We must give our trust to educators, but we must verify the results

Published in The News Tribune, October 11, 2012

What President Ronald Reagan liked to say about our relations with the Soviet Union, “Trust, but verify” is also true of education.  This is why I think the charter school initiative, I-1240, is a good idea:  it strengthens our trust in schools and it provides new ways to verify that this trust is deserved.

Comparing international relations and negotiations over nuclear disarmament treaties with education and charters schools deserves explanation.  To do that let’s turn back the clock. 

For decades we had an educational system where we largely trusted teachers, school leaders and districts to do what was best.  Certainly compared with today, they all had considerable responsibility and latitude in carrying out their jobs.  But the “verify” in the “Trust, but verify” part of the equation was pretty lax.

After the emergence of national and international indicators of student achievement in the 70’s and 80’s, Americans were shocked to learn that countless students across the nation were seriously underperforming.  We stopped trusting schools and their leaders.

Hand wringing was soon followed by hand tying.   Where trust is in short supply, we make up for it by relying on parents to monitor teachers, districts to exert control over the classroom, states to mandate the time spent on various subjects, and the federal government to apply a measuring rod to all.

“Trust, but don’t verify” was replaced by “Don’t trust, and micromanage”.   I’m not sure which is worse but for sure what we have now falls far short of ideal.

In fact most problems we face with our schools today boil down to the fact that we usually don’t trust them.  When we don’t trust people who are doing something we care about, we watch them carefully, and if we can, we micromanage them to remove as much of their discretion as possible.  In schools this closely managed environment sets up the conflicts we see today between teachers (and their unions) and districts; between districts and states; and finally between the federal government and just about everyone.

While we here in Tacoma hardly need reminding of this, the recent Chicago Public School strike made evident to all how extremely unproductive such perpetual conflict in our school system is.  Sometimes it seems as if schools are better at producing conflict than at producing well-educated kids.   But put simply, this conflict results from our mistrust of schools.

The charter school initiative I-1240 that we’ll be voting on in a couple of weeks will over time help restore public trust in the educational system.  It will do this by giving some schools—charter schools—greater authority and independence.  This is one why so many people don’t like the initiative – if you mistrust schools, then you’ll certainly mistrust the less-regulated ones I-1240 permits.

Yet any good school today is likely effective because teachers and school leaders have the authority they need to do what they do best:  teach our kids.  In education, trust in schools is essential because we can’t possibly micromanage our way into excellent ones.  Our micromanagement of schools is one key reason today why so many underperform.

Yes for trust to work in organizations and not just turn into unaccountable power, we need to know that those we entrust with authority use it responsibly.  We need the “verify” part of Reagan’s dictum.

I-1240 will bring good change to Washington’s schools not just because it gives some of them the greater authority they need.  It’s good because it combines this responsibility with stronger verification:  Any new charter school approved under I-1240 would have to meet all state and federal requirements as well as additional ones that more likely than not will be stiffer.  All charter schools would be closely monitored and subject to regular, transparent procedures for renewing or revoking their charter.  That’s more than you can say of any of our state’s current public schools.

I-1240 is by no means the silver bullet that will fix our schools.  But what it does do is provide a model for the direction in which our educational system should move, one where we are more trusting of schools and they in turn must show they deserve it.  That’s why it has my vote.