A recent Op-Ed in the Trenton Times, authored by noted area consultant Irwin Stoolmacher, challenged the notion that a state takeover of education is a panacea for struggling school districts like Trenton. I fully support his position, a position that gives added weight to conservative beliefs in keeping decisions on education local as much as possible.
The involvement of government is always conditional, and I have rarely seen state or federal action in education that has proven successful other than situations where it is primarily contributing resources and allowing decisions to be made by those responsible for the endeavors organization and performance, such as with Head Start and other early education initiatives.
Government is notoriously weak in the area of administration and has a track record of creating dense and far reaching bureaucracies. Frankly, the last thing education needs are more bureaucrats. The state can point to some districts where improvement was claimed, but I suspect that in some cases the success is superficial, and in other cases the success was probably attributable to innovative leadership and the participation of stakeholders.
Ford Motors learned along time ago that it was the workers on the assembly line, and not the suits "upstairs," that best understood the process and the most efficient ways to produce the product. The same is true with education. I am adamant that the best position to take in education is the "conservative" position in so far as that schools and school districts should function autonomously; ideally each school would be filled with teachers possessing an entrepreneurial spirit. I realize that to most it seems counter-intuitive to decentralize decision-making when dealing with failing schools, but I contend that it is because the damage done by the state is so pervasive, from its failure to properly allocate resources to its test obsessiveness to its choice of core content requirements, and so on.
Mr. Stoolmacher's main point, which I also agree with, is that our failure to address income inequality in general, and poverty in particular, is the single most important factor contributing to failures in urban education. As I regularly point out in this blog, 99 of the 100 poorest performing schools are in urban areas in the lowest "District Factor Groupings." This fact cannot be ignored, and no amount of state intrusion through a takeover is going to change that. Attacking poverty goes beyond simple economics; the social and cultural dimensions to poverty cannot be ignored either. Increasing socio-economic diversity is a related and equally important goal.
If the State really wants to help public education, declaring a new war on poverty would be a great start. This is of course a long term endeavor, and along the way there are many steps that can be taken to make education more relevant, more passionate, and more incentivized for both students and teachers, with more opportunities for both groups of stakeholders to benefit from contributing to a school's success.
So let's end this talk of a state takeover, and let's instead deal with the true causes of failure in our urban schools with honesty, transparency, and action. Our urban schools are no less than a natural disaster, and our attention to them should be no different.