Structural vs. Operational Education Reform


New Orleans, LA, January 17, 2008 — The repaired school & branch library building. FEMA funding is helping to rebuild schools damaged and destroyed by flooding after Hurricane Katrina. Photo by Manuel Broussard/FEMA.

Neerav Kingsland has a thought-provoking piece entitled “The Complexity of the New Orleans Reform Effort Might Actually Make It Easier to Scale” up on his blog.

He argues that the large effect size shown by a recent study on the New Orleans reform can be attributed to the fact that the reforms were largely structural in nature, rather than programmatic, and that structures are easier to scale and replicate.

My guess is that because New Orleans took on a structural reform, and not a specific programmatic reform, the effort might actually be easier to scale. 

Often times, interventions that show the largest effects, such as labor intensive pre-k programs, require a lot of specialized expertise, high fidelity to implementation, and significant resources.

The confluence of organizational talent, strategy, and implementation is very hard to replicate.

But the New Orleans reforms were not particularly operational in nature. There was no multifacteded curriculum that had to be adopted, no teacher coaching model that required years of training, no wrap-around model that necessitated the coordination of numerous agencies.

This made made me remember a passage from Richard Kahlenberg’s book on Al Shanker, Tough Liberal*, specifically Shanker’s reaction to the Bundy proposal for Ford Foundation funded pilot community control district in Ocean-Hill Brownsville. Shanker’s position could be framed as a suitable counterclaim to Kingsland’s position:

Fundamentally, Shanker argued, the focus on governance changes were a distraction. ‘The tragedy of the Bundy proposals,’ Shanker said, ‘is that they take us away from the question of why children won’t read, why they can’t write, where is the money going to come from and what can we do for these children,’ focusing instead on whether board headquarters should ‘be a little closer or a little further away.’

“Whereas Shanker had supported the Ocean Hill-Brownsville pilot as part of a deal to get more money for [More Effective Schools], the Bundy proposal was education on the cheap–a way to be for change while also balancing the budget.”

This isn’t a direct counter to Kingsland’s take, but an interesting counterpoint in the sense of stressing the importance of funding, resources, and interventions over that of governance.

In my view, both facets are important. We need the hard work on the ground and the necessary funding for cultivating and implementing effective programs, but we also need coherent and consistent systems that connect to and organize that work.

Kingsland also makes an interesting claim about governance and structure as a critical strategy in coping with complexity:

“. . . the fact is that the New Orleans model is predicated more on layering in a structure and strategy over a complex system than it is on executing an operational heavy, resource intensive intervention.

In the long run, this is exactly why I think the New Orleans model has the potential to scale.”

This is a claim I find compelling, given the acknowledgement of education as a complex system. I’m just not sure I’m on board with the notion of turning an entire school system into a CMO. While this research is promising, I’m not so sanguine about the replicability of the New Orleans experiment, given the extreme variability of conditions and contexts.

What do you think about transforming an entire public education system into a privately managed system?

*I just happen to be reading it at this moment. Excellent and essential reading.

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