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December 6, 2010 standard

Photo courtesy of the Christian Science Monitor

A few folks may have had some hopes that when Benjamin Todd Jealous announced last month that the NAACP would unveil its first education advocacy agenda since the height of the Civil Rights Movement five decades ago. The fact that the work was being funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation also offered some possibility that the grand dame of old-school civil rights groups would offer a school reform agenda that would actually meet the educational and civil rights challenges facing Black America today.

But as I noted last month, part of the NAACP’s agenda focused on cutting criminal justice spending, which would actually do little to solve the underlying cause of high levels of imprisonment — the low quality of education in America’s schools (and the racial, ethnic, gender and economic achievement gaps that they help foster). And now, Jealous and company once again are wading in on the wrong issue in education: The fractious battle over  school zoning policy in Wake County, N.C.

For the past year, the majority on the board of the 167-school district have been pushing to return to zoned schooling, essentially eliminating the array of magnet schools and other options created as part of a three decade-long desegregation effort. The NAACP’s local branch, along with ivory tower integrationists such as Richard Kahlenberg (who has touted Wake County as an example of the academic success that can come from integration) have essentially accused the board of trying to return back to the racial segregation of the past.

This tenuous argument would only hold if the current school attendance arrangement was anything close to the wide-ranging intra-district choice ivory tower civil rights activists proclaimed it to be. In reality, fewer than a fifth of students attending them; most Wake County students were attending schools within five miles of their own homes. Only 33 of the district’s schools (less than 20 percent of the district’s schools) are magnets, which meant that the offerings were always more limited than national perception.

The bigger problem lies at the fatal conceit of the view of the NAACP and its allies in the ivory tower: That economic and racial desegregation will lead to improvements in student achievement. This hasn’t borne itself for the most part, and it definitely hasn’t in Wake County. Even as Wake County was paraded around by the Kahlenberg crowd as an exemplar of how integration improves student achievement, the district itself admitted there were still wide achievement gaps along race and economic lines.

In a 2007 report, the district noted that the math performance of black and Latino middle graders was behind that of their white and Asian peers. Fifty five percent of Latino male middle-schoolers and 45 percent of their black males counterparts had math scores below Levels III and IV of the state’s standardized tests. Despite the abysmal performance. the district still promoted 95 percent of its students; just 4.5 percent of all students (and only 8.5 percent of black and Latino students)  were  held back.

Of course, Jealous and the Kahlenberg crowd would argue that integration is critical to improving educational opportunity for all kids — and that it is true to the spirit of the Civil Rights Movement of five decades ago. But what both sides fail to understand is that desegregation was pursued mostly as a last resort; blacks wouldn’t achieve it immediately through the fiscal means (equal funding of schools) simply because of the opposition of Jim Crow segregationist-controlled school boards and legislatures. The idea that blacks would gain a better education (and greater entree into society) by merely rubbing shoulders with white kids and attending their schools was only a secondary thought.

What NAACP’s leadership doesn’t fully seem to understand — despite Jealous’ own response last month to the complaints of ivy tower civil rights guru Richard Kahlenberg to the contrary — is that desegregation alone will not address achievement gaps or improve the quality of education for poor black and Latino kids. Desegregation efforts in the 1960s and 1970s did help middle class blacks gain greater access to society; but they, like their white middle class schoolmates,  were already guaranteed some level of it. But for poor blacks or Latinos (and even for poor whites), desegregation merely guaranteed that the instruction and curricula they would receive would be just as desultory in diverse classrooms as they were in segregated ones. Until there is an overhaul of instruction, curriculum and state laws and teacher contracts that essentially lead to poor schools getting low-quality teachers, integration will remain what Charles Ogletree called a false promise. [(By the way, the NAACP’s other efforts on the school reform front do include sensible ideas as increasing the school day.]

