Open the Black Box of Education!!

By David DeSchryver – From Whiteboard Advisors
December 8, 2011

Last Thursday, the Fordham Institute held a daylong conference on “Rethinking Education Governance.”  The event was loaded with lots of great papers, many insights, and some grandstanding – as is required in Washington.


Rethinking Education Governance for the 21st Century

School reforms abound today, yet even the boldest and most imaginative among them have produced—at best—marginal gains in student achievement. What America needs in the twenty-first century is a far more profound version of education reform. Instead of shoveling yet more policies, programs, and practices into our current system, we must deepen our understanding of the obstacles to reform that are posed by existing structures, governance arrangements, and power relationships. Yet few education reformers—or public officials—have been willing to delve into this touchy territory.

The Thomas B. Fordham Institute and the Center for American Progress have teamed up to tackle these tough issues and ask how our mostly nineteenth-century system of K-12 governance might be modernized and made more receptive to the innumerable changes that have occurred—and need to occur—in the education realm. We have commissioned fifteen first-rate analysts to probe the structural impediments to school reform and to offer provocative alternatives.

Join us for an all-day conference on December 1, 2011 as these distinguished scholars—joined by a cast of forward-thinkers—present their draft papers and probe the implications for governance reform.





What was missing? Sincere frustration. I mean, we have been opining about these matters for over thirty years now. It was stated that progress is “aggressive” if it produces changes in behavior over a ten- to fifteen-year period. That was meant to be funny, of course – but only because it’s true. If this is really the standard, then I should move on to another profession. My patience is wearing thin (compounded, no doubt, by the lack of sleep that comes with having a newborn).

I’ve written about this before, but I think its time to take advantage of the economic downturn to introduce something into education governance that is badly needed: Shame. Here is what I mean: Let’s focus on school financing and make the flow of cash transparent. Let’s track revenue and expenses down to the school level and examine spending with visualization technologies like and others. Let’s make these visualization tools public so that local school boards, district superintendents and all the other players in school governance have to account for their investments and protect their turf. Let’s also connect this to visualization tools that report on student academic growth data, behavioral data and other relevant data points.

What would happen if a district actually did this? The sociologists would rejoice! The principals, superintendents, school boards, mayors and all the other cooks in the kitchen, on the other hand, would probably begin to focus on the ratio of dollars to outcomes. These “outcomes,” of course, would vary, but we all know that they would be activities/expenditures that advance the very purpose of the schools – student learning, positive and supportive behavioral activities, and the like.

The process would be unpopular at first – but that is the point. Let’s make those responsible for the school budget squirm with shame, forcing them to dig deep into the data, correct it (where needed), and reorganize their investments so their expenditures and priorities head in the same direction. Let’s trust that most district and school leaders will get this right because they are good leaders. (This pang of shame, incidentally, is what causes me to carefully inspect my own account, knowing full well that my spouse may examine it – and don’t even try to pretend you don’t know what I am referring to.)

Is the fiscal data available to pull this off? Yes, there are districts that can do this, but they are the exception. The recent USED report on comparability using school level expenditures makes that clear. “Because school districts typically do not have accounting systems that track state and local expenditures at the school level … this effort faced specific challenges that may affect the accuracy and consistency of the data reported.” That only limited numbers of districts can do this is a signal that something needs to be done. The alternative is to keep school finance in a black box, and continue to drive program administrators crazy with fiscal rules that “protect” the Title I funds (maintenance of effort, supplement-not-supplant, comparability) from vanishing into this box.

What about the tools? If enough data is available, are there school-based tools ready to roll? Unfortunately, the school-specific tools are not there… yet.  Frankly, as ED’s report makes clear, there has not been a need and, subsequently, a market for them.  But that will change, and the change begins with reaching out to the founders of these companies to get them involved.


In September of 2011 the US Department of Education under Aneesh Chopra’s guidance had a convening of 15 top Education Innovator’s including Stephen Gilfus, President and CEO, of the Gilfus Education Group to gain insights on what the market requires to meet the needs you characterize above. During this session it was clear that Aneesh’s pure goal is to facilitate transparency in education and empower organizations with the appropriate data to improve our nations school system. A few of the tools released by the Department of Education most recently include the NPC – or Net Price Calculators and the College Navigator. Other tools like the U.S. Census Bureau’s Public Elementary–Secondary Education Finance Data provide some of the information you are requesting.

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