EdFix Episode 17: Dealing with America’s Decentralized Education System

TRANSCRIPT

MICHAEL USDAN:
As one looks at the kaleidoscope of American education, it's fragmentation and so forth, things have kind of stayed the same.

MICHAEL J. FEUER:
Welcome to EdFix. I'm Michael Feuer, your host for our podcast about insights on the practice and promise of education. It's a great pleasure to welcome to Studio T, Dr. Michael Usdan. Mike has been a major figure and fixture in the world of education, policy and practice and in education about education, spending 20 years as the President of the Institute for Educational Leadership. He has taught at a number of universities including Columbia and the City University of New York, Northwestern, Fordham, as well as in other schools in New York City and the surround. He's been a member and president of the school board in New Rochelle. He's written prolifically on all kinds of issues in education and education policy. Welcome Mike Usdan.

MICHAEL USDAN:
Well, thank you very much for that gracious introduction, Michael. It's a pleasure to be here.

MICHAEL J. FEUER:
Let's just not assume that everybody has had the pleasure that I've had of getting to know you over the years. Tell us a little bit about your career. Give us a thumbnail sketch of what brings you to today.

MICHAEL USDAN:
I started as a teacher in New York City and did doctoral work at Teacher's College Columbia and basically was going to be a school administrator, a school superintendent. Then fate kind of interrupted and I had the opportunity of becoming a member of the staff of Dr. James B. Conant, who was a very prestigious President of Harvard University who did some very significant studies of American education, high school teacher education, slums and suburbs. When he began to identify the profound difference between urban schools and suburban schools. And from there I entered kind of an eclectic career. I went into teaching at Northwestern and also worked in the Chicago schools and the superintendents office in the middle of all the desegregation turmoil in the mid 60s. From there I went back to Teachers College Columbia as a member of the faculty and then went to City University of New York.

MICHAEL USDAN:
At the same time I was living in New Rochelle and I was appointed to the school board in New Rochelle. And always have been kind of torn between the academic and practitioner roles. Essentially I had written and I had become a full professor, etc, but the activist blood in me, maybe from the school board experience, I became President of a small college in Detroit called Merrill Palmer Institute, which specialized in early childhood education. And from there my generalist career took me the state of Connecticut where I became commissioner of higher education for a number of years trying to rationalize post secondary education in the land of steady habits with very mixed results.

MICHAEL USDAN:
Finally I ended up at the Institute for Educational Leadership in 1981 and really found a niche for the first time because I was able to combine my entrepreneurial instincts with some major, major policy issues relating to local governance, demographics and did that for 20 years and retired in 2001. Have kind of flunked retirement for the last 18 years. Trying to stay busy, doing some work with Pat Callan, the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards. I've really been grateful for a very eclectic career in both K-12 and post secondary education.

MICHAEL J. FEUER:
Your experience in a lot of those issues that you dealt with, whether it was desegregation or early childhood or the relationship between K-12 and post-secondary, there's huge variance when you go across this country. Say a little bit about your experience in a system that's not a system.

MICHAEL USDAN:
Yeah, it's a non system. When I work with Dr. Conant, essentially it was on his teacher education book, which was published in 1963. And he was a chemist, he was a renowned research chemist on the faculty at Harvard and then he was appointed as President of Harvard in 1933 I think at the tender age of 40 and he did that for 20 years. And as a scientist he was absolutely frustrated by the teacher education issue. He visited 16 States, basically I carried his bags and visited, oh I don't know how many, maybe 80 or 90 teacher education institutions. And the variety in the fragmentation and the inchoate nature, no one could seem to agree that there was a science and pedagogy. The major institutions essentially viewed their schools of ed, major state universities as cash cows in terms of inservice development and pre-service development.

