What are the key differences between high-performing schools and mediocre ones? Education Next, a scholarly journal, published a report this summer that addressed this question.
They found that successful schools embrace a "no excuses" approach and have explicit academic and behavioral expectations for all students. They have a focus on literacy and numeracy, not pretending to teach "critical thinking" to children not yet schooled in the basics. They rely on direct instruction and ability grouping. They test early and often.
Frankly, this isn't new ground. Multiple studies, including ones done in Arizona, paint this same picture of high-performing schools. These schools also have strong principals with extensive operating authority. Teachers are held accountable for results. Classroom discipline is strictly enforced.
There is a significant item missing from this list of things that matter to schools. It's something on which we spend a lot of money in our public schools: school districts. There is simply no evidence that school districts or anything about them make much difference in student achievement.
That's why a proposal by the Commission on Privatization and Efficiency (COPE) for "student based budgeting" is so intriguing. COPE's mission was to find ways to save the state money through privatization and other efficiencies. One of their 16 proposals was to fund schools directly on a per-pupil basis rather than pass the money through school districts.
It might not surprise you to learn that school boards and the education status quo are not thrilled. Sen. Rich Crandall of Mesa, a former school board chairman and now chairman of the Senate Education Committee, is normally receptive to reform proposals. But not this one. Crandall claims that without a central office to support them, each of the schools in Mesa would have to hire their own finance director. "All of a sudden we have a privatization recommendation that comes out and says instead of having one finance person you have 82," he told the Arizona Capitol Times.
But would schools actually do that? Crandall apparently thinks that each school would become its own micro-bureaucracy, mimicking a district office, with slots for finance, transportation, food service, transportation, human relations and other administrative positions to be filled, along with several assistant principals to oversee them.
But that's not how it works in real life. Humans aren't that hidebound. We already have several hundred examples in Arizona of schools without districts to supervise them. They're our charter schools, and every year they dominate the lists of high-achieving schools in the state even though they don't have selective admissions processes and they don't get as much funding as other public schools.
How do they do it? The best charter schools are highly accountable and entrepreneurial. Their job isn't to follow orders descending from a higher level. Instead, they are mission-driven to produce the best possible learning experience for their students.
Freed of union rules and bureaucratic dictates, they are far more flexible than Crandall's example suggests. Principals often do some teaching. A teacher with accounting experience might fill out financial forms. Other teachers can pitch in with keeping the school clean and getting the paperwork done. Sometimes even parents can lend a hand.
Independent schools, like all businesses, also form associations to purchase services - legal, financial, buses, etc. - currently supplied by districts. But there's a world of difference between buying what you need and taking what you're given by the authorities.
Advocates for spending more education dollars in the classroom should love the COPE proposal. Administrative costs have increased much faster than student enrollment and teaching expenses in recent decades. Eliminating ponderous school district bureaucracies would dramatically change all that.
Taxpayers are becoming aware that government at all levels spends too much. We have to change our ways. Every expenditure must be evaluated to determine its necessity and whether it can pass a cost/benefit analysis.
For school districts, "that's the way it's always been done" isn't good enough anymore. Even if they do provide some services, it's inconceivable that the value they add to the educational process is worth the enormous sums we spend on them. They may even do more harm than good.
• East Valley resident Tom Patterson (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a retired physician and former state senator