Mayors’ Education Summit
HENRY OLSEN: The next panel is entitled "Holding Educators Accountable."
We'll be hearing from Chester Finn, Mayor Phil Bredesen of Nashville — Metropolitan Nashville and Davidson County — and Mayor Tom Fetzer of Raleigh.
The role of mayors in education is something that has been changing dramatically over the last few years. I think if you had asked a mayor in the mid-80s what they had to do with education, they would have responded “virtually nothing” or talked about the responsibilities and the excellent progress of their school boards.
Today, we have examples of leadership of mayors from all around the country, including Mayor Richard Daley of Chicago whose path-breaking takeover of the Chicago school district is being emulated in cities across the country. We also have examples of the efforts of other mayors who are leading either by influencing school board elections or by influencing directly or indirectly what's happening in their cities. Increasingly mayors are coming to understand that a healthy city requires an educated populace, and that formal authority does not absolve one of informal responsibility.
We are very fortunate to have leaders in that movement here today with us. Starting off, we'll be speaking with and hearing from former Mayor Phil Bredesen of Metropolitan Nashville and Davidson County. He's been out of office for five weeks. During his term he was a leader in influencing Nashville's school system, as we'll hear. He also presided over and influenced Nashville's fantastic economic boom, making it one of the fastest growing metropolitan areas in the South, as well as attracting leading industries and professional sports franchises, such as the Tennessee Titans and the Nashville Predators.
MAYOR PHIL BREDESEN:Thank you for the invitation to come here and the opportunity to talk a little bit about education. I don't bring any academic credentials to this discussion. My college training is in physics, which of course I used every day on my job as mayor. I was mayor of Nashville for eight years, from 1991 until last month. My background before that was as a businessman. My previous job was as CEO of a New York Stock Exchange company in Nashville.
We have a school system of about 72,000 students. It has an elected school board. The mayor is involved in the system only through the approval of a one number budget. The school board submits a budget, consisting of a total number, to the mayor, and the mayor can increase or decrease that. That proved to be plenty of leverage to have some input and influence over the school system.
In the last eight years we have made some significant changes to that system: a complete rebuilding of the physical infrastructure. We have about 130 schools. Thirty-two of them are new schools that we built in the last eight years, and another 40 have been renovated. We brought an end on an amicable basis to court-ordered busing in Nashville, with the plaintiffs and the defendants going to court together and asking for an end to it. We also have adopted an entirely new curriculum, the Core Knowledge curriculum built on the work of Professor Hirsch and others in our public school system.
During this process, which stretched over that eight years, the “A” word, accountability, was constantly discussed as part of the solution to issues in the public school systems. What I want to share with you just briefly this morning are some of the things that to me seem to be important that we learned about the process over the course of eight years of changes.
The first thing I'd like to suggest to you is that accountability by itself is really a sterile concept. I think it's kind of typical political nonsense. You've got this problem, which is you don't like the way schools are being run, and so you come up with a silver bullet, whether it be accountability for educators or ending social promotions or ending one of these many things that are out there. They, by themselves, are almost worthless. When made a part of an overall system, they are things that have some effect.
Assessment of accountability for results as part of an overall system is clearly needed. But it's the feedback element in an overall system of managing the schools, it’s not something that is worthy in its own right.
One thing seemed obvious to me, as I got into the schools and tried to understand how they worked and identify changes that needed to be made. I think it's an axiom that tends to get forgotten in discussions of accountability, is I believe that any form of school reform or school changes is going to have to be built fundamentally around the teachers in the classroom.
I used to be in the health care business, and we had 6,000 or more doctors associated with the company. They're great and the lawyers are great and the accountants are great. All the vice presidents are great. That company worked or didn't work depending on what happened between a doctor and a patient in an examining room with the door closed on the examining room.
I believe exactly the same is true with the public school system. Mayors are great and superintendents are great and professors at the local education schools are all great. The system will rise or fall depending exactly on what happens when you close the door in the classroom with those teachers.
One reason why I am skeptical about a lot of the accountability discussion is that so much of it seems to not take that into account. It seems to be punitive, to not be built around something that can be accepted, understood and used by teachers to manage their day-to-day activities in the classroom. Obviously you need to support and challenge and think — you cannot do that except by working through the teachers. The systems that are seen by teachers as being meaningless or punitive or not relevant to the day-to-day activities of teaching in the classroom seem to me ultimately destined to fail as ways of changing the quality of education.
I said earlier that I see accountability as part of an overall system. What are the pieces of that system?
To start with, I think the first one, and the one that really falls on the mayors, the school superintendents and the politicians, is a commitment to providing the infrastructure that teachers need to conduct their business. That means politicians willing to go out and raise money for schools to make sure that the physical structures are there for teachers to teach in, the physical facility is there, that class size is reasonable. It is an expensive process to make that happen. Politicians should make sure that technology that’s appropriate to be used in the classroom has been invested in, that the training systems for the teachers are there as well. Until those pieces are provided, then I think we have not — mayors and others, mayors and governors —have not done our jobs in terms of making this whole system work.
Second of all, I've become a firm believer in a very specific mandated curriculum for public schools. As a community, as managers of the system, I think we have to start out clearly stating exactly what we expect the schools to provide, exactly what does it mean to finish fourth grade in the Nashville public schools.
Now, anyone I've ever talked to in public education has said, "Oh, we've got that." I have yet to find somebody who actually has that. Most curricula are very generic. They're not used by teachers, day to day in the classroom. They generally tend to be okay in the area of reading and math, where there are some national standards to work with. In the other areas I think they're generally a disaster.
The test that I'd urge anyone to use is to walk into a public school system and pick a random elementary school, walk down the hall and pick a random fourth grade classroom. And if that teacher has a copy of the curriculum in the classroom and can pick it off the shelf and open it up and show you what's the part that they're working on at this point, then I think they have the kind of curriculum I'm talking about. If they can't do that, which I think most school systems cannot, then work needs to be done, first of all, in being clear to the teachers as a community on what it is we expect them to do and to produce.
