William Slotnik authored the Center for American Progress (CAP) report, titled “Levers for Change: Pathways for State-to-District Assistance in Underperforming School Districts,” that details how states and districts should interact to save struggling public schools and avoid the problems of past interventions. His report begins with an anecdote where a state education consultant was sharply reprimanded by a parent at a public meeting, forcing the state education department to scrap its plan for the district overhaul and focus on communication with the district and local community. The report evaluates past examples of state interventions in districts, spanning three decades of public education. He separates the issues plaguing state interventions into three categories, or “levers for change”: educational, organizational, and political. Slotnik outlines the lessons learned from each category and problem, and proposes what states can do to make effective interventions into struggling districts. At the end of each recommendation, he provides a list of litmus test questions to help guide states through the interventions and to maintain their focus.
His “levers for change” addresses the educational, organizational, and political aspects of reform. Some of the steps Slotnik proposes are to establish and effectively communicate the exit strategy, have clarity in their criteria for interventions in districts, diagnose the preparedness and capacity of the struggling communities, and make goals that balance “rigor and realism.” These steps give a clear-cut strategy that will cut out the eventual problems that come from vague purposes, reasoning, and goals, as well as improve the relationships between states, districts, and communities. The organizational challenges are assessing the capacity of the state’s current structure and personnel and establishing standards to add partners in the reorganization process, which maximizes the state’s primary role in the intervention. Politically, two recommendations that stuck out to this writer were to have an effective communication strategy to build grass-roots support, and focus on building up the community infrastructure to support the changes long after the state has left the district. Instead of leaving districts worse than when they came, these steps can help states build effective infrastructure and organization to prevent a breakdown after their departure.
A primary concern about the report is the absence of the mention of unions. Unions dominate the public education landscape, and could pose a potential barrier to intervention. Teachers’ unions influence school board elections to put union friendlies in power to solidify their position, and move to eliminate the infusion of new talent and ideas through new teachers while recycling the old, burnt-out teachers. However, Slotnik makes an admirable effort to dodge these concerns and focus on the remedies to the three specific problems facing states and districts. But, it does raise the question, “how do states and districts interact when unions are involved?” Disappointingly, he leaves that question to be determined by the local officials on a case-by-case basis. It could have made a more compelling case if he were to detail how to interact with unions during the reform of struggling schools, which could provide a blueprint for future interventions. In the end, Slotnik avoids the lightning rod of teachers’ unions and focuses on the essentials of school reform.
Overall, Slotnik’s approach to resolving and state and district relations is a needed remedy to the current state of American public education, rife with struggling students and schools. His recommendations, for states to focus on the three challenges of school reform (educational, organizational, and political), seems to be the best and most effective solution to America’s education woes. The problem lies with whether or not states will implement these suggestions to improve and rescue the public education system that America heavily relies on.
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