Letter: Schools need more local control

The Detroit News
"State-level education reform, in order to be both good and lasting, should focus on creating a balanced landscape of local control," Coykendall writes.

The recent editorial on education (“Stop revolving door of school reform," April 18), was right in its observation that “constant flux is at the heart of Michigan’s education woes.” I think you would hear a similar story from nearly all of the state’s educators and parents — and if students were old enough to understand that their classrooms are laboratories for a series of uncontrolled experiments, then they would agree, too.

The vanity of Lansing is that if they tweak the dials just right, then we can get the right student outcomes and everyone will be happy with the results. This is a pipe dream, regardless of whether the dials are being turned by state legislators, the State Board of Education, or the governor’s office.

The editorial concludes that the right solution is top-down accountability — that if the voters allow the governor’s office more control of the Michigan Department of Education, then the state can achieve more measured, intentional, and effective reform. I disagree.

While such a plan might make reform measures more consistent, those reforms would at most be consistent within the term of a single gubernatorial agenda. And the cost of greater top-down accountability would be to further politicize education at the level farthest from the classroom and those affected by the so-called reforms.

If an important goal of education reform is to eliminate unnecessary and unhelpful fluctuations, then we should pay more attention to the model of private and charter schools. Both private and charter schools are organized around a central mission and a local population. Those that fail to accomplish their mission or to meet the needs of their local population usually make big changes or close. Those that succeed usually conserve their recipe for success while striving for small and measured gains. The big and small reforms alike are driven by intimate knowledge of proximate needs, desires, and abilities. Rather than top-down, this kind of reform is bottom-up, and the state of Michigan could use a lot more of it.

State-level education reform, in order to be both good and lasting, should focus on creating a balanced landscape of local control. Schools and school districts should have wider latitude to define and measure parameters for local success, including a wider variety of options for student testing and teacher evaluation.

Teachers should be treated like professionals, with both more freedom to teach and more meaningful accountability from school leadership. Parents and students should have more and better options to choose among schools that offer unique programs. This vision might sound utopian, but I assure you it is not: I am merely describing how private schools already operate, and how charter schools would like to operate.

If the centralized but competing visions of reform in Lansing could admit wider and more local visions of reform, then the state might begin to see real improvement in student outcomes, one student at a time.

Eric Coykendall, associate director

Barney Charter School Initiative

Hillsdale College