Accountability Commentary

The Paradox of Educational Power

By James W. Guthrie — October 15, 1997 5 min read

James W. Guthrie is a professor of education and public policy and the director of the Peabody Center for Education Policy at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn.

Just as predictably, virtually none of these analyses has gotten it right. They focus on what are alleged to be tight budgets, low teacher salaries, political conflicts, religious pressure groups, or some other secondary condition. What they miss is the fundamental condition that immobilizes education improvement in the United States.

Almost every education reform proposal since the issuance of A Nation at Risk in 1983 has concentrated on fixing the education system. New laws will be invented, or reinvented, intended to make education personnel direct their attention to yet another activity such as AIDS prevention, school-to-work training, more or fewer teacher education courses, and the addition or elimination of some sacred library book. What well-intentioned reformers almost always overlook is that authority for instruction should reside with schools, not conglomerates of schools called education systems. The means for holding education accountable is to specify desired goals and then hold individual schools, not entire school systems, responsible for obtaining these ends. America has lost its way in education because America has disenfranchised individual local schools.

Almost a century ago, policymakers responded to the pleadings of efficiency experts and political reformers and began to centralize authority in larger and larger school systems and in state bureaucracies. One-room and one-school districts were consolidated into ever larger operating units, ever more dependent upon central-office managers and state, then later federal, bureaucrats. Anticipated economies of scale seldom materialized. For example, even today school supplies can almost always be purchased as cheaply at the corner stationer as from the district’s central warehouse. But the authority of individual schools and the crucial link between schools and their immediate clients--students, parents, and neighborhoods--was lost in the push for added economic efficiency and in a desire to insulate schools from the evils of big-city ward bosses. In fact, we only traded one kind of politics for another. In place of localized selfish interests, we substituted centralized special interests. Instructional effectiveness and performance accountability were impeded yet more.

The paradoxical situation surrounding performance accountability illustrates the dysfunctional disempowerment of our schools. Illogically, the most accountable individuals in public education, the ones who most easily and quickly can be replaced if the system’s performance is judged wanting, are school superintendents and school board members. The former turn over with appalling regularity. The standard length of service for district superintendents is estimated by the American Association of School Administrators to be less than three years. School board members can also be removed from office easily, either by recall or at the next regular election. Neither of these positions is afforded tenure or any other form of employment security.

The paradox is that these education officials who are most visible and vulnerable are the ones that are the least positioned to influence instruction. It is school principals and teachers who are in closest proximity to students, and they are the ones best situated to operate the levers of instruction. These are the officials who can initiate teaching and adapt curriculum materials and instruction to the needs of individual students. But as most readers will recognize, principals and teachers are the individuals most protected by statute, judicial rulings, and collective bargaining contracts. They are simultaneously the most important, the most protected, the least accountable, and least empowered.

America has lost its way in education because America has disenfranchised individual local schools.

While principals and teachers are best positioned to make instruction effective, on many important dimensions they have the least power. For almost 100 years, our policy systems have eviscerated the decisionmaking discretion of those professionals working at schools. Instead, state laws, federal regulations, and court decisions increasingly have padded the decisionmaking power of school districts, superintendents, school board members, and state and federal bureaucrats. Of course, these are not the people who instruct our students. When critics rail against lackluster education performance, the point on which they should concentrate is this disjuncture between power and position. Principals and teachers justifiably can, and regularly do, shield themselves from criticism by pointing out that they don’t make education rules, they only follow them.

The situation is exacerbated by the fact that most of our public school children attend our least effective, and most bureaucratized, school systems. Twenty-five percent of all public school enrollees attend school in only 1 percent of the nation’s public school districts. These are overly large, bumbling bureaucracies lodged in our biggest cities. Fifty percent of America’s public school pupils attend school in 5 percent of our districts. The converse is important. Ninety-five percent of our districts are relatively small. These systems, while by no means perfect, come closer to empowering principals and teachers.

For America’s schools to be as effective as the 21st century will surely demand, we must realign power with position. We must re-empower individual schools with the authority to employ and evaluate teachers, deploy resources, and determine the means of instruction. Federal and state policy must come to recognize the school, not the education system, as the vital production unit. Thereafter, we need only two fundamental changes. We must authorize teachers and principals and then hold them accountable for the results. No other education reform, no matter how well intended, well funded, or well publicized, will prove as well founded.

A version of this article appeared in the October 15, 1997 edition of Education Week as The Paradox of Educational Power


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