MICHAEL USDAN:
And one of the things that frustrated me, frustrates me, is that how many years, 37 almost 60 years after the Conant book, not very much has changed. And as one looks at the kaleidoscope of American education, it's fragmentation and so forth. It's kind of frustrating in some ways things have kind of stayed the same. But I think the devolution of the American system, I think one of the mistakes that the Obama administration made with the best of intentions was underestimating how deeply embedded decentralization is, local control, the theology of localism.

MICHAEL USDAN:
And we have found ourselves in terms of this fragmented governance system with 13,000 schools systems, 50 state education departments, 100,000 schools, very difficult to generalize about. And the flexibility has some advantages, but it also has some disadvantages. And we've had these cycles where the federal government has become very, very powerful and preeminent certainly in the mid sixties with the civil rights movement and the originally SCA and then it kind of overstepped its bounds during the Obama administration and things reverted. And I suspect that we're going to go back somewhere down in the future to a more aggressive federal role.

MICHAEL USDAN:
But I think part of the devolutionary period that we're in now is the fact that the level of government that pays eight or 9% of the bill was demanding 100% of the accountability in terms of No Child Left Behind. And that equation just doesn't make sense politically. And I think the Obama folks very well intentioned just underestimated the culture and history and tradition of localism and local school boards.

MICHAEL J. FEUER:
On the business of the variability because of this devolution and because of the decentralization. The interesting thing is, and I want to ask you about this, if you look at the international data on educational performance, the French system is highly centralized. The American system is highly decentralized and they both end up with the kids performing at roughly the same levels. So how much does that matter?

MICHAEL USDAN:
Well, yeah, I mean you look at the decentralization movement in the big cities, people are looking for structural panaceas for very complicated issues that don't lend themselves to structural change. I went to Japan, I guess this was in the mid 1980s when the Japanese and Germans were cleaning our clocks economically. We had double digit inflation and interest rates at 16 and 18% and it was after A Nation At Risk was published in 1983 where the schools were accused. It was tantamount to unilateral disarmament that unless the schools were improved, the American enterprise would sink. And I went over to Japan and it was part of a group that was studying Japanese issues, including education and doing some comparative stuff. And I was stunned in Japan because I expected them to be so proud of their system. And the American educational system was under a siege and very severe attack after a nation at risk.

MICHAEL USDAN:
And the Japanese said, well we kind of like your system because it's decentralized, it's not rote memory. It basically has much more flexibility and creativity in it. So it's kind of, I did a little piece for Ed Week as I remember, I called it the grass is greener in somebody else's yard. And so somehow we have to find a balance and to me, and again I stay away from people that have panaceas and cure alls for this stuff because it's so complicated socially, economically, the demographic changes in this country make some of these issues even more perhaps intractable. And I think what we want to do is perhaps set standards and expectations at central levels, be they at the state or national level. But how we get there should be basically decentralized where people at the building level.

MICHAEL USDAN:
And one of the interesting things that's going on, an experiment and if you will, and pretty dramatic systematic change is going on in California now where Mike Kirst is Chairman of the state board for a number of years under Jerry Brown's governorship. Basically they've devolved the system in California, it was a very centralized system. You needed a wheel barrow to carry the California state code. It was very prescriptive and what Mike and others triggered because they were frustrated with the top down stuff, is to try to give more authority and power to people at the building and district level and setting budgets and so forth.

MICHAEL USDAN:
And he says patience, fortitude and humility are very significant here because they're not convinced that it's going to be an improvement. But I think some of the other folks who were advocates of a much stronger top-down federal role and so forth had been sobered by the fact that it hasn't worked and from the local on up may not work as well, but they're convinced that the top down strategies, the action is in the classroom with teachers and kids and so forth.

MICHAEL J. FEUER:
One of the downside risks of all of this decentralized, devolved control is the perpetuation of intolerable inequality in opportunity.

