A Response to “Breaking the Mold”

Paul Hill and Ashley Jochim respond to a book review by Michael Kirst.

Mike Kirst’s review of our book, A Democratic Constitution for Public Education, is insightful and constructive and raises important questions about how our proposal would work in practice.

He correctly points out that public school principals are not trained for the roles we propose — setting priorities, making hiring decisions and budget tradeoffs (e.g. between salaries and purchase of on-line instruction), making the school attractive to families and teachers, and leading continuous improvement. But, as we argue, principals and potential principals won’t ever have these capacities unless and until the job changes, so that people wanting to take full responsibility seek it, and people wanting to avoid full responsibility avoid it. The same is true with pre-service training: it won’t cover a more ambitious set of skills until the job requires them.

When the school job changes (as it did in England where school heads got hiring and budget authority, and in New York City under Joel Klein’s school autonomy policy) the principal pool changes. Some school leaders use capacities they always had but couldn’t use, others learn what they need, and others quit and are replaced by people attracted to the new, more demanding job. This isn’t instantaneous but natural turnover allows steady replacement of people who don’t want to or can’t adapt. The system we have proposed also relieves principals of a lot of burdens, e.g., the many central office demand to attend meetings and be “trained” (or arrange staff training) in whatever the central office is peddling. How to prepare/retrain/select school leaders requires careful analysis, and happily there are exemplars in the places above.

True, changes in principal capacity will require new forms of training and support. But, these needs are finite, and they will be met only if the job changes.

Mike’s comments on the theory of action for school change under decentralization, and the need for attention to micropolitics, are great. There is an underlying theory of action, that schools whose existence depends on attracting parents and demonstrating performance will be more able to unify the work of staff, and more likely to search for effective methods and adapt to evidence, than schools where adults are free to do as they like and no one’s job is at risk. As we propose, there can be many forms of school organization, including teacher co-operatives and principal-dominated, and they can all work if disciplined by the need to improve results, not just keep peace among adults. We are more skeptical about parent-led governance because of the possibility of factionalization and dominance of short-term issues. But it will surely work in some cases. The work of the Chicago Consortium in Tony Bryk’s day is valuable here.

We already have a rich soup of internal governance models, in portfolio cities like NYC and Denver, and need to learn more about how they do and don’t work. Also big differences among CMOs, some of which are as centralized as traditional districts but others that offer varying mixes of freedom, control, and external help.

Finally, Mike notes that voters will be reluctant to think every single school should create its own curriculum. We agree, but that’s not likely to happen. It is much more likely that schools will attach to networks and take advantage of branding. This can buttress school leadership, make replication of good schools easier, and help schools to attract and inform parents and teachers. Also make it possible for teacher and principal training institutions to meet schools’ needs.

With Mike, we think our book opens up many new questions and suggests ways states, localities, and scholars can try out, learn from, and improve upon our basic conception of constitutional governance — limited powers and checks and balances among schools, local government, states, and the feds.

Paul T. Hill is Founder of the Center on Reinventing Public Education and Research Professor at the University of Washington Bothell. Ashley Jochim is a Research Analyst at the Center on Reinventing Public Education.

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