Question #22

What, in conclusion, are the most important points for school reformers to bear in mind?

If our research into the causes of school performance is basically on target, it holds several simple but important lessons for school reformers. The first is that school performance can easily be undermined by school reformers. If reformers believe, as many certainly do, that greater effectiveness can be obtained from schools through enlightened regulation and training, reformers are likely to be proven wrong. The qualities that effective schools most need to possess – ambitious academic goals, strong educational leadership, professional staff organization – cannot easily be imposed or taught by education reformers or government authorities. Indeed, external efforts to force school change, however well-intentioned, can make schools worse. The reason is that the organizational requisites for effectiveness tend to develop not when schools are told how to operate, but rather, when they are given the autonomy to develop their organizations themselves.

The second lesson of our research, then, is that school reformers should provide more discretion and authority to the schools. More decisions about personnel, curriculum, instruction, and discipline should be made by principals and teachers, and fewer decisions should be made by state legislatures, school boards, and superintendents. Educational policymaking should be substantially decentralized.

The third lesson, however, is that decentralization must involve more than the restructuring of public school administration. If schools are to be provided with meaningful autonomy – the kind that gives schools more adequate flexibility to tailor their staffs and their programs to the needs of their students, and thereby to improve the performance of their schools – decentralization cannot be accompanied by elaborate administrative accountability systems. To the extent that schools are required to make decisions and produce outputs according to the specifications of central education authorities, the value of autonomy for school improvement will be reduced. The only way to preserve autonomy and accountability too is to move to an alternative system for ensuring accountability. If our research is correct, the most promising alternative to a system of political and administrative control is a system that controls schools through the market. Public educational systems governed by the forces of school competition and parental choice are far more likely than current educational systems to encourage the development of autonomous schools that perform effectively.

There is a fourth and final lesson, however. If a system of educational choice is to make a significant difference in school performance, it must be freed from a key source of control now exercised by public school authorities. It will not be enough for reformers to grant parents the right to choose their children's schools. If the schools from which parents must choose remain under the firm control of central education authorities, parents will not have a real choice, and the system will not be subjected to the market forces that promise to change school organization and performance. Choice is relatively meaningless if the choices are not permitted to change. Hence, reformers should recognize that the most crucial reform for them to make, if parental choice is to promote real school improvement, is to end the monopoly that public school systems have long exercised over the supply of schools.

Limited forms of parental choice are steps in the right direction, to be sure. But partial measures are precisely the kinds of measures that public education systems are most likely to undo. If educational choice is to make a real difference, it must be given a real chance.