Published Online: September 28, 2009
Published in Print: September 30, 2009, as Management Guru Says 'Student Load' Key to Achievement

Management Guru Says 'Student Load' Key to Achievement

Study of Eight Districts Looks at School Autonomy

Management expert William G. Ouchi wants to let educators in on a secret: The key to improving student achievement is lightening teaching loads.

Mr. Ouchi lays out that message in a new book, The Secret of TSL, published this month by Simon & Schuster of New York City. The letters stand for “total student load,” which Mr. Ouchi defines as the number of students that teachers come in contact with each academic term and the number of papers they grade.

In a not-yet-published study of 442 schools in eight large urban districts that have devolved power to local principals, Mr. Ouchi finds that schools that have reduced TSL in measurable ways also tend to have higher passing rates on state exams.

“When you reduce TSL, you increase by far the likelihood that a student will encounter a teacher in a hallway or an office and have a one-on-one conversation that will motivate the student to keep going,” Mr. Ouchi said. And that’s different, he added, from simply reducing class sizes.

The concept of TSL is not new. Theodore R. Sizer, the noted education thinker, advocated a similar idea in his 1992 book, Horace’s Compromise. But Mr. Ouchi, a professor of corporate renewal at the University of California, Los Angeles, offers new quantitative evidence suggesting how much lower teaching loads might matter for schools.

Decentralization

The book is the second that Mr. Ouchi, a best-selling author of books on organizational management, has devoted to schooling. His first 2003 education book, Making Schools Work, was a call for decentralizing schools. Its ideas were adopted by six of the 10 largest districts in the nation and embraced by prominent education leaders ranging from New York City Schools Chancellor Joel I. Klein to U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, when he ran the Chicago school system.

But that’s not to say everyone is completely sold on Mr. Ouchi’s ideas.

“I think there is much to like and agree with in this new book, but I also have some concerns and caveats,” said Chester E. Finn Jr., the president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a Washington think tank. For one, he said, “I wonder if Bill tends to overvalue management and underemphasize content and pedagogy.” Mr. Finn spoke last week at a forum on the book featuring Mr. Ouchi and hosted by the American Enterprise Institute, another Washington think tank.

When it comes to improving schools, decentralization is a strategy that has yielded mixed results. While some districts—such as the 80,000-student Edmonton system in the Canadian province of Alberta—have enjoyed long-lasting success with decentralized management systems, others, such as Chicago, have had more checkered experiences.

“But were they really doing decentralization?” Mr. Ouchi asked. “I say, nobody can say it doesn’t work if they haven’t measured it.”

In his new book, Mr. Ouchi and his 21-member research team attempt to do just that in the eight districts they studied—Boston; Chicago; Houston; New York City; Oakland, Calif.; San Francisco; Seattle; and St. Paul, Minn.,—and find out what successful schools do with their freedom. The researchers gauged decentralization by asking principals how much control they have over the budget, curriculum, schedule, and staffing in their schools.

Nationwide, principals control an average of 6.1 percent of the money spent in their schools, Mr. Ouchi said. But, even in the decentralized schools, such percentages vary from as little as 13.9 percent in Chicago to 85 percent in New York.

When empowered to make decisions, the study found, principals often take steps that end up lowering teaching loads. They hire more teachers, eliminate nonteaching positions, such as registrars and front-office attendants, and roll social studies and English classes into an integrated humanities class.

Knowing What to Do

Lower levels of TSL, in turn, linked statistically to better student achievement. The researchers calculate that cutting a school’s TSL from a mean of 115 students to 80 translates to a 16 percentage-point increase in the rate of students scoring “proficient” on state exams.

If that’s the case, skeptics have asked, why not just mandate low teaching loads? But Mr. Ouchi contends that the statistical relationships are more powerful in decentralized school settings.

Mr. Ouchi’s optimal load of 80 students is higher than that in elite private schools, he said. In New York, which is closest to a national model for Mr. Ouchi’s ideas, the mean TSL for schools in the “autonomy zone” launched in 2004 is 88 students, compared with 111 for more-traditional city schools.

“Decentralization allows us to capitalize on the best work of our principals,” said Eric Nadelstern, the chief schools officer for the 1 million-student system. “If, in a centralized school district, we knew what to do, we would’ve done it.”

He noted that zone schools are among a package of strategies under way. The district also trains principals, has downsized schools, and began closing failing schools and rewarding successful ones. Yet, while the city’s four-year graduation rates have increased from 50 percent to 60 percent over five years, Mr. Nadelstern added, system leaders have yet to engage parents and teachers in some of their school reform efforts.

Vol. 29, Issue 05, Pages 8-9

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