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Decentralization Is 'Confusing' Concept, Report Concludes

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Although decentralization is an organizing principle for the school-reform movement, educators often disagree over exactly what the term means, a new report suggests.

Site-based management, school choice, and teacher professionalization are all part of a drive to make school administration less bureaucratic and hierarchical.

But education reformers approach decentralization in a variety of ways, including making principals the decisionmakers, allowing teachers to run the schools, or giving more authority to parents and community members, the report notes.

In an effort to determine what decentralization entails and how it affects schools, Bruce Bimber, a researcher with the RAND Corporation's Institute on Education and Training, studied approaches to bureaucracy and school decentralization.

Because decentralization "has largely been an urban phenomenon,'' Mr. Bimber said, he interviewed school staff members and central-office personnel in inner cities. What he found was "a lot of confusion surrounding the term. Much of what passes for decentralization is a Band-Aid on a pretty significant problem.''

The report defines decentralization as a downward shift in decisionmaking authority "from the center, or top levels of a hierarchy toward the local or bottom levels.'' The author adds that this shift need not result in the creation of decisionmaking committees and power-sharing between teachers, parents, and school officials.

"In fact,'' he writes, "there is little to suggest that decentralization is incompatible with strong or focused leadership, provided that leadership is located at the local level.''

Educators should not confuse the need for greater autonomy at the school site with the need for including more parents and teachers in a democratic decisionmaking process, the report adds. "These are rather different reform objectives and do not necessarily call for the same structural changes,'' it notes.

"Decentralization too often is seen as an adjunct to other kinds of reform instead of as a foundation,'' the author said.

Incentive Systems

In order to effectively break down hierarchies, the report says, school systems should consider designing new personnel and incentive systems.

"Incentives may be financial, such as bonuses or increases in regular compensation, or more professional, such as promotion opportunities or evaluation,'' it states.

Mr. Bimber explained that his conclusions about incentive pay are "based on the observation that decentralized schools need to be held responsible for outcomes.'' If employees are going to be expected to implement reforms, he added, there needs to be a stronger link between pay and professional evaluation.

But he conceded that teachers can be resistant to merit-based or incentive schemes. "In many cases, this comes from mistrust of the motives and abilities of administrators to assess'' the teachers, he said.

However, he concluded that schools can set up successful links by avoiding mandates. These would include rules specifying how many hours employees should work, how much time should be spent on lessons or tasks, and what constitutes "proper'' behavior, according to the report.

Mr. Bimber is preparing another report, expected to be completed in August, that will compare decentralization efforts in secondary schools.

RAND will also be releasing a comprehensive report on alternative governance systems in public education that will incorporate the findings of several of its research projects.

Copies of the new report, "School Decentralization: Lessons From the Study of Bureaucracy,'' are available for $15 each, plus $3 shipping and handling, from the RAND Corporation, Distribution Services, 1700 Main St., P.O. Box 2138, Santa Monica, Calif. 90407-2138; (310) 451-7002.

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