Last of all, the process of measurement. Many school systems, certainly in Tennessee, have uniform state tests and people are very organized around having their schools do well on these tests.
No one would think of running a business by taking a measurement once a year or once every four years and then six months after you take the measurement feed it back to people in various forms. Any sort of accountability, to me, has to be built on a much more frequent kind of dip-sticking. There should be uniform ways of looking at how students are doing on a weekly or bi-weekly or monthly basis, with only these mandated state tests as kind of an overall check on the system.
If you have a uniform curriculum, you have the ability to do that. That's the direction that we're trying very hard to move in, in Nashville, to use that as something that is seen as helpful to the teachers, as helpful to the principals, and not some outside force being imposed on the system.
Having this curriculum gives you an opportunity for uniform feedback, gives you an opportunity for adjustment, gives you opportunities for remediation with the children, and then lets you define the consequences of, use the accountability to define the consequences, of what goes wrong.
Bottom line, just in closing, I think accountability is absolutely necessary as a part of the overall education process. It's not a silver bullet. It's part of the process. To work, I believe it has to be something that has grown up inside the school system. It can’t be imposed effectively from the outside. Politician X or College Professor Y, I don't believe, can as a practical matter make accountability systems work in a public school. That's a messy process. It's nowhere near as clean as hiring a consultant and developing some state-wide test, but it is, I think, in business and likewise in school systems, the only way to provide the real kind of assessment and feedback that makes accountability work.
We have to make changes in the school system. Those changes have to include putting the money in school infrastructure that we need to have, defining specific curricula, figuring out how to make short-term comparable measures, and then using all that as a way of feeding back and putting consequences into the system for performance or lack of performance.
HENRY OLSEN: Now we'll be hearing from Mayor Tom Fetzer of Raleigh, North Carolina. Mayor Fetzer is in his third term. Mayoral elections are held every two years in Raleigh, so his third term is coming up for close next week.
Under his leadership, he has dramatically reduced property taxes in the city of Raleigh and supervised, presided over and influenced economic growth in that city. He's reduced crime substantially so that Raleigh now has the lowest crime rate of any city in North Carolina, and he has also increased the number of police officers that the city of Raleigh has put on the street.
He'll be speaking to you about his role in influencing Raleigh's public schools and also about the North Carolina situation generally, and what a mayor can help do to influence the education climate in his state.
MAYOR TOM FETZER: Thank you. It is a real honor for me to be with you today and to share some ideas with you.
I want to talk just briefly about accountability because I think Phil has hit that pretty well, and I also want to talk a little bit about my personal accountability for improving education in my city.
If we're to hold schools accountable, we have to have criteria that are quantifiable, that are measurable, and that are comparable to tell us meaningful information. Testing in North Carolina, what we call the ABC test, is written by the state, administered by the state, and scored by the state. Those tests generally show our students performing at a much higher level than tests that are nationally written, nationally administered and nationally scored, which seems to call into question the objectivity and validity of state tests.
Mayors need to come together and force their states to administer national tests that are valid, that are not “normed” or scored to try and inflate scores. The tests should compare students in North Carolina with other states in the country and with other nationalities if we're really going to find out how we're doing.
The testing now leads to some really interesting bundles of incongruities in my state. The state is giving schools this “exemplary school” label. There are some schools in the state of North Carolina where less than a majority of the students are performing at grade level who nevertheless have been termed “exemplary.” I'm still not quite sure how that happened.
To give you an idea of the degree of difficulty for middle and elementary school children, one of the questions on the test to determine whether they were performing at grade level is, “Name your favorite day of the week and tell us why it's your favorite day of the week.” Thirty percent of the students managed somehow not to answer that question correctly.
Right now in North Carolina, we will award a high school diploma for an 8th grade level of proficiency. The good news about that is it's up from 6th grade. But parents who think that their kids have demonstrated a performance level of 12th grade to earn a high school diploma have been deceived.
In Raleigh, the council manager form of government makes the mayor a part-time, temporary public servant. About my only direct connection with the school system is to place police officers in the high schools. I was willing to do that when I became Mayor because, after all, statistics tell us that demographically speaking, that slice of Americans age 14 to 17 is the most violent age group in America today. But I was a little amused recently when simultaneously my local school board congratulated itself for winning a national award about character education, and at the same time asked me to put police officers in middle schools. A school system that cannot control 12, 13 and 14-year old children without a police officer is in trouble, I think.
Let me talk a little bit about an approach that we have taken in Raleigh, which is sort of outside the school system. I'm all for empowering parents economically with the means of providing them with choice. If one thing defines American culture from every other nation on earth, it is that we are presented with a plethora of choices in almost every aspect of our daily lives: cars, computers, faxes, cordless phones. Anything you can buy you has choices, sometimes too many choices. Except, of course, if you're not economically empowered to send your children to private school, we tell you where your children have to go to school. Zero choice. We've got to do something about that to drive the competition necessary in public schools to improve.
Until schools have to compete for parents’ choices of where their children go to school, I don't think the necessary reforms are going to be driven internally. I think they have to come internally through the miracle dynamics of competition.
When I first became Mayor of Raleigh, it was a startling revelation to me to understand that a majority of my city's violent crime occurred in four or five neighborhoods within easy walking distance of my office in our downtown core, principally, our public housing neighborhoods.
As I went through these neighborhoods to understand what was going on, it was easy to see that these neighborhoods had ceased to function as we believe neighborhoods should function in America. Random gunfire, drug deals, all kinds of nefarious ne'er-do-wells plaguing these very young households headed by very young mothers in vulnerable situations. When the kids would come home in the afternoon and get off the bus, their mothers would meet them at the bus, whisk them into their apartments, draw the curtains, lock the doors, and they didn't come out again. Nobody was playing in the streets in the afternoon. You couldn't get a pizza delivered there after dark.
