“I never believed, I confess, that they would have attacked the king’s troops.”
Lord Percy, British brigade commander in Boston, 1774
“But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.” From The Declaration of Independence, 1776
“When in the course of human events…”
July 4 looks different this year, to a school person. More and more schools declare their independence from the central office, and some districts—unlike England 242 years ago—seem willing to let go.
July 4 looks different after reading Reinventing America’s Schools by David Osborne (published late in 2017 – see box). Chapter one, about the transformation of New Orleans schools post-Katrina, is titled, “The Revolution.” Osborne’s chapters on Denver, Washington, D.C., and other cities makes the case for a dramatic change in how school districts operate. Autonomy might be Osborne’s most frequently used word.[i]
Osborne says that the school systems created in the 1900’s “had a dramatic impact on this country, helping us build the most powerful, innovative economy on earth,” but they no longer work. “In the 21st century the emergence of a new model—decentralized, competitive, customer-driven, mission-driven, and performance based, with steering separated from rowing—could have an equally profound effect. … We are already seeing the impact in New Orleans, D.C., and Denver” (p. 296).
July 4 looks different after attending the forum this spring, “Schools as the Units of Change,” put on by the Gates Family Foundation.[ii] The event, held at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science, featured former and current Denver superintendents Michael Bennet and Tom Boasberg, as well as many other district and school leaders.[iii] The title of the forum hints at an outlook similar to Osborne’s theme: over the past 50
years power accrued to the central office in large school districts, weakening the authority of principals and their school community. Bureaucracy, hierarchies, and inefficiency followed. If not exactly tyrannical, top-down structures became oppressive, and resistance grew. Time for a change, or else…
We have rediscovered the obvious: teaching and learning takes place in school buildings, and principals and teachers—not the central office—are the key players in determining how well a school serves its students. In relearning that schools are truly “the units of change,” we see why they must take control. For 25 years charter schools—having declared independence from day one—have shown us what is possible. Now more schools seek similar powers over hiring, the budget, designing the curriculum, etc.
July 4 looks different because, due to what some call the “revolutionary” reforms put in place under Superintendents Bennet and Boasberg, DPS no longer “controls” over half of its schools, not as it once did. According to Chalkbeat Colorado, in 2017-18 DPS had “104 traditional district-run schools and 117 charter and innovation schools… Fifty-nine of the 117 are charter schools and 58 are innovation schools, which are run by DPS but are exempt from certain district and state rules.”[iv] Is this the beginning of the end of the old model, when a large urban district presumed to have “local control” over its schools? Will DPS go further in “loosening the reins” and ensuring principals and schools regain the capacity to govern themselves?
As the 2017-18 school year came an end, A Plus Colorado produced its latest Start with the Facts series – “Denver Public Schools at Crossroads.” The data on student and school performance made it clear that the district will fall well short of meeting the goals set in its 2020 Plan. As the Denver community develops a plan for 2025, a central question is how DPS continues to rethink the balance of power between the district and its 200 schools. Where should the locus of control be?
Beyond Denver, this July 4, we wonder if this conversation around who is in control – the district or the school?—is spreading. Are these ideas having any impact on low-performing districts in Colorado like Adams 14, Aurora, and Pueblo 60? And if not, why not? Osborne’s hope, I believe, is that success in a few districts like Denver might pave the way for other school boards to choose a similar approach—what he calls the 21st century model—for a district-school relationship. It could reconcile the current tensions—and avoid the need for the colonies—… oops, for the schools … to fight for their independence.
“By the rude bridge that arched the flood/ Their flag to April’s breeze unfurled …”[v]
Finally, July 4 looks different because I just read Lexington and Concord – subtitled “The Battle Heard Round the World,” by George C. Daughan.*[vi] And two weeks ago I visited Concord and walked up Monument Street to the North Bridge. A school person can draw many parallels. Do they suggest a Revolution is imminent?
Call this light-hearted or absurd – I am Paul Revere, on my horse, sending a “cry of alarm/ To every Middlesex village and farm.”[vii] I make a connection here that, if it will not lead to any fireworks, might at least spark a knowing smile.
Chapter 2 - General Thomas Gage and George III
1774 - At this time, the king did not imagine the need to send troops against rebellious elements. “The king and ministry were intent on subduing Massachusetts with words, not guns… The king was apparently counting on the timidity of patriots like Samuel Adams, John Hancock, … and their cohorts. He never believed that colonials would stand up to a professional army and navy… King George and his parliamentary allies consistently maintained that their American subjects were sure to shrink before the mighty British colossus” (23).
Do schools ever speak about their “rights,” their belief that they not “subjects” of the district?
Do you ever sense that districts underestimate the courage of schools, of their principals and teachers, to challenge and resist top-down directives from the central office? That when pushed enough, school leaders will fight back—and assert their right to control what takes place in their buildings?
