Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Decentralization: Lessons From the Detroit Public Schools

Decentralization is a concept that elicits a broad range of reactions from Detroiters. It invokes enthusiasm and support in some and hostility and opposition in others. This article explores how decentralization is evolving in the Detroit Public Schools and why it continues to be controversial. In it, we review the past and examine the lessons we've learned.

The History
On January 1, 1971, the Michigan Legislature mandated that the Detroit Public Schools become decentralized. Detroit was divided into eight administrative areas, each with its own school board. The major power of each of these regional boards was the authority to hire and fire its regional superintendent.

This decentralization effort was designed to:

  • Increase citizen participation and autonomy in educational decision-making
  • Enhance school-level curriculum development
  • Stimulate interest and confidence in education
  • Restore faith in school boards
  • Improve communications
In 1973, New Detroit, Inc., a civic organization, issued an assessment of the Detroit Public Schools' decentralization effort. Concluding that there was a need for improvement, New Detroit offered the following recommendations:

  • Establish short- and long-range policies to reduce the "excessive cost" of operating regional boards and offices.
  • Distribute more power from the Detroit Board of Education to the regions and their communities (i.e., empowerment).
  • Design and implement a communications network to inform the public about school issues.
  • Make parent involvement a priority of both the Detroit Board of Education and the regional boards.
  • Enhance interpersonal relations through team building and professional development.
  • Enhance multicultural sensitivity and respect.
Despite efforts to implement these recommendations, on September 15, 1981, Detroiters voted to eliminate decentralization by more than a two-to-one margin. As a result, the state superintendent of schools eliminated all existing regional school boards and replaced them with an 11-member central board of education with the power to hire or fire area (formerly regional) superintendents.
Seven years after the governance of the school district was recentralized, then General Superintendent Arthur Jefferson introduced two new decentralization efforts: participatory management in education (PME) and school-based management. PME was a joint effort between the school system and the unions, nine of which signed an agreement to sponsor the project. PME's goals were to improve the quality of work life for employees and the quality of learning for students. The school-based management project was grounded on the assumptions that educational reform efforts must focus on student achievement and that these efforts are most effective and long-lasting when carried out by people who are affected by decisions and who feel a sense of ownership and responsibility for the decision-making process.
While the Detroit Public Schools were carefully fine-tuning their two decentralization initiatives, other Detroiters were focusing their attention on a staggering $160 million deficit. In November 1988, a team of four new board members were elected who promised fiscal reform and continued expansion of decentralization/empowerment efforts. A blue-ribbon Citizens Education Committee to Enhance Public Education in Detroit endorsed the board's reform strategies in October 1989, saying:
In an empowered school, the staff will:

  • Have effective control over the allocation of the school's budget, personnel, and other resources
  • Have considerable discretion over curriculum, instruction, and other school activities
  • Be required to use their own creativity and talent to design their school's program in a way they believe will be effective
  • Be held accountable for the results of the school's program - the most important result being student learning
On June 5, 1990, Interim General Superintendent John W. Porter and the Detroit Board of Education received the endorsement of the administrators' and teachers' unions through a "Memorandum of Understanding: Empowerment and Schools of Choice." This memorandum outlined voting procedures for becoming an "Empowered School" and called for the establishment of districtwide and local school governance structures.
The following month, July 1990, the board approved a "Proposed Policy on Empowerment and Schools of Choice." In this document, empowerment and choice were restricted to schools that were rated as "excellent" or "satisfactory" by the interim general superintendent. This policy was a significant departure from the previous belief that empowerment and school-based management offered great potential for all schools. Instead, they were offered as rewards only for schools that were already successful.
The newly proposed policy also specified benefits and sanctions. Benefits were associated with school ratings. "Excellent" schools received more freedoms than did "satisfactory" schools. However, following three years of empowerment, schools that failed to meet established standards could be reorganized, designated for intensive support, or closed. For the first time, the element of punishment was introduced. One year later, as a result, only eight schools voted to participate in the empowerment initiative.
In full concert with the board, the new general superintendent, Deborah M. McGriff, moved to learn from Detroit's past and to open dialogue, mend fences, create harmony, and share the decentralization experiences she gained in New York City, Cambridge, and Milwaukee.
First, empowerment, diversity, and choice objectives were included in the district's strategic plan, Design for Excellence. Next, the board made all schools eligible for empowerment and advocated one accountability system for schools. Meetings were held with union members and a study by Arthur Andersen was initiated to consolidate and refine the board's empowerment policies. Finally, the superintendent appointed a liaison for empowerment.
Despite these efforts and the "Memorandum of Understanding," the Detroit Federation of Teachers' and the Organization of School Administrators and Supervisors' presidents issued an embargo on empowerment. This action virtually blocks all progress.
Before the end of the 1991-92 school year, nearly all Detroit Public Schools' unions went on record against this new definition of empowerment. One of these unions, the Organization of School Administrators and Supervisors, indicated in its newsletters that administrators and supervisors were deeply concerned about the lack of clarity regarding the:

