Power to the Schools

With graduation season around the corner, I was recently thinking about a graduation speech I gave last year at the Graduate School of Education at the University of Pennsylvania. During the speech, I briefly made the case for evidence-based reform. Everyone seemed happy about it, but shortly afterward I got a scathing email from one of the graduates, who was furious (among other things) that I had not mentioned the crumbling of school districts such as Philadelphia. To make up for my omission, I will herewith explain why large urban districts like Philadelphia keep falling apart, and what to do about it.

Large urban districts face huge challenges in terms of funding, urban pathologies, and the indifference of people who do not live in them. However, there is a structural problem that inhibits their progress, I believe. This is the power of superintendents. School boards across the country seek wise, good, honest, and capable people to serve in this outsized job. Then in two to three years they chuck them out and start over. The process causes endless turmoil and undermines faith in the whole school district. Sometimes districts get lucky with an outstanding superintendent, but this is the exception; it’s not that most urban superintendents aren’t capable, but that no human being can do the job they’re asked to do.

In contrast to superintendents, principals and teachers stay for many years in the district, perhaps for their entire careers. As a result, they care deeply about the district, and have vast on-the-ground experience.

In endlessly seeking the genius superintendent, school boards are putting all their faith in the most transient part of the system. Further, by placing so much authority in the central office, they risk creating a top-down structure in which principals and teachers have little say or importance, and do not exert their best efforts to improve the system beyond their own school or classroom.

This is not the only possible system. In the 1990’s in the U.S., there was a strong movement toward site-based management. There were superintendents, but they more often left key instructional and staffing decisions to principals and school staffs. In England, where I work part time, equivalents of superintendents exist but individual principals and their staffs are free to decide how to use their resources to greatest benefit for their students.

These structural changes would not solve America’s problems in themselves, but they could do so in combination with national policies favoring evidence-based reform. Imagine, for example, that there were many proven, effective strategies for improving the outcomes of elementary and secondary schools. School staffs might decide among themselves which of these strategies to implement. The schools affiliating with a given model within a state or region might all become part of a network that cuts across district lines, each of which has its own approaches and each its own sense of professionalism. Parents might choose to have their children attend one or another kind of school.

Such a structure could capture the best of what charters and magnet schools do, with a key difference: Each of the school models would have strong evidence of effectiveness, and would be held accountable as a network for maintaining quality and delivering outcomes. Local superintendents would still be needed to administer the schools, but the unit of reform, the key decision makers in matters that affect student achievement, would be school staffs.

Philadelphia is in meltdown right now, but like other urban districts it’s been in deep trouble for a long, long time. To put it and other urban districts on the mend, we need to build on their strengths, the teachers and principals dedicated to their kids, and give school staffs powerful, proven tools to get the job done.

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