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School & District Management Opinion

How Do Principals Experience a Decentralized School System?

By Urban Education Contributor — October 25, 2018 4 min read
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This post is by Leah Binkovitz (@leahbink), senior editor for the Kinder Institute for Urban Research (@RiceKinderInst).

This is part 2 of a two-part series about recent research findings on decentralization in Houston. Part 1 was shared in Monday’s post: What Does Decentralization Look Like in Houston?

Why this Research

Like many school districts, the Houston Independent School District (HISD) in the late 1980s was “a highly centralized bureaucracy,” according to a recent report from the Kinder Institute for Urban Research‘s Houston Education Research Consortium (HERC). But, in a wave of business-minded reform, the district began a 10-year switch to a more decentralized model. At the heart of the model were school principals.

“Decentralization here relies on the principals as the change agents,” postdoctoral fellow Jodi Moon told the HISD school board at a September presentation of HERC’s four-part series on decentralization and its effects in Houston. Proponents of decentralization argue that the school principal is in the best position to make site-specific decisions on how to best support their students’ needs. Under the initial plan, the district hoped the vast majority of budgeting decisions would fall to school principals but today, just a little less than half of a school’s budget is controlled by the principal.

What the Research Examines

In the second report of the decentralization series, Moon sought to capture principals’ attitudes about operating within the district’s decentralized model through a survey. The voluntary survey asked principals about their skills and training to make decisions for their campuses and student learning, whether they felt supported by the central administration in making these decisions, how they would rate their autonomy, and how they would rate their own understanding and beliefs about the model’s weighted student funding process.

The survey was included in two regular district newsletters and 153 of a possible 277 potential respondents participated and were eventually included in the study. Though the survey didn’t capture every principal’s attitudes, the response pool was roughly similar to the district’s overall principal population when it came to school-level, gender, and race and ethnicity. Most of the questions were agree-disagree but there were opportunities for respondents to expand.

What the Research Finds

Findings suggest that principals were largely happy with their skills and autonomy but had doubts about the model’s funding equity across the district.

“On average, they feel their training and support was positive,” HERC Director Ruth López Turley told the school board at the workshop.

Indeed, 97 percent said they agreed that they were well prepared to use data to identify student needs and to make staffing decisions to support student needs.

“HISD principals feel that their training is working pretty well,” said Moon.

They were slightly less positive about support from the central administration but still largely satisfied. A full 87 percent said they felt the central administration provided the necessary support for data analysis to identify student needs and 77 percent said the same for leadership training. But only 59 percent said they felt supported when it came to budget analysis, an area Moon highlighted for potential consideration by the district.

Some of the highest numbers came when principals were asked to rate their level of autonomy: 92 percent agreed they had autonomy when it came to staffing decisions as well as instructional decisions and 96 percent said they felt the same in regards to scheduling decisions.

Perhaps in line with the lower feelings of support around budget analysis, only 76 percent said they understood how weighted student funding allocations were actually calculated. And only 39 percent agreed that their school had “adequate resources to meet students.” In addition, almost half of the respondents—41 percent—said they felt that the funding model did not promote equitable funding across schools.

Principals’ comments show a clear a divide over the role of special funding allotments for magnet programs. “We have adequate [funding because] we receive magnet funds,” one respondent wrote. But another principal said, "[T]he magnet programs cause it to not be equitable.” Another respondent argued, “Centralized funding would facilitate more equity in funding school programs in order to meet student needs.”

Others reflected on what they felt was inadequate funding more generally. “Our campus needs a social worker or counselor,” wrote one principal. “However, there is not enough funding to support either on our campus.”

But there were also many supporters of the decentralized model, particularly for the autonomy it allows. One respondent wrote, “The ability to lead your campus while remaining aligned with your school community is paramount to ensure that the families of Houston remain confident in our K-12 system.”

Implications for Practice

The research highlights a persistent concern that the current model falls short when it comes to equity—though increasing equity in funding was what drove the district’s decision to decentralize in the first place. The final part of HERC’s series on decentralization will examine more closely how decentralization affects funding equity. Though the district said it is not currently considering a switch from the existing model, the findings of this and the three other reports remain relevant for a district concerned with equity and outcomes and might point to areas needing to be addressed.

Photo: Houston Education Research Consortium

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