Monday, October 20, 2008

WHAT CAN WE LEARN FROM L.A.: Tracing the Rise-and-Fall Pattern of Urban School Reform


—Illustration by Patricia Raine

EdWeek Commentary by Charles Taylor Kerchner

Published Online: October 17, 2008

Published in Print: October 22, 2008

When I told former Mayor Richard Riordan that I was studying school reform efforts such as his city’s Los Angeles Educational Alliance for Restructuring Now, he replied: “That’s easy—LEARN failed.” Riordan, like most observers, saw education reform as a project, a coherent, relatively short-term set of fixes to the existing system. After half a dozen years, it was easy to conclude that the project had not lived up to expectations.

The view that one project after another has failed leads to a “spinning wheels” notion of reform in which nothing gains traction. Our historical study of the Los Angeles Unified School District and studies in other districts around the country lead my colleagues and me to a different conclusion. We believe that the whole institution of public education is in flux, abandoning old ideas born in the Progressive Era of the early 20th century and trying out new ones.

Projects produce great headlines, but their histories fall into a familiar rise-and-fall pattern. Paying too much attention to short-run change dulls the ability to see longer-range transformation. As former President Bill Clinton put it, “There’s a big difference between the trend lines and the headlines.”

The expected pattern of change from reform projects is diffusion, what has become known as “going to scale,” from pilot project to districtwide implementation. Projects, and the regimes that foster them, usually last from three to five years—seven years is a long horizon—and are associated with a specific reform program and the superintendency that implements it. Electoral support and foundation support often coincide to limit the patience for results and the time any reform program is given for its audition. In some situations we studied, the time from a project’s launch to announcement of its demise is often measured in months, and hardly ever in decades. Thus, “going to scale” usually means small-scale or short-term.

Institutional change follows a different time frame. It occurs infrequently and takes longer. Indeed, if we are right, the dismantling of the old Progressive Era institution began in some districts 40 years ago. The process of institutional change is simultaneously evolutionary and revolutionary. Instead of innovation within existing structures, institutional change is more likely to involve creative destruction, the breakdown of old authority and operating systems and the reconstruction and replacement of a system’s basic structures and operating procedures.

The old Progressives gave us an institution built around four ideas. The most visible was the banner of politics-free education, which in effect meant elite rather than populist politics. Elite politics fed local control of schooling, which is still an item of political faith, if not practice. In this context, school administrators professionalized, promising both effectiveness and efficiency in the application of the public trust. That they were seen as both legitimate and effective leaders led to a “logic of confidence,” in which would-be critics of the institution were held at bay.

It is these ideas that we have found challenged at every turn. The myth of politics-free education gave way to the reality of interest groups. Even though sponsors of reform projects talk of driving out destructive politics, which usually translates into diminishing the power of the teachers’ union, they find that they have re-created a world full of competing interests. Philadelphia’s attempt to escape urban politics by replacing the elected school board provided only a temporary respite, and that city’s diverse-provider model of education introduced for-profit and nonprofit school operators as new political interest groups. New York City, Chicago, and to a degree Los Angeles have recoupled public education and mayoral politics.

Even though local control is still used as a political symbol, it has effectively vanished in the face of increasingly activist federal and state governments. In Los Angeles, the share of operating revenue produced by local property taxes has declined by 80 percent. And in New York and Chicago, the strongest of the strong-mayor cities, the city’s elected leaders had to head to their respective state capitals to gain legislation necessary for their reform ideas.

Even though reformers applaud the emergence of strong singular leaders—represented most recently in the near-celebrity status accorded Chancellor Michelle Rhee in Washington—professional educators have been supplanted by outside policy entrepreneurs in many big cities. In turn, these leaders have reached outside the district bureaucracy to firms and organizations that sell their services and maintain separate identities or commercial brands, such as KIPP (the Knowledge Is Power Program) or Green Dot. Districts operated this way become networks rather than bureaucracies, explicitly in Philadelphia and New Orleans and de facto in Los Angeles.

Even though educators fervently wish for a return to a “logic of confidence” and its high-trust environment, there is none on the political horizon. It has been replaced by a logic of inspection and consequences. Even if the No Child Left Behind Act were to be replaced as federal policy, the notion of external accountability through tests and other means is so much a part of the new culture of consequences that it would be unlikely to be replaced. In large part, the critical public believes that public education cannot be relied upon to replace the century-old practice of bell-curve sorting with universal high standards.

Each of the new ideas is both troubled and ambitious. The mixture of revolutionary ideas that have moved to replace the Progressive Era ones is matched with a series of imperfect but increasingly sophisticated efforts at their realization.

For social scientists and policymakers, one of the problems with such long-wave evolution is that the changes are often invisible. The process is not unlike the experience of the apocryphal boiled frog that does not notice the temperature in the pot slowly rising. But, like the frog, public education is well and truly being cooked, and policy entrepreneurs—the very ones who advocate turning up the heat—can benefit from an institutional worldview.