So we employed not a terribly innovative policy. We put police substations in these neighborhoods. One of the first things I’ve done as Mayor is to visit Ruben Greenberg in Charleston and I saw how effectively Charleston had placed police substations in their public housing neighborhoods. We call them CMPA stations, Community Police Assistant Stations, trying to influence the neighbors to accept this public safety initiative not as somebody trying to police them or watch them, but to help them and to restore some normalcy to the neighborhoods.
As you might expect, they work beautifully. We ran all the criminals off. Incidentally, we didn't displace them by too great a distance in some instances, which is why we went to the people who make the school buses in North Carolina and got them to make us a mobile CMPAS station. So now we just follow them around wherever they go until they become convinced that we're going to follow them until they leave town.
Once we rid these vulnerable neighborhoods of the criminal element, some of the more underlying pathologies that had been covered up by crime surfaced and became more visible. Not the least of these was that 70 percent of our children in these neighborhoods were dropping out of high school before they graduated.
Now, I want all our children to go beyond high school. But it's clear to me that we've at least got to get them through high school. Your chances of ending up in poverty are eight times greater if you don't finish high school. In the State of North Carolina, 66 percent of the people that we incarcerate in prison don't have a high school diploma.
In our culture and our economy today, if you can get a high school diploma, you can be successful. You can make $50,000 in Raleigh driving a sheet rock delivery truck or learning how to operate a computer and program it with a GED from a community college. If you don't finish high school, you've got no chance. With an unemployment rate of 2.7 percent in my city, jobs are very competitive. If you don't have a high school education, you're not going to get them.
So I'm not sure anybody's ever done this before, but I asked the Raleigh Housing Authority Scholarship Fund to go in and interview every family they could find in public housing to find out what was going on. They interviewed 1,400 families, went into 1,400 living rooms, to find out why we were losing these children.
We found out a lot of things. The most interesting discovery was that the three out of ten children who finished high school almost invariably had a caring adult mentor outside their immediate families. They had a coach, a teacher, a pastor — somebody who got involved enough in their lives to coach, cajole, exhort, prod, push, to do whatever it took to get that young person through high school.
So the next question we had to ask ourselves was how do we create a vehicle, how do we create an environment, to facilitate this magical connection between these kids and somebody out there in the community who cares enough to get them through high school. Out of that thought process came what we call a community learning center. We took one public housing neighborhood and we went in there and explained to the neighbors that we wanted to do something to help turn around the high school dropout rate in the neighborhood. We asked if they would be willing to give up their community center if we could raise the dollars to turn it into a library. They willingly agreed.
The next step was to get IBM to donate $100,000 worth of brand new computers. We got a family in Raleigh to donate a whole library full of new books. We got the YMCA and the Boys and Girls Club and a whole lot of community programs that were already out there to come into this facility.
The transformation has been remarkable. A neighborhood that just wasn't working is now working, and it's revolving around this community learning center. If you go there in the afternoon, when the kids get off the bus they don't go home first. They run straight to the door of this place. It's a big glass door leading in, and they put their books down and they tuck their shirts in and they hike their pants up and they tie their shoes because they're not going to be let in if they're looking sloppy.
Then they go in and they run to a computer and they pull out their little disk and they start to work. We have all sorts of programs for these children to keep them engaged, because a couple things are happening to kids in public housing in Raleigh. They're happening to kids in public housing in cities all over America. We're busing them all over the place to school. In order to ensure that we have certain quotas in the Raleigh and county public school systems, a disproportionate burden is placed on young minority children to be bused.
So they're spending an hour, two hours, on the bus every day that are lost from the educational process. They have to come home when the bus is ready to come home, so they don't get to stay after school and take advantage of extracurricular tutorial or computer labs or anything else. When they get home there are no resources in the neighborhood to keep them in the neighborhood. Any good programs involve sitting in a bus or a van and hauling these kids off somewhere else, just reinforcing the stigma that this neighborhood is not a good place.
Well, now there's a reconnection with that neighborhood, a pride in community. The mothers got so turned on to the computers that they got in there and messed around and said, “Hey, we'd like to get our GED's.” So we got a community college to come in and start teaching GED courses. Now some of these moms are going to work because they have a GED, they have a diploma. It's just a miraculous thing.
The most important thing, the most important part of this, though, is not the computers, it's not the books, it's not the programs of the YMCA and the Boys and Girls Clubs. It's the adults that are coming to this neighborhood. We've made it safe now because it has a police station. There's an attractive community learning center for them to engage with young people, to make sure that they finish high school and can take care of themselves.
It's been so successful that we've started another one. Instead of spending money privately to outfit facilities or build facilities, the City of Raleigh decided this is such a great program, we're going to open up our parks and recreation centers that are scattered throughout these kinds of neighborhoods that need this kind of help. So we don't have to spend that kind of money. This program is entirely privately funded. There's almost zero public money in it.
The private sector, the business community, is frustrated about what they discern as a lack of quality education in the public school systems, and they want to do something about it, and they don't know what. This is something that they have embraced because they understand intuitively that it will work, and it's a place where they can expend resources and donate equipment and money that they will see a direct return on.
Let me explain to you the way county public systems respond to reaching this at-risk group of young people. They're going to spend $7 million annually to make these kids go to school an extra 20 days a year.
Now, I've heard this quote often. Sometimes it's attributed to Albert Einstein sometimes it's attributed to Roger Milliken, the textile magnate from South Carolina. “Insanity is just doing more of what you're already doing and hoping it will yield a different result.”
It won't. We think we can organize 14 community learning centers in Raleigh, North Carolina, for $1.4 million annually. We think we're going to do a lot more to get this group of at-risk kids up to grade level and get them through high school than spending $7 million annually to make them go to school an extra 20 days on Saturdays. I just don't think that's going to work.
