The Roundtable: 'Why Don't We Take The Role of School Seriously?'

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EW: The constitutional responsibility for education rests with the states. They have delegated substantial authority to local school boards, and that has made the school district the dominant entity in the governance of American education.

One of the most powerful ideas of systemic reform is that the historic delegation of authority should continue downward--that decisions affecting instruction should be made at the school level. Individual schools should control budget, personnel, instructional practices, scheduling, and student/teacher assignments. This is not an idea that finds universal favor with district-level administrators.

MS. FINE: I wonder what would happen if we really took that idea seriously.

We should probably amend it to be school and community, which then makes us think about such issues as desegregation, magnet schools, and choice.

If we were really serious about that, we would have to have a trust in teachers and the public that is relatively unprecedented.

MS. GRAHAM: Which we ain't got.

MS. FINE: Which we ain't got. We've all criticized the trickle-down theory when it's applied to the economy, but we're still willing to believe it would work with education.
Why don't we take the role of school and community as seriously as we take the federal and state roles?

MR. HORNBECK: In emphasizing school and community, do you presume a set of outcome standards?

MS. FINE: The image that I have is that the public school, like private schools, is really the site of budgeting, decisionmaking, and accountability.

The state should have a very tight, diverse but tight, accountability framework with consequences.

GOVERNOR ROMER: On the content?

MS. FINE: On content, on student involvement, on engagement with the community.
If you move all that responsibility and the resources to the local school, you absolutely need a very tight accountability framework at the state level. But it has got to be an accountability framework with consequence and an accountability framework that takes equity seriously.

Right now, we have the fantasy that local districts do equity and accountability, and I would argue they do not. They do nothing. What they do is reproduce a set of explanations for why they can't do equity and accountability.

We don't hold anybody accountable now. Principals aren't held accountable. Schools aren't held accountable. So, yes, there has to be firm accountability.

But if you're going to hold schools accountable, then you have to move the resources and the decisionmaking to the schools, and you have to provide as much capacity-building as you can for teachers and parents and community. You need to seek help from universities and business and labor.

I'd like us to try focusing on school and community because, unless you take the school as part of the community, you're going to lose the kind of equity questions that we all care about.

MR. BILLUPS: I can accept the idea of moving responsibility and accountability to the school level, but only if we provide teachers with the professional-development support they need to do the job, and only if we start preparing new teachers for their new roles.

MS. FUHRMAN: That's a very productive way to talk about how we get systemic reform. Let's assume that the school is the site of decisionmaking and accountability and that the state really enforces and supports that notion. Then let's imagine what the school and the people in it and the state would want of the federal government.

We would want support for collaboratives, for professional development in a way that is flexible and constructive. We would want the federal government, in its programs for special needs, to be compatible with what we're trying to do as a state and local system.

There are ways to think about the federal role that are very supportive of the idea of school and community as central.

MR. PETERKIN: You talk about federal, state, and local. When we think about local, we think about schools. We have conversations about schools. What we don't have conversations about at all is the rest of the actors in the school systems.

Take school boards. I'm not arguing that they are the most important people in the system, but, if we don't include them, we're going to think we worked out a good system and then later realize that school boards are still in the way of getting from here to where we want to be. Likewise for state departments and chief state school officers and the federal government.

Between the schools and the federal government are others who have roles to play, and, if not recognized, they will gum up the works because they're not finding a role. They won't just go away.

MR. HORNBECK: Let's talk a bit about how we might build a system of successful education from the school level up.

A law has been proposed in Washington State that sets out to do that in a way. It would give the power for selecting all personnel to the school. It would give the school the power to determine how all the money is used, with the school board deciding its allocation to the school and raising its share of the money. After the allocation is made, the school would have full authority to make the decisions.

In short, the law would give the school complete power over curriculum and instructional activities and the scheduling of the school day within specified opening and closing hours.

The kid would get assigned from the outside. Once the kid's in the school, then assignment of kids and teachers--during the day, during the year, and across multiple years--would rest with the school.

The proposed law mandates that all state laws and regulations affecting education that do not govern health, safety, and civil rights, and that are not re-enacted by a specified future date, are voided. Laws or regulations that should be re-enacted can be.

Instead of waiving specific regulations, this proposal does the opposite. Its premise is that there are no regulations. When you get to an accountability system, the consequence or the penalty for a school not measuring up is to be re-regulated. In effect, a school is penalized if it is not doing what it ought to do, instead of being rewarded with a waiver if it does well.

If you were to have schools with those powers, what would be the implications for the central districts? What is left for them to do? What about the other players Bob Peterkin mentioned?

MR. MILLS: Is the name of this game to make sure that everybody now in the system has important work to do? Or is the name of this game to make sure that every kid grows up to be a healthy, competent person?