MICHAEL USDAN:
Well, these inequities certainly exist and it's profound and in many ways these inequities are more significant now than ever before because of the demographic changes that are reshaping the society. And when these inequities became very publicly visible triggered by the civil rights movement in the 60s, basically disadvantaged kids in many ways inordinately of color were located in the core cities. And now of course formally homogeneous, predominantly white suburbs are very diverse. You look in the Washington Metropolitan area, New York, LA, anywhere and look at Montgomery County where almost half the kids now are eligible for reduced school lunch and the demographics have exacerbated this. And the dilemma is what I dub as a white liberal dilemma. Everybody's a liberal until their kids are involved.

MICHAEL USDAN:
And this is in many ways the Achilles heel of efforts to kind of readdress these imbalances because human nature, and I'm no different as I've moved around the country. First thing I looked at was school districts as liberal as I am because I wanted to obviously give my kids the best shot. And that's that paradox compounded by the finance system compounded by teacher quality issues and so forth. And the demographic transformation in society I think is really, we're not here to talk about national politics, but I think it is very central to the political polarization and race and diversity and and so forth and the country has to grapple with this one.

MICHAEL J. FEUER:
Can I ask you whether you think that some of the possibilities for addressing if not actually solving that big problem lie at the local level rather than at the federal level? I'm actually thinking about some of the examples that we have of places that have actually overcome these traumas of inequality because people at the local level have figured out how to mobilize resources and solve some of these problems rather at a distance from whatever people are arguing about on Capitol Hill.

MICHAEL USDAN:
You still have a governance structure where most of the decisions increasingly now are made at the local level. The basic weakening of the federal role in civil rights enforcement, the lack of capacity at the state level, as you know so well, education legally is a state responsibility. State education departments have never been supported generously by their own States and whatever influence they've had in the past four or five decades really have emanated from title five of the original SCA and even traditionally strong state education departments, New York, Michigan, Florida, California have been crippled in recent years. So in many ways the devolution, I worry about where the research planning, evaluation capacity, public policy capacity is going to be in the years ahead because the history and tradition of the States is essentially been to delegate operational responsibility to local school districts.

MICHAEL J. FEUER:
You probably remember this terrific article that our friend Carl Kasell wrote called the "Awful Reputation of Education Research." And the point was that the people who were doing education research were viewed as being disconnected from the real world of policy and practice. And in fact the quality of the research didn't deserve that awful reputation. But the reputation grew out of a frustration that there was not enough connection.

MICHAEL USDAN:
The frustration with many schools of ed is the fact that many school systems are starting to develop their own inservice training programs that are more relevant, particularly with the changes in student population, diverse languages, diverse cultures, and it's more grounded in the specifics of the realities of what school people face. A school district like Alexandria, Virginia, I don't know, I read somewhere 120 languages and how do you meet those needs.

MICHAEL USDAN:
And the other piece that has frustrated me and I've had absolutely very little, I think impact. I think one has to keep an eye out for what I think is going to be an essential movement in the years ahead that's beginning to pick up steam is the community schools movement. Because if you look at the needs of children and families, increasingly 75, 80% of the women with school age children work. We have to develop new linkages between schools and general purpose government and unfortunately I think the mayors of some of our biggest cities, in New York City, Washington, Chicago, that get all kinds of visibility around the country, blew it because in many ways it became a power game.

MICHAEL USDAN:
The politics took over and the separation of schools and general purpose government. I'm not an advocate of mayoral control. I think it could work with the right kind of mayor. It could be a disaster with the wrong kind of mayor. Again, the structural stuff is less important than building more organic links between schools and general purpose government. So the kinds of social and health services, etc. can be provided. Not just to a small fraction of the kids and families, but the majority of kids and families in the years ahead.

MICHAEL J. FEUER:
The question becomes, okay, so it's easy to talk about connecting the school to health and social welfare and even improve transportation services. I think that's what you meant by general purpose government.

MICHAEL USDAN:
Yeah, exactly.

MICHAEL J. FEUER:
But what would that actually look like? I mean you've been in schools actually more than most people who talk about them.