This is just one example of a remarkable menu, an array of private initiatives in education that I think are doing more to impact young people's lives, and their parents, and their neighborhoods, than anything else we're doing in the public sector for public education. So I think as Mayors we have to challenge ourselves to come up with innovative ideas that will supplement what's happening in public education — or private education, for that matter — to reach these young people in their neighborhoods where they're at most risk.
After we put the police substation in, about the only crime left in this neighborhood was youth on youth violence. They get home after school and they have nothing else to do, so they beat on each other. Now that's almost virtually disappeared, because they're involved in something that's positive and productive.
Now, this program's only been going a year. It's too early for any empirical data tracking these kids through the school system to really say whether we're going to dramatically make a difference in high school graduation rates or performance at grade level or whatever. But I will tell you this — other than all the intuitive things that you can see happening there, for the first time we developed a program called a school preparation program. We put our 5-year-olds in the summer through a program getting them ready for school.
In elementary schools across the county where all these kids are bused to, the teachers are reporting that they've never seen a group of people from that neighborhood coming together so prepared for school. The homework is better, the attitude is better, the attendance is better, parental involvement is better. The grades are better. So we think it's working.
I think it's just one example out there of having to hold the school system and ourselves accountable to do whatever it is we can to ensure that our young people get the education they need to function at a level so that they have a chance of being successful. I think in our society that means at least getting through high school. We want them to go on beyond that, but our for job, at least my job, I think we can overcome almost all of the high school dropout rate in Raleigh and Wade County by focusing on these kids at home where they live and bringing this kind of service to their neighborhood.
HENRY OLSEN: Our final panelist today is Chester Finn, perhaps the most noted and quoted education expert in the country. He's currently serving as John M. Olin Senior Fellow at the Manhattan Institute and president of the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation. He has previously served with the Hudson Institute and the Edison Project, and been Assistant Secretary for Research at the Department of Education at the federal government level. He's been a professor at Vanderbilt, has authored many books, including The Radical Education Reforms and the forthcoming Charter Schools in Action, co-written with the moderator of our first panel, Bruno Manno, and is perhaps the person who can talk most eloquently on virtually any topic in education reform today.
Today we've asked him to talk about what a mayor can do to influence and improve education in their cities. Chester?
CHESTER FINN: One of the things that I like about the Manhattan Institute is that it's so interested in really serious matters that it's been able to go for two hours and ten minutes at a conference in Washington without anybody mentioning federal policy at all.
This is probably a healthy thing and I should probably leave well enough alone. However, people here are, at least many of them, kind of like coffee addicts who haven't had their Starbucks yet. So it's important to inject at least one brief note of federal policy that I think is germane to the topic at hand.
Last week, to the consternation of some of the groups represented in the room, the House of Representatives narrowly enacted a version of a bill called “Straight A's.” Participating states or communities can get freedom over its federal education dollars in return for delivering significantly better student achievement. The press about Straight A's has focused on the fact that states can seek to do this for the whole state. The fact of the matter is because of the intervention of some cities that said, “Hey, we might like to do this ourselves,” the bill was written to allow for communities in states that don't want to do it. The communities that want to can try it.
Now, it's a limited number. That's the principal compromise the House made last week, and one I hope the Senate repairs. But it's a limited number of places.
The fact of the matter is that a community, like Nashville or like Raleigh, could under this measure actually gain control over its federal education dollars and use them for purposes of its own devising, instead of being under a mountain of federal rules and regulations. But in return — this brings us to accountability — it would in fact have to deliver significantly better academic achievement, especially for poor kids, during a five-year period. It would be judged, much like a charter school is judged, by whether it accomplishes what it set out to do rather than simply by whether it obeys the rules and regulations.
I hope that the possible municipal application of the Straight A's idea gets noticed by people here, as well as the state part that's already been pretty widely noted, as I say, much to the consternation of people who don't think anybody should have freedom to do anything differently.
On the topic at hand, holding educators accountable. On the whole, we don't do much of it in America today. We do more and more holding kids accountable for learning and holding them back if they don't learn and things like that. But relatively few educators, at least in the public schools, are seriously accountable for their effectiveness, in the sense that their own continued employment or income hinges to any significant degree on whether their students are learning and their schools are succeeding.
We talk about accountability a lot, but we don't actually yet do very much about it. I'm talking about the consequences part of what some people call the accountability tripod. The accountability tripod has three legs, surprisingly enough, two of which have already been alluded to by the two Mayors.
The first leg is solid standards that say what a kid coming out of fourth grade should know and be able to do. The second leg is serious tests and other feedback loops that let you know whether in fact that goal has been met. The third leg, the one that is so hard to put in place, mostly for political reasons, is the one that says it actually makes a difference in the lives of people whether or not that result is achieved, whether or not the desired result is achieved.
In other words, rewards follow for success and change or intervention or something different follows in the event of non-success. I've become more and more of a behaviorist as I grow older. I think that changing human behavior is the single hardest thing there is to do in the whole world. If people think it doesn't really count, it doesn't really make any difference in their lives. Just put yourself in the place of a 16-year old on a Tuesday night trying to figure out how to spend his evening. Should he stay home and rework that history paper or go out with his friends?
Well, what goes through his mind? Because 16-year olds in their own strange way are rational beings. What goes through his mind is, does it count? If it counts, he might stay home and do it. If it doesn't count, he won't.
I think the same is true for grownups. If the principal of that school knows that that school is going to keep getting its budget, its kids, its jobs and its everything year after year after year, regardless of whether anybody learns anything in that school; why get up early to change things or stay late? That's the consequences part of the tripod.
We don't do much of the consequences part because it's politically so difficult to do, at least for grownups. We seem to be able to shove the kids around. Tell them they've got to go to summer school. How many grownups do we know in the education system that were told that they have to go to summer school if they want to keep their jobs and learn how to teach reading or whatever it is they didn't do very well last year?
How many principals were told they have to go to summer school if they want to keep their jobs, because their school is doing a crummy job of teaching kids?