MR. PETERKIN: The question is what people think their jobs are now. If there is not something in that statute that prevents school boards, for instance, from re-enacting all the regulations the state dropped, then you have not gained very much.

If there is not a role in a restructured system for people in the present system, then they should be let go. If there is a role, then it ought to be clearly defined to serve the purpose of the school. This is not about protecting roles.

MS. FUHRMAN: There are roles in between the school building and the state. If they did not exist, people would reinvent intermediate units of some sort.

I am not an apologist for school boards, but I think that articulation among levels of schooling and economies of scale require an intermediate unit to assist schools. We should not create a system in which schools are expected to fend entirely for themselves.

Moreover, the body that levies taxes and justifies schooling to the public is going to want to have a lot of say about values.

People have concerns for all their children, not just the one who is in elementary school, and so they want to see how the whole system fits together. Since we already have districts and school boards, perhaps we can think of how they can be encouraged to play their roles better.

MR. BILLUPS: Or have them think about what their roles should be.

MS. FINE: There is little evidence that people on school boards and in district hierarchies have the capacity, desire, or will to radically rethink what they do or how they do it. Those institutions are ironically still called public, but, in fact, are not very publicly accessible--or even breathing--institutions.

We would invent things between schools, but would we invent things that are deeply hierarchical, controlling, and relatively expensive?

Isolated schools do not do very well; schools do best when they are attached to something outside of themselves, whether that is a coalition or a writing network or a portfolio project.

Attachment is important for the intellectual and emotional life of the school. But turning that into a hierarchical supervisory relationship kills the kind of intellectual and emotional support we need.

I also worry about those large districts creating safety nets for schools. Who in Chicago worries about the schools that are falling apart, for example? Someone called those schools "the de-institutionalized mentally ill of educational decentralization.''

I am a big fan of reform in Chicago, but I am not convinced that the current bureaucratic structure does anything to sustain the intellectual and emotional life of teachers, parents, and kids.

Unless we figure out how to reinvent central districts, if they continue to exist at all, then we may come up with state and federal efforts to fix education, but will have ignored the institutional stranglehold that central districts have on the schools.

MR. HORNBECK: This notion of a non-hierarchical connecting tissue among and between autonomous schools is an interesting one. If a school does not function well as an island unto itself, what does it need help with, at something short of the state level? How would we define that in functional terms, rather than hierarchical terms?

One clear area would be transporting and feeding students, and buying in bulk. A second area might be in the delivery of professional staff development--largely determined by the schools, but almost the professional side of bulk purchase. A third area--perhaps most important--is in building public understanding and support.

MS. GRAHAM: An example is the network of Sacred Heart schools that creates an architecture of attachment. It is a very useful model for professional development. The schools have established a common purpose for what they are up to and are able to talk to each other about what they are trying to do in their separate institutions.

That is the level of conversation that I think is missing in the public school system.

MR. CROSS: You seem to suggest that each of the schools has its own board.

MS. GRAHAM: That is exactly right.

MR. CROSS: What is also needed here is the vision of what we want the educational system to do. A culmination of the Sacred Heart schools is they all have an image, and they all have a common understanding of that.

In all this decentralization, we still have to have a vision of what the public education system is about. Several nations have systems that are functioning pretty well, but, ironically, every one of them is a centralized system. What does that tell us about the success, perhaps, of the provocative kind of decentralized system Michelle is proposing?

MR. HORNBECK: Perhaps that's a potential American contribution.

MR. CROSS: Right. And I am not arguing for centralization. I am just saying I think we have to keep it in mind.

MR. HORNBECK: Should the responsibilities for children's health and social services be lodged in this intermediate entity that we were talking about, this "connective tissue'' that would link autonomous schools?

When one defines the outcomes we want in a system, they're not only academic outcomes, but "kid well-being'' outcomes as well. If we then have an accountability system with incentives connected to outcomes, the teacher would be held accountable for how well the kid could read, but the health worker might be accountable in part for how healthy the kid is, and the social-services worker might be held partly accountable for how many fewer dysfunctional families there are in the community than the previous year.

Maybe, if we even have a board, it should be a board of children and families, not a board of education.

MR. MILLS: That's an intriguing idea that probably will come, but I would go at it indirectly.

In Vermont, we found it is important for educational services to literally sit down and rewrite the education visions and rewrite the services vision to get a combined vision. That's going to lead to changes in the goals, so we might end up with combined goals.

At a local level, it involves principals. One principal said: "We used to think we were in charge, and our job here at the school was to point out to the parents what they needed to do to help us. But, suddenly, I had an insight that really the parents are in charge, and what they were trying to do was raise their children. And, as a school person, I was supposed to help them. As soon as I started thinking of the world that way, everything became different.''

