The List

The other day I delivered to my school board president, via email, a list. “This is what I found in my ‘followup’ folder for just the last month!” I wrote. “Obviously, we can’t get it all in at a single meeting, but can we chip away at it?” (For those of you new to this blog, this is the third missive in an unregular series–with no particular end–about my experiences as a member of a public school board of education.)

My list wasn’t so much a “to do” roster as much as it was a lot of “old business”; I keep track of these things.  The subjects ranged from updating the state-mandated “Professional Performance Review Plan” to encouraging carpooling and walking.  I had previously asked where last year’s graduating class ended up and what our current enrollment numbers were.  “Truancy and tardiness: how much?” was in an old email. Where was my copy of School Law, which I should have received in 2007, as required by Board Policy #2510?  Could we start an Alumni Association?  “Intermediate school Corrective Action: what does it mean? Why wasn’t the board informed at the 8/30 meeting when a letter went out to parents on August 27? (my email of 9/1)”

All together, there were thirty items on “the list,” just a tip, as I suggested, of the iceberg.

Micromanaging!  I could hear the cries already.  But in my school district, I gave up arguing only the BIG questions — How’s the district doing? — because it invited too much inconclusive argument.  (My sense of things was borne out by a study Christopher Berry and William Howell did for Education Next in 2008, “Accountability Lost: Student learning is seldom a factor in school board elections.”) The big questions didn’t seem to matter, even in a district, like mine, where graduation rates hovered around 60 percent and proficiency scores around 50 percent. “Nothing wrong with our schools,” was a common reply to these questions, “if you know how to take advantage of what’s there.”  Bad test scores?  “You have to study and do your homework.”  Parents and taxpayers had so internalized this mode of thought — that the only thing wrong with the district was the kids and their parents — that change was nearly impossible.

In any case, in my own business, which is journalism, I have found time and time again that when someone doesn’t get the little things right, he’s not going to get the big things right–and getting little things right does, indeed, seem to lead to greater truth–if not happiness. This is one reason why the good journalists, like good cops, don’t ask, “Did you do it?” but “Where were you last night?”

Besides, it’s hard to know where exactly to begin to tackle the challenge of low academic performance, as even the esteemed readers of Education Next know. The challenges seem even greater when working, below deck, in the hydra-wheeled ship that our current public education system has become. (See Beseiged: School Boards and the Future of Education Politics, the essential work on the subject, edited by William Howell.)

Absent a perfect, or even good, answer to the BIG question, I’ve adopted a strategy I call “the many and the mundane”: deal with the little things and only those things under our direct control–and deal with them often and in large numbers.  This is neither as cynical or as desperate as it sounds.  (And though we’re no Continental Airlines or New York Police Department, I did take to heart some of the lessons learned from those two “turnaround” miracles as detailed in Emily Ayscue Hassel and Bryan Hassel’s “The Big U-Turn,” Education Next, Winter 2009.)  We all need to feel a sense of accomplishment–and it’s easier to “fix” a drinking fountain than a curriculum. Let’s make the buses run on time.  Instead of asking why parents don’t come to meetings, I ask why there was no sign on the front door of the school telling visitors how to get in. Or how much did that parking lot cost? Did we apply for the Smart Scholars grant?  Why not?  May I see that teacher candidate resume?  Did the RFPs for a school architect go out? This form says we were supposed to an analysis of “roots and causes” of our failure  – did we do it? (The answer to that question was “Yes, of course.” My followup was, “May I see it?” The answer, “We didn’t write it down.”) You said that state law won’t allow us to question Special Ed placements – can you get me a copy of that section of the law?

These kinds of questions drove one of our superintendents to distraction, then to resignation–because, for the most part, she didn’t have the answers (or those answers were embarrassing).  The issue of micromanagement is not without merit.  But too often the debate about it takes place in a vacuum.  Context is everything in school management.  If you have a district that “works” (i.e. educates most of its children well), then the board can–and should–relax. If you have a district that doesn’t work, then I say, “Gimme an M!  Gimme an I!  Gimme a C!….  M-I-C-R-O-M-A-N-A-G-E.  Micromanage!

How has the list of follow-ups fared, after three weeks?  Not bad.  Eight questions answered satisfactorily; three, half-answered; 19, (so far) ignored.  We even acted on one of the proposals: the board agreed that we should investigate starting an Alumni Association.

That’s progress.

Last Updated


Notify Me When Education Next

Posts a Big Story

Business + Editorial Office

Program on Education Policy and Governance
Harvard Kennedy School
79 JFK Street, Cambridge, MA 02138
Phone (617) 496-5488
Fax (617) 496-4428

For subscription service to the printed journal
Phone (617) 496-5488

Copyright © 2024 President & Fellows of Harvard College