Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Changes In Schools Have Gotten An "A" In Other Cities

In light of the renewed call by Memphis Mayor Willie W. Herenton for Memphis City Schools to become part of city government with the mayor appointing the superintendent and board as well as a proposal for a Joint Board of Control to handle certain operations of city and county school systems, we reprise this post from December 17, 2007 on these subjects:

There are better ways to run urban school districts than by elected school boards.

That’s an opinion that’s gaining traction in many large U.S. cities and given new energy by the success of buoyant, youthful Washington, D.C., Mayor Adrian Fenty in taking over his city’s troubled school district.

This year’s takeover of school operations by Mayor Fenty bookends a 15-year mayoral takeover movement that began in 1992 in Boston, and between them are five other successful changes in school governance -- Chicago (1995), Cleveland (1998), Detroit (1999), Philadelphia (2001), and New York (2002).

When In Doubt, Reorganize

The interest in this different way of operating school districts surfaced here a month ago when Shelby County Mayor AC Wharton said that it’s hard to imagine a better time to change the operational structure of Memphis City Schools. Considering the litany of controversies at the city district in recent months, it’s pretty hard to argue with him.

After all, if Albuquerque, Los Angeles and Richmond can move this topic to the top of their list of priorities, it sure seems that Memphis can, too. Here, there’s the ongoing federal investigation, the nutrition services scandal, questions about a no-bid transportation contract, concerns about the contract for temp workers and the rumblings inside the district headquarters show no signs of stopping.

If there’s any indictment of the chaotic culture of the Memphis City Schools and the district’s persistent inability to improve things, it is the latest organizational restructure – it was the fourth in five years.

Better Controls

While Interim Superintendent Dan Ward’s recent reorganization (complete with clumsy press release references to his military experience 25 years ago) effectively dismantled the centralized organization that evolved during the Carol Johnson era, the truth is that no org chart has proven to be the antidote to the problems that seem inherent in the lumbering, $1 billion a year bureaucracy.

In fact, the failure to resolve these problems over the years is probably the strongest evidence in support of mayoral control, because research has shown that a chief benefit from this new governance is the improvement in operational functions. As one study put it, financial and administrative operations of the districts are more effective and healthy under mayoral control, and in districts run by mayors, more people who are non-teachers are hired for key management jobs.

While the greatest benefits of a governance change are on the administrative side of the district, it’s hard to argue that a change in organization couldn’t help the academic side. After all, Memphis City Schools has 100 schools that don’t meet state benchmarks for progress. With state standards toughening in the next 12 months, it’s hard to imagine a scenario that the public relations house of cards about improved student performance won’t come crashing down.

Hitting The Books

Here’s the thing about mayoral control. While research indicates that the single vision creates progress, the real magic is in removal of an elected school board. It’s not that board members are bad people or not serious about their duties. It’s just that the presence of an elected board politicizes a district already difficult enough to operate. It’s hard to remain loyal to balkanized districts of constituents and manage to develop an overall vision for the district.

About now, Mayor Wharton is likely poring over lawbooks from the county attorney’s office to find ways to bring a new governance structure to Memphis City Schools. So far, school board commissioners have concentrated their attention on the governor’s powers under No Child Left Behind and the opportunities for takeover of the city district by state government.

While state law endows the governor with considerable powers, he’s shown little appetite for bold action to this point despite the crisis in both Memphis and Nashville districts; however, his support for mayoral takeover could be a key to getting it done.

Unearthed Opportunity

Word filtering out of the county building is that Mayor Wharton has been investigating legal and political options for months and doing much of the research himself. It’s hard to imagine that one major point of investigation isn’t the Joint Board of Control, a mechanism that he unearthed in 2004 in the midst of his campaign to clamp down on the devastating impact that the capital costs of schools were having on the county budget.

In a July 14, 2004, letter to Patrice Robinson, then president of the Memphis Board of Commissioners, Mayor Wharton wrote: “After much research, I believe establishment of a Joint Board of Control is a viable tool that should be considered as we move forward with this process.” He could say the same now about mayoral control.

In media coverage in 2004, he compared his approach as similar to a “joint venture in the private sector” and said school officials had pledged to keep an open mind on the use of the joint board. While capital funding pressures at the time drove the discussion, the description of the Joint Board in Mayor Wharton’s letter suggests that it has the potential to be the vehicle for mayoral takeover.

Pyramid Scheme

The 1957 state law about Joint Board of Control says that city and county school districts can enter into contracts which provide for joint operation of a school or certain services with an eye to increased efficiency. The law is bolstered by the Memphis city charter which allows contracts between the two school districts.