It's working on the basic perception, and the basic vision at both ends of the system, that requires the work first. We have dysfunctional local boards now. Imagine what it would be like if we had two unintegrated, undigested systems pushed together where players were educated differently and had different jargon and a different legal structure, a different sense of purpose. It would be even more chaotic.

MS. HAYCOCK: David and I were at a meeting with health and social-service people to discuss this subject. One of the things they said to the educators quite clearly was that, if we have in mind a system where we eventually will all be held accountable for getting kids to certain outcomes, you damn well better either slow down your process or broaden it quickly to include things that we hold dear as well. You are so focused on geography and mathematics and science, and we don't necessarily think that is the be-all and end-all for kids.

You can move in the direction David is talking about when you have districts and counties that have coterminous boundaries. But we've got tons and tons of situations where you've got 27, 30 districts within a city, much less in a county. So rethinking the size of these intermediate units becomes a factor, assuming they continue to be geographical--which may not be the right assumption.

MS. FUHRMAN: If we are going to think about true school-site governments, then we have to think about working to finance the permanence of that. We might think about the financing by allowing tax check-offs, school by school.

Unless we do that, then we ought not be so quick to jettison the local elected authority that deals with taxing. I mean, if you are going to keep district financing even though you have school budgeting, then you ought to think about a structure to meld the two.

MS. HAYCOCK: We probably ought to acknowledge that we're not going to get where we want to go as a country so long as the financing structure continues to be dependent on local taxing efforts. Ultimately, we're going to have to address the question of whether there is a better way to finance education in order to get where we want to go.

MS. FUHRMAN: There is a lot more we can do to make the system more equitable.

But when we look at states that have virtually eliminated the local role--like California--the local funding share drastically goes down. There is a real value in local people deciding what kind of education they want to buy and investing themselves, therefore, because they have to pay for it. But there is also an advantage in having several players in school finance able to ante up a bit.

My second point has to do with the overall adequacy and the seriousness of dealing with the school-finance issue.

Our research has shown really large increases, controlling for inflation, across the country in every state over the last 25 years--in some states, as much as 300 percent. Nationally, an average of at least 30 percent a decade. So there have been huge increases in what we spend, and yet enormous dissatisfaction with what we get.

There is no one--including my own state that raised over 300 percent--that feels comfortable that that money is buying enough. There is no one who feels they have enough.

There are a lot of reasons. Some of the money is going just for the keeping up; we want teachers' salaries to keep up with general salaries. That doesn't mean we are necessarily buying more services that you can see.

Some of it is because we don't know very well where the money is going, and can't express it. We ought to be able to tell people how much of it is going into health care, for example, and not into the classroom. Our accounting categories are so bad that we can't even do that.

The third problem is a really serious one. In the absence of the kind of national standards and state standards being proposed, we don't have direction for the system. We don't know where we should be going. So, if we say we don't have enough money, what is the basis on which we say "enough''? We don't have a way to think about what money buys and what direction we want to go in.

That's why I think these reforms are that much more important.

MR. MILLS: I think we do know where the system is supposed to go. That is what state and local and national goals are all about.

But, by and large, the education-reform effort is disconnected from finance. We have a finance system virtually everywhere that invests in the status quo enthusiastically. And we have a reform effort that questions the status quo.

We have to connect dollars to performance, not in a crude way, but in a way that says, "To get the money, you've got to be in the performance game. And if you are not playing the performance game, that's O.K., too. But no money.''

MR. SEXTON: The autonomous school approach that Michelle describes may work fine in an urban environment, but in most rural districts, the question is where to get the talent, the skills, the resources to do all the things we are talking about.

There is another thing that is really important and requires some pretty hard-nosed political thinking. A huge part of the function of local districts is the management of employment programs, which is at the heart of the political structure of the community. It is old-fashioned local-jobs, community-based politics. And in many places, the school district is by far the biggest employer in the area. About 10 percent of all the jobs in our state and in other similar states are within the school.

So, if you remove that function from the district, and if boards are limited to setting visions and evaluating standards and building community as opposed to managing schools, what do you do with that political function that is so central to the whole political structure of most states and localities?

Is there some other place for that function? If not, the only alternative I know of is that your political culture in your community has to change.

MR. MILLS: If we were to spell out the powers that are reserved to the school community, we should come up with a very clear and powerful list of things that schools can do. If we spell out those reserved to the state, the list should be much shorter. It should include the responsibility to define goals and to define a framework of curriculum, but not the curriculum itself; states ought to have the responsibility to measure results and to audit those results.

We should have a still smaller list of things that the feds do.

Vol. 12, Issue 30

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