The way forward involves a combination of short- and long-term thinking, both evolution and intelligent design, if you will. It is clear that the finance and taxing system needs reworking in ways that support effective use of money in addition to its equitable distribution. It is clear that educational federalism will have to be reworked in an era when local control of policy initiation has been greatly diminished, but when the consequences for implementation rest almost entirely at the school and district levels. And it is clear that the process of teaching and learning will require substantial redesign, for the irony of our research was how few changes we found in the basic technology of instruction despite major changes in governance and operations.

Given the need for system design, it is also clear that the change process is messy, and that what happens and at what speed varies substantially. But it is fair to conclude that we are not headed toward the disappearance of public education, but rather toward multiple hybrid forms as each large system moves away from the Progressive ideal along similar but not converging tracks.

Charles Taylor Kerchner is the co-author of Learning From L.A.: Institutional Change in American Public Education and the co-editor of The Transformation of Great American School Districts: How Big Cities Are Reshaping Public Education, both recently published by Harvard Education Press. He is a research professor at Claremont Graduate University in California.


Learning from L.A.: Institutional Change in American Public Education is in the bookstores.

After four years of research, writing, and editing, I am delighted to see the book in print, partly because it represents the tangible reward for our labors, but partly because it delivers a strong message about public education. My co-authors and I believe that most research and commentary about public education reform has missed the important underlying changes in the whole institution of public education. That’s what we learned from L.A.

But LLA, as we called the research project, contains two additional layers. First, it’s a great story about real people who tried hard to reform the Los Angeles Unified School District in the 1990s. They spent more than $150-million, mostly in private money, much of it from Walter Annenberg’s gift. Half the schools in the District signed up, but at the end, the weight of opposition and inertia was greater than the resources and resolve of the reformers.

Second, there are some sharp policy lessons. Operating in the new institutional environment we describe means thinking about change differently, and acting with a blend of short and long-term strategy. Both explicit institutional design and experimentation are in order: intelligent design and evolution together, if you will. And at the end of the book, we make five explicit recommendations about policy changes that would move Los Angeles Unified beyond its current state of permanent crisis:

  1. Pass legislation that would allow groups of LAUSD schools to operate autonomously but still within the governance umbrella of the District. The objective is to recreate for District schools some of the flexibility achieved by charters. These “networks of autonomous schools” would come into being gradually. Along with charters, they would transform LAUSD from a single hierarchy to a network form or organization with many providers of education.
  2. Send money directly to the schools through a weighted student formula model of funding. Any form of decentralization, including the autonomous networks we advocate, is possible only if the principals and teachers at individual schools gain control over expenditures.
  3. Create positive incentives. The existing system is chock full of negative incentives and mandates at all levels. We would reverse that, creating positive incentives for students, parents, teachers and school administrators. Students, for example, should get positive rewards, such as guarantees of college admission, from the testing system, not just negative ones.
  4. Transform teaching and learning. We were struck how much energy in the education reform efforts was devoted to rearranging the relationships between adults and how little changed the way teachers taught and students learned. But during the same time frame, we witnessed a computer and Internet driven communications revolution that profoundly changes the way students access information and expertise. Among our more radical policy recommendations: break down the textbook monopoly by open sourcing the curriculum so that teachers develop their art and craft as they work and learn from one another.
  5. Increase variety and choice in the system. Choice is not simply about marketization; it’s about creating variety that allows public schools to experiment will different types and styles of instruction. Los Angeles already has more charter schools (about 120 at last count) and more magnets (about 150) than any school system in the country. It needs a better way of designing new types and styles of schools and for tracking their progress.

The first sentences in The Transformation of Great American School Districts lays out the conclusion of the research of my colleagues and I undertook over the last five years:

This book argues that urban education reform can best been understood as a process of institutional change rather than a series of failed projects. More specifically, we argue that to understand such changes one needs to pay attention to the basic ideas and assumptions that underpin these institutions. Indeed, we argue that virtually all the Progressive Era assumptions that provided the underpinning for urban education have now been violated, and that a set of new underlying ideas is being “auditioned,” and in some cases “rehearsed,” as we transition to a new and more hybrid set of institutions.

The institutional argument is developed in the pages of The Transformation… and in its companion book, Learning from L.A.: Institutional Change in American Public Education, both published by Harvard Education Press, and available from their web site.

· For a short summary of the book and why it matters.

· For a video interviewexplaining the difference between a project and institutional viewpoint.

· For background papers about Los Angeles and the Los Angeles Unified School district that contain data beyond the capacity of Learning from L.A.

In June, we introduced the ideas in Learning from L.A. to an audience of reformers who had led the LEARN and LAAMP reforms in the 1990s and reformers active today in the District, in charter schools, and in community based organizations. For videos of the conference including the opening speech by Virgil Roberts, my PowerPoint presentation, and videos of the panels of education reformers.

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