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October 2016

What makes a school "public?"


Kentucky is one of a handful of states that still has no meaningful mechanism for school choice - not open enrollment, not charter schools, not education savings accounts, not even tuition tax credits. But as we inch ever closer to our first real debate on this topic, the rhetoric about the impact of such proposals on our "public schools" becomes important. Opponents of parental choice will use a defense of "public schools" as a rallying cry. So, it seems like a good time to ask the question: what is a public school anyway?

In 2004, Rick Hess wrote a long, thoughtful essay for Phi Delta Kappan on this topic called "What is a 'Public School?'" His observations and conclusions are as relevant now as they were 12 years ago. I can't improve upon Hess's thoughts, and I urge you to read the article in full. What follows are just reflections of my own, informed, in part, by Rick's piece.

Hess explores how our assumptions about what makes some institutions "public" and others "private" don't hold much water. Many of the characteristics we instinctively attribute to public schools only apply in a very limited way. For example, we might say that a school is public because it a) receives taxpayer dollars, b) has to take everyone, c) provides its services for free, and is d) subject to public accountability. But a is true of many different kinds of schools and institutions, and b through d aren't entirely true of district schools themselves.

Taxpayer funding. This one seems the most obvious but thoroughly insufficient, since government-run institutions like local districts schools aren't the only entities that receive funding from the government. Is a privately-held hospital that receives Medicaid reimbursements also public? What about a private college a student attends using a Pell grant?

Open to all. District schools aren't, however. Rather, they are generally open only to those who live within a certain geographical boundary. As the Cato Institute's Jason Bedrick points out, in this way your local shopping mall is more "public" than your local district school. Magnet schools, gifted services, and other district programs restrict their enrollment to students who meet a particular profile or want to avail themselves of a particular instructional approach. There is nothing wrong with this. The point is not that districts schools aren't "public," but that a public institution doesn't, by definition, attempt to serve everyone.

Free. Nor do public institutions by definition provide their services entirely for free (think about the post office or national parks "usage" fees). In addition to various fees and costs public school parents routinely face, the real costs to families of a local district school lies in the housing market. To attend many public school districts requires enormous expenditures to buy a home or pay the higher rents associated with such areas. As I've argued many times before, this is the way affluent families already have school choice.

Accountability. True, district schools are subject to the sometimes byzantine mechanisms of state-mandated performance reporting, but to what extent do these measures truly hold schools accountable for improvement? School turnarounds are not unknown, of course, but if these mechanisms really held educators accountable, our rate of improvement would be much higher. The truth is, a low-performing school can realistically drain millions of taxpayer dollars for years and years with no meaningful consequence. "Local control" of schools by elected school boards is no remedy for this, and as Ashley Jochim and Paul T. Hill point out in their excellent little book, A Democratic Constitution for Public Education, local boards of education are, functionally, arms of the state government anyway.  

Families may be unsatisfied with their local schools, but unless they have the means to move or pay private school tuition, they cannot exercise the ultimate form of accountability against the district school: leaving to go elsewhere. Andy Smarick ably argues that this is why heavy-handed, top-down accountability systems are needed for public schools in the first place - there's no other way of assuring quality, and even then it doesn't work particularly well.

So the bottom line? District schools are not open to all students, they aren't really free, and they have limited accountability for how they use tax dollars. My point is not to condemn public schools, and certainly not to criticize the thousands of dedicated and hardworking people who serve in them. Rather, we need to expand our understanding of schooling as a public good similar to other public goods like health care, household food security, and even higher education.

Balancing the collective and individual (familial) purposes of education, Rick Hess offers a useful stab at what a public school really is, and it isn't simply one that is run by the government: 

Public schools should teach children the essential skills and knowledge that make for productive citizens, teach them to respect the constitutional order, and instruct them in a framework of rights and obligations that secure our democracy and protect our liberty. Any school that does so should be regarded as serving public purposes.

