Rhode Island’s new education commissioner, Ken Wagner, has some ideas worth considering, as Linda Borg reports in today’s Providence Journal. Time will tell how much of it is just sparkly talk from a guy who is neither a former teacher nor a parent. The initial points, however, do leave me a little concerned that he won’t pursue reforms with an eye toward their effects on incentives and rights.
The notion that principals should be empowered, for instance, sounds wonderful:
One of Wagner’s most dramatic suggestions calls for investing principals with the power to hire their own staff, manage their budgets, even set the length of the school day. Historically, the state Department of Education or the school superintendent have dictated everything from curriculum to the length of the school day.
Wagner said, “School is where the magic happens. Ken Wagner can’t create a culture of innovation and improvement, nor can the superintendent. That culture can only be created by a principal but not alone. The principal needs to be surrounded by a leadership culture” of committed teachers.
The tricky part will be in establishing accountability. Yes, principals are more directly knowledgeable of and accessible to their students and teachers, but insulating them from the influence of the superintendent and school committee insulates them from direct accountability to anybody. And if principals set their own budgets, what happens if local voters or the municipal government does not provide the district with everything it requests? The details of budget control will be very important.
Another of Wagner’s larger suggestions might seem to provide some answer on the accountability front:
Wagner’s most unorthodox proposal involves giving parents the opportunity to send their children to another school district. He cited the constant movement of students back and forth between Providence and Pawtucket and Central Falls.
“We’ve created this burden by making them go to school where they live,” he said. “If a school has extra seats, why not open the door and allow people to come in?”
This idea, called “open enrollment,” was actually part of the Bright Today legislation on which the RI Center for Freedom & Prosperity worked, last year, and it would likely increase accountability among public schools, including for principals. A principal whose school began emptying out would have a lot to answer for, while the reverse would be a spotlight on merit. But if a bad principal is insulated from superiors, it isn’t clear how much the pressure would actually increase. Once again, the details are going to be important; Rhode Island government tends to try to hold everybody harmless, which reverses incentives.
Lastly, Wagner’s idea that 90% of Rhode Island students should be accessing advanced courses could set a metric that actually harms students. If only 20-35% of students reach the point of taking advanced classes before graduation, that’s fine. Education should be about achieving individual potential and finding personal direction, not pretending everybody is advanced or needs to reach levels of highly technical learning.