This doesn’t mean that Wake County’s efforts to go back to zoned schools makes sense; as discussed on last week on Dropout Nation, restricting school choice is antithetical to ensuring that education is the civil right it is supposed to be. At the same time, the NAACP has picked the wrong education battleground. It should have chose better. This isn’t to say that schools shouldn’t be economically or racially diverse — it’s certainly a worthy goal — but it hasn’t worked in giving all children the high-quality instruction and curricula they need to write their own stories. Integration has to be secondary to systemic school reform.

November 18, 2010 standard

While others are focused on the silly argument over whether Joel Klein’s successor as New York City’s schools chancellor, Cathleen Black, is qualified to run a school district (Dropout Nation’s answer is yes), our Contributing Editor, Steve Peha, is still thinking about what he considers the failed promise of the other superstar among reform-mineded current and former school chieftains, former D.C. Public Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee. He offers some more thoughts today as part of the  series Still Waiting in D.C.:

So far, we don’t know if Mayor-Elect Vincent Gray’s interim chancellor, Kaya Henderson, is a dainty scamperer. If she turns out that way, we’ll know what Mr. Gray’s campaign against Michelle Rhee was about: Bring in the bruiser to knock things around, knock her around, and then send her packing, while Dr. Caspar Milquetoast takes the credit for ushering in a new era of consensus-driven leadership—and the coinage of yet another oxymoron. This group leadership thing never makes any sense to me: even a young lad in grammar school, I knew that “leader” was a singular noun. But rules we teach in one part of education are often contradicted in other parts of education.

No matter what happens, while Rhee’s work will survive for years to come, the end of her short tenure troubles me for several reasons. I discussed some of them last month. Here are more:

I had hoped she would become a model of a new kind of big city school leader. At such a young age when she was hired, she could have served her city for decades, ushering in dramatic change while also preserving stability.

I had hoped that Rhee would validate Teach For America’s real promise — that of putting new people into the field of education for long and highly influential careers — would be validated at the highest level. (Perhaps it has been and I just don’t feel it.)

I had hoped that D.C’.s schools would one day become the best urban schools in our nation. In some respects, this is selfishness on my part. I’m just embarrassed that my nation’s capital city treats its citizens so poorly at times.

I had hoped that a replicable model of school governance and successful reform might emerge. Sadly, Rhee leaves nothing replicable behind, least of all her approach to school leadership.

Clearly, I didn’t get what I wanted out of this deal. Sadly, I have no one to insult, threaten, or belittle as a result. For that, there’s plenty of culpability go around. I will admit that Rhee is to me still something of an enigma, a Sphinx-like riddle I can’t puzzle out. How someone so committed to the welfare of children would leave those kids behind after an election result that did not go in her favor.

I’m sad this didn’t work out. I’m frustrated, too, as I’m sure are many D.C. residents, that such a promising opportunity ended so poorly for everyone.

October 18, 2010 standard

As with much of her moves, Michelle Rhee’s long-expected departure from her job as D.C. Public Schools chancellor captured plenty of attention, with focus on her new Facebook page and whether her successor will continue her reform efforts. But does Rhee’s resignation serve the kids of D.C., who are in need of a high-quality education?

But Dropout Nation Contributing Editor Steve Peha has his own thoughts. In this latest installment of Still Waiting in D.C., Peha argues that Rhee should have stayed put and did the work needed to ensure every child in . While one can argue with this position — I would argue that the political realities (no matter what incoming Mayor Vincent Gray says) dictated that Rhee would be forced out within the year and reform would not continue — Peha’s argument merits consideration.

“My goal is to continue to be able to serve the children of this nation,” said outgoing D.C. Public Schools Chancellor Michele Rhee — as she resigned.

Why not continue to serve the children in D.C?

Had anyone fired her? Had any of her reforms been undone? Actually, presumed mayoral successor Vincent Gray said Rhee’s reforms would continue.

So why does Ms. Rhee think serving the children of our nation’s capitol is incompatible with serving the children of our nation?

