The Real Obama Education Legacy

Rick Hess summarizes the frustrations of center-right ed reformers with the Obama administration’s approach to education policy (myself included):

“Although some of Obama’s education moves have been inopportune, his agenda has also included a number of notions with real promise. But his administration’s excessive faith in federal regulation, lack of time for the niceties of federalism, and contempt for critics helped undermine these ideas and support for reform more broadly. Perhaps above all, Obama’s education legacy shows that good ideas executed poorly can prove not to be such good ideas after all.”

I hope that my left-leaning ed reform friends take this criticism to heart. It also extends beyond the federal level: just like Presidents, governors and state superintendents don’t stay in office forever. If we’re going to succeed over the long term, thoughtful implementation matters just as much as having smart policy solutions.


Beyond Taylorism, Part III

If you’re like me, you’ve read articles, essays, and books that attempt to explain the root cause of the problems facing the teaching profession. In The Allure of Order, Jal Mehta only needs one paragraph to break it down:

“In the longer term, the success of the reformers in the Progressive Era resulted in a shift from one-room schoolhouses to urban school systems, in which schools were expected to follow the directives of a central manager in a district office. This effectively institutionalized teaching, not as a profession under the control of its frontline practitioners, but as an activity performed within a bureaucratically controlled hierarchy. (emphasis added) Teachers and schools, at the bottom of an implementation chain, were responsible primarily for implementing the ideas of central office managers.

This resonates with me. To be sure, there are examples of leaders and teachers that find a way to thrive in the system as it exists today, but they are by far the exception and not the rule. Teachers – particularly in urban school systems – feel constrained by the system within which they operate.

This actually reminds me of an moment from The Wire when McNulty reacts to a fellow officer issuing tickets for picayune offenses in order to comply with a directive from downtown to boost arrests:

Baker, Let me let you in on a little secret, The patrolling officer on his beat is the one true dictatorship in America, we can lock a guy up on the humble, lock him up for real, or say fuck it and drink ourselves to death under the expressway and our side partners will cover us, No one - I mean no one - tells us how to waste our shift!”

James McNulty, The Wire

To some degree, teachers in many school systems share this mindset. After years and years of reform after reform, many educators (rightfully, I might add) react to new directives from district leadership by thinking “this too shall pass.” The one time most teachers feel their agency is most powerful is when the classroom door closes and their implementation of district/state/federal policies is unsupervised. This is not to say that most teachers shirk these responsibilities, merely that it is when they have the most power to control what they do and how they do it.

The real issue raised by this scene in The Wire and what we see in many school systems today is that the on-the-ground knowledge of those implementing policy don’t have any effective avenues to influence a change in policy if something isn’t working. Treating teachers as implementers without a voice in crafting or evolving policy limits the responsiveness and efficacy of education policy.

As much as this bureaucratic structure constrains educators, attempting to fundamentally transform this system is extraordinarily difficult, with educators often playing a prominent role in resisting such change. Neerav Kingsland thinks this is due to the “ Allure of Safety”:

“…educators seem unable to let go of the institutions and values that protect but ultimately limit them (thousand page collective bargaining agreements and district bureaucracies).

Neerav also looked at how we might move beyond this arrangement, but only one of the four strategies he presents would keep public schools under the control of local school boards. He calls this strategy the “Fight for Finland” – it would involve keeping the current governance structure and focusing efforts on improving the quality of teacher recruitment/development in exchange for loosening accountability. I agree with his assessment that this approach would take decades and and may not even be likely to succeed.

The other strategies he proposes involve relinquishment of public schools to non-profit and potentially some for-profit operators. While I share his optimism with regards to the potential of these strategies to succeed in helping provide better options for students and families, I’m growing more skeptical of the political and social feasibility of these approaches. Americans generally like their schools run by their school board, not their state government, and especially not the federal government. There isn’t much evidence to suggest that communities are ready to dissolve the power of their school board.

Is there a way to maintain local governance of schools without accepting the deeply flawed status quo of a bureaucratized teaching profession? I think so, but it would require adopting the following practices from Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s book, Team of Teams:

  • District/state administrators moving towards an “eyes on – hands off” approach: Central offices and state departments of education would need to hand off a significant amount of policy authority to principals. McChrystal’s metaphor: act more like gardeners instead of a chess master. Instead of trying to plot every move, seek to empower others with the opportunities, tools, and relationships they need to succeed.
  • More trust and freedom granted to teachers: In addition to providing principals with more power, even more freedom should be granted to educators to make decisions and develop new methods to educate students and collaborate with their peers.

McChrystal doesn’t write much about accountability within a “team of teams” environment, but I’d bet that he’d want to hold teams accountable for outcomes, not processes. To that end, I’d prefer that schools be required to report student outcomes on a variety of metrics (including standardized test results for all students) and that families were empowered to vote with their feet and move their children to a different school if they aren’t satisfied.

