Home Rule

February 01, 1996 8 min read

Eric McKee is midway into a conversation with a visitor when he suddenly stops talking, jumps up from his seat, and grabs a bullhorn. The principal of Willowbrook Middle School in Compton, Calif., is practically out his office door before he explains what’s going on. A new period is about to begin, and he’s on his way to shepherd students to class as part of the school’s new “tardy sweep’’ policy.

“Less than a minute,’' barks the principal as he strides down the hallway. “You have less than a minute to get into your classroom.’' One mischievous student breaks into a singsong chant, “Tardy sweeps, I love that, tardy sweeps,’' until he finds himself face to face with McKee. The boy manages a weak smile and darts down the hall.

The sweep proves effective: After the bell rings and teachers shut their classroom doors, only a handful of stragglers remain. They’re rounded up and sent to a detainment room. The halls are then silent for the rest of the period.

What may seem like the most basic kind of order for many schools comes as no small feat here at Willowbrook, where in previous years students routinely ignored the bells and avoided classes. The new order this year is, in fact, one sign of a much larger change at this middle school in a city known for gang violence and crime. Willowbrook is one of three Compton schools experimenting with school-based management, a reform strategy that transfers decisionmaking on important matters such as budgeting and hiring from the district office to individual schools. Known as the High-Performance Schools Project, the Compton pilot is part of a cooperative effort with the city school district, the Los Angeles County superintendent’s office, researchers from the University of Southern California, and a local philanthropy.

Willowbrook’s newfound ability to make decisions based on its own priorities has enabled educators at the school to establish policies that have given the school a whole new sense of order this year. “The teaching staff was ready for a change,’' McKee says. “We’re refocused, and everybody is behind it.’'

In theory, school-based management aims to give schools more governing power under the assumption that educators at individual schools know best what their students need. In practice, however, researchers have learned that it takes more than simply handing over the reins to help schools reach higher performance levels.

The Compton project’s initiators--Priscilla Wohlstetter and Donald Ingwerson--are working to guide the participants through an experiment they hope will usher in schoolwide changes in culture rather than token changes in governance. The two have impressive credentials for such a project. Wohlstetter is an associate professor of education at USC, director of its Center on Educational Governance, and a senior research fellow for the Consortium for Policy Research in Education, which originally sponsored her studies in school-based management. For more than three years, she has worked with a team of researchers studying schools in the United States, Canada, and Australia to find out what makes school-based management work best.

Ingwerson is superintendent of the Los Angeles County schools, including those in Compton. But before accepting the top post there, he had already gained national recognition for the reform efforts he introduced as the superintendent of the Jefferson County, Ky., public schools, which includes Louisville. Familiar with Wohlstetter’s research, Ingwerson solicited her help in putting together the project after he arrived in Los Angeles.

The pair targeted Compton, Ingwerson says, because “we felt the need was the greatest there.’' He believes the solutions to problems in such districts will come from the people who are closest to the students. “You need to develop what is there,’' he says. “You need to hold them accountable.’'

Ingwerson and Wohlstetter have also assembled strong outside support to help the experiment run smoothly. An independent coach in school-based management comes in monthly to work directly with a leadership team from each school. And the project won a $62,000 grant from the Haynes Foundation, a Los Angeles-based philanthropy that provides money for study and research in the social sciences.

The initiative builds on Wohlstetter’s extensive research on school-based management. She has found that a handful of common pitfalls often stand in the way of school progress: when school-based management is used merely as a means of governance rather than a path toward instructional improvement; when principals work from their own agendas; when decisionmaking falls entirely to a single council; and when schools simply add the management strategy to existing requirements without changing business as usual.

Wohlstetter hopes to provide the guidance the Compton schools need to focus on factors that help school-based management work effectively. Schools that have successfully used the approach, she says, established teacher-led decisionmaking teams, conducted ongoing professional-development sessions, and ensured a constant flow of information among participants. When a single council assumes power in a school, the researcher learned, the teachers who are not on the committee feel alienated while those involved wind up feeling exhausted and burned out. Each of the participating Compton schools has set up a range of management committees--on matters from community involvement to budgets and scheduling--that engage all faculty members.

