Foolproof School Reforms, though Not Knowing the Fools

“How could we successfully legislate education reforms?”

My master teacher paused for a moment. This did not compute, so I broadened the question.

“Or, what should we get rid of?” She had an answer to that, at least.

“Well, I’m glad you said that, because I was going to say, ‘outlaw No Child Left Behind.’ The federal government has no place in the classroom. That’s something that’s best left for states to decide.”

What reforms could California do, then? She had pretty good suggestions.

1. More local control of funds. The state ties up funds that could be distributed more equitably, or more in needs with the district. She didn’t give particulars, but as an ideological libertarian I already believe this.

2. Cut down on administration spending. Huge, behemoth school districts — like the one I’m student teaching in — spend up to 19 percent of all school funds on administration. She sarcastically estimated that the superintendent’s recent 35 percent raise would bolster the share to 24 percent.

“I don’t think people realize how much of the real estate this school district owns is used for administration,” she said. “I think I’ve been to 10 addresses on school district business, all administration buildings.”

She supports an administration spending cap, arbitrarily advocating a 5 percent limit on administration spending.

3. Smaller schools, smaller school districts. Large school districts are unwieldy in not only the economic sense, but also in the managerial sense, as my master teacher implied. School districts the size of ours release mandates as would an absolute despot, and the teacher-peons grumble. This does not facilitate Roland Barth’s “Improving Schools from Within” arguments, which include applying a culture of collegiality between students, teachers, parents and administrators. Smaller districts have more collegiality almost by definition.

The mechanics of how this could be achieved are simple — limit funding for districts larger than some arbitrary student population — but at least one practical point should be addressed.

Larger school districts could easily be reformed into a confederation of smaller, more local school communities, which would make it easier for parents to interact and involved with their local schools. The authoritarian shadow of downtown wouldn’t reach as far.

Of course, a skeleton structure of the former, larger district would remain. Its sole authority would involve finances and clerical work, plus negotiations with the local chapter of the teachers’ unions thrown in as a bonus. That should only take an office or two.

This is where I start sharing my own gathered ideas and recommendations.

4. Offer much higher tax breaks for companies who donate time, rather than write a check. Simply writing a check is detached for the company to do, and does not really engage the company with the school in question. Cash is too soon wasted in bureaucracy, the middle man and red tape.

Encouraging companies to send the professional workforce gives students a chance to see what a high school education gives them. Accountants as math tutors, lawyers as history tutors, journalists as reading comprehension tutors. With this, practical applications have never been so obvious to the disenfranchised student.

5. Start later, get out later. The New York Times had a certain, well-reasoned argument for this. According to the featured op-ed, some school districts that avoided busing costs reforms by switching high school and elementary start times. High school starts at 8:40 in those districts, and elementary schools add extra instructional time.

The result? Test scores improved. Even some some student athletes did better.

6. Extra funding, smaller class sizes for English learners. Smaller classroom sizes work. California doesn’t have it anymore only because of one of our many, famous budget crises, so larger classrooms came back pretty quickly.

But if there’s one population of students that would need this extra help, it’s the English learners.

English learners take the same tests as students fluent in English, and I won’t argue for administering the test in multiple languages. English learning students aren’t getting the extra help they need, either — their classes are usually just as crowded.

What do you think? What other credible and realistic proposals are there for the state of California and beyond?


  1. dkzody

    Smaller learning communities WORK. That’s why we wrote the QEIA grant with that in mind and why we are working hard to make it happen. Of course, in our district, the administrators often have other ideas so it’s a fight to keep money where it should be spent. As your master teacher pointed out, we have lots of administrator land out there that has nothing to do with what happens in the classroom. I think we should have administrators go to a school for each meeting they hold.

  2. When I was briefly the publisher of research for the Department of Education we had a study wander through that indicated optimum size for a school was about 800 students. At that size, a high school could afford appropriate laboratory and library facilities, the size was good for discounts on purchases, but more importanly, over a couple of years teachers and students could get to know almost everyone. Students wouldn’t fall into the cracks as much. In short, it was an appropriate size for people to care about one another, and still achieve cost effectiveness.

