The Decentralization Mirage

Comparing Decisionmaking Arrangements in Four High Schools

by Bruce A. Bimber

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Decentralization has been a centerpiece of U.S. education reform for a decade and has been driven by the idea that removing centrally designed constraints so school staffs can exercise greater discretion will produce better schools. So far, however, there is little evidence of better student achievement. This study analyzes decisionmaking at four high schools having varying degrees of decentralization and finds that decentralization efforts can fail to significantly change external constraints and decisionmaking authority. The chief reason for the limited effects of decentralization in this study is the inseparability of decisions regarding budget, personnel, instruction, and operations. Attempts to decentralize authority over some decisions have limited impact when control over other, related decisions remains centralized. In addition, many features of governance arrangements insulate the financial and professional interests of teachers and administrators from one another and from the performance of their schools, thus exacerbating risk-aversion, mistrust, and inaction. While it is too soon to know whether significant governance changes improve schools educationally, it is clear that decentralization can fail to produce meaningful governance changes.

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