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Redesign, Don't Bypass, School Districts

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Like heart surgeons confronting a clogged artery, many education reformers have concluded that the best way to deal with an obstreperous bureaucracy is to bypass it altogether. Frustrated by what they see as inflexibility and meddlesome micromanagement, these reformers have elected to focus their efforts on schools themselves. The decision by funders like the rjr Nabisco and Annenberg foundations to devote funds directly to schools, rather than districts, is one example of this phenomenon. The growing interest in charter schools is another.

All of these efforts are based on the belief that the current structure impedes learning by burdening schools with regulations that restrict innovation. Since the key to education is teaching and learning, the reformers say, the best way to improve teaching and learning is to strip away as many impediments as possible and give those people closest to the students--teachers and principals--the autonomy they need to make whatever changes they deem appropriate for their students.

This idea is laudable, but the remedies do not answer the real need: to raise the level of achievement for all students. For one thing, the remedies rest on the shaky assumption that simply unleashing the creative power of teachers and principals will enhance the educational achievement of young people. It may, but there is no assurance that it will. Perhaps more importantly, the proposed remedies do nothing at all for the students in schools not favored by freedom or additional foundation funds.

There is another way. Why not redesign school districts so that they no longer play a dysfunctional role but instead support and indeed enhance reform so that all students benefit?

This is not a flight of fancy. A number of U.S. districts are seriously interested in moving in this direction. And one Canadian neighbor already has: Edmonton, Alberta. The experience in Edmonton shows American reformers that such a restructuring is not only possible, but also that it works.

Simply put, the Edmonton reform is based on the idea that the district's role is to set standards for student learning and to support schools in their efforts to bring all students up to the standards. But schools have the authority to do whatever they consider necessary to enable students to meet the standards, and they are accountable for doing so. The key to the entire system is results. The district uses a variety of methods to determine how well everyone is performing, and the purpose of every decision is to improve that performance.

Of course, the Edmonton model will not likely fit every district in this country. Nevertheless, Edmonton has a lot in common with many large districts in the United States--it is a large (80,000-pupil, 200-school) urban district with a diverse student body--and the experience there does suggest what the elements of a restructured school district might be. Among these elements are:

Districtwide high standards for student performance. One of the potential pitfalls of the school-level reforms, such as charter schools, is the fact that they allow individual schools to determine what they expect students to achieve. The result, if current practice is any guide, is likely to be wildly uneven, with some schools expecting a great deal of students and others expecting considerably less.

If we really believe that all students can learn at high levels, as the clich‚ goes, we should expect all students to perform at high levels. A common set of standards reflects that expectation. An assessment system faithful to the standards is essential to know if students are meeting these expectations.

In Edmonton, the district has set learning goals for students for each year of schooling in core subjects, and in the third, sixth, and ninth years administers exams to measure student performance against the goals. The assessment helps improve instruction by providing benchmarks of high performance as well as information to teachers on student strengths and weaknesses.

A substantial shift in authority to the school level. Many reform efforts have employed the rhetoric of school-based decisionmaking while maintaining much of the actual authority at the central level. As a result, the authority schools in fact exert is quite limited.

Edmonton has put its money where its mouth is: Eighty-five percent of the district's funds go directly to schools for them to use as they see fit. Moreover, the funds are distributed in a lump sum, not in separate program accounts, so schools do not feel constrained to use a certain amount only for a certain purpose. Schools make up their own budgets and develop their own programs to achieve results. Schools can also raise funds independently; one school contracted with the Alberta Ballet Company to lease space in its building and provide master-level dance instruction.

The autonomy Edmonton schools enjoy extends to their use of district central services. Unlike in other districts, where the central office continues to serve as the sole provider of curriculum support, professional development, and the like, Edmonton schools can purchase such services from wherever they choose, either the central office or elsewhere. As a result, the services the central office provides are what those schools want and need.

Central-office support for schools. Contrary to the rhetoric of many reformers, turning schools loose may not be enough to insure that they perform well. Many schools need assistance, and district offices are well-positioned to provide the kind of support schools want.

In Edmonton, the central-office supports schools by recasting the role of associate superintendents. Unlike in many districts, where associate superintendents serve as another layer of bureaucracy making sure that schools follow district rules, the associates in Edmonton see themselves as "school coaches," responsible for helping schools develop plans for improvement and carry through with them. Each associate superintendent serves about 25 to 30 schools, and the regions are mixed geographically to insure that all regions of the district are served equally.

Providing such support requires a change in culture, not just a change in a job description. So Edmonton has redefined the qualifications for the position. In the past, when associate superintendencies were positions of control, the post was generally a way station for principals who wanted to move into higher levels of administration. Now, though, the job is no longer a step on a career path. It is instead an opportunity for innovative principals to step out of their posts temporarily and help a group of peers.

Accountability for results. The piece that ties the entire system together is accountability. In a system based on results, schools need to be responsible for producing results--and answerable for the results they produce. And teachers and principals are willing to be accountable--if they have the authority to exercise their professional judgments.

An accountability system has clear rules that are applied consistently; high-quality information on performance; and a continual cycle of evaluation and improvement. In Edmonton, the centerpiece of the system is information. The district has established an office of student information and monitoring, which not only collects and analyzes data on student achievement but also conducts and analyzes extensive surveys to gauge "customer satisfaction" in the system. Teachers, principals, central-office staff members, and the school board use this information to make informed decisions about how to improve performance.

The system has strong support. Since its inception, few teachers have filed grievances and few have been dismissed for cause. Teachers and administrators know that the goal is improving results, not complying with rules.

Putting these four elements--standards, local-school autonomy, central support, and accountability--into place is not an easy task. It demands changing the way school systems have done business for generations. Above all, it demands a new way of thinking.

To help districts move along this path, the National Center on Education and the Economy has formed a National Academy for Restructuring School Districts, which held its first meeting last monthck.s, appropriately, in Edmonton. The academy consists of superintendents, central-office employees, and teachers' union officials from the districts that are part of the National Alliance for Restructuring Education (Pittsburgh, San Diego, and Rochester and White Plains, N.Y., as well as districts in Arkansas, Kentucky, Vermont, and Washington State). It will examine promising practices across North America and help develop a "tool kit" of models, guides, and other resources to assist districts in restructuring. One resource the center can provide is the expertise of the director of its high-performance-management program: Michael Strembitsky, who was the superintendent of schools in Edmonton for 22 years.

As he often says, organization is a means to an end, not an end in itself. People, not organizations, produce results. But organizations can make it possible for people to produce their best efforts. Before we maneuver to bypass organizations like school districts and boards, let's think of a way that they can help people produce what we all want, better results for our children.

Robert Rothman is a senior associate at the National Alliance for Restructuring Education, based in Washington. He is the author of Measuring Up: Standards, Assessment, and School Reform, published last month by Jossey-Bass Publishers, and is a former associate editor of Education Week.

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