Study: Successful Chiefs Create 'Public Mandate' on Reform
Successful efforts to reform failing urban school systems require, as a prerequisite, broad communitywide agreement on needs and goals, according to a new study of reform implementation in six urban districts.
"The most effective superintendents create a public mandate for improvement, not unlike the electoral mandate that government officials seek," says the report, which was released this month by the rand Corporation.
The study, "Educational Progress: Cities Mobilize to Save Their Schools," examines the processes, rather than the products, of school-improvement plans underway in Atlanta, Cincinnati, Memphis, Miami, Pittsburgh, and San Diego.
Although the six districts were chosen from a slate of 30 nominated by a national panel of experts, the purpose of the study "was not to grant six Academy Awards," said Arthur E. Wise, director of the rand Center for the Study of the Teaching Profession and one of the three au4thors of the study.
"The purpose was to find a number of cities where progress seemed to be occurring and try to understand the dynamics of the improvement process," he said.
The study was financed by the St. Louis-based James S. McDonnell Foundation, whose interest was piqued by "a recent trickle of 'good news' from a few urban school systems," according to the introduction to the report.
The report identifies two separate "strands" that must be developed for sustained improvements to take place: an "outside strand" that gath8ers broad community support and resources, and an "inside strand" that changes the way schools are run and instruction is delivered.
"In many cities," the document notes, "the outside strand is the more fully developed of the two," even though the greatest improvements occur where both strands are "well developed and closely articulated."
Districts Opened to Scrutiny
One of the few common characteristics of the six districts studied is the insistence by their superintendents that information on student test scores, broken down by school and race, be widely distributed, the report says.
"Openness about student performance and district administration complicates the lives of administrators and board members," it states, "but it also pays off in terms of community support."
By focusing on the seriousness of the problems faced by urban schools, rather than on proposed solutions, school leaders can help ensure that improvements continue after their tenure in the system ends, the report stresses.
"Other cities made such efforts based on superintendents' overblown promises to revolutionize the schools through a new instruction system or gimmick," it says. "But by the time this study started, those efforts had already failed, and their promoters had moved on."
Broad Mandate Directs Efforts
A second common thread among the districts was the solicitation of ideas and advice from a broad spectrum of the community. That information was used to establish a mandate for change, according to the report.
Although the mandates were "invariably broad and general," the study says, they enhanced a superintendent's authority by creating a standard by which the actions of everyone in the district could be judged, including their own.
Having such a mandate also helps shake up the traditional relationships between superintendents, board members, and other commu4nity players, the report says, because it focuses all of their efforts on long-term improvements rather than the day-to-day operations of the district.
"In return for accepting change and uncertainty," the report says, "these actors can hope to work in an environment of realistic expectations and genuine moral support. They can also hope to tap far richer lodes of financial, organizational, and intellectual resources than ever before."
The study rebuts some of the criticisms of urban school-improvement efforts leveled in recent years by former Secretary of Education William J. Bennett, among others.
It notes, for example, that "a powerful teachers' union with aggressive leadership is indispensable to a successful school-improvement effort. This conclusion is contrary to the widely held belief that such unions are the major barriers to school improvement."
In addition, the report suggests that proposals for vouchers or tuition tax credits that would allow parents to seek alternatives to public schooling "are not necessary for improvement of big-city schools."