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Is MNPS Too Large to Succeed or Too Big to Fail?

January 27, 2011

My wife Kay and I were having a conversation yesterday about school closings after another day of dealing with our kids out of school. 

“Why is it,” she asked after hearing that the main reason for the closing was a few distant areas which received heavy snow while most of Nashville didn’t, “…why is it that they can’t go ahead and send the kids in the clear areas to school and only close the schools in the problem areas?”

Being the answer man that I am, I suggested that segmenting the school system closings by location would create all sorts of problems, such as getting kids in different parts of town on different schedules for TCAP testing or having different schools close at different days depending on the number of snow days. I thought that there might be problems with buses that are shared across schools or clusters, and all sorts of other logistical details that makes it necessary for the system to close entirely even when only small pockets of snow and ice remain.

“Maybe so,” she said, “but I think the reason we close the entire system is because that’s how we’ve always done it, and we haven’t been willing to think about other possibilities.”

She went off to finish boiling the pasta, but the conversation started up the gears that are continually turning in my head. Could it be, I wondered, that part of the reason Metro Schools struggle as a system is simply because of size? Is having a country wide school system in an area as geographically large and with as high a population as found in Davidson County a good thing, or could it be that the size alone makes responding in the unique ways necessary in the various regions of the city next to impossible.

“Is the Metro Nashville Public School system too big to succeed?” I found myself asking. And then, in another jump of thought, does the size of the system make it (like the American financial system) too big to fail, requiring great sacrifice in time, energy, and money on the parts of Nashvillians?

Now I have no allusions that I am particularly knowledgeable about the make up of effective school systems. Much of the knowledge that I do have is anecdotal, and that evidence seems to suggest that more often than not those school systems that are effective are in economically affluent area with relative ethnic and social class homogeneity.  While there are always examples that cut across those stereotypes, they tend to be exceptions to the norm rather than models that can be emulated on a system wide basis.

The difficulty lies in large systems like Nashville’s or Memphis’s which are significantly more diverse and generally have a majority of students who are economically disadvantaged. In a system that has relative homogeneity, system wide responses can be more effective because they are addressing a fairly large percentage of the student population’s circumstances in life. However, in a diverse system like ours, issues of culture and context are more difficult to deal with, usually requiring more localized solutions than system wide, top down, imposed ones.

Often the arguments I read arguing for large systems like that in Metro Nashville focus on several concerns: racial and economic diversity, and savings through centralized management and purchasing.

Certainly the danger in dividing up a system like Metro Nashville’s is recreating the segregation of the 1960s where rich, usually white, schools flourished, and those in poor communities (often but not always populated by persons of color) struggled. In Nashville that could mean that the schools in the Western and Southern parts of the county would become less diverse and probably enjoy an economic advantage over those in the North and East. I don’t have any great answers for this, other than to note that effectively that segregation already goes on even in a centralized system like MNPS. Certainly it would be important to be honest about the problem and determine how tax dollars could be distributed in a way to ensure more economic equity across the various schools.

As for the savings in centralizing management, we regularly hear of examples of how the centralized system is less than responsive in responding to the needs of local schools, often leading to duplication of efforts and the purchase of resources that are not needed and are wasted. While centralized purchasing agreements CAN be helpful in reducing cost, the final decision in purchasing items must  reside at the local school level in order to be effective.

Again, I wonder if a system like Nashville’s wouldn’t be more effective as a franchise operation rather than a centralized corporate solution. In a franchise there are standards of excellence and branding required by the franchisor, as well as the ability to share expenses for certain products. However it is the responsibility of the franchisee in each local area to make things work, to effectively address the specific needs of their market, and to be responsive to the unique needs of their customers. While the franchise central office offers assistance, decisions such as hiring and firing of employees, advertising, community relations, hours of operation, and even some purchasing is handled at a smaller, more local, level.

Dividing Nashville’s system into smaller areas with levels of autonomy would like work toward encouraging more local business and parental involvement since parents and business are less overwhelmed with dealing with neighbors than with dealing with a city wide, centralized, system. Each area could determine the best way to address the learning needs of kids in their areas, creating models that are unique to their context.

Again, I am no expert and am sure that I am likely missing some knowledge about why a centralized structure is better. However, if it is true that a system like MNPS is what has to happen then we have to recognize that it’s too big to fail, for a failure impacts EVERY part of the city both in terms of status and economic viability. This means that our leaders have to use every means to ensure success regardless of the cost, even if that means raising taxes to make it work.

What do you think about the size of Nashville’s school system? Is it too large to succeed or too big to fail?

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One Comment leave one →
  1. Eric permalink
    January 27, 2011 9:45 am

    Just a couple of points:

    1) Metro used to call snow days for individual schools when only one or two places were effected by snow or some other form of inclement weather. I’m not sure when that stopped…

    2) No Child Left Behind is one often-overlooked reason for snow closures today. If a school has less than 95% attendance for the day, then it gets a red flag. It’s easier for the school system to shut down schools than to deal with any extra NCLB issues…it has plenty to deal with on that front as it is without adding attendance problems to the mix.

    3) There’s nothing stopping local businesses and parents from getting involved at their nearby school, financially or otherwise. They can donate money to local schools individually with complete control over how that money is spent. There’s no need for neighbors to have to deal with the larger, centralized system at all.

    I’m not saying I disagree with your point as a whole. I just thought these things would be worth mentioning.

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