This sounds awfully close to the system envisioned in A Democratic Constitution for Public Education, but I’d prefer to maintain school boards instead of developing the “Civic Education Council” that Hill & Jochim describe. I would maintain a governance role for local school boards and an administrative role for the a central district office, but in a very different capacity. School boards would hire superintendents and audit/approve district and school budgets. Superintendents and central office staff within a district would focus on:

  • Collecting and sharing data (academic, financial, etc.) from schools transparently to help all staff understand what’s happening around the district at any given time.
  • Providing principals with the support they need to hire and develop staff,
  • Coordinating logistics (IT, food service, physical plant, etc.) and specialized services for students with IEP’s.

All other aspects of running a school – including hiring staff and educational operations – would be the responsibility of principals and the teachers in each school building. This would involve a complete re-thinking of collective bargaining in non right-to-work states, but it’s a compelling arrangement for all parties involved:

  • School boards would focus on high-level governance and fiscal stewardship instead of academic policy – a much more appropriate role for elected community members that often lack a background in education.
  • District staff would focus on supporting the educational process in schools more from a logistical than an academic perspective.
  • School staff would focus on what they do best: educating children.

It would be a significant shift in governance, but it would maintain important oversight by a locally-elected board. More importantly, it would free educators to operate as true professionals instead of implementers within a bureaucratic machine. I believe that compared to the alternatives, this system has the best chance of scaling to many communities while also creating the best conditions possible to allow educators to thrive and serve students well.


Beyond Taylorism, Part II

When we realized ____, we did what most large organizations do when they find themselves falling behind the competition: we worked harder. We deployed more resources, we put more people to work, and we strove to create ever-greater efficiency within the existing operating model. Like obnoxious tourists trying to make themselves understood in a foreign country by continuing to speak their native tongue louder and louder we were raising the volume to no good end.

Fill in the blank with “our education system wasn’t preparing students for the demands of a more competitive economy”, and the rest of the paragraph is a pretty apt description of how policymakers at all levels of government have approached education reform since the release of A Nation at Risk. The passage is actually from Team of Teams, describing how the Joint Special Operations Task Force’s initial reaction to the nimble, decentralized enemy they encountered.

It didn’t take long for Gen. McChrystal to understand that achieving victory would require much more than either adding more resources or operating with more efficiency — it would require a complete shift in how his organization operated.

Jal Mehta’s The Allure of Order shows how the last few decades of education reform (for the most part) followed the default approach described in the quote above. Inflation-adjusted spending on schools and the number of employees staffing them have both skyrocketed relative to the modest growth in the number of students they serve, but we’ve only seen marginal improvements in student outcomes.

Similar to the Task Force in 2004, our schools need to change how they operate in order to meet the complex challenges they face.


Most public school systems are set up as a reductionist hierarchy: teachers report to an assistant principal, assistant principals report to the principal, and principals report to a superintendent. Administrators devise how schedules and resources should be allocated. Teachers specialize in their roles and are expected to carry out the designs of those further up the chain.

This would make sense if educating children was an easily repeatable and complicated process, like assembling an automobile, but it’s not. Again, Team of Teams illustrates the difference between the complicated and the complex:

“The workings of a complicated device like an internal combustion engine might be confusing, but they ultimately can be broken down into a series of neat and tidy deterministic relationships; by the end, you will be able to predict with relative certainty what will happen when one part of the device is activated or altered.

Complexity, on the other hand, occurs when the number of interactions between components increases dramatically — the interdependencies that allow viruses and bank runs to spread; this is where things quickly become unpredictable. “

I’d argue that running a successful school is more like the latter description than the former. Students in great schools aren’t treated like cogs moving along an assembly line — they’re a part of several networks of relationships with peers, teachers, coaches, administrators, guidance counselors, and more.

Unfortunately, in many public schools, teachers and administrators operate in a series of silos. This may make it easier for the science department to get better at running lab sessions, but it also makes it more difficult for staff across departments to collaborate and adapt in a fluid manner.


Seeing the shortcomings of the Task Force’s structure, Gen. McChrystal decided to act:

“We had to tear down familiar organizational structures and rebuild them along completely different lines, swapping our sturdy architecture for organic fluidity, because it was the only way to confront a rising tide of complex threats. Specifically, we restructured our force from the ground up on the principles of extremely transparent information sharing (what we now call “shared consciousness” and decentralized decision-making authority (“empowered execution”). We dissolved the barriers — the walls of our silos and the floors of our hierarchies — that once made us efficient… We abandoned many of the precepts that had helped establish our efficacy in the twentieth century, because the twenty-first century is a different game with different rules.

Mehta’s recognizes in The Allure of Order that “we need to design a new type of system, indeed to remake the sector as a whole.” He would prefer that a redesign focus on strengthening the professional practice and expertise of teachers, but Gen. McChrystal’s experience suggests that we may want to consider a different course.

What would it looks like for our schools to eschew their silos and hierarchies and become transparent, decentralized organizations? Even if we could imagine what this would look like, would it even be possible to make that transition?

Stay tuned…


Beyond Taylorism, Part I

Three books on three seemingly different topics changed how I think about public policy.

My reading list this month came together serendipitously. A tweet led me to buy The Conservative Heart, I ordered Team of Teams after listening to a podcast, and purchased The Allure of Order after reading Neerav Kingsland’s blogs about it.

