Old Schoolhouse Classroom
Old Schoolhouse Classroom

The Bottom Line WA’s Children Can’t Stride Into the Future in a 19th-Century Education System

Originally published at The Seattle Times

A recent Seattle Times editorial blames much of the failings of Seattle Public Schools on the current administration [“Seattle Public Schools create chaos instead of community,” Feb. 19, Opinion]. Certainly, the current as well as prior administrations deserve criticism. But so do a lot of other players.

The poor performance of Seattle Public Schools did not happen overnight. It has been going on for decades. Since 2004, the district has had seven superintendents, numerous strikes (the latest just before the opening of this school year), several financial crises and a number of dysfunctional school boards — not exactly a portrait of success. In addition, the district now spends $22,000 per student. Yet test scores are no better than they were 30 years ago.

So, who is to blame for this unacceptable performance? It’s a long list.

The system: Our public school system is well over 100 years old and was never designed to meet today’s needs. We still have the 180-day year, the six-hour day, the credit as a measure of course completion, and an unchanged curriculum: four years of English, three years of science, math and history. All of that was developed in the late 1800s and adopted by most states by 1904. In short, we have a one-size-fits-all, 19th-century system that has never effectively educated every child and is especially unsuited for today’s needs.

In addition, there is virtually no accountability built into the system. Teachers are not accountable for student learning, and principals have little authority over money, curriculum or personnel. Superintendents are not allowed to make school changes without state approval, which is difficult to obtain even if we had superintendents who wanted to do things differently.

Furthermore, there is no accountability for the money except to ensure that it was spent as specified. No one measures to see if the money made any difference. We are constantly told that schools need more money, and with more money, learning will improve. It simply is not the case, and history proves it. The lack of money is not the problem and, therefore, cannot be the solution. Today’s schools spend 80% of their funds on personnel and personnel-related costs. Thus, when we give more money to schools, the adults either make more money, or more adults are hired. Nothing else changes. That is why you have seen no improvement in test scores as money has freely flowed to our schools.

Changing our school system must start at the state level, as the state has ultimate control over virtually every aspect of our education system. If we want schools that meet the needs of our children, we need to change the state laws that dictate the operations of schools.

Leadership: In our public education system, we obtain leadership by accident, not by design. I say that because virtually no qualifications are required to become a principal other than having been a teacher for two to three years and being able to pay the tuition for a principal training program at a licensed education school. Consequently, some of our worst teachers are often the first to apply to become principals. In short, “if you can’t make it in the classroom, become an administrator.”

The same scenario plays out at the superintendent level. Again, the only requirement is that you have been a principal for two to three years and can pay for a superintendent training program. I’m not saying we don’t have some excellent principals or superintendents. We certainly do. But they are rare when we need them to be pervasive.

One of the fascinating omissions of Washington’s laws is that our state is one of only a few states that does not require a superintendent to be certified. This loophole is what allowed my colleagues and me in 1995 to hire John Stanford, a retired Army major general, as the superintendent of Seattle Public Schools. We hired Stanford because, in the early 1990s, we could not find a superintendent anywhere in the country that had taken excellence to scale — where every school in a district was excellent. Unfortunately, that is probably still the case. 

If we want to improve our schools, we need to change state laws concerning how we select and train education leaders, including teachers. Certification laws have given education schools control over the supply of human capital available to our schools. We will never improve our schools unless we change this. Schools need to be able to hire the most qualified people they can find, certified or not.

Governance: School boards govern school districts. Washington state has 295 school districts and, therefore, 295 school boards. In days past, serving on a school board was considered a civic duty, bringing out the best and brightest of a community to serve on such boards. That is no longer the case, particularly in urban systems.

We have made running for public office so unattractive that our best and brightest citizens tend to avoid the ordeal of running for public office. As a result, we often see those running for the school board to include social activists, union supporters or single-issue proponents. There is nothing wrong with these people, but they are probably not the people you want running your schools.

Today, the Seattle Public Schools budget is more than $1.14 billion per year. Managing such an entity is not a PTA meeting. We need highly competent people serving on our boards — people who are not only passionate about the education of children but understand the demands and responsibilities of managing such an entity. In addition, we need to recognize that a school board is a policymaking board, not a management board. All too often, we elect school board members who fail to recognize the difference.

Unions: Unions are not the sole cause of our problems, but they are certainly one of the biggest constraints to fixing them. Unions are adult-focused, as they should be, and they resist change unless they initiate it. Today, unions control much of the daily operations of schools: How much teachers are paid, how many hours they can work, the school calendar, all benefit programs, etc. The Seattle teacher’s union contract is more than 200 pages and is the most onerous employment agreement I have ever read.

None of this should be surprising. Unions are basically set up to maximize member compensation, improve member working conditions, and protect member employment. That is the mission of all unions, and on this, the Washington Education Association has been spectacularly successful, as has the Seattle Education Association. Over the years, teacher compensation has dramatically improved, and many more administrators have been hired. Student achievement, however, has not improved. We have an adult employee-focused system when we need a student-focused system.

Unions, however, flourish when management is deficient. If I were a teacher in a school with an incompetent principal, I, too, would want a union to help protect my employment. So, if we want to mitigate the power of unions, we must first fix management.

Change: Seattle Public Schools are failing our children. It will continue to do so unless we decide to change — not just how our district is run, but the system itself. That change must start at the state level by removing constraints to change. We need a system of education that focuses on children, not adults, and is set up to deal with each child individually, catering to their learning needs by meeting them where they are in their learning. A one-size-fits-all, adult-focused, traditionally managed, 19th-century system will never do the job.

Two immediate legislative changes could start the process.

First, legislation should be passed allowing districts the flexibility to innovate. This is known in other states as “Districts of Innovation” legislation. Districts granted this status could implement changes to better educate their unique students. A few examples include lengthening the school day, revising the length and makeup of the school year, adopting a more rigorous curriculum, etc.

Second, pass legislation creating an Institute for Educational Leadership. Today, we turn out managers, not leaders. We train people to run the system we have, not the system we need. To improve our schools, we need entrepreneurial leaders. The institute could be patterned after the best business schools, providing 12-18 months of training. Enrollees would be individuals with proven leadership qualities selected from multiple fields of endeavor. Tuition would be funded by the state in return for a commitment to serve a select number of years in public education.

Graduates of this type of leadership institute would be “change agent” leaders and would be assigned to Districts of Innovation, where they would be empowered to implement meaningful changes. With these two reforms working together, in a few years a number of school districts would operate schools very differently from what we have today. These districts will then be emulated by other districts and the movement begins.  

A new school system will be developed from a “bottom-up” movement, not “top-down” dictums. Not only could Washington state improve its schools, but it could also set the template for the country.

Donald Nielsen

Senior Fellow and Chairman, American Center for Transforming Education
Donald P. Nielsen is a Senior Fellow of Discovery Institute and Chairman of the Institute's program on public education reform. For nearly 30 years, he has devoted his life work to transforming public education. For two years, he traveled the country studying America's public education system and authored, Every School: One Citizen’s Guide to Transforming Education. Mr. Nielsen was awarded the Harvard Business School's 2004 Alumni Achievement Award. In 2009, he received the Leadership Award from the Foster School of Business at the University of Washington.
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