Very rarely does a district leader walk out during the middle of a school year. Even those who are “fired” or simply “not renewed” typically serve out their term, or at least the current school year. A dedicated school leader can get a lot done, even in a lame duck year. But only if he or she is truly dedicated.

By resigning, Ms. Rhee is once again showing us the true complexity of heroic leadership in education reform. As D.C.’s school “Superman”, she has used her formidable powers to do great things. But with other places around the country in need of help, and with what Ms. Rhee perceives as a negative referendum on her work, she seems all too eager to head off to greener pastures.

There are only four problems with this.

First, there are no greener pastures. This is a mistake we all make in our lives we confuse ourselves with our situation. Would some places be more hospitable to Rhee than others? Perhaps. Will she run into the same criticisms and roadblocks? Probably. So why not do what we tell our own kids to do and learn to solve problems where we are instead of simply running away from them.

Second, it isn’t clear that Gray’s victory over Fenty was a referendum on Rhee. After all, Gray has met with her since the primary and has said her reforms would not be over-turned. Maybe the people of D.C. just wanted a new mayor. Perhaps, had the election been a vote on Rhee versus no Rhee, the tally would have been different. No one told her to leave, at least that we know of. And yet, off she goes, right in the middle of a school year.

Third, Rhee got a lot done in three years. Even serving just one more could make a big difference to D.C.’s kids given her talent and drive. And with this the first year of her historic pay-for-performance contract negotiated this summer with the American Federation of Teachers’ D.C. local, I would have thought she’d be at least a little curious to see how things turned out.

Fourth, it is extremely rare for even the most despised school leader to leave at the beginning of a new school year. Even in situations where a district knows a leader will not return in the fall, the most likely scenario is that he or she will serve out the year for the sake of preserving continuity if nothing else. Losing Rhee in October hurts D.C. more than losing her in June.

Now, it could be argued that her continued presence in D.C. would be a distraction. But only if she chose to make it one. Since Gray has said publicly that what she started will be continued, who better to continue it?

Pre-emptive resignation has become commonplace in public and professional life. People do it all the time, like Sarah Palin, for example, and the reasons are probably as varied as those resigning. But one consistent theme rings true in most cases: people who resign before their work is done, or before they are asked to leave, are resigning to serve their own needs and not the needs of those they swore to serve when they accepted the position.

It is said that one cannot serve two masters. And that is probably as true in this case as it is in most. Rather than choosing to serve the children of D.C., Rhee chose to serve herself by resigning early so she can have a little time off to perhaps write a book, get ready for her Oprah appearance, or tour the country with screenings of “Waiting for Superman”.

This sheds yet more light, I think, on the nature of heroic education reform. I think we can expect, as time goes by and more heroes step up to the plate, that if they don’t like what the opposing pitcher is throwing, or how the ump is calling the balls and strikes, that they’ll step out of the batters box and move on to play somewhere else. This is their right, of course, but I think it also sets a bad precedent, one that the notion of “Waiting for Superman” only exacerbates.

It takes many years to turn a school system around. Rhee was just beginning her fourth. She had made some progress. But her best years were probably yet to come. D.C., and to a certain extent our entire nation, as “waiting” for her to be an unqualified success. But reaching this result would likely have taken at least another 3-5 years, maybe more. But today’s heroic reformers have many opportunities, so why stick around any longer than they want to?

Because it’s the right thing to do.

In a nation that is “Waiting for Superman”, the clock gets reset every time Superman jets off for another destination. The very inertia that Ms. Rhee was successful in breaking through easily sets in once again while DC waits for the next Superman to come along—even if Mr. Gray adopts a stay the course strategy.

If you’ve been around education reform for much of the last 15 years or so, you’re probably familiar with the “hurry up and wait” feeling of it all. One of the reasons we probably aren’t getting much traction is that it’s hard to get traction when things change so rapidly. Big city school leaders rarely stay long enough to finish the jobs they start. Each new “hero” hired is hailed as the latest savior. Naturally, the expectant public waits for miracles, signs of the divine, Lazarus-like district programs rising from the dead.

