ERIC Identifier: ED446346
Publication Date: 2000-10-00
Author: Renchler, Ron
Source: ERIC Clearinghouse on
Educational Management Eugene OR.
New Patterns of School Governance. ERIC Digest Number 141.
School governance has long been a political football, as local, state, and
federal stakeholders work-sometimes cooperatively and sometimes at odds-to
establish or influence policy and then implement accountability measures to
track the quality of schools in the United States.
Proponents of change have recently recommended a number of new approaches-and
variations on old ones-to meet the complex challenge of improving public
education through different forms of school governance. However, as with change
in any organizational setting, resistance has been strong, and the public debate
on the appropriateness of new models for school governance continues.
This Digest explains why public-school governance is the subject of
increasing scrutiny, identifies who is held accountable for results in the
current governance system, and describes several recent proposals for
transforming governance structures.
WHY ARE CHANGES IN SCHOOL GOVERNANCE BEING
Most of the past decade's education reforms were initiated at
the state or the school level, bypassing or ignoring the school board and
district office. Now reformers are zeroing in on this neglected middle level of
governance, hoping that some changes--perhaps a redefinition of the role of
school boards, closer teamwork between board and superintendent, or
experimentation with new governance structures-will indirectly stimulate
improved performance at the school and classroom.
The latest round of debate about the most effective models for school
governance was precipitated by the publication in November 1999 of Governing
America's Schools: Changing the Rules, a report issued by the National
Commission on Governing America's Schools and sponsored by the Education
Commission of the States.
The commission's report documents the variety of performance standards by
which American schools are being judged. Especially problematic has been the
issue of lagging performance among minority students and students in urban
Although there is little quantitative evidence that governance structures
affect student academic achievement, more people seem willing to experiment with
altering those structures in the hope that the changes will stimulate educators
and students to perform at a higher level.
As Kirst and Bulkley (2000) note, "reformers will continue to use governance
and organizational changes in an effort to improve the performance of education,
even though these mechanisms may offer an indirect and uncertain strategy for
improving classroom instruction."
WHO'S ACCOUNTABLE IN THE GOVERNANCE SYSTEM?
Much of the
discussion of governance focuses on the sometimes rocky relationships among
teachers, principals, superintendents, and school boards. The implication is
that poor school performance won't be adequately addressed until these groups
work together as a team.
Some critics blame the system itself and call for systemic change, while
others favor workarounds to the current system, such as vouchers, school-choice
programs, and privatization. Moreover, states differ so widely in their
educational governance structures that it is difficult to prescribe a
one-size-fits-all solution. A brief list of modern-day governance interest
groups includes mayors, unions, business leaders, politicians, and community
leaders, in addition to teachers, principals, superintendents, and school boards
Superintendents, especially in urban districts, have taken more than their
fair share of the blame for the weaknesses in current school governance systems.
Firing the superintendent is usually the first step in addressing governance
problems, but this response seems only to have contributed to a high turnover
rate and "has often hindered efforts to improve schools" (Johnston 2000).
School boards are the other traditional targets in the school governance
blame game. Numerous observers have been critical of school boards and their
role in public education, especially the way they interact with school
superintendents (Carver 2000, Dawson and Quinn 2000, Edwards 2000, McAdams and
A report by the Educational Research Service and the New England School
Development Council (Goodman and Zimmerman 2000) notes that "too many state laws
require or allow boards to engage in the operational detail of a school system,"
such as hiring staff and adopting textbooks. State laws should limit the board's
role to policymaking, assign day-to-day operations to the superintendent, and,
most important, says the report, empower board and superintendent to function as
a unified leadership team.
WHAT DID THE ECS COMMISSION RECOMMEND?
political and administrative realities of school governance, the National
Commission on Governing America's Schools recommended, without preference, one
of two forms of governance: "(1) a system of publicly authorized, publicly
funded and publicly operated schools, based on some of the more promising trends
within the prevailing system of public education governance, and (2) a system of
publicly authorized, publicly funded and independently operated schools, based
on some of the more promising alternatives to the prevailing system of public
The first recommendation extends current governance structures to include a
few experimental strategies; the second recommendation effectively argues for
increased privatization of school governance.
Writing in Education Week, two commission members, Donald R. McAdams and Adam
Urbanski (1999), provide different views on the issues raised by the report.
McAdams argues that a system of independently operated schools-the second option
in the commission's report-would allow school boards to "govern more and manage
less." He believes that if schools were run by "individual nonprofit and
for-profit organizations, cooperatives, sole proprietorships, and the like,"
boards would be free of the need to focus on the details of how schools are run
and instead could "set standards, provide resources, and demand results."
Urbanski favors the first option--keeping schools publicly operated and
improving current governance structures. He believes decentralized governance
structures would allow changes at the classroom level, where "faculty, staff,
and parents in each community and at each school would have greater authority
and capacity to tailor the teaching and learning methods to meet high standards
as well as the unique needs of their students."
