Open the Black Box!
Last Thursday, the Fordham Institute held a daylong conference on “Rethinking Education Governance.” The event was loaded with lots of great papers, many insights, and some grandstanding – as is required in Washington.
-- Check out the cross-post with our good friends at Title I-derland --
What was missing? Sincere frustration. I mean, we have been opining about these matters for over thirty years now. It was stated that progress is “aggressive” if it produces changes in behavior over a ten- to fifteen-year period. That was meant to be funny, of course – but only because it’s true. If this is really the standard, then I should move on to another profession. My patience is wearing thin (compounded, no doubt, by the lack of sleep that comes with having a newborn).
I’ve written about this before, but I think its time to take advantage of the economic downturn to introduce something into education governance that is badly needed: Shame. Here is what I mean: Let’s focus on school financing and make the flow of cash transparent. Let’s track revenue and expenses down to the school level and examine spending with visualization technologies like Mint.com, bundle.com, youneedabudget.com and others. Let’s make these visualization tools public so that local school boards, district superintendents and all the other players in school governance have to account for their investments and protect their turf. Let’s also connect this to visualization tools that report on student academic growth data, behavioral data and other relevant data points.
What would happen if a district actually did this? The sociologists would rejoice! The principals, superintendents, school boards, mayors and all the other cooks in the kitchen, on the other hand, would probably begin to focus on the ratio of dollars to outcomes. These “outcomes,” of course, would vary, but we all know that they would be activities/expenditures that advance the very purpose of the schools – student learning, positive and supportive behavioral activities, and the like.
The process would be unpopular at first – but that is the point. Let’s make those responsible for the school budget squirm with shame, forcing them to dig deep into the data, correct it (where needed), and reorganize their investments so their expenditures and priorities head in the same direction. Let’s trust that most district and school leaders will get this right because they are good leaders. (This pang of shame, incidentally, is what causes me to carefully inspect my own Mint.com account, knowing full well that my spouse may examine it – and don’t even try to pretend you don’t know what I am referring to.)
Is the fiscal data available to pull this off? Yes, there are districts that can do this, but they are the exception. The recent USED report on comparability using school level expenditures makes that clear. “Because school districts typically do not have accounting systems that track state and local expenditures at the school level … this effort faced specific challenges that may affect the accuracy and consistency of the data reported.” That only limited numbers of districts can do this is a signal that something needs to be done. The alternative is to keep school finance in a black box, and continue to drive program administrators crazy with fiscal rules that “protect” the Title I funds (maintenance of effort, supplement-not-supplant, comparability) from vanishing into this box.
What about the tools? If enough data is available, are there school-based tools ready to roll? Unfortunately, the school-specific tools are not there… yet. Frankly, as ED’s report makes clear, there has not been a need and, subsequently, a market for them. But that will change, and the change begins with reaching out to the founders of these companies to get them involved (I’m looking at you Aaron Patzer). I’m totally serious, so if you have an “in” with them let me know. Otherwise they will have to deal with my cold-calling for the next few months. They don’t want that. I don’t want that. So let’s bridge this discussion with some networking. Look to this blog for updates.