School & District Management Commentary

Can People Be Trusted To Decide for Themselves?

By Ronald S. Brandt — January 12, 2000 6 min read
Experienced teachers know that blanket prescriptions are bound to be wrong for some situations.

Some people in your community are upset about a new mathematics program, but others think it’s sound. What do you do? You listen to the arguments pro and con, gather available information, and decide whether to keep the program or drop it, right? Not necessarily. You might make the program available to students whose parents want it, and provide a different program, with a different philosophy, for others.

Unfortunately, that usually doesn’t happen. California has tried to resolve such problems with mandates for the entire state. At one time teachers were told to teach reading with methods loosely described as “whole language,” but a few years later they were ordered to teach systematic phonics instead. Experienced teachers know that such blanket prescriptions are bound to be wrong for some situations, but California has dealt the same way with mathematics, bilingual education, and class size.

California may be a prime example but is certainly not unique. The standards movement, which was originally an effort to clarify the really important things all students needed to learn, has resulted in detailed state frameworks that in practice dictate curriculum content to local districts. Some would defend state control by pointing out that, because education in the United States is a state responsibility, local school boards have only as much authority as the state has delegated to them. Yes, legally the state has the right to rule. But the literature on organizations tells us that, even though they may have the power, effective leaders don’t order people around.

The same principle applies to school districts, which frequently try to keep schools as much alike as they can. Staffing is determined by policy: If a school has more than 600 students, it gets a half-time assistant principal or librarian or counselor; if fewer, it does not. Building maintenance is scheduled districtwide; if your school needs repairs, get in line—and so on. Districts are run this way not because administrators desire uniformity for its own sake (some may, of course). The main reason is that public agencies are expected to treat people alike and not play favorites. School systems are basically bureaucracies, meaning they must operate impersonally, based on established rules.

Nevertheless, the conditions that supported look-alike schools for most of this century are disintegrating. Around the world, paternalistic socialism has mostly been replaced by a market economy. Providers of all sorts are finding that to stay in business, they must please the customer. Educators, with customers of many sorts, aren’t quite sure how that applies to schools, but they watch nervously as charter schools, home schools, and vouchers erode their student populations.

Charter schools especially, despite the opposition of many public educators, offer exciting possibilities. Some are pretty shaky; they may not have the amenities of the typical public school. But what they have is more important: a distinctive (rather than generic) mission, committed teachers and parents, and the energy that comes with self-determination.

No wonder that a prestigious national panel convened by the Education Commission of the States—the National Commission on Governing America’s Schools—recommended in a 1999 report that public school districts be governed by one of two models, either of which would give far more autonomy to local schools than most have now. (“ECS Report Tackles K-12 Governance”, Nov. 10, 1999 and “ECS Appoints President; Panel Speaks to Findings,” Nov. 24, 1999.) One model calls for independently operated schools—in other words, collections of charter schools. The other model would retain some aspects of the way schools are currently governed, in that schools would still be publicly operated. But either way, far more decisions would be made at the local school level.

I say “would,” as though the commission’s ideas were untried speculation. But as the ECS report points out, many of the recommended approaches “are being implemented in states, districts, and schools across the country.” The challenge, as the report says, is to implement these ideas in a coherent way.

To see what that can be like, visit Edmonton, Alberta, where the public school system is already quite similar to the commission’s publicly operated model. Schools are created and principals appointed by the district board of education. There is even a general district curriculum that all schools follow. But operational decisions, such as staffing patterns, teaching methods, and materials purchasing, are made at the building level. If schools want advice from a central-office consultant, they pay for it. Many schools have distinctive programming, including a K-12 school for the arts, a high school specializing in Canadian military history, and a junior high for girls only. Parents choose the schools their children attend.

Edmonton’s program is firmly rooted in a 25-year commitment to what was originally called school-based budgeting. Former Superintendent Michael Strembitsky was tenacious in his determination to give principals the authority to run their schools without central-office interference. When Emery Dosdall became the superintendent in 1995, he refined that tradition with an emphasis on differentiated programming, parent choice, and accountability both to the community and to parents. Mr. Dosdall says frankly, “I think parents should shop for schools.”

School systems in the United States choosing the ECS commission’s publicly operated model would probably not do things exactly the way Edmonton does. For example, some Edmonton public schools are openly Christian in orientation, which would be unconstitutional in the United States. And the Edmonton version of school-based decisionmaking is principal-centered, which would not be politically acceptable in some communities. Rather than specifying how teachers and parents are to participate in local decisionmaking, Edmonton gives principals maximum discretion, relying on annual surveys to monitor teacher, student, and parent satisfaction.

Operational decisions, such as staffing patterns, teaching methods, and materials purchasing, are made at the building level.

The obvious question in today’s political climate is, “What’s the evidence that Edmonton’s arrangement improves achievement?” The district studies provincial examination results and has its own assessment program as well. Emery Dosdall stresses achievement, visiting every one of his 205 schools at least once a year, carrying a detailed analysis of that school’s data. Results so far are encouraging but not dramatic. As in all districts, some schools do much better than others. And truth be told, academic achievement is not the highest priority of all schools. Some parents, although they want their children to learn the essentials, are more interested in creativity, morality, or self-confidence.

I would like to think the Edmonton model makes so much sense it would work anywhere, but I honestly believe its success depends on the intentions and convictions of those involved, especially superintendents and board members. It would certainly not work as well if imposed by states on local officials who resented the loss of their authority (as some Kentucky superintendents did when their state mandated school-based decisionmaking in the early 1990s). Its effectiveness depends in part on officials’ respecting the ability of people below them in the hierarchy to make sensible decisions. But it certainly beats the “winner take all” approach that in too many places currently characterizes the governance of public education.

Ronald S. Brandt, an education consultant based in Alexandria, Va., is a former editor of Educational Leadership, published by the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development. He is the author of Powerful Learning and the editor of Assessing Student Learning, published in 1998, and writes a monthly column for the American Association of School Administrators.

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A version of this article appeared in the January 12, 2000 edition of Education Week as Can People Be Trusted To Decide for Themselves?


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