At a first glance, these books don’t look like they’d fit together. The Conservative Heart is about communicating a conservative anti-poverty agenda. Team of Teams is about the lessons Gen. Stanley McChrystal learned while combating the insurgency in Iraq. The Allure of Order recounts a century of education reforms.

All three books, with their own perspectives, share an important insight: complicated problems are different than complex problems, and they require very different approaches.


What is the difference between a problem that is complicated and one that is complex? Arthur Brooks breaks it down in The Conservative Heart:

“Complicated problems are extremely difficult to understand, but they can be resolved with sufficient money and brainpower. And once you find the solution, the problem is permanently solved. You can replicate the solution over and over with a high degree of success. Designing a jet engine is a complicated problem. Figuring out how to build the first jet engine took sophisticated tools, computing ability, and expert engineers. But once engineers figured out how to do it—and designed a jet engine that worked—they could replicate the process and make jet engines routinely.

Complex problems are very different. They initially seem simpler to understand but can actually never be “solved” once and for all. One example is a football game. You know exactly what success looks like—it’s when your team wins. (In my case, it’s when the Seattle Seahawks win.) But there are so many trillions of combinations of things that can happen on the playing field, so many variables and ambiguities, that even the best data and strategies are dwarfed by the uncertainty that remains.”

At the turn of the century, businesses were grappling with complicated problems. Frederick Taylor is largely responsible for helping manufacturers treat organizational management like an engineering problem. Best practices were standardized across organizations while managers planned out the most effective ways for workers to carry out discrete tasks.

Known as Taylorism, the scientific approach to management spread far beyond the factory floor. Team of Teams describes how Taylorist principles have guided the complicated operations of militaries for centuries. In The Allure of Order, we learn how Taylor influenced several waves of reform that focused on measuring results to drive greater efficiency.


There’s just one problem: our problems (particularly in education) are increasingly complex. And Taylorism is lousy when it comes to addressing complexity.

Thankfully, we have a framework that can help us move beyond Taylorism. Team of Teams illustrates how the Joint Special Operations Task Force was able to transform how they operated in order to defeat a dynamic and decentralized enemy. More importantly, it outlines how leaders can move beyond running an efficiency-focused organization to leading one that can adapt to meet the needs of complex problems.

In future posts, I’ll dive in to the details of how this approach could help us address the problems raised in The Allure of Order. At it’s heart, it’s about replacing a top-down, meddling mindset with one of my favorite McChrystal phrases:

“Eyes on — hands off”


Deal on charters in detail

The CT Mirror reports that Governor Malloy and Democratic legislators struck a budget deal that would allow two new charter schools to open as well as supporting the growth of existing charter schools.1

On paper, this charter growth will cost the state $12.4 million in FY16, but it actually took an additional $23.5 million increase in FY16 ECS funding to make it happen. In other words, for every $1 in new funding to support growth in charter schools, legislators insisted that $2 went to support traditional public schools via ECS grants.

As I’ve noted, it’s much easier for legislators to give districts more money instead of addressing the inconsistent distribution of current ECS funding. The question I’d like to address: how well does this budget distribute the new ECS funding?


Looking at towns’ ECS funding gap compared to their increase in ECS funding by FY17, we see that there’s a trend, but it’s not very clear. Towns with larger gaps will see a larger boost in their ECS grants, but towns with similar gaps are getting very different increases:

gapchangedollar

If we take a slightly different look at the changes, this time in percentages, the distribution of new ECS funding starts to make a little more sense:

gapchangepct

This chart shows a tighter correlation between the percentage of the fully-funded ECS grant towns currently receive and the percentage increase in their ECS grant by FY17. Towns that currently get the smallest percentage of their ECS grant target amount will receive the largest percentage increases in funding, while towns getting a higher percentage will see a smaller increase in funding.

Of course, there are exceptions.

By FY17, the ECS grant will be 77.9% funded, but 47 towns with more than 78% of their target ECS grant will see an increase in funding. This comes at the expense of towns that are still significantly under-funded compared to their ECS target. For example, Milford won’t see their ECS grant increase by a single penny, even though they get less than 40% of their target ECS grant.

To put it in perspective, this is what the distribution of ECS grant “percent funded” will look like by FY17 (the first chart has a normal x-axis, while the second uses a logarithmic scale to better illustrate the left side of the distribution):

pctdistribution

pctdistribtuionlog

To answer my original question, how well is this new ECS funding being spent?

The new funding will do some good for under-funded districts, but the following problems persist:

  • Over-funded towns with low levels of poverty will continue to get more than their fair share in ECS grants.
  • The ECS formula still doesn’t fully account for the impact of concentrated poverty.
  • Choice programs, including charters, magnets, and vo-tech schools, are still funded via separate line items.

Much more work remains to be done.


  1. According to another CT Mirror article, the additional funding will allow current charter schools to add approximately 700 students across the state. The new charters slated to open this fall in Stamford and Bridgeport would serve 168 and 250 students, respectively, in their first year of operation.