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Published in Print: November 24, 1999, as Governing Well: A Board Member's View

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Governing Well: A Board Member's View

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Governance matters. Of course it does. Effective public school governance does not guarantee high-performing schools, but without effective governance, good schools are the exception, not the rule.

America’s public schools are not the wasteland some critics charge. But in this information age, with school reform a priority in every advanced economy, does anyone think even our best schools are good enough? And what about our worst schools, especially those serving America’s poorest children? Need I ask the question?

So, school reform, or renewal, or just continuous improvement, whatever one wishes to call it, is a national priority, and rightly so. Since A Nation at Risk in 1983, school reformers—governors, legislators, business leaders, superintendents, principals, teachers and teachers’ union leaders, scholars, school board members, and others—have proposed and implemented massive changes. Standards and accountability, restructuring, and the introduction of marketplace forces—charters and public school choice—are improving America’s public schools.

But a great deal more improvement is needed. The existing governance system works well for some children in some districts. But would anyone take the position that governance is unrelated to school performance or that public school governance cannot be improved?

Apparently. The Education Commission of the States, which launched its National Commission on Governing America’s Schools in February and throughout the year has solicited input from nearly every conceivable interest group, and even shared its working papers, has been criticized for even putting this issue on the table. This reaction indicates to me that a public debate on school governance is clearly needed.

This month, the national commission has released its report, "Governing America’s Schools: Changing the Rules." ("ECS Report Tackles K-12 Governance," Nov. 10, 1999.) Let the debate begin.

Everyone has a stake in public education. No doubt, there will be a wide range of responses to the commission’s report. Those directly involved in governance—primarily state legislators and school board members—and those most directly affected by it—superintendents, principals, and teachers—will have a lot to say. So will parents, whose voice I hope we hear.

My own view, the view of a school board member, is that the commission’s report provides an exciting opportunity for boards to make the two changes that will most improve the performance of the schools they serve: Govern more, and manage less. Let me explain.

The national commission has put forward two approaches to K-12 governance. The first is a system of publicly authorized, publicly funded, and publicly operated schools. Sounds like what we have now. But "Governing America’s Schools" describes a "fully evolved" version of this system, one stretched to the limits of what it is currently authorized to do. The traditional, one-size-fits-all school system becomes a diversified and high-performance system of schools.

As schools increase their ability to achieve district standards, they gain increasing freedom to accomplish results. This freedom diversifies instructional models within a district and thereby expands choices to parents and students. Individual schools receive funding on a weighted per-pupil basis; write their own budgets; determine staffing patterns and class sizes; hire, evaluate, and fire teachers and other school personnel; determine employee salaries; and purchase services from the district or outside vendors.

The second approach, which I personally prefer, significantly redefines the roles, responsibilities, and interrelationship of states, districts, schools, communities, and public and private organizations. It describes a system of publicly authorized, publicly funded, and independently operated schools.

In this approach, the board of education contracts with independent entities—individual nonprofit or for-profit organizations, cooperatives, sole proprietorships, and the like—to operate a majority of the schools in a district. Specifically, the board authorizes schools; distributes public funds to and oversees schools; educates, recruits, and refers staff members for schools; provides timely, acurate, and reliable information about schools; and renews, cancels, or alters contracts as school operators meet, fail to meet, or exceed contract terms.Within a system of independently operated schools, there will still be a superintendent and central administration. However, their roles and responsibilities will change significantly. The superintendent and his or her staff will negotiate and manage contracts; evaluate school performance; collect and publish school performance data; interact with the state department of education and other external regulators and funders; and provide or contract for essential management and support infrastructure.

There is a lot more. Implementation of the second approach raises a host of complex legal, management, and transitional issues. Most of these are considered in the commission’s report. No one doubts that the devil’s in the details, but the commission has thought through implementation issues sufficiently to demonstrate that approach two is practical and doable, and in the end no more complex than approach one or what prevails today.

Both of the approaches put forward by the national commission challenge policymakers to think deeply about what I consider to be the core problem with America’s current system of governance. As effective as most school boards are, they would be even more effective if they would govern more and manage less.

Micromanagement by board members and boards is a problem. Just ask a superintendent—off the record, of course. And most board members will acknowledge that they are frequently asked by constituents or vendors to influence a personnel or contract decision, and maybe sometimes have tried to do so.

At the same time, many board members are frustrated by their lack of power to fundamentally change schools. Bold reform policies, because they will have a negative impact somewhere in the system, are rejected. Almost by definition, one-size-fits-all policies cannot be bold. And even when bold reform policies are approved by the board, the bureaucracy has a way of watering them down in the implementation. So underneath the froth of policy churn, little changes.

The two approaches developed by the national commission make it more difficult for school boards to micromanage. In approach one, school operations are at arm’s length from the board of education. In approach two, the board cannot reach into school operations with a 10-foot pole. Board members can tell constituents or vendors or powerful political friends who ask for favors the truth: They have no influence over school operations. In approach two, they also have little influence over district operations because very few school operations remain at the district level.

Governance is another matter. In both approaches, school boards can much more easily transform schools. In approach one, because resources are equitably distributed to schools, because schools have control over budgets and personnel, because district services must compete with external providers, and because students have choice, market forces are at work within the district, and the board can hold schools to ever-higher standards of accountability.

In approach two, the board has even more power to transform schools. Now there is no need to design one-size-fits-all policies or worry about how the district bureaucracy will dilute reform initiatives. School by school, contract by contract, year by year, the board can set standards, provide resources, and demand results.

One of my colleagues on the commission, David Osborne, the co-author of Reinventing Government, makes a powerful point with a metaphor about steering and rowing. One characteristic of high-performance organizations, he points out, is that steering and rowing are separated. Those who steer don’t row. Those who row don’t steer.

The two approaches to public school governance developed by the national commission make a clear distinction between steering and rowing. As a board member, I am excited about the possibility of having the temptation to row taken away from me and being given the power to really steer.

I hope policymakers, superintendents, principals, teachers, and all of those who are interested in improving America’s schools read "Governing America’s Schools: Changing the Rules" and join in the debate. What could be better for our democracy or our children than an extended and deep discussion about how best to govern our schools, and then some bold innovation here or there to see if maybe we can do better?


Donald R. McAdams is a trustee of the Houston Independent School District, a professor and the director of the Center for Reform of School Systems at the University of Houston, and a member of the Education Commission of the States’ National Commission on Governing America’s Schools.

Vol. 19, Issue 13, Pages 32,44

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