MICHAEL USDAN:
Well, essentially I think the basic mission of the school is the academic mission. And I'm not saying that should be diluted at all. Kids have to learn to read and write and compute etc. But the school facilities are underutilized. No institution has the social penetration of the schools. It's in every community regardless of how economically disadvantage or impoverished that community is. And that the schools might be open from four to eight or four to nine and the school system would have to work something out with general purpose government in terms of funding and creating those kinds of relationships without in any way impinging upon what I think is still the primary mission of the schools. They can be community centers. It's happening in lots of places because of the leadership, both of schools and perhaps school boards, etc. and maybe enlightened mayors.

MICHAEL J. FEUER:
So it is happening?

MICHAEL USDAN:
It is happening but it's not of scale and it's not an institutional kind of change and it doesn't generate the kind of national dialogue that it must. Because if you look at the reality of what faces parents, growing numbers of parents, single mothers, etc, is the fact that who's going to take care of the kids and the schools again, there's no other institution in the neighborhood to do it.

MICHAEL J. FEUER:
But raising taxes in order to pay for this kind of community based service may actually push some people who have the resources out. If that's something to be worried about. Would there be a way to create incentives for, take a place like Washington, D.C., The Marriott Corporation and others, to invest in the equivalent of these kinds of wraparound community based services.

MICHAEL USDAN:
Well, you would know the numbers better than I know the numbers in terms of philanthropy, but the kind of resources we're talking about here, philanthropy could incentivize it, but it would be a drop in the bucket. I don't have the numbers, the financial numbers, but my guess is if there was greater coordination between school systems and general purpose government in terms of social workers, mental health supports and so forth, there'd be less duplication and instead of the school system. And it would make if there would be a central place where people could get services of all kinds. My guess is again, and I'm sure there are economists who have studied this, that they would be, that there would be savings as well.

MICHAEL J. FEUER:
Is education still a public good when we have a lot of programs funded by private accumulated wealth?

MICHAEL USDAN:
Oh sure. It's still a public good. I mean I think there have been again, changes in philanthropy. I haven't had to raise any money from foundations, thank goodness now for 18 years since I retired from IAL. But from what I gathered from friends who were still in the business of having to raise money for their organizations and their institutions that there have been profound changes. In my era, it was Ford and Carnegie and Kellogg and mod and so forth. They were the major sources of funding. Now of course it's been Gates.

MICHAEL USDAN:
From what I gathered, one of the changes, and again, you'd be closer to this issue than I am these days, is the fact that more and more foundations have become operational foundations. In other words, not providing monies to nonprofits and other organizations to want to take their own projects. But the foundations have been a much more ministerial if you will, in their requirements of a donees. But again, the money has been very small, but you look at the federal role in civil rights, the impact of relatively small amounts of money on public policy can be profound.

MICHAEL J. FEUER:
I mean, what would your advice be to people who really still have some faith that we can be making change?

MICHAEL USDAN:
So I think talented, able people will have all kinds of opportunities in education, I mean, unpredictable careers. That's what's exciting about it. You can move from position to position. And I think my generation of folks who came out of mat type programs in the fifties and sixties, many of them were able to do quite well and you made a good enough living. You're never going to be rich. It's not like going into finance, but you can make a very comfortable living and have some social utility if that's where your values lie.

MICHAEL J. FEUER:
I'm afraid that we are at the end of our time for today's conversation. I thank you so much Mike Usdan for joining me on EdFix.

MICHAEL USDAN:
My pleasure.

MICHAEL J. FEUER:
For our listeners, if you enjoyed this episode, which I'm sure you did, you can subscribe to our podcast on iTunes or Spotify or iHeartRadio, Player FM or wherever you listen to podcasts. For more information, visit our website edfixpodcast.com. And special thanks again to Mike Usdan and to our marvelous executive producer, director, engineer: Touran Waters.