Emulating the kind of legal structures set up for some of local government’s most complicated projects – The Pyramid and FedEx Forum – a possible course of action could be for Memphis City Schools to sign a far-reaching contract with Shelby County Schools for a Joint Board of Control, and the Joint Board of Control in turns contracts with Memphis city government to run the city school district. (It’s not unlike the city and county governments contracting with the Public Building Authority to construct an arena, and the Authority then subcontracts with a third party to build it.)

According to a 2003 opinion issued by Tennessee Attorney General Paul G. Summers, there’s no limit to the powers and control that the joint board could possess, and although the change in the governance of Memphis City Schools would require the approval of its board of commissioners, it’s still possible that it could be quicker than other options. The beauty of the Joint Board of Control is that it doesn’t require any additional legislative action, because the law already exists.

The Catch

Here’s Catch-22: Success will eventually depend on the better angels in board members’ nature, because its members’ support are needed to give Memphis the chance to see if this dramatic change in governance can take place and produce the positive results seen in other cities.

In an authoritative study about the impact of mayoral takeover, the following conclusions were reached:

* In 80 percent of the districts studied, the elementary schools improved their test scores.

* Every district studied showed improved performance by high school students.

* The most significant improvements in performance are seen in the lowest-performing schools.

* More accountability in the system and responsibility held by a single city leader increases public confidence in strategies to turn around the schools.

Chance For Success

In addition, Dr. Ken Wong of Brown University, in a must-read, recent report, “The Education Mayor,” conducted a comparison of 14 mayor-led districts to 90 similar districts run by independent schools boards and concluded that mayoral control results in one-third of a year in extra learning by the average student.

In the end, pursuit of a Joint Board of Control rests on two premises – one, that Memphis City School board will do what is best for the children in its classrooms, and two, that a unified front of Governor Phil Bredesen, Mayor Wharton and Memphis Mayor Willie W. Herenton can wield the political influence to make a Joint Board of Control happen.

It’s clear that a unified political front stands the best chance of coming up with a combination of carrots and sticks that convinces school board commissioners to give a new governance structure an opportunity. With public confidence in the school district bottoming out and with more of the same promising the same disturbing results, there’s little doubt that the public is willing to try something different.


Anonymous said...

Lies, damned lies and statistics. The trust around here is in the school board not in the Mayor/City Council. We don't want our schools run like our pools or MLG&W. Next you'll be telling us that selling MLG&W is in our best interested and you found some phony baloney industry funded research to support the sale, or that drowning 2 kids a year is not too bad.

Anonymous said...

I don't see any lies, damned lies, nor damned liars (statistics don't lie the statisticians who interpret them may). I don't think people "around here" trust either the mayor or the school board; I know I don't.

Beyond that I have no idea what this has to do with MLG&W or drowning kids in pools.

Did anonymous above lose his way? This is not the Thaddeus Matthews blog.

Anonymous said...

Really? No idea at all?

You can't make the simple connection that the man who appointed the Park's leadership and MLG&W board is the same man who would appoint the School Board. My experience has been that prior performance is an excellent indicator of future performance.

So, based on the quality of those performances, I don't see how you think the appointed school board would produce results dissimilar to those achieved at the pools or MLG&W. Quite frankly the problems at school system, which were laid out in the post, pale when compared to the problems at MLG&W.

MLG&W is "run" by a mayor appointed board, so we won't find any operational problems there, right? Oh wait, no, how can it be? JD Power says the board is a failure, the repayment of improperly collected fees says the the board is a failure, the huge unjustified cash position at MLG&W says the board is a failure. The HR/residency scandal reflects a culture at MLG&W that is one of corruption. The fish rots from the head down.

So, this direct experience would lead us to the conclusion that organizations lead by Mayor appointed boards often have serious problems.

That said, I see no evidence of likely improvement based on the letting the same person who appointed that failed board appoint a new school board.

As to anonymous above, if you are going to be inane don't be quick to insult others (don't make me send Thad after you!) lol.

Brad Watkins said...

There are no magic wards, or silver bullets, the problems facing american cities are complicated and require complicated solutions.....don't believe the hype.

Smart City Consulting said...

Brad: What's a good West Tennessee liberal doing relying on anything churned out by the American Enterprise Institute. :)

We agree that there are no magic bullets, but there is the magic of a nonpolitical appointed board. And the way that they are chosen in some cities isn't by the mayor. Instead, there is a blue-ribbon committee that submits names to the mayor who has to pick one of them.

