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District (De/Re)Centralization Influences the School Improvement Industry

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Washington, DC is joined by Seattle, Washington in its leaders' efforts to do a better job of central control. In DC, Chancellor Michelle Rhee is trying to get hold of a bureaucracy that decades of leadership failures left untethered. In Seattle, Superintendent Maria Goodloe-Johnson, is reversing her predecessors' deliberate plans to push decisionmaking authority to individual schools.

It’s no great secret that I prefer decentralization as a matter of public policy. It's also a better choice for the school improvement market.

As for public policy, I think we will get better student outcomes by letting individual schools respond to their unique human circumstances, than by requiring every school to respond to decisions made for every human by any superintendent. Moreover, I believe the first scenario will attract the most competent educators, while the second leaves the district with the least capable - and so left with no alternative but centralization.

Can I prove my policy case for district decentralization with evaluation? Not at this point. But I can say that the last fifty years of commitment to the strategy of centralization have offered a pretty good case for trying. The overall record certainly doesn’t provide much of argument for re-centralizing DC or Seattle.

The choice of centralization or decentralization is not an "academic matter" for school improvement industry leaders. A market consisting of over 10,000 school districts is quite different from one made up of over 100,000 schools. Sticking with the first reinforces the marketing advantages today’s large providers – the publishers. Moving to the second changes the rules of the game, and so opens up sales to hundreds of small, innovative- and research-driven providers.

I don’t see how we get the educational programs we need to improve student achievement if we leave school improvement to superintendents who seek programs that will work across their districts, and providers able to block all but their sister oligarchs from the marketplace. I can see it happening with principals who purchase programs that meet their needs and providers whose marketing advantage is based on demonstrated results with like-minded clients.

More later on the link between public policy and market structure - i.e., industrial policy.

1 Comment

The often unrecognized reason districts resort to re-centralization is the fact that most principals or regional administrators lack the vision, experience and training to successfully lead a quasi-independent organization. For decentralization to work will require a concerted effort to insure the necessary skills are in place and to provide training and support to the local leadership cadre. If this is not done, recentralizing will re-occur due to failure and the process just continues. Why is it that we as educators fail to recognize and put the required training resources in place? If any profession should recognize this need it should be educators. We just keep reshuffling the deck but seldom achieve systemic change.

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