Law, Education, and Hard-Driving Reform

Shortly after Washington D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty was defeated in the mayoral primary this September, Michelle Rhee resigned from her position as the Washington D.C. Schools Chancellor.  In her three years in the position, Rhee had gained a national reputation as a zealous “no-excuses” reformer seeking to hold teachers and educational administrators accountable in an attempt to raise urban student assessment scores.   Along with Geoffry Canada of the Harlem Children’s Zone, Rhee is spotlighted in the educational documentary Waiting for Superman as the type of reformer needed to turn around the multi-decade dysfunction and despair of urban education.  However, Mayor Fenty’s political loss and Michelle Rhee’s resignation can rightly been seen as the most visible incident of a growing national educational trend to push back on hard-driving top-down reform with genesis outside of the communities which are in need of reform.

When Newark Mayor Cory Booker, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie and Facebook Founder Mark Zuckerberg (Geoffry Canada was there as well) recently appeared on the Oprah Winfrey Show to announce the $100 million donation to the Newark Schools by Zuckerberg, Oprah hinted to Mayor Booker that Rhee is a dynamic reformer who could fill the soon to be vacant position of the Newark Public Schools Superintendent.  Mayor Booker affirmed Rhee’s dynamism, but quickly stated that the real genesis of reform in urban education must emanate organically from the community.  It is the parents, students, and community members which must be the supermen and superwomen.  And thus, on November 1, 2010, an initiative called PEN Newark (Partnership for Education in Newark) has been launched as the first stage in the utilization of the Zuckerberg donation for education reform.   PEN Newark has been founded as a collaborative effort between Mayor Booker and Newark Public Schools Advisory Board of Education Chair Shavar Jeffries.  Jeffries is an organic leader from Newark who ran his campaign in 2010 on a platform of community engagement.  The initiative is an extensive feedback and outreach initiative.  Its mission is to connect, interview, survey, and speak with all stakeholders within the Newark community concerning the types of reform the Zuckerberg donation should generate.  Mayor Booker has learned this political lesson well.  And, indeed, this is the model of participative and collaborative reform that is gaining momentum nationally as a reaction to hard-driving no-excuses top-down reform.

But if this is all politics and education, what does it have to do with the Law?  Everything.  Public education in the United States is completely constructed and defined by an interactive array of legal regulation–both policy and jurisprudence.   From comprehensive federal accountability legislation such as the No Child Left Behind Act (the current iteration of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act first passed by Congress in 1965), to the interpretation of educational rights by state and federal courts, to the strong support of collective bargaining agreements by most state law makers, education is minutely regulated.  For example, the New Jersey Supreme Court’s 20 Abbott v. Burke opinions have interpreted the New Jersey Constitution’s right to a “thorough and efficient education” (Article VIII, Sec. 4) to not only delineate school funding formulas which provide for vertical equity (more money for students facing greater need), but have also mandated preschool education, reform from specific educational models, facilities construction and even curricular content standards.   Over the past forty years, as urban schools have increasingly struggled with low performance, inefficiency and mismanagement, and, at times, corruption, greater detail and layers of policy and jurisprudence-based regulation have been implemented.  When such micro-regulation has been added to schools within communities under great stress and poverty, dysfunction has been guaranteed, and stasis has resulted.

The Michelle Rhee approach was to pound away at the stasis.  Although Rhee actually did achieve significant reform measures during her tenure (creating more administrative efficiency and convincing the teachers union to accept teacher performance as an element of lay-off policy), ultimately the process of her approach created too much negative sentiment to achieve sustainability.   The more participatory reform approach is to institute reforms which originate in the community (or at least institute reforms after the community has given input).  But the question remains: Can a community preference as consumer approach generate change which entails the reform of the community itself?  The answer may be: Not without the proper structures and incentives created by the law.

The legal answer may be to create the proper incentives and structures in the highest levels of the law–especially at the federal level–deregulate in the middle, and allow local communities to respond to incentives.  Enter President Obama and Arne Duncan.  The Race to the Top state grant competition which is part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act has spurred unprecedented state educational reform.  For example, as a result of Race to the Top, 36 states have committed to rigorous national content standards, and 44 states are working toward rigorous national assessment standards.  States are also moving in large measure toward implementation of data-driven teacher and school accountability.  Moreover, President Obama’s Blue Print for Reform offers a similar philosophy–a combination of accountability and flexibility–in its call for amendment to the No Child Left Behind Act.

Accountability and incentive at the top, and creativity at the bottom–this may be education’s best hope.  But much remains to be seen.  Whether this current matrix of forces will achieve concrete results is not guaranteed.   But any true reform must take place in the hearts of communities.   Any real conversion must be authentically existent in the deepest soul of the individual.  But in the case of education, it may be the Law as incentive and structure which is needed to provide the force necessary to stimulate conversion.

You may also like...

4 Responses

  1. driving school
    “Having received lessons from other instructors, Belgica was clearly the best …. I felt comfortable diving with her, she was determined to make sure I was a competent driver before I even attempt my test, which thanks to her, I passed first go”

  2. Ben Superfine says:

    I think it’s clearly the case that there needs to be a confluence of forces at several different levels to leverage effective educational reform. A good example of this is in Kentucky in the late 1980s – businesses, grassroots groups, media, the courts, and the state legislature managed to come together through the litigation of a school finance lawsuit, and this ultimately resulted in ground-breaking legislation on the back end. But at the same time, the consensus didn’t last for long, and implementation of the law is a whole other story. I worry that a real confluence of these differently oriented groups and legal forces may simply not be sustainable and may sadly be at random moments when the moons just align.

    As for the current strategy of the Obama administration (including Race to the Top), the program has leveraged some legal changes so far. But there are serious questions about the actual structure of the program and the quality of states’ responses. The focus on charter schools simply isn’t supported by empirical research as any sort of magic bullet (or any reform that’s better as a whole than public schools) – charter schools are more of a political middle ground. The focus on data-driven, teacher accountability has several problems as well, ranging from our capacity to accurately gauge instruction to the extent to which these systems will actually incentivize teachers to do better work. It’s important not just to line up the politics and the law, but to make the legal framework as grounded in strong empirical evidence and theory as possible.

  3. Craig Livermore says:


    Your points are very valid. I am equally concerned about the ability to keep coalitions together, especially without clear lines of authority, which is increasingly the case in Newark. Ultimately that is why I favor legal meta-structures that create accountability and incentives which are able to encourage the expansion of the most effective models over time.

    I agree that charter schools aren’t a magic bullet. I do not believe the most insightful supporters of charters have claimed they are (although some have), and I am not sure President Obama and Arne Duncan have claimed them to be a panacea as much as they are criticized to have done so. Charter models will be most helpful when we find a way to hold charters more accountable, and find a way to more strongly support the models that are working.

    I would actually argue that the legal framework should be agnostic on substantive matters of instruction and pedagogical philosophy, but that we should hold schools accountable for national skills assessment standards on the back end. There will always be a mishmosh of research and philosophy regarding pedagogy. I think we would be better served when a competitive legal superstructure is created that supports the expansion of effective creativity, and truly holds accountable models, whether charter, public or other, that are not working.

  4. Karen says:

    This was helpful. It’s nice to see that other people see the importance of this. Great post guys!