledge is not sufficient preparation for the future.

Opportunity for Innovation Across the Distribution of Students

opportunity for innovation  Across the distribution of students

The Status Trap

In the Albuquerque Public Schools we have chosen to offer the most innovative solutions (however meager they are) for the most affluent students.  NextGen High School, International Baccalaureate, and Early College Academy are all efforts to reach college bound students.  The superintendent has said many times that these schools are in response to the competitive pressure from the charter sector.  Clay Christensen, a scholar of “disruptive innovation” might argue that the district has followed the path of other established organizations that see their market share slipping from competition.  Like the car industry, they have left the least desirable clients behind and chosen to focus their attention on more profitable customers.  There is a parallel to public education, but instead of chasing the money they are competing for the status of serving the “best students.”

Innovate at Both Ends of the Curve

I suggest that Mehta may be right, more money and better training is a logical long-term strategy for change.  However, I see no appetite for this approach given our experience over the last decade.  Instead, I suggest that we address the needs of the community through re-engineering our schools at both ends of the curve.  There is a natural demand for innovation from dropouts and the affluent and rather than asking for marginal improvement to the current system, we could begin re-designing it with the young people who are in the market for something new.  This would mean a change in our frame of reference from a focus on the system to a focus on the client.

Distribution of Student Performance and Demand for Innovation

distribution of student performance and demand for innovation

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