Breaking the Mold

Education Next Issue Cover

A radical proposal to decentralize school governance


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SUMMER 2015 / VOL. 15, NO. 3

ednext_XV_3_kirst_book_coverA Democratic Constitution for Public Education
By Paul T. Hill and Ashley E. Jochim
University of Chicago Press, 2014, $28.96; 152 pages.

As reviewed by Michael Kirst

Who should control our schools is a long-standing debate, but there has never been a proposal like the one in this book. It provides the rationale and operational details for a radical decentralization of school governance and preserves the legitimacy of a much-diminished, locally elected governing entity. It distinguishes this radical governance overhaul from school vouchers for parents. Governance is brought to the center of policy discussion, while the limitations of governance regimes for improving classroom instruction are acknowledged.

Currently, local school districts and boards have no intrinsic powers except those provided by state government. Under the Hill and Jochim plan, the key governance unit becomes each school site, which is empowered with a “constitutional” bill of rights. School control cannot be undermined by a local authority, state, or federal government. There is a specific and limited role for a central authority (called a Civic Education Council or CEC) that provides economies of scale, such as a central data system. But the CEC cannot hire or set terms of employment for teachers and school administrators. Only each school can make these decisions.

The authors envision a significant reduction in the historic federal and state education roles. For example, students would carry “backpacks” of federal, state, and local funding as they choose to move from school to school. Consequently, schools will want to recruit students rather than seek grants specified for federal and state purposes.

The authors envision a phase-in of the plan, most likely starting in cities with many struggling students and spreading last to wealthy suburbs and rural areas. Past attempts to provide school-site control basically failed because, the authors contend, there was a lack of school-site power to make decisions. The CEC can close failing schools and set weights for pupil-based funding. But it cannot mandate such things as a particular salary schedule, curriculum, or instructional method. The CEC cannot require schools to purchase central services or to enter collective bargaining agreements. Bargaining could be implemented if school sites want it, but teachers unions strongly prefer centralized contracts with districts or larger agencies.

School sites would be protected from CEC late or partial payments, changes in attendance boundaries, admission rules, reporting requirements, and other actions without review by an independent body or through financial compensation. The state role is primarily to hold the CEC accountable, including by way of state takeover of poorly performing CECs. The federal government would deregulate in numerous areas and consolidate funding so that it is tied to individual students (rather than to districts or schools).

Would It Work?

What is the research base for how this bold plan would work? The most surprising aspect of this concise volume is how little data or analysis are provided about school-level politics or school-site capacity to improve instruction. Much literature suggests that governance is only one factor in successful schools and effective site management.

Principals were never prepared at colleges or induction programs to implement the enhanced role envisioned in this book. Most school principals do not know how to devise an effective site budget because budgeting has always been done at the central office. Principals rarely have sufficient support staff and are often overwhelmed by day-to-day operational crises and details. Principals struggle with all their existing responsibilities, much less are they able to take on the new roles envisioned in this book.

Someone must rethink the principal’s role and figure out whether more site administrators will be needed. For example, one characteristic of successful principal leadership is the ability to delegate power throughout the school and create networks of decisionmaking teams. Principals take on the role of manager and facilitator of change, while teacher leaders take on responsibilities around issues of teaching and learning.

There is a significant political-science research base concerning “micropolitics” at school sites that could inform the potential impact and desirability of the book’s proposals. When school sites gain much more control, who should control policy and practice at the school level? Researchers have advanced several competing viewpoints:

1) As site manager, the principal allocates financial resources and is held accountable for the success of the school. The school effectiveness literature’s focus on strong site leadership reinforces this concept.

2) Parents control site policy because they are the consumers and care most deeply about policies at the schools their children attend. An elected parent and citizen council operates at each site.

3) Teachers form a school-site senate and allocate funds and personnel, as well as decide instructional issues. The principle at work here is that teachers cannot be held accountable for pupil performance if they do not control resource allocations and must instead follow standardized instructional procedures. School-based control by teachers would also enhance the professional status and self-image of teachers.

4) None of these rationales is sufficiently compelling, so there should be “parity” of control among teachers, administration, and parents/citizens and decisionmaking through bargaining and coalitions.

