Chair of the Education Department at Brown University Kenneth Wong, in Nashville yesterday, made a compelling case for our capital city to move toward a mayor-led school system.

It’s impossible not to apply the same advice to Memphis.

Dr. Wong, who holds the Annenberg Chair in Education Policy and directs the graduate program in Urban Education Policy at Brown University, is author of the influential book, Education Mayor: Improving America’s Schools. He also is familiar with Memphis City Schools as a result of his years of work with Partners in Public Education (PIPE).

One Vote For Mayors

Dr. Wong, who has devoted 20 years to the study of school governance and organizational structures, is one of the most respected and compelling speakers on the opportunities for urban districts like Memphis City Schools to improve and excel.

He said the tension in these districts is normally between a structure based on centralization and one based on decentralization. But, he said, there is a third way which involves establishing a city mayor in a formal leadership role as the head of the district.

Based on his detailed research, he concluded that mayor-led districts create a “stronger sense of accountability, keeping in mind that you are spending public money and the inherent messiness of the democratic process.”

The Blame Game

Underscoring the importance of large urban districts to the future of the U.S., Dr. Wong pointed out that although there are 15,000 school systems in the U.S., but 27% of all students attend the largest 129 districts and 41% attend the largest 375 districts.

“The challenge of the urban district is interesting,” he said. “There is intense politics in the face of economic challenges. They need to know how to deal with competition. They’ve been complacent. They’ve been given public money, and they think about how to create more staff rather than how to create more productivity.”

Meanwhile, the circular “blame game” goes on unabated, with superintendents blaming their boards, the boards blaming City Halls, City Halls blaming school systems, and around and around they go. “One office has to be accountable and that should be the mayor’s office,” he said.

It’s About Results

While some suggest that this structure could reduce citizen involvement in their schools, he said that voter turnout has increased in cities where the mayors are in charge of public education. But more importantly, he said that in these school districts, student performance has improved steadily, spotlighting Chicago’s dramatic success in increasing student proficiency, climbing about 50%.

He reached the conclusion that mayor-led schools improve student performance after analyzing results and after controlling for poverty and ethnicity. Then, he reviewed outcomes to determine if the different in governance made a difference. “Student achievement (in mayor-led districts) is moving in a statistically significant way,” he said. “In two to three years, we see four to five months of additional learning, and I believe that is the case because of stronger accountability and a more strategic use of resources.”

In New York City, he said that the city school district under a Bloomberg-led district improved significantly and test scores caught up with the rest of the state.

The Buffer Zone

In particular, he said that mayors don’t just look for educators for their management team, opting instead for a more diverse group of managers who includes more non-educators to tackle budgeting, finances, information technology, and other areas where outside experience can encourage innovation and change. “The mayor can assemble a team that buffers politics from the classrooms so teachers can do their jobs,” he said.

Overall, “mayors are strategic thinkers, and since Proposition 13, it has been important to them to have fiscal solvency,” Dr. Wong said. “When they take over a system, they immediately ask how the money is being spent, and we see a move of resources from the central office to classrooms.”

In addition, his research indicated that in mayor-led districts, there is a tendency to move more funding to low-performing schools and to improve bond ratings, because these are decisions that mayors are accustomed to making. As a result, while student scores are improving, school funding hasn’t increased. “They aren’t spending more. They are spending differently,” said Dr. Wong.

The Better Angels Of Their Nature

When asked about the reaction of teachers’ unions to mayor-led districts, he pointed out that in the 13 years before the mayor took control in Chicago, there were 7 teacher strikes. In the 13 years following the takeover by the mayor, there were none. “Mayors have political capital that they can use and they have more negotiating experience,” he said.

It’s also worth remembering that teachers’ unions are changing, he said. For example, the teachers’ union in New York City is now operating two charter schools instead of lobbying against them.

One surprising aspect of the research is that mayors are more willing to experiment with innovation and take risks, because they can see public education with new eyes.

Asking The Right Questions

The key questions that cities should ask: “What is the opportunity cost if we don’t redesign our district now? What is the cost of losing a generation of students?”

Also, he said that improving urban schools by emphasizing higher standards and establishing schools as hubs for their neighborhoods are crucial to attracting the middle class back into the city. “It’s about creating an urban district that is the first choice for all parents in your city,” he said. “That’s the most important question of all.”

While endorsing the mayor-led district as a strategy for better schools, Dr. Wong said that one size does not fit all. “There is no one single design or framework,” he said. “It varies from city to city.” Today, there are 2 million students attending schools managed by city mayors, the same number nationwide that are attending charter schools. “Most of all,” he said, “institutional competition is a healthy development.”