What Does a Good Governance Model Look Like?

I put this quick summary together for something else, but I think it is worth a share:

An effective governance model has several features. First, it is fully transparent. All stakeholders should have access to organizational structures and processes. Second, it is understood. Both those serving within an organization and the clientele of the organization should have a full understanding of how the organization functions. Third, it fosters efficient communication. Different committees and sub-committees should be able to communicate with each other quickly through established and understood channels. Fourth, it is logical and mission-driven. Organizational governance structures should reflect the mission of the organization, and be logically designed to put decision-making authority in the hands of those most qualified in any specific policy area. Fifth, it is inclusive of all stakeholders. Those serving in formal positions should be representative of the organizational as a whole.


Towards an Amorphous Government

Though I did not make the top 5, I thought I’d share my entry for the 2040 IBM challenge grant aways

Towards an Amorphous Government.

By 2040 the traditional borders between governments, between government and nonprofit service providers, and between government and citizens will erode. In its place will be a chaotic network of organizations providing services under distinct funding, regulatory, and management models. The formal control mechanisms of bureaucracy, including public sector unions, step and lane pay schedules, civil service protections, rigid contracts, and clear if not always effective accountability methods, will no longer exist.

The birth of this amorphous government model is an outgrowth of the decreased fiscal position of local and state governments, the corresponding demands for creative solutions that enable governments to do more with less, and the personalization of government service created by the growth of both social media and the societal value of personal choice. The potential of an amorphous government is vast. Agencies can cooperate with one another to achieve economies of scale that enhance service delivery. Nonprofit organizations supported by public funds can bring expertise and flexibility to society’s most wicked problems. Citizens can access and pay for services in a manner consistent with their needs and values. Managers will be free to manage without the weight of bureaucracy.

The potential of amorphous government, however, comes with great risk. The very meaning of “public” will be challenged. Accountability will be dependent on the ability to create meta-governance structures capable of coordinating complex service efforts across fragmented organizations. Successful meta-governance structures will be populated by leaders that embrace ambiguity, reject traditional barriers between sectors, and are capable of translating citizen opinion at its most micro-level into tangible measurable performance results. Most will fail in creating effective governance structures, falling victim to an intolerance for the ambiguity and uncertainty in a government without clear borders, and a citizenry with hyper-personalized demands.

Fixing Wisconsin’s School Funding System

Money matters in K-12 education. Though no amount of money or specific funding formula can guarantee a quality education, an effective funding formula can create the conditions in which quality is possible. And promoting educational quality should be the primary goal of Wisconsin’s school funding system. Unfortunately, the state’s current funding system is outdated. The current school aid formula was built to serve a system without open enrollment, without private school choice, without independent charter schools, and with very different expectations for accountability and transparency. So what can be done? What should be the attributes of a modern school funding system for Wisconsin?

Foremost, the system must provide adequate funding levels so that funding can facilitate, rather than be a barrier to, educational improvement. An adequate funding level is one that enables each and every Wisconsin school district to provide the facilities, personnel, and course offerings upon which a quality education is built. An adequate funding level enables districts to be proactive in planning, rather than being forced to annually plug budget deficits. An adequate funding level recognizes the fixed costs of school districts do not change when small numbers of students enter or leave the district. There is no magic number, and indeed what is adequate will differ across contexts, but it should nevertheless be the dominant value guiding funding reform.

An effective funding system must be equitable. Equity means student funding levels are not determined by the unique economic circumstance in the district in which a student resides. The current formula is built on equity, however the shifting of annual per-pupil increases to state categorical aids as opposed to revenue limit increases perverts the current formula’s equity goal. Equity also means recognizing that expanding the meaning of public education in Wisconsin via school choice programs requires comparable per-pupil funding levels, and comparable regulatory and reporting requirements, for all students receiving a publicly funded education.

A reformed system must also be logical and singularly focused on funding K-12 education. The current system contains numerous illogical attributes. First, the use of 1994 as the base year for revenue limit increases assumes that district-level funding decisions made over 25 years ago should be a primary determinant of per-pupil funding levels today. Though scheduled increases to the minimal revenue limit per-pupil will no doubt make many district administrators happy, it is a Band-Aid that does not address the real problem. Further, the state funding formula has two conflicting purposes, funding education and providing tax relief. This value conflict obfuscates the true level of funding schools receive, poisons the public debate over proper school funding levels, and gives the public the perception that increases in school aids means increases in resources for students. Tax relief is an important issue, but it must be separated from education funding in any logical effective system.

Finally, an effective system must be understandable. The average Wisconsin citizen, and more than a few lawmakers and civic leaders, cannot decipher how our current funding system works. This is unacceptable. The state spends more on education than any other core service, and it is impossible for there to be true accountability, performance measurement, or even well-informed political debate regarding K-12 education funding when the formula driving resource allocation is not broadly understood.

There is no silver bullet, small reform, or gimmicky slogan that can make Wisconsin’s education funding system work. But setting the clear goal of creating a system designed to promote educational quality tells us where we need to go. Agreeing on the core values of adequacy, equity, logic, and understandability will help us get there.

Thank for listening and good luck moving forward.

Sources of Priority Conflict on City School Boards

City school districts are different animals. The socioeconomic challenges students face, the special interest group pressures, the spill-over effects of city politics, and countless other factors combine to make urban school district governance unique. Doug Ihrke and I wrote a bit on this topic last year. Basically, we found that poor governing dynamics have a particularly negative effect on city school boards. This begged the obvious question, what are the sources of conflict on city school boards? In a new paper just published in Urban Education entitled “Determinants of Priority Conflict on City School Boards,” we work to answer that question.

