Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Teacher Quality and School Districts

Darren over at Right on the Left Coast had a post about teacher quality, which presents an interesting concept:
What if "improving teacher quality" isn't the answer?
Think of the ramifications for public education if it's not. It's a chilling thought, and one that merits some serious thought.
There is the broader/bolder crowd, that argues that it's unfair to hold schools accountable for raising student achievement because so much that influences achievement is outside of schools' control. There is the growing chorus of voices that wonders whether "closing the achievement gap" should continue to be the primary objective of our education system, mostly because such an objective implies that we are not much interested in maximizing the progress of white, middle-class, and/or high-achieving students.
While I agree that schools alone can't fix the problem of student achievement, that does mean that schools shouldn't do everything in their power to affect what and who they can. Let's not use "we can't control what goes on in the home" as an excuse not to do anything.
The ramifications are indeed troubling. But as interesting as this post was, it was the comment section that really got my head smoking. One commenter, Allen(in Michigan) posted this:
In fact, probably everyone who reads education blogs knows of *schools* in which teacher quality was a pivotal consideration. Some smart, dynamic principal made it a non-negotiable consideration and as long as that principal ran that school teacher quality wasn't allowed to erode. As long as that principal ran that school.

Trouble is, schools are part of larger entities - districts - which have their own driving agendas and teacher quality isn't all that important at the district level. Nor, I'm beginning to think, can teacher quality even be made an important consideration at the district level. Certainly I've never heard of a district, at least a large, urban district, in which the sort of forceful prioritization of teacher quality that's doable within a single school, has been accomplished.

That's why I've come to be convinced that an effective, efficient public education system, within the confines of the school district model, can't be done. It's either school districts and what we've currently got or it's no school districts and things'll change.
After which came a discussion of school districts and teaching.

So, like many questions in education, there is a bit of a definitional problem here. Like the idea of "a better education" or "quality teachers," we come to a problem when thinking about school districts. Specfically, what is the mission of a school district?

To be honest, I really don't know. In Maryland, a school district is simply a county school system, that is all the schools in one county belong to a school district. I know that other states have smaller school districts composing of perhaps as few as one and as many as a dozen schools within a governmental unit. Northern Virginia, for example has this set up in some cases.

I know that a school district has a multitude of administrative and logistical functions, i.e. managing textbook purchases and other supplies, payroll and other Human Resources functions, busing and other transportation, etc.

But what is the role of the school district in actual educational practices? Does it set curriculum--not exactly it does provide imput to the school board who sets curriculum. Does a school district hire teachers? Well, yes and no.

What is teh return on investment in having a school district in terms of educational impact?

I believe a school district is simply a relic of centralized administration. This is not to say that centralization is a bad thing as there are certainly cost savings by having a centralized payroll system for example. But beyond certain administrative functions, I wonder if the "school district" is more of a hinderance than a help when it comes to the actual practice of education. A bureaucracy as large as a county wide school system is slow, if not outright resistent, to change. Very little can be done without far too many people "signing off" on a change. Can it be that less than county wide districts would work better, serve their community better since the community is far more like to be engaged locally?

Or should we explore going the other way and have larger, multi-county districts. After all is centralization is good on the county level, wouldn't it also be appropriate on the multi-county level?

1 comment:

Matthew K. Tabor said...

"After all is centralization is good on the county level, wouldn't it also be appropriate on the multi-county level?"

We in Upstate NY have this type of centralization. BOCES is the name of the regional, multi-county bodies that share services and administer, to some degree, schools.

I consider it a bureaucratic mess and a bit of a money pit, though their vocational ed programs are very good.