School Decentralization

Lessons from the Study of Bureaucracy

by Bruce A. Bimber

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Decentralization has become an organizing principle for much of the education reform movement in the U.S., but it is plagued by an important problem: education reformers disagree over what decentralization really entails. This report discusses the meaning of decentralization based on social science theory and the experiences of other public institutions. It defines decentralization in terms of decision-making authority, and discusses its implications for those who work in schools. The report argues that decentralization need not imply group decision-making arrangements. Successful, decentralized organizations often have strong, focused leadership at the local level rather than dispersed authority. It also argues that decentralized organizations should employ incentive systems that provide meaningful connections between workers’ performance and the rewards and sanctions they receive. The report concludes that the relationship between decentralized schools and central offices ought to be envisioned as a “contract” that assigns responsibility for setting goals to central offices and gives schools discretion to choose the means required to accomplish those goals. In distinction to this form of administrative relationship, existing rule-based governance systems both set goals and determine means centrally, and assign schools responsibility only for compliance with rules.

The research described in this report was supported by the George Gund Foundation and by a grant from the Lilly Endowment Inc.

This report is part of the RAND Corporation monograph report series. The monograph/report was a product of the RAND Corporation from 1993 to 2003. RAND monograph/reports presented major research findings that addressed the challenges facing the public and private sectors. They included executive summaries, technical documentation, and synthesis pieces.

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