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School & District Management Opinion

What the Best School Districts Do Right

By Susan Moore Johnson — November 15, 2016 | Corrected: November 21, 2016 5 min read
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Corrected: An earlier version of the author’s bio misstated the year her book was published. It was published in 2015.

Education reformers in the United States have long debated whether school districts should centralize decisionmaking authority in the district office or decentralize it to let schools take the reins. At the start of the 21st century, new state and federal accountability policies—with their widely publicized results on standardized tests and penalties for schools that failed to meet improvement targets—led central-office administrators to closely manage schools. Now, with the growth of charter schools, the policy pendulum has started to swing back toward decentralization of districts, giving both traditional public schools as well as public charters more autonomy.

The large urban school districts of Chicago, New York City, and Washington now manage both closely regulated traditional schools and minimally regulated charter schools. In other districts, all school leaders have been given greater autonomy. In Denver, for example, the school board granted every school in the district extensive powers of self-determination in 2015, a move that The Denver Post called a “monumental shift.” Yet, district officials continue to ask whether they should require schools to comply with their centralized decisions and mandates, or let an individual school control its own fate. Is one approach really better than the other?

What the Best School Districts Do Right: When it comes to school management, asking if school districts should decentralize is the wrong question, writes Susan Moore Johnson.

Overall authority for managing any district rests in its central office, and district leaders bear responsibility for ensuring that every student in every school is well-served. But the essential work of teaching and learning resides in the schools. Moreover, students’ interests and needs can vary widely from one school community to the next—what works in one school may not work across town—and those who interact daily with students have a firsthand sense of what needs to improve.

In studying the school management approaches of five large urban districts recognized nationally for their performance, my Harvard University Public Education Leadership Project colleagues—Allen Grossman, Monica C. Higgins, Karen L. Mapp, Geoff Marietta—and I learned that asking whether centralization or decentralization is better is not the right question. Three of the districts we looked at (Aldine, Texas; Montgomery County, Md.; and Long Beach, Calif.) had well-established centralized practices and two (Baltimore and Charlotte-Mecklenburg, N.C.) were in the process of decentralizing the district to grant schools greater autonomy. We found that both approaches can work well, as long as the central office and the district’s schools establish a coherent working relationship.

So, what can districts do to promote coherence between the central office and the school? Our interviews with district and school administrators revealed several important lessons:

The essential work of teaching and learning resides in the schools."

Principals are central to establishing and maintaining coherence. In each of the five districts we studied, central administrators saw principals as vital agents in their district’s efforts to implement strategies for improvement, such as fostering better instruction and encouraging parental support. In turn, most principals thought that district administrators worked to keep the needs and interests of their schools in mind. While principals worked in collaboration with district officials to secure the staff, funding, curriculum, and materials needed for learning to thrive in classrooms; district officials paid attention to concerns and insights about how well policies were being implemented in schools throughout the district. Both groups seemed to realize that the success of their actions was interdependent, and they continued to suggest solutions and modifications that would work for both the school and the district.

Centralized policies and practices succeed when they are continuously informed by those inside the school. When the districts used a dynamic process of continuous review and advice by all parties of new policies and programs, principals, teachers, and district leaders developed a personal stake in making sure the changes would ultimately be effective. In Montgomery County, for example, teachers were members of the district’s textbook selection committee and advised the central office on the subsequent development of curriculum. Central administrators saw the importance of soliciting the practice-based wisdom of those who would implement academic programs and standards districtwide.

In other districts, such as the one in Long Beach, central administrators regularly organized pilot projects of proposed initiatives to gather feedback from educators about their effectiveness before implementation. When schools participated in the refining of policies, principals often became the biggest proponents of each change.

Coherence in school management requires the knowledge and expertise of leaders at all levels of the system. When Andrés Alonso, the former CEO of Baltimore city schools, took the position in 2007, his district was failing badly. He radically cut the size of the central office, believing that those closest to instruction—teachers, principals, and parents—knew better than central officials what improvements were needed.

The district then transferred authority for many important decisions to the schools, including the recruitment and hiring of teachers, the selection of curriculum, and the allocation of funds. As a result, the district’s graduation rates and test scores improved; however, principals and teachers still needed guidance as they faced new responsibilities. In response, the district created a network of support for each school, including a team of budgeting, staffing, and academic specialists, and assigned an executive director to coach and evaluate each principal. Increasing school autonomy can be successful when the district provides the transitional support that school leaders may need to make their visions a reality.

Achieving coherence depends on trust. In each of these districts, building and maintaining trust between district and school leaders was essential. Central-office administrators willingly ceded authority to principals and teachers (or vice versa) when all individuals were confident that they were being treated fairly. Without mutual trust in day-to-day relationships, policies that are intended to spur creative response through decentralization may generate instructional inequities, while those meant to create order through centralization may unintentionally lead to stagnation of growth.

If districts successfully create coherence between the central office and schools, they can increase their capacity to respond to new opportunities and challenges together. Ultimately, coherent systems and practices ensure that every school district can provide students with an excellent and equitable education.

A version of this article appeared in the November 16, 2016 edition of Education Week as To Decentralize or Not? Is That Even the Question?


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