The program was launched last spring, when the leaders selected the three Compton schools based on faculty interest in the project. Each school--Willowbrook, as well as Stephen Foster and McKinley elementary schools--received $5,000 for participating. They then named a schoolwide focus for the coming year: Willowbrook decided on discipline; Foster chose reading and literacy; and McKinley aimed for literacy for all students by 3rd grade. “It’s an action-research project,’' Wohlstetter says. “We monitor it constantly, and we use the information we collect to feed back to the schools. It’s very much action, research, action, research.’'

Ingwerson acknowledges that the new management system will have to evolve over a period of time. But he is so enthusiastic about the idea that he says he is willing to commit resources from his own office to ensure that the project can continue past the first year. “I have a passion to see that Compton improves,’' he says.

D espite Ingwerson’s support, the Compton district is an unlikely laboratory for such an experiment. In 1993, the state took over the financially and academically bankrupt district. A state-appointed administrator, J. Jerome Harris, now runs the system with an iron fist and a single-minded goal: to raise test scores. Color-coded graphs showing statewide student test results decorate an entire wall of his office. At his behest, replicas of those graphs hang in the offices of each school in the 27,816-student district.

Harris has directed the schools to monitor student progress almost constantly by administering quarterly district assessment tests. He plots the results on charts, which compare individual classrooms across the whole grade level, in an effort to create what he calls “creative tension’’ that will pressure teachers to improve scores. The gruff and down-to-business administrator, a former superintendent of the Atlanta schools, is so unapologetic about his approach that he proudly displays a local newspaper’s profile of himself with the headline: “Hero or Villain, He’s on a Mission.’'

Harris has allowed the experiment in school-based management to proceed because he welcomes alternatives to the way Compton schools have been run in the past. Nevertheless, he has mandated three “nonnegotiable’’ practices for the participating schools: They must each establish a reading program, hire an instructional specialist, and require ongoing student-assessment tests.

These top-down mandates, however, haven’t diminished the participating schools’ enthusiasm for the project. “I believe that the measure of success will be the test scores,’' says McKee, sitting beneath a bulletin board that reads, “Willowbrook Declares War on Test Scores.’' He points out that the project has allowed the school to take its own steps toward establishing the kind of order that will lead to academic improvement--steps like the tardy sweeps, requiring uniforms, and starting the morning schedule with an academic period rather than with a much-avoided homeroom period.

From her perspective as a researcher, Wohlstetter acknowledges that the Compton situation is an unusual case study for school-based management because the impetus for change came from outside the immediate district rather than from within. For that reason, she says, project leaders have spent a good deal of time with local administrators making sure they really want their guidance and teaching them how the experiment can help their schools. Compton’s almost exclusive attention to test-score results, she says, could actually make the district a valuable research laboratory to measure school-based management’s effects on student achievement. “The setting is right for mining the kind of research question that requires hard data,’' she says.

In evaluating the effectiveness of the Compton experiment, the key questions about how a school-based-management system will work ultimately lie with the players themselves--the teachers and administrators who suddenly find themselves needing to adjust to a whole new dynamic of leadership and shared responsibility.

At McKinley Elementary, teachers have devoted the first two hours of the morning to language arts, as part of the school’s 3rd grade literacy goal. “I used to be at meetings years ago, and you would feel like little sheep,’' says Cleveland Hurd, a veteran teacher who chairs McKinley’s budget committee. Hurd is excited about having responsibility for issues affecting the entire school, but he admits that progress has been slow as there’s so much to learn about managing a budget.

Georgene Taylor, a 1st grade teacher who co-chairs the school’s staff-development committee, is also enthusiastic about the experiment. “This decisionmaking power--it’s something that I’ve always looked forward to,’' she says. “Now, teachers have the opportunity for more creativity.’'

Still, project participants are quick to acknowledge that a transformation in school culture won’t take place overnight. “We need time,’' says McKinley principal Jane Harris, “because a lot of what we’re doing is really different from what we’ve done before.’'

--Jeanne Ponessa

A version of this article appeared in the February 01, 1996 edition of Teacher as Home Rule