Guest Column

Downsizing Your Way to Greater Achievement

by Maxine Bleich


Thanks to site-based management, administrative downsizing, and the shifting of resources closer to students, the days of the huge central office are over. Effective superintendents are gearing up to support decentralization as a mechanism for sparking greater school achievement.

Over the past 30 years as academic standards and student performance have declined, superintendents have tightened the reins on principals in an attempt to manage and/or control inadequate student performance. These strict controls have made principals reluctant to innovate in instructional matters, forcing them to implement policies adopted higher up.

Ironically, this control has reduced accountability while encouraging the practice of "plausible deniability" by district and school administrators. Plausible deniability occurs when leaders ignore the depths of problems in curriculum and instruction and insulate themselves from responsibility for the lack of significant improvement in student learning. As a result, classroom strategies to improve student performance are neither well understood nor recognized, and often they are supported only by trendy rhetoric.

Shared Decisions

The shrinking central office provides an opportunity to demolish this damaging practice. Lacking the numbers of professional staff to oversee traditional tight control of schools, superintendents must collaborate with experts in curriculum and instruction to develop learning standards and then support principals as they lead teachers to meet these standards.

We know that principals can succeed in leading such changes because many already are improving academic performance. For example, schools as diverse as Dumas High School in the Delta region of Arkansas and Clara Barton High School in Brooklyn, N.Y., have raised students’ grades and enrollment in advanced courses by restructuring their schools around results.

The principals of both schools have put in place a strong academic program, enforced meaningful homework requirements, demanded good attendance, and instituted mandatory independent reading and study. Student achievement is demonstrated through testing based on both standardized and alternative assessments administered by the district and the school. All students are expected to meet new and still-emerging state and national standards, which include content, analytical reasoning, and problem-solving criteria.

Providing a steady focus on raising student and teacher performance, superintendents support principals in these and similar schools by allowing those at the school sites to select books, curriculum materials, and new instructional practices to improve student performance. Superintendents and principals, working with teachers, endorse an assessment approach that combines teacher-generated, standardized, and alternative measurements of student achievement. The results then are used to inform the schools’ instruction.

Just as the superintendent no longer dictates to the principal, site administrators must become a leader of equals. "Principals need to be better facilitators, no longer the people who just say what to do," says Milli Blackman, director of the Principals’ Center at Harvard University.

In effective schools, authority no longer is assigned by the superintendent, she says. Instead, principals build authority through collaboration with teachers and staff, working as a team to raise the quality of instruction and establish their schools as places of teacher-initiated reforms and continuous improvement.

Removing Camouflage

This shift of district support to principals as CEOs can free schools to focus on academics and increase accountability to the public. Poor teachers and administrators will not be able to blame regulations and paperwork for their failures. Instead they receive training and support to improve while the best teachers have the freedom to innovate and inspire their students.

Superintendents can help this process by removing the camouflage and publicly supporting principals in their expanded roles. They choose principals for their ability to innovate, lead others, and encourage greater independence.

The success of schools led by strong principals who have been granted some autonomy will show that tight control is unnecessary and counterproductive. Clearly, in a time of smaller budgets and shrinking staff, superintendents no longer can run individual schools by remote control.

By necessity, schools must be granted freedom and, at the same time, be held responsible for meeting standards of student achievement. Principals and school staff must be empowered to determine the best ways to set high expectations, add rigor to the classroom, and achieve the desired result—educated young men and women.

Maxine Bleich is president, Ventures in Education, New York, N.Y.

Ventures In Education is a nonprofit organization dedicated to helping minority and disadvantaged students achieve in school.