The clear policy implication of this broader, more balanced understanding of public schooling is that education dollars are appropriated for the benefit of students (not to prop up various government-run institutions), and should generally follow students to the schools of their families' choosing. Hill and Jochim use the analogy of a "backpack." Each student should receive a backpack of education dollars each year, with the amount adjusted based on various demographic factors reflecting the child's individual needs, and parents then may choose providers that are best able to meet those needs.  A light regulatory framework of performance reporting, transparency, and accountability should ensure that the system operates fairly and honestly, and reflects the larger, civic goals of public schooling.

There is a lot to debate in the details of such a proposal. But the discussion should begin with a clear understanding of what a public school is - and is not.

Read the full text of Rick Hess's article here.

Related posts:

Usual disclaimer: All opinions expressed on this blog are mine alone and do not reflect the views of Western Kentucky University (my employer) or the Kentucky Board of Education (where I serve as a member).

 Image above: Map from this year's Foundation for Excellence in Education National Summit, highlighting Kentucky's status as one of the few states with no school choice policy.



A new vision for school leadership

PrichComOn October 15, I was honored to participate in a panel discussion on “New Visions for School Leadership” at the Prichard Committee for Academic Excellence’s annual meeting in Lexington. My fellow panelists included Jennifer Carroll, project director for the Appalachian Leadership Lab at the Kentucky Valley Educational Cooperative; Ron Chi, chief academic officer for Kentucky State University and the Frankfort Independent schools; and former superintendent Carol Johnson, executive director of New Leaders. Our moderator was Dave Adkisson, president of the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce. The panel discussion was lively and enlightening, and the one-on-one conversations with participants and guests afterward was even richer.

We covered a wide range of topics, including principal preparation, strategies to support and sustain effective school leadership, and the mindset shifts required for turning around low-performing schools and making schools more responsive to their communities. I emphasized the need for truly visionary leadership from school principals, who unfortunately often fall into a passive role, waiting for the local or state board of education to dictate their next moves. Instead, we need school leaders who have such a clear and compelling vision of effective teaching that, even when the state curriculum or accountability system changes, they never lose their focus on transforming everyday classroom instruction.

Afterward I thought of several very specific policy issues that would contribute greatly to the on-going discussion about improving school leadership. For example, in 2014 the Thomas B. Fordham Institute produced an excellent report called Lacking Leaders: The Challenges of Principal Recruitment, Selection, and Placement. The report makes several thoughtful recommendations, including increasing principal salaries to make them commensurate with other organizational leaders of similar responsibility; giving principals more autonomy in personnel and aspects of school management and instructional leadership; and improved data tracking to identify the best principal candidates and assess their impact on student learning over time. In Kentucky, I believe there is wide variation in the quality of principal preparation programs, and better data on outcomes might help distinguish between those that are truly preparing aspiring leaders to a sufficient level and those who provide coursework with little rigor or challenge.

Also, Kentucky currently requires candidates to have a Master’s degree before they begin principal certification coursework. This well-intentioned policy was designed to increase the number of certificate holders who are actively interested in serving in leadership roles, and to ensure aspiring administrators are somewhat more seasoned in their careers before launching into the principalship. The real effect, however, is that it has (at least in my experience) greatly restricted the pool of applicants for principal certification. I routinely turn down inquirers to our WKU program because they don’t have a Master’s degree already (or did a planned fifth- or sixth-year program for Rank II, which does not qualify).

The policy also restricts the opportunities for principals to earn advanced degrees and certifications, since by the time they finish their principal requirements they will have earned a Rank I or more. And as Katrina Boone, director of teacher outreach at the Collaborative for Student Success, pointed out to me in a Twitter discussion on this topic, requiring a Master’s degree before principal certification may present unintentional burdens on teachers of color or others with financial hardships.

