Turning Schools Upside-Down

May 06, 1993

Ten years ago this spring, a federal commission issued a report, "A Nation at Risk," documenting an alarming breakdown in education. The panel presented a short list of repairs -- lengthen the school year, for example -- but it assumed the vehicle wouldn't change appreciably. American public schools would remain highly centralized, with school boards setting policy and superintendents and their bureaucracies passing orders down through school principals to teachers and students.

Yet even as President Reagan released the report, some were thinking: How can we reform education if we don't change the body, the structure itself? What if we turned the organizational pyramid upside down so key decisions are made where education occurs -- in the schools?

Called "restructuring," "school-based management" and "school-site management," it is a concept most larger districts are experimenting with -- or saying they are.

In Baltimore City, at least three programs currently incorporate the idea, the most visible being the nationally publicized Tesseract, under which nine schools have been "privatized" -- operated by a profit-making firm under a five-year, $26.7 million contract. Additionally, 14 schools are being decentralized, and a new program, the Transformation Project, will let four schools chart their own courses over three years with a minimum of interference from the city's central administration.

Miami and Chicago have been the proving grounds of upside-down schooling. Chicago's experiment has been the most closely watched. There, elected school councils (comprising principal, parents and teachers) have run schools for three years. Results so far are mixed.

Complications abound. Restructuring school districts means redistributing power, and that's a troublesome idea in any organization. Somebody or some body must order restructuring in the first place; that in itself is considered undemocratic.

Many reforms in the past -- for example, the "new math" -- failed because their well-meaning sponsors did not understand the culture of a school, particularly the way principals and teachers respond to proposed (or ordered) changes in their professional behavior. They resist them -- almost always. And here is an idea that results in the big bosses -- the superintendent and his or her colleagues -- relinquishing power to people they consider underlings. It's a radical notion. Many talk about it. Few do it voluntarily.

Reversing school relationships is a grand experiment. We'd like to see how it plays out because in schools where there is collaboration among the four key parties -- principal, teachers, parents and students -- and where energy is channeled into the task at hand, it usually works. We know because we've seen schools in some of Baltimore's poorest neighborhoods that do ++ work. It's the people and the leadership that matter. There's been too much emphasis on repairing the vehicle, too little on reforming the drivers.

.` Tomorrow: Educating Minorities

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