And then Superman or Jesus Christ or whoever it is ships off with some odd statement about not wanting to be a dead salmon or having done what I came here to do or wanting to spend more time with family or, ironically, wanting to stop serving the children of one part of our nation so she can move on to serve the children in another part of our nation.

But what about the children Ms. Rhee was already serving? Why should they have to wait for the next hero to show up and save the day?

Start the music. Get the chairs. I think a new ed reform game has just begun.

Heroic leadership is looking less and less heroic all the time. The recent big city school leader manifesto was little more than a publicity stunt propped up by tepid ideas and bland promises. If this is the kind of reform they plan to make manifest, I think we’re all going to be a little disappointed.

Heroes, for all their luster, seem to tarnish pretty easily in this business. And then they like to take their ball and go home. Knowing that big change in big city districts requires a big commitment of time, they role in guns-a-blazin’ but then seem to roll out, for one reason or another, before the work is done and time is up.

Starts are so much easier than finishes. Clean slates require no erasures. And who can resist that new school district smell?

What I’m beginning to wonder is whether we need heroes at all. Maybe what we need are mentors instead. Seth Godin, marketing-maven-turned-new-economy-thought-leader, and best-selling author of Linchpin, had an interesting take on the difference between the mentors and heroes in his blog today:

“Mentors provide bespoke guidance. They take a personal interest in you. It’s customized, rare, and expensive. Heroes live their lives in public, broadcasting their model to anyone who cares to look.”

The word “mentor” comes from The Odyssey. When Odysseus left for The Trojan War, he realized that he would need someone to guide his young son Telemachus as he grew up. The person he chose was his friend Mentor.

In effect, Mentor served as a surrogate father to Telemachus, and because Odysseus took a little longer to get home than anyone thought, Mentor ended up caring for Telemachus form boyhood through to manhood.

This kind of long term commitment is probably what most school districts require. It takes thirteen years for kindergartners to become graduates, and so we might contend that a decade or more of mentoring is required to break free of old inertia, to break old boundaries that establish a new order, and to break through old expectations to new and higher levels of sustainable success.

Heroes, as Godin notes, are not cut out for this kind of service. Their very nature as public figures and their way of “broadcasting their model to anyone who cares to look”, means that being looked at is often on their minds. Mentor wasn’t managing a career when he took on his responsibility for an old friend, he wasn’t establishing a new model of fathering for war-going parents, or setting up a chain of franchised childcare centers. He was raising a human being.

Michele Rhee is part of that new and very rare breed of ed reform heroes broadcasting her model for all to see. Heroes are good. After all, Achilles and Odysseus both get much more ink in Homer than Mentor. But maybe it’s mentors that we really need in the big chair, people willing to stick it out until the job is done.

Mentors do the quiet work, the patient work, the hard work, the work that people don’t make documentaries about. But it’s also the important work of nurturing the next generation. And that’s what schools need most, isn’t it? People willing to stick it out until the work is done. People willing to serve the needs of children rather than serving themselves.

October 8, 2010 standard

When Washington, D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty lost his bid for a second term, few cared to speculate about his future in politics  (some would say he doesn’t deserve one). But the future of the reform of D.C. Public Schools — once the Superfund Site of American public education — and its chancellor, Michelle Rhee, on the other hand, has been of great interest. Given the gains the district had made during her tenure (including the implementation of a true merit pay system and the IMPACT performance evaluation system), how would Fenty’s successor (and ardent Rhee foe), Vincent Gray, tinker (and, quite likely, mess up) what Rhee wrought.

