Strengthening Local Control Of Public Education Is Key To Achieving The Transformation That Is Needed

In response to my post, “The Best Hope For Public Education Is That Communities Vitalize Democracy And Exercise Local Control,” Dr. Ruddick commented that nations who demonstrate more success in education than the United States have less local control, not more, and, “are organized exactly the opposite of your proposal.”

Dr. Ruddick wrote:

“Denmark, Finland, France, Japan, Australia, do not have local control. They have a national education administration that creates a standardized national curriculum, streamlines administration, and in the end saves money while succeeding (much like their national health care systems). … The fact remains that centralized government works well in nations that are open-minded enough to consider that government is not always “the problem”.

Here is how I hear Dr. Ruddick’s argument:

  • Nations with centralized educational system do better with education than the United States, with its system of local control,
  • To produce educational quality, national control is better than local control,
  • Therefore, the United States should move away from local control and towards national control of its educational system.

The problem with Dr. Ruddick’s argument, as I see it, is, in truth, what happens in local schools in the United States is only marginally determined by local control.  The fact is local control, as practiced, is a myth.

Local control of schools, to me, indicates that a vigorous grassroots is awake, involved and in charge of the local system of public education via a system of representative democracy.  Obviously, we are a long way from this.   In practice, ours already is a centralized system — a hodgepodge of national and state control — inefficient, but, in practice, centralized.

I’m arguing that if a community could exert local control it would gain efficiency as well as gain quality.  A community that exerted local control, I believe, could bring needed transformation to its system of public education.  This is the premise of the book I am determined to write:  Kettering Public Education In The Year 2022.

David Matthews, who heads the Kettering Foundation offers a profound idea, in his book, “Reclaiming Public Education by Reclaiming Our Democracy,” that to improve public education we must improve our democracy.

If democracy is key to education, then our best hope to achieve educational excellence is practicing authentic local control. An invigorated grassroots democracy happens first at the local level, not the national level. There must be isolated outbreaks of democracy at the local level before there is any national movement.  Some communities, like Kettering, are better positioned than others to exert local control and such communities should have the gumption to show leadership.

This assertion that democracy is key to creating a system of education is thought provoking.  Not everyone agrees.

It seems a safe bet that a totalitarian, centralized, no-nonsense system should have a lot of success in raising test scores, a lot of success in training children to be workers in advanced technology and world class industries, etc.  Someone could make a good argument that democracy only stands to impede such achievement, not generate it.

If, early on, the children are divided and categorized according to tested “ability,” and if a stringent system of rewards and punishments is put in place to support a system of “rigor,” it’s safe to say that a totalitarian state could produce impressive results. I would imagine North Korea, for example, could produce some pretty great test results.

Of course, Denmark is not North Korea. But, any nation that defines its educational goals as producing test scores via a centralized totalitarian system risks moving toward North Koreanishness and away from democracy. The move now, in the United States, seems to be, well, if the test scores go up, then any system that works is OK.  So, we are praising schools where children are marching around like little soldiers and responding like automatons as their teachers bark out commands.

If education is all about producing results — as indicated by “No Child Left Behind” and ACT tests , etc. — then, a nationalized no nonsense system of rigor makes sense.  That such a system inevitably also advances a hidden agenda that seeks to mold citizens into brainless, compliant consumers is a byproduct that could be argued is unimportant compared to accomplishing educational goals as defined.

Every discussion about education, it seems to me, eventually must deal with these annoying questions:  What is education?  What is the purpose of an educational system?

If a school district wants to advertise itself as “Excellent,” then it should be able to answer the question, “Excellent at what?”  Right now, in its campaign to gain public support for increasing school property tax, Kettering is announcing in signs all around the community that it is even better than “Excellent,” it is “Excellent with distinction.”  Wow.  What next, “Excellent with distinction with a cherry on top”?

“Excellence” according to the bureaucracy means that sufficient numbers of students have demonstrated minimum competence. In Kettering, 1 out of every 7 of Kettering students are performing below its own minimum expectations.  And the push to get the cherry on top — fulfilling minimum expectations with more kids — caused the district to cut 40% of its gifted program in order to keep resources focused on achieving minimums.

“Excellent at what?” In Kettering the local board, it seems, has abandoned any local control over defining what in the world the local system of education is attempting to accomplish.

Last year I discovered, “Kettering Schools Threw Away Its Historical Record — Decades Of Accreditation Self-Study Reports Now Lost.” At one time, before this testing regime defined school purpose, when there was more local control, the local community periodically conducted in-depth self-studies that clarified its purpose / philosophy and showed the plan by which it intended to fulfill that purpose.  It was a thoughtful process. The astounding fact that this entire historical record in Kettering was trashed, literally, is evidence that, in Kettering, any effort to exert local control has been abandoned.

My conviction is that public education needs transformation and that the way to transformation is via a strengthening of local control.  It is an American conviction that progress bubbles up from the grassroots — through an independent entrepreneurial spirit that infused individuals like Charles Kettering and Orville and Wilbur Wright — and that the way to progress is not through topdown hierarchical and bureaucratic control.  Only through local control can we regain the democratic purpose of public education.  And only through a vitalized democracy can we regain local control.

France and Denmark have a different history and different way of thinking about progress.  The American outlook has been shown time and again to be the way forward to the breakthroughs that have transformed humanity’s progress.  The American solution is all about individual initiative and in education, that means individual communities asserting initiative by rising up to show leadership.

My conclusion: Strengthening Local Control Is Key To The Needed Transformation Of Public Education

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4 Responses to Strengthening Local Control Of Public Education Is Key To Achieving The Transformation That Is Needed

  1. Eric says:

    Harsh, Mike.

    Some state guidance is necessary due to ongoing human rights violations in Ohio public education. Local control needs to be part of addressing those (and other) issues.

    Proponents of local control need to get smarter and faster for local control to fulfill its potential.

    Hows this for an approach (Hat tip: Kettering Fdn/NIF):

  2. Rick says:

    Eric, what human rights violations are you talking about?

    Mike, what about cities, such as Dayton and other urban centers who have lost the ability to consistently elect quality individuals?

  3. Eric says:

    what human rights violations are you talking about?

    The ones that left-leaning organizations report to the United Nations but that other left-leaning organizations ignore whenever expedient. (You might ask, can failure to maintain order in a high school rise to the level of “human rights abuse?” Apparently, in some estimations, yes.

    Google this:
    “achievement gaps and lack of access to quality educational opportunities reflect an ‘educational debt’ that has accumulated over centuries of denied access to education”

  4. Eric says:

    Wow. We have human rights groups (Kirwan Institute at Ohio State) asserting that failure to provide low income housing in the ‘burbs violates the right of urban schoolchildren to an adequate education.

    Generally, see:

    “There are programs at every level of government designed to address racial discrimination in domains such as housing, education, health care, employment, transportation and so on. However, these programs are not appropriately linked. Pursuant to CERD, the U.S. should implement a plan for providing oversight, review, coordination, and management of these policies so that they produce desired outcomes. These programs must be monitored to incorporate feedback, make adjustments and improvements to ensure that outcomes are achieved.”

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