Unless forced to, I don't write about school systems. They are often too big and bureaucratic for me, and the school board meetings -- hour after hours of minuscule rule changes and pointless discussion -- are torture. I tell everyone I am a classroom reporter. I pride myself on my very infrequent contact with superintendents and school board members.
Unfortunately, despite my ignoring them, school systems are still with us. I have come into possession of two studies of what helps them succeed that I feel obliged to discuss, as long as everyone understands this is not going to be a regular thing.
The broader of the two studies, "Power to the Principals: Decentralization in Three Large School Districts" by UCLA business management professor William G. Ouchi, comes out this month in the journal Organization Science. The narrower study, of great interest to Washington area readers, is a short book, "Education Empire: The Evolution of an Excellent Suburban School System," ($21.95 at amazon.com) by University of Virginia education professor Daniel L. Duke.
Both studies say one way to improve student achievement in large systems is to give school principals more power. Duke's book is about Fairfax County. The Virginia jurisdiction has had remarkable success educating both rich and poor students by decentralizing the education of students with disabilities and letting schools choose demanding programs. Ouchi's article goes much, much further than that. He praises a radical decentralization program invented in 1976 by Mike Strembitsky, the superintendent of the Edmonton, Alberta, schools in Canada, and reports significant improvement in two American urban districts, Seattle and Houston, that adopted the Edmonton model.
Please take a moment for a brief note of caution from me, the reluctant reporter of school systems. It is very difficult, indeed often foolhardy, to compare school systems to each other and declare why some are doing better than others. They have so many factors affecting achievement -- poverty level, cultural background, administrative habits, state funding formulas, union strength, taxing authority, school board politics -- that it is impossible to decide conclusively what changes have had what impact. That is why I prefer to focus on individual students and individual schools.
But Ouchi and Duke are serious scholars presenting their results, not making claims. What they say about why these four systems have done well deserves close examination, even if I don't have any great hope that they have found what will cure the ills of whichever urban school system is in your neighborhood.
Duke makes no secret of the most important reason for the high achievement of Fairfax County students -- most of their parents have good jobs and good educations. As he notes on page 1: "Fairfax County, of course, is not just any suburban area. It is one of, if not the wealthiest counties in the United States."
But there are many affluent school systems that have not done nearly as well as Fairfax in educating their low-income and minority students. Some of the county's schools, such as Stuart and Mt. Vernon high schools, have high poverty levels and yet their students do very well in demanding programs such as International Baccalaureate and Advanced Placement. Fairfax has seen good results from giving its low-performing elementary schools more resources and longer school days, and 92 percent of its students with disabilities graduate with traditional diplomas.
Duke titles one section of the book "The Best School System in America," using the quotation marks to emphasize that this is just an opinion (although one that I share). Although he singles out Fairfax, there are a few other districts that rival Fairfax's quality, such as its Maryland neighbor Montgomery County, and many others that would do well too if they had Fairfax's $1.8 billion annual budget.
But Duke's analysis of what else sets Fairfax apart is interesting. He says that Fairfax's administrators and school board members have high expectations for the school system, read the latest research and are often ahead of most districts in embracing new and promising methods. The school system benefits from being relatively stable, with few crises or political battles, and thus more willing, Duke says, to make serious changes and stick with them. Fairfax leaders' approach to change, Duke emphasizes, is usually well-balanced. "They understand that the end result often must be judicious compromise, a balancing of competing interests," he says.
Ouchi ignores the middle-of-the-road approach and investigates a policy shift most systems could not even imagine. In part because of his books and articles on Edmonton, that oil and agriculture center with 80,000 students has appeared on the travel expense accounts of many U.S. educators.
Edmonton's superintendent Strembitsky was a visionary who loved to analyze budgets. He created a remarkable accountability system a generation ago in which schools are rated not only by test scores and budget performance, but by satisfaction surveys of their employees, students and parents. Parents are allowed to send their children to any school in the system, and the system in turn funds each school based on a formula that gives more money to schools that have more children who are poor, gifted, have learning disabilities or are not native English speakers.
That means that some students, sent to the school by their parents, bring five times as much money with them as other students, and the principals and their staffs decide how to spend it. If the students don't come, they have nothing to spend, so they become very sensitive to what parents want from their school, and their annually published test scores and satisfaction results are key to their survival.
Ouchi says that Houston and Seattle had impressive results when their school boards and superintendents adopted this approach in the 1990s. The principal of the John Hay Elementary School in Seattle, for instance, controlled only $25,000 of his funds before the change, and $2 million after. The John Hay principal and teachers reorganized the school day, invested in part-time reading and math coaches, and saw math scores go from the 36th to the 62nd percentile and reading scores from the 72nd to the 76th percentile in four years.
In Houston, the school system went from having only four schools reaching one of the two top categories in the state's test-score-based rating system in 1993 to having 123 in those categories in 2001. Ouchi says he has looked into the much publicized misreporting of graduation rates and test scores at some Houston schools and says "our review of the evidence convinces us that the district has made real and dramatic improvements in student achievement."
There are many powerful reasons why so few school systems have followed the Edmonton model. Money is power, and most school board members and superintendents of systems where spending decisions are made at headquarters don't want to give it up. But if these results hold up, and academic achievement becomes, as the reformers promise, the basis on which school administrative decisions are made, they may have to.
And if giving parents a choice of schools, assigning different dollar amounts to students based on what it costs to teach them and giving principals the responsibility for spending that money consistently produces better student achievement, I may have to start taking school systems, and what they do, more seriously.