Dropout Nation Contributing Editor Steve Peha gleans some lessons from (and offers his thoughts on) the Rhee era in a five-part series that will run over the next couple of weeks — and what school reformers should (or shouldn’t do) when it comes to undertaking overhauls of traditional school districts. I disagree with some of his arguments (I would say that Rhee behaved admirably, for the most part, given that she was taking over one of the nation’s most-dysfunctional school systems; she also needed to take up a high profile in order to survive in a job that is often plagued by turnover and political intrigue; and the race issues in D.C. would bedevil any reform effort). At the same time, one has to give Peha’s arguments much in the way of consideration:

I wrote previously that the biggest lessons we would learn from D.C. Public School Chancellor Michelle Rhee’s tenure would not emerge until long after she had left. That may still be true. But in the wake of Mayor Adrian Fenty’s re-election loss, I think we may learned three important things already:

1. When adults act like children they don’t act in the best interests of children.

Chancellor Rhee wasn’t always on her best behavior. She said some childish things, took actions that could be interpreted as spiteful, and seemed to actually enjoy making people angry. I’ve read leadership books from Dale Carengie to Stephen Covey but I’ve never seen “immaturity” listed as a winning strategy.

Then, too, Rhee’s detractors seemed to delight in the umbrage they took in her unfortunate behavior. It was as if being offended by Ms. Rhee became a popular local parlor game. People who took this tack took their eye off the ball. The point wasn’t was Rhee’s lack of respect; the point was whether or not she was improving DC schools. It seems to me that she was, that this is primarily what made people dislike her, and that using someone’s success against them isn’t particularly mature either—especially when the lives of children are involved.

2. “Mayoral control” may be the newest oxymoron in education reform.

Mayor Fenty ceded control of the DC schools the moment he hired Ms. Rhee. Perhaps this was his intention. If it wasn’t, it seems odd that he did so little to school her up on DC politics or to help her tone down her discourse. If Fenty did exert mayoral control, perhaps it came in the form of agreement with the methods and the madness of his Chancellor. Either way, it doesn’t seem like the DC schools have been under mayoral control during Ms. Rhee’s tenure.

One might think reflexively that for big city school districts, mayoral control is an obviously superior form of governance. But its inherent instability is a problem. Most change initiatives in school systems need more time than most mayors are given. If mayoral control means anything at all it means that with each new mayor, a new kind of control asserts itself. The logic is straight-line-simple: Rhee is tied to Fenty, Fenty loses to Gray, DC has to start over. Mayoral control may curb the excessive factionalism and tortoise-like pace of the traditional school board approach but what it gives up in directness is easily taken away at the ballot box. Continuity suffers because if either the Chancellor or the Mayor changes, the pace of progress changes, too.

In reality, even the strongest and most able mayors may have little control over their schools. For one thing, they spend a lot of time trying to control other things. For another, they never know if they’ll be around long enough for the small amount of control they do exert on schools to make a difference. The Rhee-Fenty phenomenon, and the problems DC will have sorting it out in the near future, may finally show us that mayor control isn’t much better than what we had before, and that yet a new form of school governance is needed.

3. “Waiting for Superman” is a good title for a movie but a poor strategy for improving schools.

When Ms. Rhee arrived, it seemed to many around the nation that DC had been waiting a long time for someone to come along and kick things into gear. Ms. Rhee was a celebrity of sorts from the moment Mayor Fenty hired her. She represented youth, energy, and a new way doing business in big city schools. She was a symbol of hope for a city that seemed to have little and a nation that wanted to believe she could beat the odds and develop a model the rest of us could follow. In the end, even her immense skill and power were not strong enough to counter the Kryptonite of a deeply offended electorate.

Some of Rhee’s detractors contend that most of what has improved during her watch is the result of her predecessor’s efforts. No way to sort out that counter-factual. Which is precisely why it’s such a strong argument for the anti-Rhee crowd. Does DC really want to turn the clock back to Janey? Having been “not rehired” in Newark, he’s available. Regardless, there’s little point in trying to disaggregate the accomplishments of a past school leader from those of a current school leader who will likely be leaving soon.