We send the kids to summer school. We hold them back, we make them repeat, we do things like that. What do we do about the grownups?
I've been talking, obviously, so far about top down accountability, what some people call systemic reform. That's the kind where some kind of higher authority watches over your shoulder to see whether you're performing properly. I'm going to talk about a different accountability paradigm in just a second. But let's stick with the top down kind for a moment.
Top down accountability needs to operate at several levels in the system. Each fish should have a bigger fish watching it. Top down accountability should operate at the kid level, at the teacher or classroom level, at the building or principal level, at the school system or district level, at the state level, and some would say at the national level.
When it comes to holding educators accountable, it's the classroom level, the building level and the district level that matter the most, especially if you're Mayor. The problem that most educational reform-minded Mayors have in America is that they don't run the school systems, as has already been made clear. In the late 19th century, America came up with a governance system for its public education system that was designed to shield the schools from politics and keep out patronage. It was a parallel governance system, largely independent of mayors and city councils on the one-hand and of governors and legislators on the other hand. Everybody is acquainted with how this parallel governance system works, essentially through separately elected or appointed school boards at the local and state levels, which hire their own professional superintendents who run the system, and so forth and so on.
It was an interesting idea. It was an interesting experiment in civic innovation and reformism a century ago. But it's badly broken in most of America today. Far from insulating schools from politics, it's created school politics and school interest groups. It is a peculiar policy arena in which the education interest groups play off each other while the public interest is often neglected.
That's what led a lot of governors and an increasing number of Mayors to say, “Hey, you know, we may not have constitutional structural responsibility for our public schools, but the public holds us responsible for our public schools. The future of our state or our city hinges on the success of our schools. We've got to do something. We've got to either take over or fill in around the edges or work behind the scenes.” I think we're seeing examples of all three in America today —the takeover, the fill-in around the edges, and the work behind the scenes.
We ought to be rethinking our basic structural and constitutional arrangements for public education in America so that Governors at the state level and legislators, and Mayors at the municipal level and city councils or whatever the legislative bodies are, are in fact directly in charge of the schools. We need to replace all of these indirect ways.
Now, what's a mayor to do under the present arrangements? Well, I am admonished to give a brief commercial for a forthcoming Manhattan Institute book. The forthcoming Manhattan Institute book is entitled, The Entrepreneurial City: A How-To Handbook for Urban Innovators. It's coming out within weeks, and a brief excerpt from it, having to do with education, is on the table out front.
The brief excerpt, which looks more or less like this, is entitled “Reforming the Schools from City Hall: 10 Ways Mayors Can Revitalize Public Education.”
Five of those ways suggest that the mayor should gain control. The other five ways suggest what mayors can usefully do, even if they're not in control, to improve the schools in their city. Most of them have something to do with accountability in one form, format or another.
In maybe a dozen U.S. cities today, the mayor really is in charge of the school system. The best known example certainly is Chicago. But today one would also point, I think, to Cleveland and Boston and Detroit as other prominent places where this is happening. Baltimore is an interesting hybrid, and the list goes on.
There are also some prominent examples — Milwaukee and Los Angeles come to mind — where the mayor doesn't run the schools but has managed to tug and prod the electoral process in his city so as to get people elected to the school board who share the mayor's reform objectives. Mayor Norquist, I think, is going to be here this afternoon, so he can tell you himself what I meant a few minutes ago by behind the scenes work at education reform by mayors.
If the mayor gets effective control, then the top down accountability system that I've been talking about is his responsibility, which of course doesn't mean that it's easy. They still have to contend with all the vested interests of American public education as you try to implement top down accountability, particularly for educators. There are all sorts of impediments to that — teacher tenure; sometimes, appallingly, even principal tenure — that make it extremely difficult to make the personnel changes that a meaningful accountability system would require. Those typically involve high politics and state legislation and things like that, and lots of feisty interest groups, as well.
The one educator over whom the Mayor is probably most apt to have the greatest influence is the superintendent of schools, who is, of course, supposed to be the CEO for the local system. To the best of my knowledge, no superintendent in America has tenure. Let's be thankful for small blessings. On the other hand, no superintendent in America seems to hold his job longer than about 18 months. It is a problem in its own right. The revolving door that continually replaces people just as they're finding their way through the school system, produces a kind of instability at the top in American school systems that's as frustrating, I suspect, to mayors as is the inability to make changes when changes are needed.
This is, I think, a serious dilemma. Immovable people at the middle of the system and a revolving door at the top of the system is probably not a structural recipe for the kind of reform one might dream of.
Well, I've almost used up my time and I want to mention the other powerful accountability paradigm that's under discussion and in action today besides the top down kind. It's actually the one being discussed in both of today's other panels. It's accountability via the marketplace, the kind of accountability that comes by installing various school choice policies and creating new kinds of schools, charters and otherwise, alternatives to the present ones.
Marketplace accountability is already the norm for private schools and charter schools in those places lucky enough to have them. If they don't satisfy their customers and produce a quality product, the customers can leave. This tends to concentrate the mind of most school people and will almost unfailingly provide incentives for those in charge of a school to build their own staffs in a way that can be held accountable for what goes on in the school.
The fact that private and charter schools are generally free from lots of regulations and union contracts and tenure rules tends to help, as well.
As I see it, the two accountability paradigms, though they're often thought of as rivals, as kind of competing, actually intersect and mutually reinforce in ways that I think we tend not to appreciate, and that's going to really be my last point.
The marketplace doesn't work very well without the kinds of sophisticated consumer information that comes from standards and assessments and other kinds of external audits and top down monitoring.
On the other hand, system reform, the top down model, doesn't work very well unless you've got alternative schools so that the mediocre, failing schools aren't the only place for the kids. Families, in fact, have options of schools that might work better.
