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Whatever Happened To the Local School?

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It's time to rediscover the primacy of a forgotten element of our educational system--the local school.

When we think of what's right about American education, we think of successful individual schools--like Central Park East in New York City or the Horace Mann School down the street. The school is the place where the buses deliver the kids, where students go to class, and where the community comes together around education.

Polls routinely show that while Americans are often down on education, they tend to think that their own local school is doing reasonably well. A new Gallup Poll undertaken cooperatively with the Peabody Center for Education Policy at Vanderbilt University and scheduled to be released this month, found that parents of school-age children are significantly more satisfied than other members of the public with the performance of American schools, both public and private.

Yet when it comes to improving education, we seem to focus on everything but local schools. Political leaders write national goals, and state-level policymakers draft curriculum frameworks and new accountability systems. We do a lot of things to schools and make lots of demands on schools. But rarely do we start off discussions with the question: How can we make schools qua schools into more effective learning communities?

It was not always thus. In the 19th century, governance was lodged in school boards responsive to community wishes, and public education enjoyed a sense of trust--a personal bond of reciprocity, a sense of mutual reliance between professionals and parents and between the school and the broader community.

This sense of trust has been lost. As America's education institutions have become larger and the social and economic conditions of modern lives ever more complicated, we have increasingly relied upon bureaucratic procedures to ensure that schools will meet public expectations. We have begun to hold schools accountable for adhering to centrally issued operational rules, not for achieving parentally or socially desired outcomes.

To be sure, the localism of bygone days created problems. Teaching and learning standards in many communities were low and patronage and corruption commonplace. So in the early 20th century the reformers took over. Finance and governance systems were centralized, and 120,000 local school districts were consolidated into what is now 15,000. Leadership was ceded to educational professionals; centralized bureaucracies grew exponentially. Today, almost one-half of our public school population is enrolled in only 1 percent of our school districts. We have constructed massive organizations which far outstrip our ability to manage effectively. We also have created organizations which virtually defy effective human relationships.

Centralization was intended to address one set of problems, but in reality it created more. The resulting system, today's education system, is rigid and hostile to change, and promised efficiencies have rarely materialized. It often is still cheaper to buy pencils at the corner stationery shop than from school board headquarters. Teachers may now be professionals, but they are usually restricted from acting as such by a noose of rules and regulations. Local patronage may have been reduced, but it was replaced by the problem of single-interest politics.

Most important, the crucial link between schools and their immediate clients--students, parents, and the local community--has been broken. The result is a cruel paradox: We have disenfranchised the unit most capable of delivering quality education. We have the worst of both worlds, one in which authority has been severed from responsibility. The people most in a position to have an impact on children--teachers and administrators in local schools--are prevented from taking responsibility and making professional judgments, while authority rests with remote school boards and other higher authorities unfamiliar with local needs.

In such a situation accountability becomes difficult. Teachers and principals, the people on the front lines who ought to be the focus of accountability, are protected by tenure and union contracts. The only people who can be removed quickly--school board members and superintendents--are not the crucial players.

Improving American schools is an urgent task. A heated debate is now taking place about whether schools are better or worse than they were in the recent past. On one side are those who contend that schools are every bit as good today as some imagine they used to be. On the other side are those who argue that today's schools are failing by past standards. The overriding truth is that, almost no matter what one thinks about American schools now, they almost assuredly are not as good as they must be in order to prepare students for life in the 21st century. Social and economic conditions have been so radically transformed over the past century that schools, as currently constituted, cannot impart sufficient intellectual content; personal, social, and democratic values; and civic cohesion that the United States needs to sustain itself productively and comfortably in the next century.

So the challenge is clear. A renewed vision of schooling is needed, one that is built around a sense of the primacy of the individual school. Public schools must be seen as trustees for the community, created to ensure that the next generation will appreciate the democratic basis of our society and be able to prosper economically. To fulfill this trust, schools must be strong organizations capable of purposive action.

A school organized to fulfill a public trust has to make definite promises about what it would provide students and how students would benefit. It must therefore be based on specific ideas about how instruction can be organized to meet the needs of a particular group of students. Such a school must be an active organization, not a passive sponge for the regulatory outpourings of remote decisionmakers. It must have appropriate control of its funds and resources, including teachers. A school of trust must have clear goals and the capacity to organize and adapt its own activities in order to meet them. It must be able to invest in its own future by hiring, training, and developing teachers to work effectively in light of student needs and school strategies.

So reform must have many parts. It must set standards and find ways of holding individual schools accountable for results. It must also define the areas in which schools have freedom of action, so that they can match instructional strategies to the needs and interests of their own students. Reform must also retain a public capability to assist struggling schools and provide alternatives for students whose schools are failing.

Organizational theory suggests that policymakers should make policy and administrators should do the managing. We must do the same for schools. Schools must possess the capacity to operate successfully, be granted a charter of opportunity to seek success, and be motivated to take advantage of the resources and initiatives available to them.

Schools have become too much a part of government. A major weakness of "systemic reform" as generally understood is that it threatens to make schools even more part of government and less responsive to parent and community aspirations. Vouchers are not the solution because they threaten to make schools responsive to parents alone, thus jeopardizing the needs of the broader society. The goal is to identify ways that schools can accept government money and yet retain their trust status.

By placing school at the center of the school-reform debate, we can begin to address questions that have gotten lost in recent years. For example:

  • What can be done to ensure, under a school-centered operating strategy, that there is a level playing field for students from all backgrounds?
  • How can individual schools strengthen their relationship with the community and handle their own external-relations functions?
  • While state school-finance systems assume some measure of local-school-district participation in revenue generation, what are such systems replaced with when schools are empowered individually? What kinds of equity guarantees are necessary? How can collective bargaining be rethought and moved to schools?
  • How can individual student, classroom, and school performance be measured school by school?
  • How can we bolster the skills of principals as leaders and entrepreneurs to meet the challenges of running a school that addresses the four R's--responsiveness to the community, responsibility for performance, and is results oriented and research based?

There are a host of other questions concerning teacher compensation, staff development, capital needs, external relations with the public, even purchasing. These questions will never be appropriately answered until we assert the primacy of the local school as a social imperative that can help the nation create the kind of educational system it needs to remain a fulfilling democracy and to compete in the emerging global economy. It is also an imperative in the current political climate. We may now be observing a major political realignment being brought about by the failure of leaders over a long period of time to be responsive to the viewpoints of American citizens. The same could happen in education.

Americans intuitively understand that the success or failure of education revolves around what happens inside local schools. The history of educational reform for most of the past century can be written as a movement away from that fundamental fact of life.

We must recover a vision of the effective local school--one that citizens never lost.

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