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Book Review: Who Governs Our Schools

Who Governs Our Schools?: Changing Roles and Responsibilities. David T. Conley. New York: Teachers College Press, 2003, ISBN: 0807743321, 239 pp.

Standards-based reform has dominated much of the educational discourse in the past few years. At the same time, a corresponding shift in the governance of education in the United States has gone relatively unnoticed. The advent of standards-based reform has had the consequence of moving the locus of educational policy control away from local school districts and elected school boards to policy networks at the federal and state level. This book examines the evolution and causes of the development of the current educational reform regime, then examines the issues and impediments for implementation, implications at the state, district, and school level, and concludes with speculation about possible future directions under the new educational reforms.

Conley argues that “the goals of public education have changed…. policy makers increasingly have been able to agree that education is a tool for national, state, and regional economic development” (p. 66). Prior educational goals were broad, focussing on citizenship education, racial integration, and workforce training for the industrial economy. New standards-based reforms emphasize global competitiveness and the specific standards needed for national and state economic prosperity. This argument has been much discussed; however, Conley’s main point is that there has been a corresponding ad hoc redrafting of American educational governance in which the roles and responsibilities of the various strata of policy makers and governors has been ill-defined.

This shift in educational governance has become increasingly apparent since the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001. As Conley states, “in one fell swoop, the American educational system became federalized to an unprecedented degree” (p. 28). A by-product of the systemic reforms initiated in the last few years has been “an acknowledgement that individual school districts are not viable or appropriate governmental entities to solve complex social problems or meet new education goals that states have set for schools and schooling” (p. 53). Conley’s thesis is that while there may be some justification for criticism of federal and state policy initiatives, “the idea that things will return to the way they were seems to reflect naiveté or wishful thinking in the current political context” (pp. 178-179). He asserts that teachers, administrators, and school districts must redefine their respective roles and responsibilities in this new era of educational reform. Educational policy is increasingly being set through standards and funding tied to student performance. His suggestion is that local school boards have been relegated to roles as implementers of state and federal policy initiatives. He posits that local school boards and departments of education will need to redefine their roles as facilitators of improvement.

Wirt, Mitchell, and Marshal (1985) suggested that the political culture of a state determines not only the process of policy development but also the content of educational policies. They referred to an individualistic political culture as one in which individual needs are paramount, partisanship is emphasized, choice is a key value, and trust is placed in legislative branches of government. This appears to be the case in the current political climate in the United States. Trust previously placed in departments of education and local school districts has eroded, and “governors and legislatures have emerged as the key players in education reform” (Conley, p. 126). In addition, as legislatures become more important in developing educational policy, other voices become more prominent in the policy making process. “Legislatures have functioned as forums where the business community in particular is able to exert influence successfully and build political coalitions for the passage of education reform programs” (p. 128).

Conley asserts that the current political climate means that federal and state control of educational policy is inevitable. In chapters seven through nine, he discusses the implications at the state, district, and school level. The current situation has resulted in a series of unresolved governance conundrums. For example, state departments of education have been put into the unenviable role of judge and jury. The state education department is now the agency that districts, schools, and teachers must turn to for training and information related to state reforms, while at the same time, it “holds the power to impose sanctions or publicly embarrass schools” (p. 134). Similarly, education reforms could also serve to muddy the functions of district superintendents. “Superintendents will remain loyal to local boards but increasingly will be looking over their shoulders to monitor external policies that have the potential to cause embarrassment (or worse) if they are ignored” (p. 155).

This book has much to commend it to the reader. Conley’s insight into the historical reasons for the current shift in educational governance allows the reader to understand the rationale for the current education reforms. His discussion of the implications for school districts and schools is especially timely and useful. However, his argument that local governance of education is due for a radical refit is disputed by the National School Boards Association (NSBA, 2003). Conley suggests an intermediary role for local boards as interpreters and implementers of state educational policy. Conley suggests that local boards could occupy a governance space that balances “the standardizing force of the state and the local capacity for adaptation” (p. 149). The NSBA has recognized the increasing role of federal and state legislatures in educational governance, but argues that local school boards still occupy a central role in the governance of education. “The growing role of the state and federal government in education underscores the need for a representative local body specifically charged with providing a sound academic grounding for every student” (n.p.). Nonetheless, this book serves to clarify the directions and implications of the current reform regime in the United States, and it identifies a significant, if overlooked, shift away from local control of education policy and governance.


Wirt, F., Mitchell, D. E., & Marshall, C. (1985). Perceptions of state political culture by education policy elites. Peabody Journal of Education, 62(4) pp. 48-60.

National School Boards Association. (2003). Do school boards matter? Takeovers, local governance, and the public trust. Retrieved August 15, 2003, from http://www.nsba.org/site/doc.asp?TRACKID=&VID=2&CID=199&DID=10888

— Paul M. Newton
Who Governs Our Schools: Changing Roles and Responsibilities
Teachers College Record


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