Shaking Things Up

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A broad new study of six cities that have shifted power away from the central office to educators in the schools says that none of them has gone far enough.

In school districts from Los Angeles to Chicago, principals, teachers, and parents are drawing up budgets, hiring and firing employees, and shaping instruction. Their new authority is part of a push known as decentralization.

School boards in city after city have embraced the management philosophy that educators at the front lines are best qualified to decide how to teach their students, and that allowing them to make those decisions will enhance their involvement and commitment. By shifting money and power away from the central office, districts are gambling that they can win back public confidence and boost test scores.

Like many reform ideas that have come and gone in the past, however, much of this activity has taken place in the absence of proof that it works. And there has been little consensus on exactly how "decentralization" should take place.

So perhaps it shouldn't come as a surprise that an unpublished study by researchers at four universities--the most comprehensive analysis to date--suggests that, so far, decentralization has fallen far short of its goals.

None of the six cities they studied had dramatically raised student achievement. Most failed to envision all the changes needed for schools to gain true freedom and accountability. And all of them floundered when it came to implementation.

"Almost every superintendent and board member and union chief in the country is in favor of decentralization," says Paul T. Hill, a University of Washington researcher who is one of two principal investigators for the study. "But decentralization, as it's been tried so far, has been a half-measure because nobody wanted to make fundamental enough changes in the lives and incentives of adults."

Yet the researchers say their findings do not mean the idea should be abandoned. It just needs to be done right, and they believe they have identified the crucial elements that will help districts go about it.

"We remain convinced that decentralization is both inevitable and essential," they conclude. "If we have a general criticism to offer, it is simply that none of the sites pursued decentralization as aggressively and as fully as was needed."

The Annie E. Casey Foundation provided funds for the study, which brought together researchers from the University of Washington, the University of Chicago, the University of Colorado at Denver, and Pomona College in Claremont, Calif. The project tracked decentralization efforts in Charlotte-Mecklenburg, N.C., Chicago, Cincinnati, Denver, Los Angeles, and Seattle.

Different Starting Points

Each of these districts, the researchers found, began chipping away at their central bureaucracies from far different starting points.

A 1988 law gave Chicago's parents the upper hand in efforts to remake the schools. The law created parent-dominated, elected school councils at each of the city's 557 schools. The councils hire and fire principals, approve annual school improvement plans, and decide how to spend state anti-poverty money.

In contrast, Cincinnati began streamlining its central office in 1991 based on the recommendations of a business-led task force. And in Charlotte-Mecklenburg, a new superintendent hired in 1991 negotiated performance goals with each school and then held principals accountable for meeting them.

The only common feature of decentralization across the districts, the researchers found, was the ability of schools to request waivers from regulations they considered onerous.

Common Failings

The reforms in each city became more detailed and complex over time. But whatever the starting point, the researchers say, each of the plans suffered from three common weaknesses:

The authority and resources granted to schools were never clear.

"Almost every superintendent and board member and union chief in the country is in favor of decentralization."

Paul T. Hill,
University of Washington

School-level educators weren't sure what decisions they could make without permission from the school board, the central office, or the teachers' union.

Budgets were never truly "site based" in any system. Most money still went to salaries and benefits for teachers and other fixed costs. Schools generally had little, if any, control over who worked in their buildings and only a small chunk of money to spend on school improvement.

Most plans started with only a vague idea of how schools would get help.

Most principals are not accountants or trained personnel managers. If they are to perform those functions, they need help. For decentralization to work, the researchers conclude, the central office cannot just go away, but must change its role to one of support.

"Most of the districts started with a chop-the-top philosophy," says Anthony Bryk, the other principal investigator for the study and a professor of education and sociology at the University of Chicago. In other words, they reduced the number of administrators who could have provided guidance and support to their counterparts in the schools.

Nor did the remaining central-office administrators relish a supporting role. "You still had central offices that thought of themselves as controlling what happens in schools," Mr. Bryk says.

The result: Many central offices continued to perform the same old regulatory functions, only with fewer people.

"Some schools moved forward because they were able to figure out what to do on their own," Mr. Bryk observes. "But probably many more could have moved forward under a more robust system."

Many schools struggled to make sense of a disjointed array of improvement efforts. And funding for retraining and staff development across the six districts remained modest.

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Web Resources
  • Assessment of School-Based Management is a 1996 report funded by the U.S. Department of Education. Researchers "found that school-based management required a redesign of the whole school organization that goes far beyond a change in school governance. For SBM to work, people at the school site must have 'real' authority over budget, personnel and curriculum. Equally important, that authority must be used to introduce changes in school functioning that actually impact teaching and learning if SBM is to help improve school performance."
  • Redesigning School Finance: Moving the Money to the School. This briefing from the Pathways to School Improvement Web service notes that decision-making authority over the school budget is a key prerequisite to effective restructuring. Under the approach discussed here, the state would allocate most dollars in a lump sum directly to schools.
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