Decentralize or ‘Disintermediate’?

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While local boards yield autonomy to the state, they lose further control through decentralization, especially in big cities.

With ever-increasing pressure, two powerful, opposing forces, centralization and decentralization, are eroding traditional school governance. State legislatures and state boards of education increasingly set top-down performance standards for local boards and schools. Failure to perform means losing autonomy or even closure. While local boards yield autonomy to the state, they lose further control through decentralization, especially in big cities. Local school councils choose principals, staff, and school policy. Magnet and charter schools set their own course. Other examples are public vouchers in Cleveland and Milwaukee, tax credits for private school tuition in Arizona and Illinois, and similar legislative proposals elsewhere. More than 35 cities now have privately funded vouchers for poor children to attend parochial and independent schools. What caused such astonishing developments, and what will come of them?

Centralizing Forces

Little-noted but powerful historical changes might have precipitated such radical trends. Traditionally, school boards set policy, and superintendents and central-office staff executed it. Sixty years ago, about 115,000 local boards represented often small local communities; many enrolled less than a few hundred students. After many painful mergers, only about 15,000 districts remain. As districts multiply in size, their boards and staffs are likely to lose the close touch they have with constituents. In their larger geographical areas, they represent ever-larger numbers of citizens with more diverse preferences.

During the same period, public schools also grew substantially larger in size and fewer in number, and middle and high schools grew more departmentalized. Research of the last decade, however, shows that larger districts and larger schools were trends in the wrong direction. They increase alienation, impair achievement, and poorly reflect citizens’ views.

As traditional governing authority was going into remote control, states increasingly paid the bills as they equalized spending. He who pays the piper, of course, calls the tune; and, as state education budgets expanded, legislatures grew more directive, first with increased regulation and more recently with performance targets and further displacement of local control. Florida’s new legislation, for example, will allow increasing numbers of students in failing schools to transfer to private schools. Some members of the U.S. Congress have proposed similar "exit vouchers" that would allow impoverished Title I students in failing schools to go elsewhere for compensatory services.

Top-down centralization and bottom-up decentralization squeeze traditional control in which school boards depended on local staffs for information and leadership. With staff advice, local boards mediated among the state board, local taxpayers, parents, teachers, and other groups. Local boards face greater challenges today not only because they represent more people, but also because they face opposed views. Teachers’ unions, for example, want more money, smaller classes, and peer accountability. Business leaders and legislators want value for money, high-stakes standardized examinations, and accountability with carrots and sticks.

"Progressive" educators want "authentic" examinations and "whole language" reading instruction or, to use its newspeak synonym, "a balanced approach." They prefer intrinsic motivation and student-constructed, rather than teacher-instructed learning. Many citizens and parents, however, want just the opposite of such progressive ideals.

Such conflicts from the top and bottom lead to local-board and central-office "disintermediation." In business, this term means cutting out or down on middle managers to economize and eliminate duplication. Its purpose is to reduce distance to customers, lengthy decision times, and confusion and disinformation engendered by long chains of command and reporting. The term suggests individual accountability for results, not results via committees and task forces. Top authorities allocate funds and set profit targets, but leave operations to managers of decentralized units.

This idea of disintermediation is analogous to centralization in education, where, allocating much of the operating expenditures, the state sets performance standards. These practices can be interpreted as a centralized process that is passed on to schools by local boards and central-office staffs. But, as many have asked in recent debates on choice and decentralization, "Who needs them?" Instead, transfer central-office funds to schools for direct benefits to students. If schools want external advisory or evaluative services, they can pay the central office or other vendors for them. If schools deserve carrots or sticks, let the state provide them.

Even more radically, decentralize: Let schools set their own goals, standards, curricula, and character. School uniforms? Distance education? Schools open 240 days a year? As in the classic professions, educators in private practice? Teachers with strong liberal-arts preparation or many education courses? Let competition for students decide which is best. Since not everyone likes green ties and red dresses, expect segmented markets serving diverse parent and student choices—though states may require safety regulations, insurance, civil rights protections, and examination results.

Intrigued with the momentum of centralization and decentralization, we asked nearly a dozen prominent scholars and leading educators to write about results and experiences with programs across the nation. With other scholars, state and federal leaders, superintendents, principals, teachers, union representatives, and parents, they discussed their ideas for two intense days at a conference held at Wingspread, the Johnson Foundation’s conference center in Racine, Wis. The conference was sponsored by the National Center on Education in the Inner Cities, the Laboratory for Student Success at Temple University, and the Johnson Foundation. Our goal was not consensus but clarity. What are the variants in the two trends? Are they in any way reconcilable?