So D.C. will be waiting once again. Waiting until Mr. Gray is elected. Waiting until he fires Ms. Rhee or she quits. Waiting until a replacement is named. Waiting until Rhee’s replacement arrives. Waiting until the new Chancellor figures out what to do next. In the meantime, will inertia take hold once again? And if so, will the next Superman be up to the task of battling the forces of evil—or even just good old-fashioned entropy?

Better, I think, to give up on this “superman complex” we all seem to have. Better, too, to stop waiting for someone else to fix the problems in our schools. Education is a massive web of infinitely interlinked and seemingly intractable complexities. This isn’t a job for Superman. It’s a job for everyman—and everywoman. It’s a job for all of us.

This year’s primary election returns turned out to be early returns for DC schools, too. A mayor’s term will end and soon a term of great change in DC schools may also come to a close. I wonder if, when all those people were voting, they thought about the cost of losing a year or two of momentum in their schools. Or perhaps that’s exactly why they voted the way they did. The votes have been cast and counted in Fenty’s race, but in Rhee’s case, perhaps we have only the early returns. It’s easy to understand the implications of a lame duck mayor, but what will it mean to have a lame duck Chancellor, too?

September 13, 2010 standard

What if every school was a charter school? Or a private school? It should happen in the Big Easy -- and elsewhere. (Photo courtesy of

As much as defenders of traditional public education complain about additional funding and efforts to expand charter schools, the vast amount of attention and funding in school reform is focused on overhauling traditional school districts. reforming traditional school districts. From the $3.5 billion in funding from the federal School Improvement Grant (SIG) program to much of the funding for Race to the Top, the real action remains in saving a model of providing public education that have proven to be inefficient, allows opponents of reform to stubbornly resist any change and captured by political and regulatory structures that benefit the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers over the kids that are supposed to be educated.

But what if the traditional school district model was abandoned altogether? This could be a possibility in New Orleans, where the state-controlled Recovery School District — which took over schools once ran by the woeful Orleans Parish school district after Hurricane Katrina — is putting itself out of business. What could happen in the next few years could serve as the first step in developing a form of what I call the Hollywood Model — essentially getting rid of school district bureaucracies and allowing individual schools to operate akin to Hollywood producers, actually handling actual classroom instruction.

The official plan, according to Louisiana’s school superintendent, Paul Pastorek is to allow the 33 schools to go back under the Orleans Parish school district (which ran most schools in the Big Easy until Katrina) or choose to be under the watchful eye of the state. But there is a catch: New Orleans Parish can only gain oversight over the soon-to-be-former Recovery district schools if they govern in a “21st century manner”, that is, the district will only serve in an oversight role similar to what the state would do instead of operating schools. The Recovery District schools, on the other hand, will operate on their own. Essentially, the Orleans Parish wouldn’t be able to go back to its old ways, poorly managing schools, tolerating internal corruption and failing students and taxpayers alike.

It isn’t that Orleans Parish would be in any position to do any more damage or take on operation of these schools. The district, once a sprawling bureaucracy of 103 schools, now operates just seven; given that it authorizes and regulates seven charter schools on its own, it doesn’t have the capacity to oversee the Recovery District schools. So it is more than likely that the schools will end up becoming charters and fall under state oversight.

NOLA is already several steps in the midst of the Hollywood model. After all, public charter schools (which operate independently of any central district) enroll 57 percent of all students and account for 75 percent of all schools in the Big Easy. Converting another 33 traditional schools into charters wouldn’t exactly put a strain on the system. But it would force Louisiana officials to consider its own capacity for regulating so many schools from Baton Rouge. The biggest obstacle in abandoning the school district model remains the reality that most state education agencies are ill-equipped to manage their own operations, much less provide wide oversight over tens and hundreds (much less thousands) of individual schools. The lack of strong governance is one complaint lodged against the Recovery District by those New Orleans residents who remain skeptical of a school choice model of education.