*AV #181 OWES A GREAT DEBT TO GEORGE C. DAUGHAN’S BOOK. For an in depth look at the events leading up to and including the fighting in Lexington and Concord, I highly recommend Lexington and Concord – The Battle Heard Round the World, New York: W.W. Norton Co., 2018. For more, see Mark G. Spencer’s review in The Wall Street Journal, April 18, 2018: .
Chapter 3 – Benjamin Franklin Excoriated
In 1774 Ben Franklin was not “promoting independence.” According to Daughan, “he was doing just the opposite, searching for ways to reconcile the colonies with Britain.” As the British government discussed “how best to punish Boston and Massachusetts for the Tea Party,” Franklin sought “to warn the British of the misguided course they were on … As far as Franklin was concerned, an aroused king and ministry were rushing to produce legislation better suited to smite an enemy than a thriving colony” (28-29).
For ages schools have complained that “help” from the central office often feels more like micromanagement and mistrust. Do districts appreciate the frustration from school people, furious that “someone who has not been in the classroom in years walks in to tell us what we ought to be doing”?
Chapter 4 – Britain Closes the Port of Boston
March 1774 – The king imposed the Coercive Acts, later known in America as “the Intolerable Acts,” Daughan writes, “for intolerable they were to all the colonies, not just Massachusetts.” In Parliament, Lord North made it obvious that coming down hard was meant as a message to other colonies. “Boston has not only to answer for its own violence,” he said, “but for having incited other places to tumults.”
Daughan continues: “North’s remarks were well received by an audience that was irritated with the effrontery not only of a colony standing up to the mother country over a question of tax policy, but of a city whose prosperity was an indicator of something far more ominous: the economic potential of, not just Boston, but of all seaports …. It certainly must have crossed many minds in London that the time had come to regain control over the original thirteen colonies, to rein them in…” (31-32).
Daughan emphasizes how little the king and Parliament understood “the political temperament of Massachusetts” (33). This “blindness” and “hubris” is a reason for “the king’s determination to work his will on Massachusetts” (33), for his ministers being so “anxious to clamp down on Massachusetts, [expecting] it to be done without bloodshed and at minimal cost…” (34).
Several school leaders are outspoken in their frustration with the central office. What if that number grows? What if most school communities see their potential—their chance to determine their own fate—restricted by directives from on high? Would they rise up and …
Chapter 5 - Declaring War on Massachusetts
May 1774 – The king signed “A Bill for Better Regulating the Government of the Province of Massachusetts Bay in New England.” “A more accurate description,” Daughan writes, “would have been: ‘A bill to radically alter Massachusetts society for the purpose of dominating it.’” It “allowed the king and Parliament to rule the province directly. This had never been done before to any other colony…. What it did not do was intimidate the colonists. Instead, it alerted them to a great menace that required united action to oppose” (36-37).
Edmund Burke, one of the few British statesmen to oppose these new restrictions, was prophetic:
“Reflect how you are to govern a people, who think they ought to be free, and think they are not. Your scheme yields no revenue; it yields nothing but discontent, disorder, disobedience…” (39).
William Pitt also protested:
“… the mode which has been pursued to bring them back to a sense of their duty to their parent state (ss) so diametrically opposed to the fundamental principle of sound policy that individuals, possessed of common understanding, must be astonished the such proceedings” (39).
Some district leaders—like Burke and Pitt?—sense the resentment when decisions are made that punish independent thinking and the longing for more autonomy. Are their voices heard? Or are they dismissed as “too sympathetic” to the principals and schools seen as the whiners, the dissenters—the rebels?
Chapter 6 – Support for Boston Broadens
April 1775 – “The king’s belief that the city would quietly submit to the port bill had been from the start a dangerous illusion… the unrestrained attack on Massachusetts left the other provinces feeling as if they had no other choice. Just the way Parliament’s aristocrats spoke about ‘their colonies’ was sobering” (47).
Possessive pronouns matter. Whose school (whose country) is it? Our choice of words says much about both ownership and responsibility. Is it “their school” (belonging to the district) or is it “our school”? Who is in charge? Charters are “semi-autonomous”[viii]—so they know. But for most—innovation schools, among others—when testing the limits of how far they can go, there are no clear answers.
Chapter 7 - Defiance Escalates
“Resistance was building… The resolution of Boston’s patriots, their determination and courage, had grown, as had their support from the rest of Massachusetts and the other colonies. The king had failed to instill the fear he had been counting on to cow the provincials” (50).
When we speak of “fear” and “intimidation” in the context of K-12 education, we used to think of the district vs. the teachers’ union, or of the administration vs. teachers. Those words now apply when we discuss control. It cannot help a school leader to operate out of fear, to be uncertain of the limits of his or her authority. And yet this seems inevitable in large districts. Doubt leading to paralysis … or defiance.
