Opinion
Education Opinion

Connections

By Ronald A. Wolk — April 01, 1993 3 min read

Contracting out for special help in areas where one lacks expertise is a time-honored tradition. But the Baltimore City school district may have carried the practice to the extreme. As the story beginning on page 30 details, the district signed a 5-year, $133 million contract with Education Alternatives Inc. to operate nine of its schools at no additional cost; EAI claims it can do a better job and make a profit in the process.

Schools routinely buy services from commercial firms. In the “Trends” story beginning on page 18, a businessman-turned-school superintendent farmed out noninstructional services and expects to save $5 million over three years. Schools hire companies to transport and feed their students, retain law firms to handle legal matters, and even contract with “experts” to provide in-service training for teachers. But what are parents and taxpayers to think when a school district hires an outside firm to carry out its basic mission: educating students? Isn’t that the job of educators? Isn’t that what they are trained, hired, and paid to do?

An obvious explanation would be that EAI has patented some secret formula for transforming failing inner-city schools into humane and caring places where real learning takes place. But the company’s “Tesseract” approach is essentially a collection of the best ideas of the school reform movement, all available to anyone who reads. Of course, EAI also brings common sense to the task. It paints peeling walls, fixes leaking roofs and broken windows, and tries to create an environment where teachers can teach and pupils can learn.

EAI’s approach to running a school seems logical and sensible, but there is nothing about it that a school’s administrative staff couldn’t do just as well on its own if it had the competence and courage to lead. Indeed, a district administration hiring a commercial firm to run its schools is like a restaurant hiring an outside catering service to provide its meals.

The issue of competent and courageous leadership is a central one in American education today. Schools are complex organizations besieged by profoundly difficult problems spawned by a society in trouble. Long-held beliefs and well-entrenched practices are under assault. After a decade of school reform, the call for major change in the way schools are organized and operated has escalated into a near roar. If ever there were a time for bold and enlightened leadership in education, it is certainly now.

With more enlightened leadership, there perhaps would be less work for the Center for Law and Education, whose work is described in the story beginning on page 26. The center keeps very busy using litigation to force school districts to “do the right thing.” Without lawsuits, it is unlikely that public schools would be integrated, that special education students would be receiving the services they need, or that students would be able to exercise their First Amendment rights.

School administrators and school boards argue that litigation is not the best tool for changing schools and that it consumes scarce human and financial resources. That is undoubtedly true. But the historical record is littered with examples of school boards, superintendents, and principals stepping beyond their authority then stubbornly holding their ground.

A great many lawsuits would not be necessary if those appointed to lead acted less like bureaucrats protecting the status quo and more like sensitive and flexible leaders exercising judgment. If not through litigation, for example, how does one deal with a school that refuses to stop disciplining children by locking them in a 4-by-6-foot “time out” box? Perhaps if administrators personally shared with taxpayers the financial cost of lost lawsuits and settlements, they would be more flexible and dedicated to solving problems before they became lawsuits.

To appreciate the importance of good leadership in education, one need only look at schools and districts that are adapting to change and finding ways to succeed in their mission. These will almost always be places where there is a sense of purpose, where all viewpoints and ideas are encouraged and heard, where power is shared and consensus is sought—all signs that good leaders are at work.

But good leaders alone are not enough. Stories abound of a strong leader transforming a school or district only to have the hard-won gains vanish when the leader leaves. If our educational system is to succeed, we must find ways to institutionalize good leadership.

A version of this article appeared in the October 17, 1984 edition of Education Week as Connections

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