For the schools themselves, the question is how to provide those very services — transportation, school lunches and building maintenance — that would otherwise be provided by a central district — especially since Orleans Parish (which would otherwise handle those functions under my original thesis) wouldn’t be able to do so. Once possibility: Groups of schools teaming up and contracting out those services to outside vendors, something that think tanks such as the Reason Foundation (with help from Deloitte Consulting’s Bill Eggers) have floated in discussing how to improve traditional district operations. Another is to bring in more charter school operators such as the Knowledge is Power Program and Green Dot Public Schools; but that would also lead to complaints that public education is becoming a private business (even though education has always been as much a business as a means of building the minds of people).

What happens in New Orleans may actually reshape what happens in federal policy. The Obama could abandon the emphasis on school turnarounds — which like those in the private sector, succeed only a fifth of the time (at best) — and focus on developing new structures for educational governance and foster charters, vouchers and other kinds of schools. The administration could even take some Title I funding and actually put it into efforts that will elevate families to their proper roles as kings and lead decision-makers in education.

Ultimately, what will happen in New Orleans with the end of the Recovery District will be interesting to watch. After all, we already know that the traditional public school district is obsolete and not worth preserving as a model for educating our children. Now, we must replace it with a model that works for all children.

August 13, 2010 standard

Five years ago, amid all the talk about charter and vouchers, I had proposed a reform of how we structure public education that departed from the concept of school districts and school boards. Calling it the Hollywood Model, it is based on how the entertainment is structured: Major studios handle financing and distribution; independent producers handle the actual movie-making; and post-production houses handle the ancillaries. In education, a district would no longer be in the business of actually educating students, but handle such matters as distributing funds and providing transportation services to an array of independent community, charter, private and parochial schools (along with solo tutoring by independent teachers) that actually handled academic instruction. Other outfits would handle such matters as special education services and afterschool programs, freeing up schools to focus on what they should do best.

Half a decade later, amid all the debate over the possible impact of President Obama’s I3 reform effort, folks such as Rick Hess and Mike Petrilli are coming close to my conclusion: A radical departure from the school district concept is necessary. From where Hess sits in particular, neither most school reformers nor defenders of the status quo are having a much-needed conversation about how the very governance and delivery structure of American public education must be radically transformed altogether; I3n in particular, will do little more than support well-worn (and already-subsidized) efforts such as the controversial Success for All.

This isn’t an inconsiderable issue. One of the biggest challenges to school reform is structural. In California, for example, the byzantine array of state agencies and boards that govern the K-12 and higher education systems — a legacy of the Progressive Era of the 20th Century — complicates even efforts to develop a fully-longitudinal data system. While other states don’t have educational structures that are as monumentally cumbersome, they still have the basic school-district-state board-state education department-teacher licensing structure — and face the same bureaucratic and special interest challenges. Although a few states (Florida and Indiana, to name two) have succeeded in overcoming structure to make reforms a reality, this has happened only because of the hard work of school reformers both within and outside the system. And in any case, none have been able to fully overhaul how public education does its most-important job: Educating children so they can fulfill their educational, economic and social destinies.

But at this moment, not even Hess, Petrilli (or Petrilli’s boss, Fordham Institute President Checker Finn), offer a workable solution. Fordham, in particular, has argued for eliminating local school boards — which are often an obstacle to reform (and in other cases, are rarely unified enough to lead an overhaul) — and it is a seductive solution. But currently, this means moving local school governance up to state education departments. Given their abysmal record in taking over local schools and whole districts — and their overall lack of capacity to do this work — it may be unworkable. Allowing third parties to handle governance — a feature of charter schools in Indiana, Ohio and New York, in particular — may work. But as Fordham notes in its own experience, this isn’t easy to do. Ultimately, both approaches are just nibbles around the edges, not true overhauls. Nor does it help foster other changes needed to improve the quality of education — including expanding the array of compensation needed to recruit high-quality talent into teaching.

This is why the Hollywood Model must be part of the school reform conversation. A 19th century system isn’t going to get the job done in 2010.