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Shaking Things Up

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"You're talking about changing the basic governance structure of education. And that's not something a superintendent and an elected school board will want to do."

Dorothy Shipps,
project director

Accountability remained the "black box" in most decentralization efforts.

None of the six cities fully changed the system of rewards and sanctions for educators to increase the focus on learning. Most sites are still weighing how to measure performance, what consequences will follow poor results, and who will make those decisions.

As early as 1993, "we had identified a significant subset of schools in Chicago that looked to us to be dead in the water," Mr. Bryk says. "But they basically could hide under decentralization because there was no viable mechanism to identify those schools and to intervene in them."

It wasn't until Illinois lawmakers passed another round of legislation in 1995 that a corporate-style district management team gained the ability to overhaul, or reconstitute, failing schools.

Outside Impetus

In each of the cities, the driving force for change most often came from the outside, the researchers found. Educators in each district often participated "hesitantly and sporadically, if at all," in the early stages.

In four of the six cities--Charlotte, Chicago, Cincinnati, and Los Angeles--the business community wielded the most resources and influence over decentralization. Private foundations also helped bankroll the early stages in Chicago, Cincinnati, Denver, and Los Angeles.

"Left on their own," the researchers conclude, "school system insiders are unlikely to think boldly enough to take enough risks to make a difference." Even now, the researchers note, most local decentralization efforts continue to rely on the energy, initiative, and money of outsiders.

In Chicago, for example, both the teachers' union and the administrators' union initially opposed efforts to restructure the bureaucracy.

"You're talking about changing the basic governance structure of education," explains Dorothy Shipps, the managing director of the Consortium on Chicago School Research, who was the project director for the six-city study. "And that's not something that a superintendent and an elected school board will want to do."

Real Progress

In looking at decentralization in the six cities, the researchers identified several trends:

  • Gains in student achievement remained relatively modest. Although elementary schools in cities such as Chicago and Charlotte showed improvement, high school performance barely budged.
  • In several cities, notably Chicago and Denver, the effort has encouraged teachers and principals to be more responsive to their communities. And it has helped some elementary schools create a professional culture that is more focused on learning.
  • The roles of principals changed the most. In Chicago, principals lost tenure and had to work with the local school councils to keep their jobs. In Cincinnati, their pay was linked to performance.

In both Charlotte-Mecklenburg and Chicago, more than two-thirds of the principals retired, changed schools, or were fired in the years immediately after decentralization. In schools that made dramatic changes, strong building leaders typically became entrepreneurs, seeking out new ideas, money, and assistance.

  • But the work lives of many teachers remained untouched, even though they were positive about the opportunities afforded them. Although some teachers gained more say over issues such as curriculum and staff development, only a minority of teachers assumed dramatically new roles in schools.
  • The support of ethnic and racial groups for decentralization has been mixed. African-Americans in all six cities were conspicuously divided about whether decentralization was a good idea.

Hispanics appeared to benefit from the transfer of power in some cities. In Chicago, the number of Hispanic principals more than doubled in the year after decentralization, from 17 to 43. In Los Angeles, the number of Hispanic teachers jumped from 3,991 in 1991 to 5,361 four years later. Nonetheless, Asian-Americans and Hispanics typically were not leading actors in decentralization in most cities.

A Fragmented Landscape

"Decentralization requires work, threatens established interests, and creates conflict," the researchers found. Not all cities were equally well-positioned to sustain their efforts.

"Some schools moved forward because they were able to figure out what to do on their own. But probably many more could have moved foward under a more robust system."

Anthony Bryk,
University of Chicago

At best, the researchers say, decentralization creates the conditions that allow schools to improve one at a time. But it doesn't guarantee it. Districts with a cohesive political structure and a vital civic sector appeared more likely to stick with their efforts to decentralize.

The clearest contrast was between Chicago and Los Angeles. The Windy City has a history of centralized, machine-dominated politics, and it also has a solid base of civic and business organizations that helped craft the reform plan.

"The Chicago reform, as it turns out, had a much better chance of actually coming to fruition," Ms. Shipps says.

In contrast, politics and government in Los Angeles are much more fragmented. The 625,000-student Los Angeles Unified School District encompasses portions of 29 municipalities outside the city. Competing power centers--and competing priorities--have led to spotty implementation of its decentralization plan, known as LEARN. ("Second Thoughts About LEARN Surface in L.A.," May 28, 1997.)

The role of the teachers' union also varied. In Los Angeles, Cincinnati, and Seattle, the unions supported decentralization. But the price has been a slower, more phased-in approach. Although Chicago was able to move faster, Ms. Shipps says, it must now reach out more aggressively to teachers and principals.

Three-Pronged Strategy

If communities want decentralization to work, the researchers say, they must pay attention to autonomy, assistance, and accountability:

  • School-level educators must control the checkbook. They need control over hiring, evaluating, and firing staff members. And they must be free to pursue different instructional strategies. Parents should be able to choose among schools.
  • Schools should be free to select help from a range of public and private sources. States and districts should not attempt to deliver "one-size-fits-all training and assistance."
  • Districts and states should nurture a "rich system of school-specific accountability." That means new forms of testing, performance agreements between schools and local school boards, and real consequences for schools that fail to educate children.

None of the six cities they studied, the researchers conclude, has done all of these things adequately.

"We're hoping that we're going to push the conversation forward about what it means to decentralize," Mr. Bryk says. But, he acknowledges, "this is a long-term process.

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