This intersection, really, between top down accountability or systemic reform on the one hand, and marketplace accountability or school choice on the other hand, is, I think, one of the most exciting policy arenas in America today. I was disappointed when the U.S. House of Representative failed to figure that out last week when they dealt with the big federal Title I program. But I know that lots of people in this room have figured it out and that at least some of you want to live by it.
In closing, over the last 15 years, I think anybody studying American education policy would say the most influential force for change has been the Governors. It seems to me maybe the Governors are about, not out of steam, but out of the ability to influence things in a lot of states, because it turns out they don't actually run schools. States don't run schools. They make policies. Schools are run locally.
It suggests the possibility that Mayors, especially if they figure out how to get control, might turn out to be for education reform in the next 15 years in the United States what I think governors have been for the last 15. That is, namely, the most influential and consequential force for change that we have. At least I very much hope so, and hope that those here and those paying attention to what goes on here might want to give that a serious try.
HENRY OLSEN: We now have about a half-hour for questions.
MAYOR TOM FETZER: I think a lack of choice is one of the reasons that parents in America are somewhat disengaged. If they had the opportunity to take a more proactive position in where their children went to school, I think they'd immediately have more of a vested interest. In many instances the geographic locale of their children’s school prevents parents from having as much of an impact as they'd like to have.
I think we should put choice back into the mix and make every parent confront the issue — where do I most want my child to go to school, where's the education that I'd most like my child to have? Once parents make that choice, they have a responsibility to make sure that choice was the correct one. If you remove the choice from them, they send their children to the school where the government tells them and they trust the government to educate their children. I think that's the biggest factor in why there's parental apathy out there, I think that's the major source of it.
MAYOR PHIL BREDESEN: I agree with you, but it seems to me just another facet of the same disengagement that takes place in a lot of the political world. If I can just expand on what Tom said, I think it comes from a sense of if you don't have control over it, there’s a sense of inability to control it.
In my particular case, our son went to a private school, which he started in before I became mayor and continued in. He's now a sophomore in college. I tell people that probably the main reason for choosing a private school was not the academics. The academics of the best schools in Nashville are every bit the equivalent of that private school. It was a sense on my part that as the parent of that child, I had more influence about what went on in that school then, as Mayor of Nashville, I did in any public school in the city of Nashville.
Until that sense of ability to control and to involve, is taken seriously, is put in place, I don't think you're going to get that parental involvement.
CHESTER FINN: I agree with what's been said and would add just three very quick points.
First, a lot of schools are not very welcoming places when parents show up. They're welcoming if they want you there that night, but not necessarily if you're there because you've got something you want to see to.
Secondly, in direct contradiction to what I just said, a lot of parents are not responsible parents, either. They ought to be horsewhipped.
Thirdly, if I can give another commercial, they could buy Bill Bennett's and my new book The Educated Child: A Parent's Guide. The book will be a deeply empowering document for them because it will tell them exactly what kind of education their child ought to be getting and how they can help.
QUESTION:I had a question for Mayor Bredesen, and that is — you talked about the need that reform be from the bottom up and embraced by teachers and by individual schools. I was wondering how you managed to accomplish that with the introduction of the Core Knowledge curriculum into the Nashville school district.
MAYOR PHIL BREDESEN: The way you always do that, which is with money. In Nashville the issue was that the public school system had a number of things that it wanted but had been unable to obtain money for them. There had been two referendums for a tax increase for schools. Both had failed in the city.
So they came to me and I said, “Well, fine. I'm willing to go out and put my neck on the line to raise taxes and to get you money for the schools. Here's my price. Yes, we'll build some new school buildings. I also want the Core Knowledge curriculum, I also want certain numbers of the teachers allocated to these kinds of thing.” It all worked just fine.
It's just like I'm former CEO of a company, and if you have a unionized operation, the way you get changes in the contract is you pay for them. I think the same thing happens in public education. It can happen very, very nicely with mayors.
QUESTION: On the question of accountability, you mentioned standards set by the people that are implemented, assessment and feedback. Are standards for teaching our children and rewards and changes determined by the people that are running the system?
It seems to me that we need an independent auditor, an independent method of determining or demonstrating this accountability. Is that in place someplace? What's the model? If there is none, how do you bring it into this political arena without destroying the arena?
You talked about people not being involved in government. It starts at the school level. They're not involved with the school boards. They're not involved with the school administration. Then when they grow up, they're not involved in government.
HENRY OLSEN: Would anyone like to take that?
CHESTER FINN: My notion that each fish is watched by a bigger fish includes the concept of an external audit that tells you from outside how you're doing, not just you telling yourself how you're doing. We've got altogether too much experience with the system when it tries to measure itself by giving the good news that it wants to give rather than an honest truth about on how it's doing in relation to some kind of external standard.
What most states have tried to do, with mixed success, and I think the North Carolina story illustrates it, is to create the standards, the benchmarks and tests that will serve as the independent audit for the local districts from outside those districts.
This is, in my view, the right theory. It sometimes leads, though, to bad standards and easy tests and low passing scores at the state level.
States are audited if they participate in the National Assessment of Educational Progress — NAEP — which is the closest thing there is to a national standard or a national test right now. That's just a sampling of statewide performance. It doesn't give you any data more detailed than on the state level. It does tell you how your state's doing compared to other states and compared to the country as a whole.
There was an enormous brouhaha in this city about a year and a half ago over the question of whether there should be a more systematic national testing program that would function at the district level, the building level and the kid level. As of the present time there is none and there seems to be no political possibility of having one, at least no political possibility that I can spot right now, though at least one presidential candidate has given speeches lately that he would like to see something like that happen.
HENRY OLSEN: Mayor Bredesen or Mayor Fetzer?
MAYOR TOM FETZER: I think one of the things that has allowed educational systems to escape accountability in this country is this correlation they've been able to create in so many people's minds between money and education. And I think there's very little to suggest that the amount of money that we're spending on public education has much to do with the quality of education our kids are receiving. The United States, when compared to other industrialized nations of the Western world, is at the top of per capita, per pupil spending, and at the bottom in terms of performance.
