Education Opinion

The Letter From: What is “Capacity”? (III): In Districts and Schools

September 19, 2008 4 min read

(Readers please note: Family circumstances beyond my control extended my August hiatus. Over the next weeks, I’ll get the blog back up to speed. Thanks for your patience.)

The pressure to weaken and even gut NCLB’s accountability regime is substantial and might win out in reauthorization. I would argue that the time line to universal proficiency is almost certainly unrealistic. Given NCLB’s delegation of decisions about standards, assessments, and the definition of proficiency to the states, the goal is not. Nevertheless, as long as NCLB remains law, Congress has defined the nation’s measure of school performance. Public education now requires the capacity to help every child demonstrate the proficiency in literacy and math by 2012.

What does this capacity entail? What functions should reside at the school, and what are the implications for the central office?
Discussion of a public school’s functionality starts with the level and mix of available resource levels, and decisions about their allocation. Aside from a few thousand charters, these are completely outside the control of individual schools. As any parent faced with the closure of their neighborhood school has learned, the typical public school has no independent legal status. Most schools are simply an administrative convenience, controlled by school district boards and subject to the direction of a central office.

All schools and school systems want more money. They may need more, but they have to make allocation decisions based on the money they have. Moreover, some resources are not all that fungible. Schools systems have the staff and buildings they have; it is not easy to translate them into cash, or to change their basic nature very quickly. Finally, the ability to direct some resources is limited by contract or law – for example, collective bargaining agreements and state laws concerning staffing.

The first decision about capacity is control over resources within these constraints. In principle, giving more control to individual schools limits economies of scale and flexibility at the center; giving more power to the center makes it more difficult for each school to meet the needs of the individual students in their charge. A system of school accountability based on average student performance lends itself to a high degree of central control, where resources can be allocated in ways that capitalize on economies of scale. Centralization achieves economies of scale in management by developing one-size fits all answers for broad categories of issues. Here, whatever resources are left to the control of schools are not the result of management philosophy so much as a pragmatic decision to at least appear responsive to parents, teachers and school board members specific requests.

Central management is not well-positioned to process the never-ending stream of case-by-cases decisions implied by a system of school accountability based on individual student performance. By definition, scale economies are lost. Indeed, dis-economies are introduced because central managers’ knowledge of the circumstances surrounding each student will be inferior to that of school staff. Mass customization fits the needs of consumers purchasing personal computers or managing retirement plans. It does not work well for custom yachts or complex medical treatments. The challenges of k-12 education are closer to the latter than the former.

Moving from a system of accountability based on the fiction of one average student to a population of real individuals does not change the fact that many decisions relevant to schools could benefit from scale economies. Decisions about real estate, construction management, maintenance, financing, communications, power, water, food service, insurance, retirement, payroll and benefits, purchasing, record-keeping and many other functions that support teaching and learning indirectly benefit from substantial expertise. Left to its own devices, no school can afford this expertise, nor can it enjoy the service and price advantages provided by collective purchasing.

At the least, NCLB accountability implies a new allocation of decision authority between schools and districts – along with the relevant capacity, and entirely new capacities. Details matter, but the general direction of change is apparent. Schools need the authority and resources to determine and meet the educational needs of individual students. The central office needs to support schools in their non-educational functions.

The reallocation also creates a need for two entirely new capacities. First, outside of IDEA the means employed by schools today to identify students learning needs, develop an individualized approach, and deliver appropriate interventions are ad hoc, informal and incomplete. Second, central offices lack the expertise required to manage the complex planning, procurement, contracting, and accountability functions implied by the decentralization of power to schools.

Finally, the decentralization of teaching and learning is not intended to leave schools isolated educationally. Within their own views of what it means to educate and be educated, schools need coherent professional development; consistent materials, hardware and pedagogy; and the right mix of staff expertise. No central office can capture economies of scale serving unique schools in in these areas. Still, scale economies are being achieved by commercial and nonprofit organizations - the subject of next week’s letter.

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