To improve school quality and raise performance, educational leaders at the district, state, and federal level are faced with the challenge to:
• Address Socioeconomic Disparity. Thirty percent of the children in urban areas are poor compared to 18% for the nation as a whole. Urban schools are twice as likely to enroll minority and immigrant children than the national average. When compared to the national level, students in urban areas are three times as likely to live in extremely impoverished neighborhoods.
• Improve Teaching and Learning. Urbanity and poverty intensify the magnitude of constraints on teaching and learning. While only 23% of the fourth graders in high poverty schools performed at the basic level or higher in the national reading tests, almost 70% of their peers did so in schools with less poverty outside the urban setting. A substantial number of teachers in urban and rural settings are teaching in areas in which they did not earn a minor or a major in college.
• Manage the technological gap. Digital divide between the “haves” and the “have-nots” will widen if public schools lag behind in developing learning opportunities to meet the technological challenge.
• Sustain Leadership Quality. Urban superintendents have an average tenure of less than 3 years. Top talents are leaving the public sector for the fast-growing sector of e-commerce.
• Regain public confidence. While 68% of the urban school board members rated their schools as A and B, only 47% of the urban public did. The public seemed half as likely than the board members to agree that the schools were “doing a good job” in preparing students for college, keeping violence and drugs out of schools, and teaching children who don’t speak English.
To address these complex tasks more effectively, policymakers have adopted various reform models to change the school’s operational processes and its governance structure. Two emerging models of school governance reform that are designed to improve student performance within the public educational sector are: (1) “integrated governance,” a term that we developed based on our research, and (2) charter school reform. These two models demonstrate the range of institutional options that policymakers can select in their efforts to improve accountability and management.
The two emerging models differ along several design dimensions. Integrated governance adopts a “corporate model” to improve school management and finance, it seeks to raise academic standards for all students system-wide, it applies sanctions and targets support to turn around low-performing schools, and its power is decentralized and governed by system-wide standards. The charter school model adopts consumer-based preferences to promote competition, it seeks to raise performance and promote alternative assessment, to turn around low performing schools it uses site-specific strategies that may be part of a reform network, and there is strong autonomy at the school level.
Whereas integrated governance relies on system-wide institutions and standards to target low performance, charter schools focus innovation and promote alternative assessment in a market-like environment. Understanding these emerging models will help in developing the proper balance of various reform strategies.
Integrated governance maintains a proper balance between site-based decision-making and system-wide performance-based accountability. It focuses on district-level capacity to reduce institutional fragmentation and raise academic accountability. This kind of restructuring is based on:
• a clear vision of educational accountability that focuses on academic standards and performance outcomes;
• strong political support to improve the operation of the school system;
• district-level capacity to intervene in failing schools; and
• a mix of direct intervention and support strategies to meet the challenges faced by urban schools.
This emerging model is likely to spread as an increasing number of mayors have gained control over the public schools. Mayoral control may not necessarily turn into integrated governance reform; for example, mayors may be reluctant to play an active role even though they are granted the legislative authority; mayoral control may be constrained by state legislative compromise; or civic leadership may be the driving force behind a more focused, performance-based accountability framework.
More importantly, integrated governance reform is not simply a recentralization of authority nor can it be fully understood by focusing only on the issue of city takeover. Instead, integrated governance redefines the responsibilities and enhances the capacity of the district-wide leadership. Given its strong focus on raising student performance, integrated governance legitimizes system-wide standards and policies that identify and target intervention at low performing schools. In effect, integrated governance creates institutional pressure and support that are necessary to address a key limitation of decentralization, namely, that organizational changes at the school site are not sufficient for academic improvement system-wide. While decentralization may produce successful reform in some schools, system-wide improvement is not likely to occur unless district-wide leadership has the political will and the capacity to implement outcome-based accountability.