Most of the nations whose students are outperforming our very best students don't spend as much money. Kids don't go to schools in air conditioned classrooms, don't have computers, don't have books, don't have all the materials.
Somehow we've got to create in this country an environment where school systems can't escape accountability by saying, “You didn't give us enough money.”
Phil mentioned the two education referendums in his area. In Wade County, we just defeated a $650 million bond referendum that would have raised taxes almost 50 percent over four years to build new schools because people are suddenly starting to believe that spending all that money is not going to directly impact the education of my child. What the education bureaucracy and the public education establishment needs to start talking about in this country is not constantly focusing on inputs, money, material, teacher salaries, but to start focusing on what the kids are learning and what they leave the school with. That's what we've got to get the debate to focus on. Not how much we give the school system, but what the school system gives us in return.
Nowhere else in America would you buy 50 percent more of a company’s stock for doing half the job that you bought the stock for in the first place. By getting half the children in the school to grade level, you don't give that school and that administrator, and the principals and teachers, a lot more money to work with. That's not the way it works in America.
MAYOR PHIL BREDESEN: Can I just add one thing to that?
I'm coming at it from the standpoint of a mayor of a city, not of a policymaker in Washington. I see that there are a lot of things about the way the schools operate that are broken. A useful thing to do, a pragmatic thing to do, that actually will make something better on Tuesday after you do it on Monday, is to work at some of those things that are broken at the local level.
If you had an automobile plant and the cars were coming off the end of the line with the engines that didn't start and the doors that didn't fit, you wouldn't have the board of directors make up some accountability policy. You would go into the plant and figure out what was going wrong on the line and make small changes there and use what you've learned as a result of those small changes to roll them up further and further.
You can tell from the conversation that I'm not enthused about some nationally directed or state directed accountability program. I don't think that's the way it works in the real world. What we all have to do is make small changes on Monday, find out how they worked on Tuesday, make more small changes, and continue building from that. I think we know perfectly well how to do it. I mean, we have a very successful economy, very successful businesses in this country. We just need to get on with it and do it.
QUESTION: I want to thank the panelists for their comments, and particularly Mayor Fetzer. I want to express my admiration for the program that you put in place with the community learning centers and push the concept of accountability a little differently.
The title is "Holding Educators Accountable." But what we haven't really talked about is holding all of the other institutions within the community accountable. I think in some of the cities and communities that we've been looking at, where communities are able to come together to agree on not just academic standards but other desirable outcomes for students to achieve, you are beginning to see a much greater improvement in the education system.
So when we think about accountability, it's more than just academic achievement. It is safe schools, it is caring adults, it is productive engagement after school, during the summer weekends. That truly is not just the K through 12 or K through 16 system.
So when we think about accountability, I would just add there's a lot more out there that we need to do for kids, that bringing this community the kinds of incomes that we want to see generated in a community is a different way of looking at this. We need to engage a lot of these other organizations and individuals, and perhaps that will get parents more involved.
MAYOR TOM FETZER: Well, I'm not an advocate, as Phil is not, either, of a national accountability bureaucracy or anything like that. But here's the problem. When you buy a car in America today and the doors don't shut, it's fairly evident. Then you decide to not buy that car again. If your computer software package doesn't work as fast as another one, you trade that in and get another.
It is not as easy to discern whether your children are learning as much as they need to be learning in the 4th or 7th grade, and whether they're learning as much as 4th or 7th graders in Dubuque, Cairo or Rome. What we need is a simple, manageable, easily administered test or measuring device that tells us what our are children learning, what they should be learning, and how much less are they learning at a similar age than children will be competing with in 5, 10 or 15 years.
I think parents are disengaged because they don't know how to make that decision. There's no information for them to decide whether their children are succeeding or not succeeding in school. Therefore they are somewhat paralyzed from being able to make a decision about taking their children out of the school, taking another job or deferring expenses in order to place their children in a private school, or to take other actions that may be available to them. It is because they don't know. They don't have access to the information they need to make those rational decisions.
QUESTION: What most educators understand is that no two children learn exactly the same way, that the exact same kind of approach isn't going to work effectively in every classroom.
Now, perhaps the solution lies in the literature of testing. Maybe national tests and Board of Regents exams in New York are examples of tests that perhaps would solve this problem.
So maybe you could talk about what's going on in New York with the Regents exam model.
CHESTER FINN: Well, of course, neither of the examples you mentioned are tailored to individual kids and different learning styles. Each is a uniform external exam created by an external authority. The College Board administers national advanced placement exams all over the country — same questions at the same time. In the other case, a state education bureaucracy creates and administers the exam to all the kids in the state at the high school level.
So I don't think that the examples you mentioned are solutions to the problem that you started with, which are the differing educational needs and circumstances of kids.
My own view is that it's legitimate for an external exam to be administered to all kids in a jurisdiction, be it a school, city or a state. However, it must be acknowledged that what's on that exam is not everything you hope the school is doing with that kid and it also needs to be recognized that not everything the kid is learning is going to be tested on that test. But I think reading, writing, math and science, for example, have a fairly substantial common core of skills and knowledge that all kids ought to learn, even if the kids learn them differently. They can be tested in a uniform way.
Just one point should be made about the Regents. New York State used to have two kinds of high school diplomas. There was the Regents diploma if you wanted a kind of extra special academic diploma. You didn't have to pass the Regents exams in order to graduate in New York, because you could get a regular diploma from the local district without having to pass any kind of a statewide test.
The current education policy regime in New York wants everyone to pass the Regents. That's now policy. However, passing scores have been dropped dramatically. So that while everyone will now take the Regents, and everyone is supposed to pass the Regents, if they had kept the old standards a huge fraction of the kids in the state might not pass. That was politically unpalatable, and so the compromise was to significantly lower passing scores in order to make everyone take the Regents.
