Beware of the Easy School Fix

By Jay Mathews
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 26, 2008; 6:44 AM

When fixing schools, beware of miracle cures. Every week people send me ideas they say will change the future of education and lead all humanity to enlightenment. So, when management expert William G. Ouchi let me look at his new work on the surprising power of total student loads per teacher, or TSL, I was skeptical.

He says when middle or high school principals are given control of their schools' budgets -- a rare occurrence in big districts -- they tend to make changes in staffing, curriculum and scheduling that sharply reduce TSL, the number of students each of their teachers is responsible for. Some urban districts have TSLs approaching 200 kids per teacher. But after principals get budgeting power, the load drops sharply, sometimes to as low as 80 kids per instructor. When that happens, the portion of students scoring "proficient" on state tests climbs. A group of New York schools had a surge of 11 percentage points after they reduced average TSL by 25 students per teacher.

I hear the mumbles out there. Yes, correlation is not causation. Test scores are not a perfect measure. Many other factors could explain the rise in achievement. For instance, the principals might be using their new powers to hire good teachers and fire bad ones.

I will wait to read the book Ouchi plans to publish on this next year, but a chapter he showed me indicates he has considered all the doubts. He is a longtime professor at the UCLA Anderson School of Management and the author of bestselling book "Theory Z: How American Business Can Meet the Japanese Challenge." Some of his colleagues have found his growing interest in schools, rather than businesses, somewhat peculiar, but his previous book, "Making Schools Work," persuaded several districts to embrace decentralized budgeting. In his new book, he has results from an unusually large sample of 442 schools in eight districts -- Boston, Chicago, Houston, New York, Oakland, St. Paul, San Francisco and Seattle. The findings are likely to bring him speaking invitations to many more cities.

"TSL may be the single most important fact to know about a school, particularly a middle school or high school," he says in the new book. And yet, he says, "by and large, TSL is still largely a secret, and few people know what it is or why it is important."

He's right about that. I had never heard the term before I read his chapter. I have asked every major school district in the Washington area for their TSL data. Every one that has responded said it doesn't have such information. It is not something they pay attention to.

This is not surprising. Researchers have focused for the past several decades on class size, considering the interaction between each teacher and the students in his or her room to be the key issue. That is likely true of elementary school teachers, who usually have only those students. Their class sizes and their TSLs are the same, about 25 per teacher nationwide.

But middle and high school teachers are normally subject specialists who teach three to six classes a day. Some school districts have union contracts that limit TSLs for high school and middle school teachers but still allow heavy loads, up to 170 in New York City and 225 in Los Angeles. There has been little opportunity to study the effects of handling so many kids -- reading their papers, grading their tests -- because schools rarely have a chance to reduce those workloads and see what happens. Ouchi's writings and the work of pioneering school superintendent Mike Strembitsky in Edmonton, Alberta, persuaded more districts to give their principals more budget control. That is turn led to changes in staffing that cut TSL.

Schools and school districts have been growing, as has the number of students for which each middle or high school teacher is responsible. That, Ouchi says, led teachers to abandon classrooms for staff jobs. District superintendents, defining power by the size of their headquarters staffs, created more non-teaching positions for them. Ouchi cites a 1997 study that concluded only 43 percent of school district employees were regularly engaged in classroom teaching.

"When a district has too few classroom teachers," Ouchi writes in his chapter, "student loads per teacher rise to the point where teachers can no longer know their students well enough to establish a bond of trust with them. Without this trust, a teacher can neither establish an orderly classroom nor push a student to do his or her best, and the teacher's job often becomes frustrating and constantly stressful."

Ouchi says good principals understand this. Once they have the power to use their budgets the way they think best, they cut non-teaching positions, increase the number of teachers and reduce their TSLs. "One school, for example, may not need or want security guards or professional-development staff, while another may not want attendance clerks or registrars," he says. Principals, unlike central office managers, know which jobs have been rendered obsolete by new technology and which jobs exist simply because they have always existed. Changing curriculum, such as combining English and social studies classes, or revising schedules can also reduce TSL.

Could other factors, such as increasing teacher quality, explain the test score gains? Ouchi and his researchers analyzed three years of student performance. They looked at the effect of class size, teacher experience, teacher credentials, professional development, time devoted to math and reading instruction, and a few dozen other factors. "Among these, only TSL had a noticeable effect on student performance in every district, and that effect was large," Ouchi says.

In his chapter he says that making schools smaller can also reduce TSL. The success of public charter schools, with fewer students and powerful principals, seems in tune with his findings, he says. But he does not buy the argument that charters do better because their teachers are not hampered by union rules. Reducing TSL seems to increase achievement whether the teachers are unionized or not.

Ouchi examines other results of decentralized budgeting. He acknowledges his ideas need more testing. Hopeful first results often precede disappointment. Giving good principals more budget power might not change the world, but anything that coaxes teenagers into listening to their teachers is worth a look.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company