I understand the potential advantages of having the principalship be a post-Master’s training program, but the negatives outweigh any benefits. We need a Master’s degree option for initial principal certification in Kentucky, and as my colleague Justin Bathon from the University of Kentucky pointed out (also on Twitter), perhaps even programs that lead directly from a bachelor’s degree straight into a Doctorate of Educational Leadership.

In terms of leadership development for practicing principals, I'm very excited about work I've been doing with various colleagues around executive coaching. Using a framework that originated from my dissertation research, we've developed a coaching protocol designed to help school principals strengthen their instructional leadership. You can read about this coaching process in our 2012 article in Qualitative Research in Education, but I've just had another paper accepted for publication in the International Journal for Mentoring and Coaching in Education, co-authored with WKU professor Tom Stewart and doctoral candidate Sara Jennings. I'll update with links to that article when it appears.

I was able to share with the Prichard Committee some news about how Western Kentucky University is making our own contribution to the effort of improving school leadership both in terms of preparation and support for on-the-job administrators. Last week we announced a major grant award from the Wallace Foundation to rethink and redesign our principal preparation program. WKU’s Department of Educational Administration, Leadership, and Research was one of seven university programs across the country selected for this initiative. We will partner with districts from the Green River Regional Educational Cooperative (GRREC) in this endeavor. Our goal is to update the curriculum of our program to reflect the latest standards of effective school leadership, and to create more personalized, competency-based models of learning that mirror the kinds of instructional delivery and assessment we hope to see in 21st century P-12 schools. We want personalization, innovation, and design thinking to be central in the preparation of aspiring principals.

And, responding to some of the recommendations of the Fordham report noted above, we will be working closely with districts to create data systems allowing us to following aspiring leaders from their first interest, through their preparation program, and into the early years of their administrative careers so that their professional growth needs can be monitored and supported.

The challenges of school leadership are legion, but I’m consistently impressed with the talented teacher leaders who come to WKU for principal preparation. With the support of groups like the Prichard Committee, I believe we can grow deeper pools of future school leaders who will thrive professionally and be the catalysts for improved student learning.

Usual disclaimer: Opinions expressed on this blog are mine alone and do not necessarily reflect those of Western Kentucky University (my employer) or the Kentucky Board of Education (where I serve as a member).

Q&A with "Kentucky Teacher"

100516_KBE_October18-584x390As a new member on the Kentucky Board of Education, I was honored recently to do a question-and-answer exchange with Kentucky Teacher, the award-winning media platform produced by the Kentucky Department of Education. Fellow new appointee Rich Gimmel's Q&A can also be accessed here. Interviews with Milton Seymore, Alesa Johnson, and Ben Cundiff will appear in coming weeks.

The Q&A covered a broad range of topics, including what I perceive to be the biggest challenges facing Kentucky schools, and the small and large changes we could make in policy that would have the biggest effects.  I tried to emphasize my belief that while there are real limits to the power of policy to improve schools at the local level, there is much that we can do, and much that we must do if we are serious about rapidly accelerating the rate of school improvement in Kentucky. I also tried to acknowledge the way my concerns about institutional schooling can come across to practicing educators:

I’m aware that what I say and write can often sound critical of our education system. And I do believe that significant improvements are in order. Our schools are, in fact, getting better but the rate of improvement is so slow we will never meet the economic and cultural challenges Kentucky now faces. This is not a critique of the dedicated, hard-working teachers and administrators who toil away trying to improve student learning.

I believe we have structural and policy barriers in our system that hamper the efforts of innovative educators to make the kind of impact they otherwise might. I want those educators to know that I support them and believe we have the human capacity to meet any challenge. I’ll do my part to change those policies and remove the barriers to unleash their enormous potential.

Read the full Q&A here.

Image: Bobby Ellis, for Kentucky Teacher.

Usual disclaimer: Views expressed on this blog are mine alone and do not reflect the opinions of Western Kentucky University (my employer) or the Kentucky Board of Education (where I serve as a member).