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Study Links School Productivity to Governance

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Washington

The nation's schools will not improve substantially until local school boards and state legislatures set concrete goals and then get out of the way.

That message emerges from a report released last week, which says that micromanagement is a major hindrance to improving schools' productivity.

The report's authors, the Consortium on Productivity in the Schools--a three-year effort to find weak points in how school systems are organized--sidestepped one of the group's original goals: identifying points where school-reform policy is not translated into classroom practice.

Instead, the group's final report urges the adoption of several management-improvement techniques and says that without a more sensible governance system, hopes for substantial change are doomed.

"What we see is that a school system that is supposed to be a system is not a system at all. It is disconnected in many ways," Albert Shanker, the president of the American Federation of Teachers and a member of the consortium's board of advisers, said at a news conference held here to release the report.

"Schools show all of the signs of an industry that is not continuously improving," said Sue E. Berryman, a senior education specialist at the World Bank here and the chairwoman of the consortium.

The consortium was launched in 1992 by the Institute on Education and the Economy at Teachers College, Columbia University. It is made up of a dozen experts on productivity and systems analysis from various fields, including health, finance, and education.

Funding for the consortium comes from several foundations, but its primary source of support is the Ball Foundation, a Glen Ellyn, Ill.-based group that supports aptitude and ability testing and research.

Harsh Environment

Despite the many areas where improvement is needed, the report argues, productivity in American schools is not decreasing, as some observers suggest.

In fact, it says, performance has remained relatively stable when comparing the funding that goes into the system and the test scores and other measures that come out.

But that balance is only struck when what the report calls the "harshness of the education environment" is taken into account.

The group argues that outside factors--such as the number of students who do not speak English or who are from poor homes--must be considered when comparing the cost of schools and their performance.

"The environment for learning is affected by factors beyond the school's control," the report says. "Not taking the social environment into account biases assessments of school productivity."

But the consortium adds that steady achievement is not enough, noting that expectations in the workplace are increasing and that more productivity must follow. And because little new money is expected, school systems must find organizational answers to meeting higher expectations.

For schools to achieve greater productivity, the group recommends the following steps:

  • Governance changes must be made that provide school districts with easy-to-understand goals that do not change each year. After the goals are set by states and school boards, teachers and administrators should be given freedom to find ways to meet the targets.
  • Schools should renew their focus on core academic subjects and consider increased homework, allowing classroom time to be used more efficiently.
  • More money at all levels should be devoted to research and spreading proven "best practices."

Leadership and Will

To create more productive work environments, the consortium also suggests that more local goals-setting be instituted with greater discussion about whether progress is being made. Educators must be trained to look for spots where the system is breaking down and discuss ways to fix organizational problems.

Frank J. Pipp, a retired vice president of the Xerox Corp. and consortium member, said most school districts have too many managers, a sign that goals are too often shifting and multiplying, detracting from the central focus of schooling and clouding its mission.

The good news of the consortium's work, he said at the news conference, is that much of what must be done has been tried and proved in the private sector as companies have struggled to reshape themselves.

~"All that is really needed is the leadership and the will to do this," Mr. Pipp said.

Without such a commitment, Ms. Berryman said, schools and school reformers may find themselves overburdened and rudderless and "left to wallow in the waves."

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