Shaking Things Up?

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School districts across the country are turning over to teachers, principals, and even parents key management responsibilites traditionally handled by the central office. Educators and parents are drawing up school budgets, hiring and firing employees, and shaping instruction like never before. It's all part of a new national movement to decentralize authority in public education.

The idea behind the push is that educators in the schools are best qualified to decide how to teach students. Allowing them to make a wider set of decisions, the thinking goes, will enhance their involvement and their commitment. School boards and other policymakers are gambling that the new arrangements will boost test scores and win back public confidence.

But like many reforms that have come and gone, much of this activity has been launched without proof that it works. And there is little consensus about how "decentralization" should take place.

So perhaps it should come as no surprise that a new unpublished study by researchers at four universities--the most comprehensive analysis to date--suggests that decentralization has fallen far short of its goals. None of the six cities the researchers studied has dramatically raised student achievement. Most failed to envision the changes needed for schools to gain true freedom and accountability. And all of them floundered when it came to implementation.

"Almost every superintendent and board member and union chief in the country is in favor of decentralization," says Paul Hill, a University of Washington researcher who is one of the study's two principal investigators. "But decentralization, as it's been tried so far, has been a half-measure because nobody wanted to make fundamental enough changes in the lives and incentives of adults."

The researchers are not suggesting that the idea be abandoned. Rather, it just needs to be done right, and they believe they have identified the key elements that will help districts go about it.

"We remain convinced that decentralization is both inevitable and essential," they conclude in their yet-to-be-published report. "If we have a general criticism to offer, it is simply that none of the sites pursued decentralization as aggressively and as fully as was needed."

The Annie E. Casey Foundation funded the study, which brought together researchers from the University of Washington, the University of Chicago, the University of Colorado at Denver, and Pomona College in Claremont, California. The project tracked decentralization efforts in Charlotte-Mecklenburg, North Carolina; Chicago; Cincinnati; Denver; Los Angeles; and Seattle.

Each city, they found, began chipping away their central-office bureaucracies for different reasons and from different starting points. The Chicago experiment grew out of frustration with the city's schools and educational establishment. A 1988 Illinois law created elected, parent-dominated councils at each of the city's 557 schools. The councils have the authority to hire and fire principals, approve annual school-improvement plans, and decide how to spend state anti-poverty funds.

Cincinnati, on the other hand, began streamlining its central office six years ago based on the recommendations of a business-led task force. And in Charlotte-Mecklenburg, a superintendent hired in 1991 negotiated performance goals with each school and then held principals accountable for meeting them. The only common feature of decentralization across the cities, the researchers found, was the ability of schools to request waivers from regulations they considered onerous.

The reforms in each city became more detailed and complex over time. But whatever the starting point, each suffered three common weaknesses:

  • The authority and resources granted schools were never clear. School-level educators weren't sure what decisions they could make without permission from the school board, the central office, or the teachers' union.
  • Budgets were never truly "site-based." Most money still went to teachers' salaries and benefits and other fixed costs. Schools generally had little, if any, control over who worked in their buildings and only a small chunk of money to spend on school improvement.
  • The plans started with only a vague idea of how schools would get help. Most principals and teachers are not accountants or trained personnel managers. If they are to perform those functions, they need assistance. For decentralization to work, the researchers concluded, the central office cannot just go away but must change its role to one of support.

"Most of the districts started with a chop-the-top philosophy," says Anthony Bryk, the other principal investigator for the study and a professor of education and sociology at the University of Chicago. In other words, they reduced the number of administrators who could have provided guidance and support to their counterparts in the schools. And the remaining central-office administrators did not relish playing a supporting role. Bryk explains, "You still had central offices that thought of themselves as controlling what happens in schools.''

The result: Many central offices continued to perform the same old regulatory functions, only with fewer people. "Some schools moved forward because they were able to figure out what to do on their own," says Bryk. "But probably many more could have moved forward under a more robust system." Most were left to make sense of a disjointed array of improvement strategies with little additional funding for retraining and staff development.

Accountability, the researchers learned, remains the "black box" in most decentralization efforts. None of the six cities fully changed the system of rewards and sanctions for educators to increase the focus on learning. Most of the districts were still trying to determine how to measure student performance, what should happen to poor-performing schools, and who would make those decisions.

As early as 1993, Bryk says, "we had identified a significant subset of schools in Chicago that looked to us to be dead in the water. But they basically could hide under decentralization because there was no viable mechanism to identify those schools and to intervene in them." It wasn't until Illinois lawmakers passed another round of school reform legislation in 1995 that a corporate-style management team gained the power to completely overhaul failing schools.

In each city, the pressure to decentralize came from the outside. Educators, the researchers state in the report, often participated "hesitantly and sporadically, if at all," at least in the early stages. In four of the six cities--Cincinnati, Charlotte, Chicago, and Los Angeles--the business community wielded the most resources and influence over the process.

Private foundations also helped bankroll the early stages in Denver, Chicago, Cincinnati, and Los Angeles. "Left on their own," the researchers concluded, "school system insiders are unlikely to think boldly enough to take enough risks to make a difference."

In Chicago, for example, both the teachers' and administrators' unions initially opposed efforts to restructure the bureaucracy. "You're talking about changing the basic governance structure of education," explains Dorothy Shipps, the study's project director. "And that's not something that a superintendent and an elected school board will want to do."

In looking at decentralization in the six cities, the researchers identified several trends:

  • Gains in student achievement remain relatively modest across the six sites. Although elementary schools in cities such as Chicago and Charlotte showed improvement, high school performance barely budged.
  • In a few districts--most specifically Chicago and Denver--the changes have encouraged teachers and principals to be more responsive to their communities. And it has helped some elementary schools create a professional culture that is more focused on student learning.
  • The roles of principals changed the most. In Chicago, principals lost tenure and had to work with local school councils to keep their jobs. In Cincinnati, their pay was linked to performance. In both Charlotte and Chicago, more than two-thirds of the principals retired, changed schools, or were fired in the years immediately after decentralization. In schools that made dramatic changes, strong building leaders typically became innovators, seeking out new ideas, money, and assistance.
  • The work lives of many teachers remained unchanged, even though they were positive about the opportunities afforded them. Although some teachers gained more say over issues such as curriculum and staff development, only a minority assumed dramatically new roles in schools.
  • The support of ethnic and racial groups for decentralization has been mixed. African Americans in all six cities were divided about whether decentralization was a good idea or would mean the loss of jobs. In contrast, Hispanics appear to have benefited from the transfer of power, at least in some cities. In Chicago, the number of Hispanic principals more than doubled in the year after decentralization, from 17 to 43. In Los Angeles, the number of Hispanic teachers jumped from 3,991 in 1991 to 5,361 four years later.

Decentralization, the researchers warn, isn't for the squeamish. It "requires work, threatens established interests, and creates conflict,'' they write. At best, the strategy creates conditions that allow schools to improve one at a time. But it doesn't guarantee it.

Communities that want decentralization to work, the researchers say, need to take a three-pronged approach: They must grant autonomy, provide assistance, and ensure accountability. None of the six cities studied has done these things adequately.

Still, most of the researchers are sanguine. "We're hoping that we're going to push the conversation forward about what it means to decentralize," Bryk says. "This is a long-term process."

--Lynn Olson

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