On the other hand, perhaps fear diminishes as one school (a Massachusetts) stands up to the powers that be and says: we won’t be cowed. This is our school. And after one school becomes 13 schools becomes ….
Daughan argues that in 1774 Sam Adams was in the minority in seeing independence as the ultimate goal. Others “were more than willing to remain in the empire if the king would compromise and allow Massachusetts to resume the self-government she had enjoyed prior to the present troubles” (55).
At present the majority of schools and principals wish to remain in their district. And yet there are the “Sam Adams” out there too. Their ultimate goal is independence—if not a revolution, a fundamental shift in where true authority lies. Charters were the first “to separate” themselves from “the mother country.” Innovation schools, with “charter-lite” waivers, followed. Is this the new normal? Where most schools and principal will be eager, even desperate, for greater freedom, and greater control?
Chapter 8 – A Deepening Crisis
Summer 1774 – Two words come to mind as one reads Daughan’s account of how the king, Parliament, and even British generals in Massachusetts viewed the colonists: arrogance and contempt. Daughan writes of Lord Percy (who in April 1775 led his troops to Lexington and witnessed just how badly he misread the fighting spirit of the minutemen): “Like his fellow officers, he thought colonials were cowards…. He wrote a friend, ‘Surely the people of Boston are not mad enough to think of opposing us’” (64). “The people here are a set of sly, artful, hypocritical rascals, cruel and cowards. I must own I cannot but despise them completely” (65).
District folks seldom come across as arrogant. They do not reside 3,000 miles away. Nevertheless, the distance can feel huge—even if just “across town.” The nature of the district-school structure says: “we know more, we have more authority, more clout.” It leads to behavior that feels disrespectful, even rude.
Chapter 9 - The Counties Strike Back
August 1774 – Daughan makes a telling point in contrasting the leadership in England with that in counties across Massachusetts. “In Britain around four hundred families dominated the political landscape.” Perhaps this was one reason why Parliament’s new law prevented town meetings, apparently an anathema to the British: “The leveling tendencies of these gatherings were particularly odious. The notion that government should be in the hands of ordinary people was an alien concept” (67-68).
I would not say this of DPS, but I would of most of Colorado’s larger school districts: For them the notion that true authority should be in the hands of principals, teachers, and the school community is an alien concept. The district office is the hub, everything spins around it. No longer a valid idea or structure – is it?
Revolution – inevitable?
Lexington and Concord only takes us through the spring of 1775. We witness the bloodshed in chapters 31-33: “A Massacre at Lexington,” “The Road to Concord,” and “The Concord Fight.” We know where the story goes from there, and yet we wonder: was the American Revolution inevitable? What if the British and King George III had not been so proud, so blind? What if the there had been less contempt, and more respect? What if self-government by the colonists had not been seen as such a threat—but as a reasonable step forward?
Happy Independence Day!
[i] From Index of Reinventing America’s Schools, New York: Bloomsbury, 2017.
autonomy, 12, 218-220, 225-226, 238-243
and accountability for performance, 187, 241
Boston schools, 218-219, 323-326
charter-lite schools, 1467-150, 183-185, 295, 322-330
Denver schools, 145, 147-150, 167, 175-178, 181-183, 187-189
Denver charter vs. innovation schools, 179-181
giving schools control over internal services, 186-187, 284-285
Indianapolis schools, 199, 203-210
Los Angeles schools, 219, 326-328
Memphis schools, 213-214, 323
New Orleans schools, 61-63
New York City schools, 330
Springfield, MA schools, 219-220
Washington, D.C. schools, 129-131
[ii] The Gates Family Foundation, as this former program officer there (1990-1996) knows, encouraged similar ideas almost 30 years ago. Is there a lesson here about sowing seeds (1989) and being both patient and persistent in order to see what might bear fruit (2018)?
Among the recommendations from the Keystone Conference, September 1989, put on by the Gates Family Foundation:
"Self-Governing Schools. … Colorado needs to move at once to empower those principals who have accepted the responsibility for the education of their students, with the authority they need to achieve the goals set by the district, state, and federal government. Such schools should have … broad powers in determining how they spend money, structure the curriculum, and conduct the day-to-day operations of the school. It is expected that many self-governing schools will have active parental advisory bodies or governing boards."
[v] Opening stanza of “Concord Hymn,” by Ralph Waldo Emerson.
By the rude bridge that arched the flood,
Their flag to April’s breeze unfurled,
Here once the embattled farmers stood
[vi] Daughan, George C., Lexington and Concord – The Battle Heard Round the World, New York: W.W. Norton Co., 2018.