None of these has the weight of evidence behind it. Moreover, research suggests that changes in school culture and classroom instructional practice are necessary requirements for improving pupil achievement, and that just redistributing decisionmaking power and resources is not enough. What is the school-based governance theory of action that would help drive instructional improvement? Governance transformations may be akin to changing the shell of a turtle, while effective instruction lies underneath.

In sum, Hill and Jochim propose breaking the mold of the current governance superstructure. The resistance will be strong from school boards, unions, and citizens concerned about leaving curriculum decisions to tens of thousands of schools. Civil rights groups that rely on federal and state governments will fear the loss of federal and state protections for students through laws, regulations, and earmarked funds. The current system, however, with everybody and nobody in charge is hard to defend. No major constitutional overhaul of governance has been accomplished since the early 20th century, so the ideas in this book deserve serious consideration.

Michael Kirst is president of the California State Board of Education and professor emeritus of education at Stanford University.

Comment on this article
  • Melissa Westbrook says:

    So incredibly ridiculous. Every single school charts its own destiny without oversight?

    It sounds more like the authors want some way, any way, to wrestle control from feds and states (and even local school boards).

    I do not believe that many principals could be their school’s academic leader (which IS their primary role) AND be a manager of a school.

    No thanks.

  • Loyd Eskildson says:

    This would be a disaster – making education decision-making even more vulnerable to local vested interests (employees and their friends and relatives). In addition, it would add enormous wasted time debating education goals, achievement levels, testing mechanisms – all likely unable to be compared from one entity to another, and especially unlikely to have any linkage to matching achievement levels in other nations.

  • Paul Hill and Ashley Jochim says:

    Mike Kirst’s review of our book is insightful and constructive and raises important questions about how our proposal would work in practice.

    He correctly points out that public school principals are not trained for the roles we propose — setting priorities, making hiring decisions and budget tradeoffs (e.g. between salaries and purchase of on-line instruction), making the school attractive to families and teachers, and leading continuous improvement. But, as we argue, principals and potential principals won’t ever have these capacities unless and until the job changes, so that people wanting to take full responsibility seek it, and people wanting to avoid full responsibility avoid it. The same is true with pre-service training: it won’t cover a more ambitious set of skills until the job requires them.

    When the school job changes (as it did in England where school heads got hiring and budget authority, and in New York City under Joel Klein’s school autonomy policy) the principal pool changes. Some school leaders use capacities they always had but couldn’t use, others learn what they need, and others quit and are replaced by people attracted to the new, more demanding job. This isn’t instantaneous but natural turnover allows steady replacement of people who don’t want to or can’t adapt. The system we have proposed also relieves principals of a lot of burdens, e.g., the many central office demand to attend meetings and be “trained” (or arrange staff training) in whatever the central office is peddling. How to prepare/retrain/select school leaders requires careful analysis, and happily there are exemplars in the places above.

    True, changes in principal capacity will require new forms of training and support. But, these needs are finite, and they will be met only if the job changes.

    Mike’s comments on the theory of action for school change under decentralization, and the need for attention to micropolitics, are great. There is an underlying theory of action, that schools whose existence depends on attracting parents and demonstrating performance will be more able to unify the work of staff, and more likely to search for effective methods and adapt to evidence, than schools where adults are free to do as they like and no one’s job is at risk. As we propose, there can be many forms of school organization, including teacher co-operatives and principal-dominated, and they can all work if disciplined by the need to improve results, not just keep peace among adults. We are more skeptical about parent-led governance because of the possibility of factionalization and dominance of short-term issues. But it will surely work in some cases. The work of the Chicago Consortium in Tony Bryk’s day is valuable here.

    We already have a rich soup of internal governance models, in portfolio cities like NYC and Denver, and need to learn more about how they do and don’t work. Also big differences among CMOs, some of which are as centralized as traditional districts but others that offer varying mixes of freedom, control, and external help.

    Finally, Mike notes that voters will be reluctant to think every single school should create its own curriculum. We agree, but that’s not likely to happen. It is much more likely that schools will attach to networks and take advantage of branding. This can buttress school leadership, make replication of good schools easier, and help schools to attract and inform parents and teachers. Also make it possible for teacher and principal training institutions to meet schools’ needs.

    With Mike, we think our book opens up many new questions and suggests ways states, localities, and scholars can try out, learn from, and improve upon our basic conception of constitutional governance — limited powers and checks and balances among schools, local government, states, and the feds.

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