  • Definition and merit of empowerment
  • Procedure for removing a school from empowerment status
  • Equity in handling requisitions and maintenance requests for all schools
  • Possibility of accountability linked to pay for performance
  • "Out-sourcing" or privatization of members' and colleagues' work
  • Transfers of staff into and out of empowered schools
  • Loss of jobs for union members
Moreover, despite more than 20 years of decentralization efforts, some parents still were skeptical of the benefits that this new version of decentralization might bring. At public and private meetings with the general superintendent, parents and community members objected to empowerment because they had not received enough information to make an informed decision. Community members also assumed that empowered schools were "elitist" and had access to more resources than traditional neighborhood schools.
Near the end of the school year, the Coalition of Unions of Detroit Public Schools, in conjunction with the Metropolitan Detroit AFL-CIO, produced a document called "Educational Empowerment...Which Choice is Best for our Kids?...Flawed Empowerment." The Coalition claimed that, through the empowerment program:

  • Employees were treated more like the enemy than as partners
  • The board had abdicated its statutory responsibility to govern the schools and serve as the exclusive negotiator with unions
  • The per-pupil allocation ignored fixed-cost disparities and had the potential to result in violations of reduced revenue - especially designated state and federal funds
  • Current school employees would be displaced through out-sourcing
  • Schools that were not performing well would be closed rather than targeted for positive intervention strategies
As a result of this history and the desire to make decentralization work, the general superintendent created an Office of Empowerment, Diversity, and Choice, which is led by an interim assistant superintendent.
Unfortunately, the 1992-93 school year began with a four-week strike - from August 27 through September 28, 1992 - by the 10,500 members of the Detroit Federation of Teachers. However, the resulting contract gave Empowered Schools the power to waive specific provisions of the contract if 75 percent of the teachers in a school agreed. The contract also reaffirmed the original "Memorandum of Understanding: Empowerment and Schools of Choice" and the district's objective to increase the number of empowered schools to 45.

Lessons Learned
Decentralization in Detroit has been a rocky road, cluttered with short-lived pilot projects. If the power and benefits of decentralization are to contribute to systemic change in the school district, many changes must occur. Advocates of decentralization must avoid:

  • Threats of punishment, legislation, and mandates as facilitators of decentralization by modeling the cooperation, coordination, and collaboration needed to develop the ownership of all key stakeholders
  • The perception of elitism by ensuring that all schools are able to participate on an equal basis and by providing an equitable distribution of human and financial resources for all change initiatives
  • Expecting changes in school governance and structure to transform schools by insisting that these changes be simultaneously combined with curriculum innovations, public school choice, other school improvement initiatives, rewards, incentives, and accountability
  • Delegating inappropriate authority to local schools by placing decision-making authority at the appropriate level of the organization
  • Promoting decentralization as a panacea and quick fix for the problems of urban education by realizing that there is no one best system and that change requires a three- to five-year time perspective
  • The expectation that decentralization will be readily accepted by adopting change management strategies that overcome resistance and promote ownership
  • Implementing local school decision-making without simultaneously transforming central and area offices into service units
Formulating these lessons is easier than generating the political will necessary to ensure that decentralization has the opportunity to contribute to the systemic transformation of the Detroit Public Schools. I believe that the community, parents, and educators of Detroit will accept and meet this challenge. We will become the first large urban school district to successfully educate all of its students.

_from the North Central Regional Educational Laboratory's Policy Briefs
 _published 26 April 1995 by Deborah M. McGriff, Ph.D., General Superintendent, Detroit Public Schools. Deborah McGriff is the first female superintendent in the history of the Detroit Public Schools. She has been a participant observer in decentralization efforts since 1970. Before coming to Detroit, she was a teacher in New York City, the first female assistant superintendent in Cambridge, MA, and the first female deputy superintendent in Milwaukee, WI. Her entire career has been dedicated to the pursuit of excellence and equity in urban education.

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