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Dan Morris

Mayoral Control 2.0 and the Awareness Gap

This week NYC Public Advocate Betsy Gotbaum was especially outspoken on schools: mayoral control over the school system has kept stakeholders in the dark, she said, because there is still a real lack of accountability and transparency. The School Governance Commission she appointed last year to study mayoral control has issued a final report showing that the Department of Education has ignored parents, community leaders and others who have a clear stake in the education decision-making process. A useful summary can be found in her guest post over at Eduwonkette.

What we need, she suggests, is a return to school districts with superintendents who could work more directly with principals to create the sort of community involvement in the classroom that a detached bureaucracy cannot. Her position echoes what influential school reformer Deborah Meier has argued for years: we need to restore a balance of power between local decision-making and centralized authority so that control over learning does not rest solely with external agencies removed from the daily lives of students, teachers, parents, and administrators. We can do this by building more opportunities at all levels of the school system for people to work together and contribute to a new definition of collective responsibility in education.

In a 2007 report, The City Council’s Middle School Task Force also emphasized the importance of collaborative schools that build connections among various groups in each school: communication and collaboration are critical drivers of academic progress.

A goal for mayoral control 2.0 should be correcting the deep information asymmetries that still divide major academic stakeholders, even in our self-styled age of connectivity. Economists like Joseph Stiglitz have shown that incentives for disclosing as few details as possible create artificial scarcities of information. Leaders often decide it is optimal for those beneath them to be less than fully informed. That is why accountability and transparency are problems in the first place. After all, informational imbalances drive power imbalances, but in school systems, especially, they can and should be corrected.

A community of knowledgeable people sharing the same information is better equipped to make decisions than a few bureaucrats holding all the cards. When everyone with a stake in success feels some level of ownership over the education process, they are more apt and able to participate in ways that generate institutional change and improvements. Transparent, accountable leadership requires enhancing not only the distribution of information, but the reception of it. Multiple channels of communication propel dialogue.

Experts and educators continue to worry about the achievement gap separating different student populations, but another recent study commissioned by the federal government in 2007 uncovered a different gap that should give us pause: the gap between principal, teacher, and parent awareness of how schools are really performing. Nationally, principals were more likely than teachers and parents to know when their school made adequate yearly progress. Yet nearly a quarter of principals from under-performing schools reported their school's status incorrectly. There is a disturbing disconnect between states, districts, and individual schools. Let’s hope NYC breaks out of this trend—sooner rather than later.

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Posted at 11:37 AM, Oct 02, 2008 in Drum Major Institute
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