WHAT OTHER SCHOOL GOVERNANCE MODELS HAVE BEEN PROPOSED?
few economically based strategies for changes in school governance have been
proposed since the publication of the commission's report. Wang and Walberg
(1999) recommend a system of governance whereby states and local boards would
create basic standards that schools could devise their own ways to meet.
Thereafter, the authors say, schools would be free from "operational
regulation or close supervision." Schools that failed to meet the standards
would have a set of educational "best practices" imposed upon them. Continued
failure to meet standards would call for a clean sweep of staff or complete
school closure, "in which case. students could be given scholarships to attend
nearby public or private schools." Thus, all schools, public or private, would
essentially become entrepreneurial enterprises. "Let schools set their own
goals, standards, curricula, and character," the authors suggest. "Let
competition for students decide which is best."
A strategy for school governance with a business mold has been made popular
in the recent work of John Carver (2000), whose Policy Governance model assigns
the school superintendent a role parallel to that of the corporate CEO. Carver
says the role of the school board is "to govern the system, rather than run it."
He claims that school boards have traditionally micromanaged the educational
process, something that would spell doom for any manager in a business setting.
A radical redesign of the function of school boards, Carver explains, would
include (1) a focus on educational results rather than on the methods by which
they were achieved, (2) newly defined relationships with the general public and
parents, and (3) a commitment on the part of the board to speak with one voice
rather than as a group of individuals with individual agendas.
Changing or improving the relationship between the superintendent and school
board looms large in almost all proposals for different governance structures.
Edwards (2000), a school board member in Illinois for many years, suggests a
form of governance that "takes the decision-making power out of the hands of the
few (the board) and places it into the hands of many (parents, teachers,
administrators, and community members)." Edwards puts the locus of control at
the building level. "How absurd," Edwards notes, "to perpetuate a system in
which orders are handed down to educators from a board composed of people, who,
by and large, are not educators."
HAVE ANY CHANGES ALREADY TAKEN PLACE?
Dawson and Quinn
(2000), partners in a leadership development consulting firm, put Carver's
Policy Governance model to the test in several districts in Colorado. In
describing the experiences of their clients, the authors report that the school
boards were better able to focus on policy issues and that superintendents were
better able to carry out the day-to-day operations for which they were
Notable among recent developments in school governance has been the takeover
of several districts by outside entities when schools fail to make adequate
progress on their own. For a variety of reasons, these takeovers have occurred
mostly in urban districts (Anderson and Lewis 1997).
Kirst and Bulkley (2000) describe the recent mayoral takeovers of several
urban districts, including Chicago, Boston, Detroit, and Cleveland. Whether
mayors can successfully become educational leaders remains an open question, and
the effect of mayoral control on overall school performance will certainly be
difficult to document.
Cibulka (2000) concludes that "public school educators may help to reshape
the institution by their willingness to experiment with new institutional forms,
but they are unlikely to preserve the 'one best system' as we have known it." He
notes that "resistance to change" in old structures "is likely to further weaken
the institution's capacity to achieve its goals, and to maintain its legitimacy
Anderson, Amy Berk, and Anne C. Lewis. "Academic
Bankruptcy." ECS Policy Brief. Denver: Education Commission of the States, 1997.
Carver, John. "Remaking Governance." American School Board Journal (March
2000): 26-30. ED 536 841.
Cibulka, James G. "Contests over Governance of Educational Policy: Prospects
for the New Century." In Educational Leadership: Policy Dimensions in the 21st
Century, edited by Bruce Anthony Jones. 3-20. Stamford, CT: Ablex Publishing,
Dawson, Linda J., and Randy Quinn. "Clarifying Board and Superintendent
Roles." The School Administrator (March 2000): 12-14, 18. ED 636 863.
Edwards, Russell J. "A Board View: Let Educators Do Their Job." The School
Administrator (March 2000): 20-22, 24.
Goodman, Richard H., and William G. Zimmerman, Jr. Thinking Differently:
Recommendations for 21st Century School Board/Superintendent Leadership,
Governance, and Teamwork for High Student Achievement. Arlington, VA:
Educational Research Service; and New England School Development Council, 2000.
Johnston, Robert C. "Urban Education." Education Week, April 5, 2000.
Kirst, Michael, and Katrina Bulkley. "'New, Improved' Mayors Take Over City
Schools." Phi Deltan Kappan (March 2000): 538-46.
McAdams, Donald R., and Adam Urbanski. "Governing Well: Two Approaches From a
National Commission For Honing the Enterprise to Support Better Schools."
Education Week (November 24, 1999): 44, 32-33.
National Commission on Governing America's Schools. Governing America's
Schools: Changing the Rules. Denver: Education Commission of the States, 1999.
Wang, Margaret C., and Herbert J. Walberg. "Decentralize or
'Disintermediate'?" Education Week (December 1, 1999): 1, 36, 52.