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School District Superintendent

School District Superintendent: The World’s Most Difficult Unnecessary Job || John Merrifield || Sept 26, 2013

“The truth is incontrovertible.  Malice may attack it, ignorance may deride it, but in the end, there it is.”

— Winston Churchill

The evidence is there on both counts (very difficult, unnecessary), as is the basis to believe it. It is very difficult to serve any diverse clientele with a uniform product.  But that’s what school district superintendents must aim for. Decades of widespread, alarmingly low performance suggest that it is mission impossible. But their task persists, and why not. The appearance of fairness that demands the uniformity is a virtual political imperative, and the high stress job of an urban superintendent is well-compensated. The high turnover rates of highly paid urban superintendents attests to the desperate search for someone capable of doing the impossible, or deviating from the mission impossible script while staying sufficiently politically correct to stay employed.  It is also an unnecessary job, even within a system not much different than the one we have. With accountability to their clients, principals can run their schools. Continue reading »

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Classroom-Level Roots of the Problem

It all comes down to what happens in the classroom. Virtually everyone agrees that we have a low performing school system; that not enough student engagement in important content occurs in our current school system’s public school classrooms. Note that the appropriate perspective for school system reform is that a region’s school system is the full menu of schooling options, public and private, that serves 100% of the region’s schoolchildren. Since public school classrooms enroll nearly 90% of schoolchildren, and since public school system governance and funding policies impact nearly all schoolchildren, problematic public school classroom conditions that have survived decades of reform efforts will explain why we desperately need new, systemic reform strategies. Continue reading »

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2012 PISA Results

The Wall Street Journal’s “U.S. High-School Students Slip in Global Rankings” (12/3) noted a widening gap between the U.S. and other countries, and it’s not because we improved more slowly than the countries with better test scores. Every three years, the OECD’s Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) tests a sample of 15-year-olds from countries that contain eighty percent of the world’s economy. Among the international tests, this is the most useful measure because it tests the oldest children; the closest to the school system’s final product. Continue reading »

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Another Superintendent Bites the Dust

Another Superintendent Bites the Dust || John Merrifield || April 25, 2015

The latest example of a dis-employed school district superintendent is a Starr (literally and figuratively), Joshua Starr. The Education Week article that reported Superintendent Starr’s demise – written by John Mannes, a former member of the School Board that employed Mr. Starr – blamed widespread “school board dysfunction.” “A successful superintendent with a national reputation for positive change and vision was made unwelcome to continue his work by board members in Montgomery County, MD;” the nation’s 17th largest public school district. Continue reading »

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Equity Math for a Transformed System

Equity Math for a Transformed System || John Merrifield || June 2, 2016

Suppose we provide a high minimum level of per-pupil public funding to anyone wanting to exit their assigned public school, and independent schools – charter or private – can charge whatever the market would bear. Markets would then set tuition rates; often at the per-pupil public funding (‘free’) amount, but sometimes above. Market entry would drive tuition rates down to just the level needed to finance and sustain efficient operations, including a normal rate of return on investment. Purveyors of poorly conceived instructional approaches would not be able to recruit enough schoolchildren to cover their expenses. But purveyors of some well-conceived instructional approaches would be able to charge more than the per pupil public funding; a 3rd party co-payment. Continue reading »

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Washington State Big Spenders

Washington State’s Big Spenders are Slow Learners || John Merrifield || November 30, 2014

After having little to show for a nearly 30% increase in public school spending by her administration, previous Governor Christine Gregoire (D – WA) said,

“I came in here determined to make the system work better. I put a lot more money into K–12. But then you sit there and say, “Why have I not been able to get the result I set out to achieve?”

Continue reading »

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School District Superintendent Churn

School District Superintendent Churn || John Merrifield || October 23, 2013

Earlier this month, I argued that school district superintendents have a very difficult, but unnecessary job. Today, because I am little behind – okay a lot behind – on my Education Week current events due diligence, I happened to grab the May 15, 2013 edition. There, on the front page, I found this headline: “Wanted: Schools Chiefs for Big Name Districts.” Of course the article disagrees with my assertion that the job is unnecessary, which I base on the need for governance and funding policy reform that would allow schools to independently address student diversity with specialized instructional approaches. The article takes the current system’s cartelization of public schools for granted (districts amount to school cartels). It argues that the high turnover rate for big city district superintendents severely undermines the ubiquitous futile efforts to make school cartels achieve some noteworthy improvement away from the ‘Nation at Risk’ results that are at least the norm, and perhaps persistently universal, with some periodic temporary outliers such as El Paso in the 1990s. Continue reading »

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Nation at Risk VI

Nation at Risk VI, Including a Partial Misunderstanding of the Risk || John Merrifield || March 2, 2015

Here it is, ‘Nation at RiskVI: America’s Skills Challenge: Millennials and the Future. How many prominent, well-grounded proclamations of doom and gloom do we need before we widely recognize that the changes we’ve made since Nation at Risk I in 1983, plus four more along the way, have not (despite massively increased per pupil funding) addressed the root causes of persistently poor academic outcomes? Continue reading »

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Great TPS Rare, Really

High-Performing Traditional Public Schools are Rare, Really || John Merrifield || November 30, 2014

This is going to be a tough sell. I recognize that. But sadly, this is a very important, painful reality check. My assertion that high-performing traditional public schools are very, very rare flies in the face of some deeply-rooted human tendencies, the first of which is that ‘best’ is widely seen as something that has to be really good. An even bigger likely source of resistance to the sad fact that the dysfunctional ‘business model’ of traditional public schools ensures low efficiency, and likely low performance even in the best-funded schools with the easiest to educate children, is parents’ strong desire to believe that they did right by their children. If we define this aspect of doing right as doing as well as possible within the available choices, most families pass the test. But when best available is shown to be pretty bad for a lot of children, some denial/resistance to the message will set in. That such a message will not produce the voter adulation candidates seek may explain why few, if any, public office-seekers will take on the myth that the better public schools are just fine. The roots of the low performance problem that I keep referring back to exist throughout the public school system, and they are not substantively negated by generous funding or by locating a school in a high socio-economic status neighborhood. Continue reading »

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The Equity Implications of Pricelessness

Free-Only, Subsidized Schooling: A Priceless Equity Disaster || John Merrifield || April 22, 2014

Like so many other well-intentioned government rules, mandating free-only (no tuition charge) public schooling, and perhaps also free-only publically subsidized schooling options, arguably achieves the opposite of the intended result. It likely has a net negative effect on equity rather than the widely assumed significant net benefit to the lowest income families. Continue reading »

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