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 May 1999

Education Reform Lessons from the Trenches
By Dr. William Ouchi

Governor Gray Davis recently took a significant first step toward improving student achievement in California's public schools by signing into law a four-bill package of education reforms that increase accountability and strengthen reading instruction. The important, underlying message in his actions is that California's public schools can indeed be fixed.

For his efforts to champion education as the centerpiece of his administration and for taking action quickly to address this serious issue, Governor Davis deserves high praise. But these top-down programs can succeed only if they are matched by similar efforts from the bottom up.

At the Los Angeles Educational Alliance for Restructuring Now (LEARN), we have learned a number of hard-won lessons over the course of eight years of efforts to reform the state's largest and perhaps most bureaucratic school district, the Los Angeles Unified.

The district still faces enormous hurdles in its path to improve student achievement. However, by following a single principle relentlessly, we have begun to turn the tide of falling test scores across all grade levels and in all subject areas; re-energize parents, teachers and principals; introduce competition among schools; increase innovation and opportunity, and save money in the process. How? We did it by providing local school sites with a system of increased freedom and accountability to serve the needs of their communities.

The four LEARN principles that have guided our efforts include:

Decentralization with Accountability, which increases local school decision-making and budgeting authority, while establishing measurements to hold principals accountable for specific gains in student achievement;

Collaboration, which brings all stakeholders - administrators, faculty, staff, parents and students - into the reform process with the agreement that everyone accept responsibility for helping the school achieve its goals;

School Site Action Plan, which must involve all stakeholders in developing a school-wide action plan; and

Professional Development, which provides the training and support school staff need to implement reforms at each school site successfully.

While this decentralized approach can be taken much further, LEARN schools have begun to outpace their non-reform peers in the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) in the ultimate measure of progress: student achievement. LEARN schools scored higher in math, reading and language at every grade level versus non-LEARN schools on the 1997 and 1998 Stanford 9 Achievement Tests.

How does decentralization lead to better learning? To sum it up: "One size doesn't fit all."

It begins with the idea that teachers and principals at each school are equipped to design better education programs for the children they serve than are administrators two or three levels removed from them. In order to accomplish this, of course, schools need more direct control over their budgets and staff resources, as well as the freedom to implement a curriculum that meets both the needs of their students and basic state requirements.

Dr. William Ouchi is chairman of LEARN, the Los Angeles Educational Alliance for Restructuring Now. He is vice dean at UCLA's Anderson Graduate School of Management, where he teaches management and organizational design.

This increased local decision-making also provides tremendous motivation to principals and teachers, because it gives them a greater role in defining how they will educate their students and at least the rudimentary tools for success. It also energizes parents and draws them into the schools because now principals and teachers must involve them in important decisions and planning. Studies have shown that parental involvement is the single most powerful force in improving learning.

A second important ingredient in the success of decentralization is accelerated competition and choice within the public school framework. By state law, LAUSD parents can move their children to schools outside of their neighborhoods if these schools have empty seats. This flexibility only matters, though, if there are worthwhile differences among schools. LEARN provides the tools and training schools need to develop specialized strengths in their curriculums - e.g., science, music, vocational training - that will differentiate them from other schools, attract parents and students, and engender competition within the public school system.

Competition spurs schools to improve the quality of their teaching and planning in order to attract students and the state resources that follow. Second, and less obviously, it encourages schools to begin to develop specialties - magnet programs - which are popular models in other countries. This could include any of the following and more: focus on music or science; expertise in vocational training or in teaching the learning disabled, and altering schedules to nights and weekends to meet the needs of dropout students.

Over time, as schools build their own particular areas of strength, parents will have considerably greater freedom to choose schools that best fit the needs of their children. In an increasingly diverse California, we need a wider variety of schools to meet a wide variety of needs.

A third benefit of doing away with "one size fits all" public schools comes from the sheer innovation it unleashes. Until recently, students at Mulholland Middle School in West Los Angeles lacked lab science facilities and courses. As a result, many could not enter high school lab science courses and, subsequently, had difficulty entering the colleges of their choice. Armed with the freedom to redesign their curriculum, school officials asked retired aerospace executives to help them build lab facilities. Today, Mulholland Middle School students enjoy hands-on laboratory projects during their science classes using the new facilities. This is one of many such examples of innovation at schools that have adopted LEARN's model of decentralization.

A final benefit of local decision-making - a counter-intuitive one - is the significant cost savings it generates over time. When we started LEARN in the early 1990s, we invited administrators of charter schools from England, where the concept originated, to advise us. One of our first questions concerned costs, or whether decentralization would lead to duplication of staff. The English laughed and explained that, in their experience, decentralization actually saves money by giving local principals, teachers and parents the freedom to redirect funds misspent on inappropriate staff and programs.

Our own experience over the last eight years has borne this out. Not only Mulholland Middle School, but a number of others participating in LEARN reforms - such as the Foshay Learning Center and the Palisades Complex - today generate budget surpluses that they redirect to locally determined priorities.

The promise of these reforms can only be fully realized by establishing funding mechanisms and administrative practices at the state level that push decision-making and accountability all the way down to individual, local schools. As our experience has begun to demonstrate, decentralization produces not only better achievement results, but also considerable innovation, competition and, ultimately, cost savings.

When state policymakers and officials begin to lay out the necessary next steps in the governor's education platform, they should work hard to ensure that new, tougher state mandates are accompanied by the flexibility for local districts to put in place decentralized "bottom up" reforms to match the "top down" reforms that Governor Davis just signed into law.

Competition spurs schools to improve the quality of their teaching and planning in order to attract students and the state resources that follow.