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Published:February 2nd, 2008 05:05 EST

An Alternative to the National Accountability in Schools

By Glenn Brandon Burke (Mentor/Speaker)

     “Accountability is an exercise in hope. When we raise academic standards, children raise their academic sights. When children are regularly tested, teachers know where and how to improve. When parents know scores, parents are empowered to push for change. When accountability for our schools is real, the results for our children are real” (President George W. Bush, August 1, 2001). 

President Bush’s quote is from several-years-ago, and though ideal and well intentioned, it is just a theory. The American educational system would not be in the situation it is today if the theory truly worked. For decades, educators, philosophers, parents, and the like have been trying to improve the educational system. They have been attempting to increase the pass results of standardized testing in elementary, middle and high school all in the name of student improvement and accountability. Yet nothing has changed. The almighty is…what will work?

Instead of flip-flopping around and back and forth, let’s examine proven autonomous or decentralized school practice.

Researchers discovered that the schools that consistently performed best also had the most decentralized management systems — individual principals, not administrators in a central office, controlled school budgets and personnel. They were fully responsible and fully accountable for the performance of their schools. With greater freedom and flexibility to shape their educational programs, hire specialists as needed, and generally determine the direction of their school, the best principals act as entrepreneurs. Those who fail are placed under the supervision of successful principals, who assume responsibility for the failing schools.

The results of a landmark study of 223 schools in six cities that Dr. Ouchi supervised,  which was funded in part by the National Science Foundation, shows that a school’s educational  performance may be most directly affected by how the school is managed. The study examined innovative school systems in Edmonton, Canada; Seattle, and Houston, and compared them with the three largest traditional school systems: New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago.

An essential component of this management approach is something called Weighted Student Formula (WSF). In the WSF system every student is evaluated and assessed a certain dollar value in educational services (a non-English speaking or autistic student, or one from a low-income family, for example, would receive a higher dollar value than a middle-class student with no special needs). Families have the freedom to choose among public schools, and when schools must compete for students, good schools flourish while those that do poorly literally go out of business. Such accountability has long worked for religious schools and independent schools, where parents pay a premium for educational performance. (Dr. Ouchi, 2001).

The Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) is the second largest school system in the country, and perhaps the worst (Dr. Ouchi, 2001). With less than half of its 75,000 plus employees being classroom teachers, L.A. spends about 35% of its budget on teacher pay.  Compare that to Houston, Texas, and Edmonton, in the Canadian province of Alberta 49% and 56% of their budget on teachers.

Since 1980, the LAUSD’s enrollment has increased by nearly 200,000 students, yet has added slightly less than 25 schools with a total of roughly 30,000 seats. That results in nearly 200,000 students being bussed to distant campuses, attending year-round schools that push through more students but offer 17 less days of instruction.

Dr. Ouchi has spent 30-years studying some the largest companies in the United States, and has shown that in order for these companies to succeed, they must truly be decentralized or they will fail. Businesses and schools alike must have decentralized decision-making, thus allowing complete autonomy with accountability to sub-units in order to function effectively.

True decentralization requires that the individual school be allowed to completely control their own budget. Doing so will allow them to allocate monies where truly needed. For instance; identifying the educational needs of each student, teaching, counseling, and other staff resources required to meet individual student needs, and staffing plan that combines the full-time, part-time, outsourced, credentialed, and non-credentialed personnel required providing those services to students.

Between 1930 and 2001, U.S. enrollment grew from 25.7 million to 47.5 million, while the number of public schools declined from 113,000 to 88,585. As a result, the average size,  elementary, middle, and high schools increased from 227 students to 515 (Chubb, 2001). 

Meanwhile, the number of private schools increased from 12, 500 to 36, 095, while the average size of those schools declined from 211 students to 160. Throughout this period of 66-years, private schools held steady at 10% of all students, with public schools holding 90%, although private schools appear to have gained some ground recently. Even among private schools, though, dramatic changes are underway. For example, over the years 1965-2000,  enrollment in U.S. Catholic schools fell by 55%, from 5.5 million to 2.5 million, while  Jewish school grew from 73, 112 to 169,751 (Cooper and Kramer, 2003).

Accountability for education in the United States has always been on the forefront of the nation, yet nothing has seriously improved it. It’s time to look at an alternative. Moreover, that alternative is the successful autonomous/decentralized schools. Run a school like a successful business and succeed. If not, you will continue to fail the children and ultimately the nation.

Glenn Brandon Burke, M.A.Ed.,

Motivational Speaker and Author     


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