Expecting no midlife conversions, we got none. The conferees, however, better analyzed the trends and set forth research findings and experiences. These will be published in Parent Choice vs. Best Systems (Hillsdale, N.J.: Laurence Earlbaum, in press). In addition, we discussed the findings with several dozen invited staff members of the U.S. House and Senate education committees.

On several points, there was consensus: U.S. schools are generally performing poorly, particularly those in big cities. Despite increased expenditures and much creeping incremental reform in recent decades, schools have not improved substantially. Promising parent-choice and top-down-accountability programs require further trials and careful, independent evaluation.

Despite increased expenditures and much creeping incremental reform in recent decades, schools have not improved substantially.

What did choice researchers conclude? Most obviously, the numbers of charter schools are growing mightily. Although the jury is still out on achievement, it appears that roughly 1,300 charter schools serve to accommodate parental preferences in 35 states. Perhaps because it has the least onerous regulations, Arizona hosts the largest number of charter schools in the nation. Publicly funded scholarships, or vouchers, in Cleveland and Milwaukee have attracted several thousand students. Less well known are private scholarships offered in some 60 programs in more than 35 cities. Funded by firms and individuals, they enable impoverished children and youths to attend private, that is, parochial and independent schools.

Because children for choice programs are often selected by lottery, they can be readily compared with children who applied but weren’t selected. Schools of choice are far more satisfying to parents. They appear to increase the effectiveness, cost efficiency, and responsiveness of nearby public schools. Conferees preferring choice observed that poor children in cities may benefit most from choice, but, in principle, these programs should be extended to all students.

Research and practitioner experience suggest a number of accountability practices that appear to increase student achievement in conventional public schools. Growing in prevalence in state and big-city school policy, these include:

• Identifying systemwide achievement goals;

• Aligning curriculum, teaching, and testing to goals;

• Decentralizing operational authority to the school level;

• Employing central information systems to monitor progress;

• Holding schools accountable for meeting standards;

• Providing incentives to succeed and disincentives to fail; and

• Providing alternatives in cases of failure.

The Cornell University economics professor John Bishop gave an example of the rationale of such policies in New York state. National surveys report that more than two-thirds of adults, teachers, and students say students would study harder if passing a rigorous examination were required for graduation. Mr. Bishop’s review of such examinations in New York, Canada, and Europe shows that they do not increase dropout rates but do increase achievement and post-high-school earnings, particularly of students from low-income families. More than a century old, the New York state board of regents’ elective exams define standards, lead to specific curricula, and promote good teaching and learning practices. Yet, since the exams were sufficiently incentivized, New York is adding regents’ courses and examinations to high school graduation requirements and simultaneously increasing the rigor of the exams.

The Chicago public schools provide another example of centralization. They insist not on 13 priorities, but one: achievement. Notwithstanding much progressive academic criticism, Chicago was the first major city to terminate "social promotion." Two independent evaluations of the Chicago public schools’ Summer Bridge Program showed its efficiency in raising test scores for merit promotions.

Thus, as shown in Chicago and New York state, rigorous assessment and accountability systems, together with best practices, appear to work well. Other examples discussed at the conference, including the reform efforts in the Houston Independent School District and Community District 2 in New York City, and a growing body of other research also confirm these conclusions.

What’s next?

In our view, combining choice and accountability might be accomplished by devolving much authority to the school level. Governing authorities, namely states and local boards, could, for example, set forth basic achievement standards. Schools that met these standards would remain free of operational regulation and close supervision. Run as conventional, charter, or public scholarship schools, they could set goals far beyond the basic standards and pursue distinctive specialties that appeal to parents and students.

Combining choice and accountability might be accomplished by devolving much authority to the school level.

For schools that failed to meet basic standards, externally imposed "best practices" could be required. Successful educators could assist in suggesting these and evaluating progress. Schools that failed to make progress might be "reconstituted" with new leaders and staffs. Alternatively, they might be closed, in which case their students could be given scholarships to attend nearby public and private schools.

Educators and policymakers can think of variations on the design and details of centralization and decentralization that might be particularly suitable for their circumstances. As they face such challenges, public and private governing boards will undoubtedly keep prominent the goals of student learning and parent satisfaction with school offerings. The new emphasis on accountability and entrepreneurship seems likely to help achieve these goals.

Margaret C. Wang holds the title of distinguished university professor and is the director of the Mid-Atlantic Regional Educational Laboratory for Student Success at Temple University in Philadelphia. Herbert J. Walberg is a research professor of education and psychology at the University of Illinois at Chicago and a distinguished visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution on War, Revolution, and Peace at Stanford University.

Vol. 19, Issue 14, Pages 36, 52

Published in Print: December 1, 1999, as Decentralize or ‘Disintermediate’?
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