Research Brief

What started out as one of the most promising school reforms in a decade seems to be foundering. According to a study from RAND's Institute on Education and Training, the nationwide push to give local schools more control over decisions that significantly affect the quality of education has been baffled by the amount of control that is still vested outside the schools.

Decentralization, which includes innovations like site-based management and school-based decisionmaking, is based on the assumption that reducing bureaucratic controls will prompt teachers and principals to exert greater initiative and to tailor instruction to the needs of students. It has failed, the study says, not because the premise is flawed but because the true locus of power remains where it has always been—with school boards, central office staffs, and state authorities.

Though enthusiasm for decentralization shows no sign of abating, "there is little evidence of better student achievement, and few schools calling themselves 'decentralized' have made major changes in established educational practices," according to Bruce Bimber in The Decentralization Mirage: Comparing Decisionmaking Arrangements in Four High Schools.

Bimber analyzed decisionmaking at four high schools with varying degrees of decentralization. He found that years after decentralization was introduced, governance structures either remained centrally controlled or, at best, were a hybrid of centralized and decentralized arrangements.

The schools in the study were chosen to represent four points along a spectrum of decentralization.

The first school is located in a city embracing an old-style educational governance system with centralized authority and well-differentiated administrative functions. This school provides a model of centralized governance with many external constraints on school-level decisionmaking. It is this type of governance that decentralization efforts typically aim to reform.

The second school has been "decentralized." It employs site-based management and is typical of many decentralized schools. It was chosen to represent public schools that have made modest efforts to move away from centralized governance.

The third school has implemented more extensive decentralized governance changes. It represents what today might be called radical decentralization and allows an examination of the effects on decisionmaking of a set of strenuous governance-reform efforts in a public school setting.

The last school is private and by its very nature is independent of centralized authority and hierarchical control. It illustrates a form of governance in which there are very few external constraints on decisions of the school staff.

Bimber found "remarkably little difference" between decisionmaking constraints at the traditional, centralized school and the two "decentralized" public schools. Control over what is taught and who teaches it, over how money is spent and how discipline is administered, over the length of the school day and year, and even over repairs to the physical plant remain for the most part outside the schools' jurisdiction.

The main reason for the limited effects of decentralization is the inseparability of decisions. Linkages among budget, personnel, instructional, and operational decisions mean that "decentralized" authority ostensibly given school staff over one class of decisions has effectively been limited by centralized constraints on other classes of decisions. For example, a school might have discretion over the selection of supplementary textbooks, but this decision is dependent on how much money is available for educational materials, and discretion over that decision resides with the parent school district.

"It is too soon to know whether significant governance changes improve schools educationally, but not too soon to see that decentralization efforts can fail to produce meaningful governance changes," Bimber concludes.

This policy brief describes work sponsored by RAND's Institute on Education and Training with funds from a grant by the Lilly Endowment Inc. and the George Gund Foundation.

This report is part of the RAND Corporation Research brief series. RAND research briefs present policy-oriented summaries of individual published, peer-reviewed documents or of a body of published work.

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