Replacing Dwarfs with Giants

Published April 12, 1995

Balzac called the bureaucracy “a gigantic force driven by dwarfs.” In our generation, his definition aptly describes public education in America.

Don’t get me wrong. There are many bright, sincerely committed individuals serving the education bureaucracy. But even the best of them are dwarfed by the unfathomably complex system in which they work. Good intentions, by the time they work their way through the bureaucracy, produce unintended consequences.

That is why local control of schools, though messy and noisy and subject to its own error, has important advantages: The unintended consequences of local decisions are limited to a narrow sphere, are quickly recognized, and can be nimbly addressed.

The Chicago Public Schools for years exemplified the problem of bureaucracy. A single unelected board managed thousands of employees from offices on Pershing Road. The results were an “educational meltdown” and arguably the worst schools in America.

That is why Chicago was willing to risk the messiness and noise that come with decentralization when it adopted a radical version of local control in 1989. Each of its public schools is now governed by its own local school council consisting of the principal, six parents, two teachers, and two community representatives. All but the principal are elected by parents, teachers, and community members for two-year terms. Principals serve under the conditions of four-year contracts granted by the local school councils.

Unfortunately, just six years after Chicago’s landmark school reform was adopted, patience has worn thin with the local school councils. In part, this is due to the messiness and noise that must accompany democratization. But our growing impatience also has come about because the schools remain in a financial quagmire, test scores and graduation rates are almost unchanged, and children do not seem to be learning any more under decentralization than before.

My perspective on this situation is that of a proponent of school communities. Too often, schools are discussed in terms of their relationship to the community, suggesting that schools are something apart from community. In fact, schools are themselves capable of functioning as communities. When a school does so, its students, parents, teachers, and staff associate with one another and share common values about the education of children. I suggest that Chicago’s school reform has stalled because it does not address the real obstacles to the development of living, breathing, thriving school communities.

Test scores will improve when children whose scores are unacceptably low receive more instructional time, more homework, and more insistence from their families and communities that effort is the ingredient of success over which they may exercise the greatest control. All American children spend too little time in school and too little time on task, and this condition especially disadvantages those students who fall behind. Students who fall behind remain behind; this is due, in part, to the fact that they attend school the same amount of hours as students who are not behind.

What does this have to do with local control? With greater control over terms of employment, a locally controlled school may, for example, decide that it will be open 215 days per year instead of 180. Teachers and other employees will accept employment on that basis. Freed from the labyrinth of state credentialling, administrators may also find innovative, effective, and efficient ways to staff their schools.

Financial problems will become less systemic when money simply flows from the agency that collects it to the school a child chooses to attend. This will require radical destruction of the education bureaucracy, confidence in the ultimate efficacy of school-level control, and tolerance for a little noise and messiness within some school communities.

The alternative of continually expanding bureaucracies at every level–district, state, and federal– has failed to produce the results we want. How about letting a few giants–parents and teachers– wield their own force in providing education for children they can call by name? Our system of education needs more, not less, local control.

Sam Redding, a founding member of the Prairie State Initiative, is Director of the Center for the School Community, a division of the Academic Development Institute devoted to the study and promotion of the school as a community. A longer version of this essay appeared in the Spring/Summer 1994 issue of The School Community Journal.