Research Brief

The United States spends more per student than any other industrialized nation except Israel. Yet, dissatisfaction with the performance of our schools runs high. Why is their perceived performance so flawed and why has wave after wave of reform failed to make any significant difference in that performance? According to a rising chorus of critics, both inside and outside academia, the culprit is the structure of the public school system—a rigidly top-down, rule-driven bureaucracy.

"No one would consciously set out to design such a system," says Paul T. Hill, author of Reinventing Public Education. Even so, in more than 100 years, no fundamental overhaul of the institution has ever been seriously considered. What Hill argues for in this report is just such a comprehensive change.

The report makes a case for contracting—a new approach to school governance that builds on the charter school movement but would extend the autonomy of charter schools (about 140 nationwide) to all schools. Under contracting, school boards would no longer directly manage schools. Instead, they would contract with independent organizations to run them.

What's Wrong with the Existing Structure?

The structure of the American public school system dates to the early industrial age. The paradigm is school-as-factory, turning out standard products, with teachers as laborers, principals as foremen, and superintendents as general overseers. How public officials supervise a school; how much discretion teachers and principals have; and how decisions are made about curriculum, teaching methods, student attendance, graduation requirements, hiring, and quality control—these were all merely grafted onto the basic structure over time with little thought about how the pieces fit together.

"When one considers all the organizations that define and limit what a school is, the image that comes to mind is a quarterback 'pile-on,'" Hill stated recently. "On the heap are state and local school boards, superintendents and central office administrators, Congress, the U.S. Department of Education, the courts, unions, parent-teacher organizations, neighborhood groups, and others. Each one is sure that the requirements it imposes will make schools better. The local school, where student meets teacher and the real business of education takes place, is at the very bottom of the pile."

Though none of these agencies, actors, or power centers is, by itself, capable of improving a school, virtually any one of them can stop reform dead in its tracks. That is the fate that appears to have befallen site-based management, one of the most highly touted innovations of the past decade. The reformers' mistake, according to Hill, was in trying to increase initiative and problem-solving by teachers and principals—without changing the roles of school board, superintendents, and teacher unions: "Schools found that they could not change in important ways if all the rules and governing bodies above them stayed in place."

Nor are other proposals such as vouchers, choice, and even charter schools likely to accomplish their purpose on a widespread basis as long as current governance arrangements are in force.

How Is Contracting Likely to Make a Difference?

According to Hill, "unlike the present system, in which schools are both funded and operated by a government agency," contracting "allows schools to be operated by a variety of public and private organizations, based on school-specific contracts that would define each school's mission, guarantee public funding, and ensure accountability."

Contractors might range from the staff and parents of existing successful schools to community groups, universities, and others. If they failed to deliver, they could be replaced. Teachers would be employed by the schools rather than the school system. Their salary scales would be set by the market so that the best would be the most highly paid.

This arrangement effectively stretches education dollars by reducing spending on school system bureaucracies and directing all the money to the school level. Contract schools would receive funds on a per-student basis, and competition would force them to focus spending on instruction and student services. Schools might have different spending priorities: Some might spend all their money on teachers' salaries and instructional equipment, while others might use parts of their funding to support athletic teams or improved facilities. However, none could afford to short-change instruction, because continuation of their contracts would depend on how much their students learn.

The role of school boards would be transformed. No longer would they be responsible for managing the day-to-day operation of schools—those tasks would be taken over by the contractors. Instead, the school board's job would be to evaluate proposals, let and manage contracts, and ensure that contractors deliver on their promises. Contracting would also require changes in the roles of state and federal government—ranging from the ways schools are financed and teachers are credentialed to state and national testing systems.

Contracting would clearly bring an upheaval to public education, necessarily and deliberately so. But Hill maintains that it offers a creative and focused way to leave ultimate responsibility for school quality in the hands of public officials while, at the same time, lifting the burden of overregulation, providing positive performance incentives for school staffs, and ensuring that the lion's share of public funds is spent at the school level. "Contracting allows something that is not possible in public education today: unrelenting attention to the quality of instruction and learning in the lowest-performing schools."

Large school systems cannot convert to this new governance structure overnight, Hill acknowledges. He suggests that big city school boards subject the proposal to a "hard first test" by contracting out for operation of their poorest-performing schools.

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