Now at the time you've got a peculiar kind of policy in which you've got the facade of uniform standards, but in fact they're lower standards than you used to have when they weren't uniform.
MAYOR PHIL BREDESEN: Can I add something to that?
Just one thought. This phrase that you used with regard to testing and how difficult it is because of different learning styles and so on, that is a very slippery slope. It is a notion that I'm very suspicious of.
We talked about installing this Core Knowledge curriculum in Nashville, the Hirsch approach, which is one of many. The day that it was rolled out, I talked about it at an institute at Vanderbilt. The very first question that came from somebody that should have known better is, “Well, this sounds all very good, but of course you can't do something like that in the inner-city schools, can you?”
It was kind of a horrifying statement, because if there's one thing I believe the kids are very, very good at, it's responding to expectations. If you set up from the beginning a set of different expectations for different kids, I'm absolutely convinced that they will rise to those expectations, whatever they are.
Certainly there are different learning styles. But the skills that are needed to be a good citizen and to hold a good job are a set of common skills. I think they're perfectly possible to test for, and I certainly must say I'm a strong advocate of some sort of standardized national testing. In return, be careful about using that for accountability because it's a very blunt instrument for that purpose. Giving back to parents, letting parents know how well their school systems are doing compared to other school systems in other countries, I mean, that seems to me to be an absolute no-brainer, and I wish we had the political courage to do it.
QUESTION: The goal is to develop a process whereby we assess incoming kindergarten children and their abilities to learn. Sixty percent of our kids in the third grade don't read very well. All sorts of things happen to kids who can't read by the end of third grade. If they can't read by the end of the third grade, they get left behind.
I'm hoping get behind something like that and do something meaningful in our communities to bring out the importance of this. What do you think?
CHESTER FINN: Well, I'm going to make one comment.
In the book I mentioned a few minutes ago, The Educated Child, we set out to write a list of things that a kid ought to be able to do by the time he reaches kindergarten. And the list is in the book and it goes on for five pages. We were just staggered by the number of things that it seemed desirable for a kid to be able to do upon arrival in school in order to succeed in school.
Then you look down any such list, ours or somebody else's, and you say, jeez, how many kids actually can do those things, and how handicapped, disadvantaged will they be in kindergarten and first grade if they can't do those things.
Now, I'm a great admirer of the power of good schools to remediate almost anything if you start at age five. But there's a heck of a lot of things that a successful learner needs to be able to do before they can really even start to read effectively. So in order to get to that third grade universal reading standard that you just mentioned, which I would totally endorse, starting fast, preferably before school, is, I think, a very important piece of it.
MAYOR PHIL BREDESEN: The only thing I disagree with is, I think from a lot of mayors' perspectives, we prefer the people in Washington not notice what we're doing. We try very hard to keep our heads down.
CHESTER FINN: For a national test.
MAYOR PHIL BREDESEN: That is a point.
QUESTION: Mr. Finn, I've heard you a couple of times talk about the bigger fish watching the little fish. It's always the bigger fish. I tend to believe that bigger fish is obviously our court system. Nobody's touched on its role in this whole thing.
I'm part of a group of mayors who supported the obligation of the State of Connecticut to educate our children. The second issue is the tampering by the legislative body in a variety of forms.
Would anyone like to comment on the judicial role in all this? We talked about the executive branch.
CHESTER FINN: You're using the judicial route because you couldn't obtain satisfaction from the other two branches of government; is that fair?
A lot of education policy does end up, for one reason or another, being made in the courts, often because of deadlock or gridlock in the other branches, sometimes because of serious constitutional violations. Sometimes because the other branches just fail to take action.
Probably the two biggest examples in recent years have been racial desegregation and then, secondly, school finance equalization. These have probably been the two biggest domains of judicial action in the K-12 educational system.
Mayor Bredesen, I don't know, when I lived in Nashville 15 years ago, the whole community was still under an interminable court order on busing.
MAYOR PHIL BREDESEN: Yes. We worked that out over the course of the past few years. When I first became mayor we decided to put a process in place to negotiate with the plaintiffs so we could go back to the court together, which we did about two years ago. We brought an end to the order.
In Tennessee, there's a third front on the judicial side going on right now, which would be disastrous for Nashville. That is equalization of teacher pay across the state. Obviously it is a vastly different matter to hire teachers in a city with the cost of living of a Nashville and so on, versus a rural community. I absolutely believe that the legislative and executive branches are the right way to deal with these issues unless the inequities are so enormous that they require judicial intervention.
MAYOR TOM FETZER: I think if you're waiting for the courts to fix the school system, we'll all be here a long time.
I think the states have an obligation, generally speaking, to try and provide a quality education to children. But it's not the state's obligation to educate those children. It's the parents and the local communities' obligation to make sure that those children get the proper education. I believe that more of those parents and more of those local communities will do that job if, through competition, we're able to break open this monopolistic stranglehold that the public education establishment has on public education. Give parents opportunities to choose and force schools of all kinds to go out and compete for the students.
I think if that happens, all the problems that we've talked about today will diminish because parents and local communities will understand more about the educational products that are available. They will custom fit local families’ and children's needs to the educational product, and good teachers and good schools will succeed. The students in those good schools will succeed, and the other schools are either going to fall by the wayside or they're going to have to do something to catch up.
I think a lot of it is just letting the market work. It works so well in other aspects of American life. We need to trust it to work in education, I think.
CHESTER FINN: Just one more quick comment on the judiciary. Like all policy makers, it's a two-edged sword. Whereas it's sometimes used to foster change, it's at least just as often used to retard change.
I'm thinking right at the moment of the Cleveland voucher program, where the people who don't want the program to continue are trying to use the courts to stop it. So I don't think we ought to end the session with the implication on the table that courts are invariably or even primarily a way to change bad things into better things.
HENRY OLSEN: I'd like to thank the panel for coming and giving their remarks.