    Our local high school sits at 3,400 students, and may top out at 4,000. ::sigh::

    I’ve wondered about how big a district would have to be to be too big, and I think I have a good rule of thumb. Dallas ISD has more than 500 schools. A superintendent couldn’t visit those schools in a year, and consequently many of them are effectively beyond his span of influence, let alone span of control.

    Of course, 365 schools would be too many, also. About 104 days a year would be lost on weekends. At most school districts, about 100 days are lost to summer vacation. Our school year in Dallas ISD is 193 days. I’ll wager 30 days are lost to activities that fracture learning.

    I would think that a good, working and effective school district would have the superintendent spending a day or so at each school during prime learning times, each year, for several activities, but at those times to see how learning progresses. That would require a bunch of time, but certainly no district should be much over 160 schools, just for proper observation from the superintendent.

    Each school should be under 800 students, by my guess.

    165 schools, 128,000 students.

    There’s probably a geographic limit, too — square miles, or travel hours, or something.

    I’ll wager administrative costs go down in smaller districts. We don’t need so many layers of bureaucracy just to spread the word and audit the spending.

    But, I know lots of smaller districts that don’t work as well as they should.

    Schumacher didn’t mean to apply it to public schools, but small is beautiful, really. More effective, too, I’ll bet.

  3. I’d go even smaller. My school district is level at about 74,000 students, and we could easily be divvied up in quarters, to the benefit of our schools and our students.

  4. cattledog5

    As a TA at a university (aka “a slacker”) I am unqualified to comment on many of these points. But I wonder about the idea of local control of funds. My only concern would be the danger that funds would be distributed unequally. The students of wealthy districts would get a far better education. On a certain level this doesn’t bother me much (perhaps this is a remnant of the days when I considered myself a conservative). But on another level, I think that would mean more ignorant and uneducated people in our society and might this lead to higher crime and more money wasted on welfare?

    I truly hate to sound like some kind hippie, but might we all benefit if states were to equally divide their education money equally between all primary/secondary ed schools over which they had control?

  5. That’s already the case in California, and still students from wealthier areas get a better education.

    It used to be that property taxes were used to fund education, and so while there were distinct disparities between Palo Alto and East Los Angeles, even the poorest areas had better schools than most of the rest of the country. Thing is, local money stayed local money, and people could deal with that much.

    Once the California Supreme Court decided that it was unconstitutional for schools to have such unequal funding, the state had to equalize it all.

    Rich folks balked at paying the still-high property taxes, most of which went to equalize funding with poorer districts. Within a decade-and-a-half, public sentiment — especially rich sentiment — turned against such high property taxes.

    Local money wasn’t for local schools, anymore, so taxpayers were frustrated. The well-funded and greatly supported Prop. 13 in 1981 made such changes that California’s now-top-down school funding struggled with enormous cutbacks within another few years. By 1986, the year I was born, California public education was a joke.

    I’m hazy on the details, yet. That’s the gist.

  6. Digging up an old one, but: #5 is so completely necessary. There’s a ton of research out there on the negative affects of a lack of sleep (makes you dumber!) and the fact that teenagers biologically need to sleep later. So we make them go to school first! Great plan.

    On size: I’m from an area of Pennsylvania where school districts are basically local townships. Very few districts in my area are larger than a set of towns. If the populations grows enough to need a 2nd high school, there’s talk of splitting districts. My high school, at 1200, was normal size.

    Now I teach in Virginia, where county = district. It’s ridiculous. We have fewer schools than your district, but I think we have higher admin spending. The amount of useless bureaucracy filling up admin buildings is crazy! There’s a real problem because there’s all these “directors of thingy” whose job duties are not clearly defined and whose position in the hierarchy is not clearly defined. It leads to teachers hearing 3 different directives on the same issue and being totally confused. It also turns principals into middle-managers with too much responsibility and not enough power. (My district is particularly obsessed with all high schools being the same, to the detriment of anyone doing anything innovative. We can’t even teach electives unless they’re going to be taught at all the high schools.)

  7. Naturally, I agree completely. Smaller districts will get the focus off of what the admins do and onto what the teachers are doing.

    Making sure teachers know what they’re doing is the central tenet of every reform I’ve heard of since the turn of the century. That isn’t going to happen reliably with school districts the size of large cities — or, in Virginia’s case, counties.

  1. 1 White Teachers Go Home « On the Tenure Track

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