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December 02, 2008

Idiot's Solution: Let's Abolish School Districts!

Former IBM CEO and chairman of the Teaching Commission, Louis Gerstner, has some idiotic suggestions for reforming education in this country. They are too numerous to copy in full, but here's a taste:

I believe the problem lies with the structure and corporate governance of our public schools. We have over 15,000 school districts in America; each of them, in its own way, is involved in standards, curriculum, teacher selection, classroom rules and so on. This unbelievably unwieldy structure is incapable of executing a program of fundamental change. While we have islands of excellence as a result of great reform programs, we continually fail to scale up systemic change.

Therefore, I recommend that President-elect Barack Obama convene a meeting of our nation's governors and seek agreement to the following:

- Abolish all local school districts, save 70 (50 states; 20 largest cities). Some states may choose to leave some of the rest as community service organizations, but they would have no direct involvement in the critical task of establishing standards, selecting teachers, and developing curricula.

First, almost every state has set its own uniform curricula requirements and required state-wide, standardized proficiency exams. Doing away with local school districts is not going to change that.

Second, he needs to re-think the idea that "structure and corporate governance" are the heart of the problem for public schools. He suggests that having local school districts somehow makes students less likely to graduate from high school, but gives little reason to believe students will suddenly become more successful if we make a cosmetic change to the administrative pecking order.

The disconnect between the claimed problem and Gerstner's solution leaves me with the idea that he's not really aiming at helping students. This is about "leveling the playing field." The point is to take money from successful, wealthy school districts and give it to ailing, poor districts. Remember, the focus is on minimum standards.

One of his other solutions is to increase teacher pay and allow "school leaders" (which is what we'll be calling district superintendents after he's abolished districts?) to remove underperforming teachers. I support paying individual teachers what they are worth. Teachers and reformers have only the teachers' unions to blame for preventing that. But relocating hiring and firing decisions from the local districts to the governors' offices is not likely to improve that situation. On the contrary, it is more likely that the unions will just use the reduction in competition to secure more privileges at the expense of students, like the seniority-based pay scale.


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posted by Gabriel Malor at 09:27 AM

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