School restructuring: good idea, bad plan


The Baltimore school board faces a momentous decision Thursday -- whether to approve a watered-down program of school decentralization or to begin a real revolution in school autonomy.

As currently proposed, 20 city schools will be given vague, gradual authority to make more decisions about the way they educate children. The results may very well be equally vague and unimpressive unless significant changes are made to the plan.

If the research about school decentralization is clear on one thing, it is that schools must be given real power. They must be able to choose their own staff, design their budgets, change their schedule and school operations, modify the curriculum, and change textbooks as they see fit.

In East Harlem, N.Y., and Hoboken, N.J., schools were given real authority and produced real results. In California and Salt Lake City, schools were given insignificant authority and produced insignificant results.

In considering decentralization, Baltimore is joining one of the most popular movements in American education today. Miami helped launch the latest version of the idea under the rubric of "school-based management" in the mid-1980s, and last year Chicago embarked on a bold plan that largely did away with the powers of the central office.

Back through the administrations of previous superintendents, Baltimore officials have talked about school-based management. It was only over this past year, however, that a plan was developed, sparked by the last contract with the Baltimore Teachers Union, but developed without adequate parent or community participation.

The Baltimore proposal does not give schools real power. To do anything significant, schools will have to ask the unions and school board for permission. Nor are there any time lines or standards by which to judge whether these requests will be granted. This cumbersome procedure will greatly hinder the ability of schools to operate freely.

The path for the school board to take is a clear one. First, the school board has the power to -- and must -- grant every pilot school freedom over spending, school operations, curriculum, textbooks and teacher hiring.

Second, it must convince the teachers' union to grant individual schools broad authority over firing and transferring teachers. The union should have enough faith in its teachers to allow them, by a 75 percent vote at each school, to establish dismissal and transfer policies.

Third, the school board must elaborate on the intent of the proposal to hold schools accountable for improving students' performance. If schools, given the power to effect real change, still fail to educate students, there must be consequences.

Historically, decentralization without accountability standards has often led to fiscal corruption, political hiring and provincialism. Without stringent accountability mechanisms based on specific outcome goals for student achievement, deregulation could easily result in abuse and poorer results. New accountability systems mean that traditional measures of teacher and principal evaluation must be replaced with evaluations based on whether student achievement improves.

Fourth, the school board must allow individual schools to determine how they will govern themselves. The current proposal puts forth very stringent requirements as to the makeup of the school restructuring team and the fact that decisions must be made by consensus. The proposal mandates that each school be governed by school councils made up of parents, principal, community members, and teacher and paraprofessional union representatives.

Nowhere in the country is such a model being used nor is there any data showing that it would work. In fact, this model specifically excludes the two most promising models for decentralization. Much research supports a principal-led decentralized school or a teacher-led model such as East Harlem, where teams of teachers have engineered the rebirth of the school district.

The requirement that all decisions be made by consensus will require much effort and time going into building a consensus. Consensus-building leads to watered down decisions not bold new ways of educating students.

Decentralization could lead to a rebirth in education in Baltimore. But to accomplish this, the school board must approve a bold transfer of authority away from itself to principals, teachers, parents, and the community. For the sake of this city and its children, we hope the board has the courage, and the wisdom, to modify the existing proposal and take the leap forward.

Susan Leviton is president of Advocates for Children and Youth Inc. and an associate professor of law at the University of Maryland.

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