As far as reaching conclusions as to the merits of mayor-led districts, we'd put our money on Kenneth Wong over any of the sources that you gave us. That said, we do appreciate your citations and the chance to read them.

Brad Watkins said...

There is no such thing as a non-political appointment. This scenario simply limits us to the politics of a few allied forces, verse the politics of multiple opposing forces.An elected School Board plays to it's base voters. A Mayor's appointees play to him...but in the end, juked stats are still juked stats. What bureaucrat risks his funding by revealing failure voluntarily? Especially when the Mayor in this scenario will most certainly hang him out to dry. Now each approach has merits and flaws, but to assume that a system will improve simply by handing control over to a Mayor is false. The progress if any comes from what as a result goes on in the classroom. The reforms needed to bring that kind of progress forward can be done in the current system with the right school board.
It could also be accomplished with the right Mayor. To reduce complicated issues to any kind of magic analogy is dangerous, In my humble opinion.
The lack of a elected school board did not prevent a 58 million dollar deficit in Baltimore school system. Nor did the sharing of power between it's Mayor and Governor prevent partisan wrangling over school funding between these two forces.Bredesen will not be around forever neither will AC. Now If either is replaced by a unpolitical does the scenario remain?

The main problem, I have with it is the same problem I have with alot of these policy fads. They are based around making people feel progress is being made, while how much progress is always hard to determine.

Wong himself does not assume that there is a one to one correlation between this system and positive results in every case.

George said...

If you want Lies, Damn Lies, and Damn poor interpretation of statistics, read Dr. Jeff Warren's op-ed in the Memphis Flyer yesterday where he states:

"MCS has taken the graduation rate from 48 percent to 69 percent over the last five years."

This is just not true. It is a false statement that people at MCS have been repeating for two years now. I have called the head of Research and Evaluation at MCS on this a number of times back when Carol Johnson was running around town making this claim. Yet he and others continue to say it. The reality is that MCS has gone from a graduation rate of 60.4% in 2003 to 69.6% in 2007. The 48% which they are using is the Cumulative Promotion Index, a different measure.

Saying you moved from 48% to 69% on the graduation rate is akin to saying the temperature in Memphis this morning at 10am was 26 degrees and it will climb to 87 degrees later today. While this is a true statement, it is completely misleading as the 26 degrees is Celsius and the 87 is Fahrenheit.

The 48% to 69% change is using apples and oranges.

George said...

I just got a call from Dr. Jeff Warren telling me that someone had informed him that I called him a liar. If that is the way what I said above is being interpreted, I certainly apologize. I thought I was clear that he was the victim of repeating the "Damn poor interpretation of statistics" as has been the case of many within MCS for a couple of years now.

I believe he understood my position and I hope others do as well.

Smart City Consulting said...


If this is a fad, it's now one that's about 20 years old. And we respectfully disagree with you about what the independent research by credible researchers show - there is a direct link between the kind of governance and student performance.

Unfortunately, the present system here makes well-intended school board members deal with constituent services and deliver the goods to their district when they should have their focus on the big picture. While we clearly disagree, we think that the systems we have seen in other cities with mayor-led districts have less political interference from the mayor than from school board members.

Even in Baltimore, where the mayor and the governor shared the power, an arrangement that inherently created conflict (not to mention that the Maryland Board of Education selected nominees for the board), student preformance spiked upward.

We think we have 15 years of poor results. and we simply think that it's worth trying something different.

Anonymous said...

Actually it is more than 20 years old. Some school districts have never made the transition to the elected school board. The problem with the elected "citizen" school board is it's lay nature. These individuals have no knowledge or experience with the running of a billion dollar organization. Nor do they have extensive knowledge about education, we do currently have one experienced educator on the local board.

Add to this the fact that we have a ward system which only encourages the patronage model which has become part of the inner workings of both the schools and the city, and you have the current mess.

While a lay elected board might work for the average school district in the US, one serving about 2,500 students, it does not work here. We have probably only begun to see the many problems which are part of the inner workings of MCS. I fear a truly transparent system as it will shed light on the many other problems within the system.

I believe Mr. Watkins, above, made the point that there are no silver bullets, agreed, and that the most important thing is what goes on inside the classroom, agreed again, unfortunately the governance structure of MCS is having an enormous impact on what is going on inside the classroom.

Anonymous said...

Initially, the joint borad idea seems good. Among all of the other debates, we need to work towards unifying the school systems. Every other urban county in TN has abolished the City-County systems and seem to have benefitted form it.

the Joint Board idea may be a positive step towards doing just that.