Who's in charge?

October 16, 1990

Despite grumblings from parent groups, the Baltimore city school board has decided to push ahead with plans to decentralize the schools, starting next year with a pilot program involving 20 schools. In principle, the idea is sound. But how the plan actually might work in practice is still a mystery; at this point, no one seems to know.

There is general agreement that so-called "site-based management," which gives individual principals, teachers and parents a bigger say in how schools are run -- and greater accountability for results -- is vital to any long-term reform effort. But decentralization is only a means to an end, not an end in itself. It's an improvement only if put in service of some larger vision of what education ought to be, and only if it encourages schools to adopt more innovative approaches to teaching and learning. There is no evidence that merely changing the locus of control from central office to neighborhood school translates into a better education for students.

Granted, the best schools are ones in which principals, teachers and parents have a stake in deciding how programs are run. But that's because they share a common vision and common goals. The vision must come first. And vision is what seems to be lacking so far in the board's precipitous rush to decentralize.

The bureaucracy may be divesting itself of some of its powers, but decentralization still must be managed, so that as authority devolves on individual schools it will serve the reform process rather than merely replicate at the local level the organizational ineptitude and hubris of the old system.

That is why the situation cries out for strong leadership that can articulate a persuasive vision of where the schools are going and how they plan to get there. But at present the system still seems to be stumbling along on automatic pilot, unsure of where it is headed and uncertain who, if anyone, is really in charge.

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