We draw on data from our 2014 national survey of school board members, specifically focusing on 72 boards classified as “City” by the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES). The NCES defines city as being:

  • “inside an urbanized area and inside a principal city with population of 250,000 or more.”
  • “inside an urbanized area and inside a principal city with population less than 250,000 and greater than or equal to 100,000,” or
  • “inside an urbanized area and inside a principal city with population less than 100,000.”

In previous work on board conflict we simply asked board members their perceptions of several negative conflict types. In this work we tried something new, creating a variable measuring the extent to which board members serving together differ in their governing priorities. Board members were asked to rank, from 1 to 10, the following priorities:

  • Strategic planning
  • Setting academic standards
  • Hiring the superintendent
  • Monitoring fiscal performance
  • Holding school staff accountable for district performance
  • Making assessment policies
  • Making student behavior policies
  • Interacting with the public
  • Collaborating with interest groups
  • Board development

Next we calculated distance scores to determine the level of priority conflict present on the board. We developed and tested several hypotheses, but here are the two main findings:

  • Boards serving districts with higher percentages of ELL pupils, and higher percentages of male students had more priority conflict.
  • Districts with lower-levels of funding had less priority conflict.

Interestingly, some of things we expected to impact priority conflict, including the quality of board member-superintendent relations and good board development practices, did not. So why what is the contribution here? As we conclude in the paper:

  • First, by focusing on urban school boards, the study speaks to the growing recognition that urban board governance is a unique case that demands to be understood in its own context.
  • Second, the creation of an independent priority conflict variable based on school board member priority rankings is an improvement over previous work focused on conflict perceptions.

Our hope is to use this piece as a basis for measuring board conflict in new ways, and for further exploring the unique context of urban school boards.

Stages of Rejection

Four reviews. Two and half years. From major revision to accept with minor revision. A revolving door of reviewers. And then rejection. The peer review process can be brutal sometimes, and I find myself reacting in predictable ways when it gets rough.

First I want to crawl into a hole. Not angry, but beaten. Then comes the confusion and anger stage. Why did they send it new reviewers? Were they searching for a reason to reject it? Is it my work, my affiliation, or my background? Why did they keep moving the goalposts? Did I get screwed over?

And then the self-doubt. Perhaps I am just bad at this. To go from an accept with minor revision to a rejection must mean a screw-up of epic proportions? Right? Which of the minor changes I made resulted in a major change of heart from the journal? Is my work poorly done, or worse, irrelevant?

Next comes thoughts on opportunity cost. If I had sent this elsewhere, it would likely be published by now, and would be the first look at this issue rather than a manuscript that is late to the party. Why did I go for this journal when I could be having an impact with my work by now? Was it vanity? A desire to be accepted into a research community that hits above my weight class? Have I been sucked into a part of academia I never wanted to be a part of?

Thankfully (and with good guidance from mentors wiser than I), I get practical. What part of the rejection is relevant? What journal do I try next? What is this piece really supposed to be? Now, everything aside from the practical stage is really just pointless self-indulgence, but hey, we are human beings right? I teach the Hawthorne experiments and complaining makes people feel better (up to a point)!

At the end of the day it really does not matter why a paper gets rejected by a specific journal. It may be quality, it may be fit, it may be a change in the editorial board, or something else. Journals know that they want, and have every right to publish what they want how they want. I find the best feedback is usually from the work itself, the more I do this the more I am able to tell the difference between my A+ work, and my less than A+ work.  Good work will find a home. Rejection is part of academia, everyone experiences it. Back on the horse.



Thoughts on Stevens Point and the Future of the UW System

Almost two years ago I wrote about the changes to the UW system’s tenure policy, I was cautious in my thinking, concluding:

I do not think you will see an immediate exodus if these changes are implemented…I imagine most faculty do not think their program will be at risk…However, the first time a UW system school lays off tenured faculty for “financial or strategic planning reasons” the calculus changes. If it can happen to [said program] it can happen to my program. This is when the system will start losing large numbers of quality people.

The recent news out of UW-Stevens Point shows we are getting closer to a critical point. If programs such as political science and history are cut, and if tenured faculty are let go (still two really big ifs, but more real this week than last week), I fear UW system schools will be at a permanent disadvantage in the faculty labor market. We will struggle to recruit at all, much less the best people, and talented faculty will inevitably flee for more stable positions. Reduced faculty quality means a degraded student experience in UW system schools. I do not think that helps our state.

Then there is the larger question of how a regional comprehensive university can even exist without English, History, Political Science, etc. What exactly will UW-Stevens Point be? A university is not an a la carte collection of courses, but an organization whose offerings are designed to reinforce and complement one another. Teaching in an inter-disciplinary subject I am particular sensitive to this reality. It is very simplistic to think certain programs can be eliminated without having an impact on other programs, and ultimately student learning and future job prospects.

I am not naive. The UW system (as well as my institution) has issues, some of these issues are a result of demographic changes and political decisions, and some are self-inflicted. I do not fear reform. Personally I think UW system schools should pursue increased partnerships and programming across campuses to leverage the unique capabilities and talents that exist across the system. I think faculty incentive structures are outdated and too often divorced from the practical impacts of research and outreach. Yes, the pathologies of bureaucracy exist across the system and should be rooted out.

But positive change requires a thoughtful approach that engages faculty and leadership across the system. Positive change must be rooted in objective realities rather than anecdotes and faulty understandings of how universities work and what faculty do on a daily basis. Positive change must be guided by a common agreed upon understanding of the UW system’s goals. By all means let’s rethink higher education in this state, but let’s not just make it up as we go along.