Gary M. Galles - Contributor
is a professor of economics at Pepperdine University. [go
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Has Come To Break Up LAUSD
and Hertzberg want control turned over
[Gary M. Galles] 2/28/05
Schwarzenegger has reawakened a long simmering fight over the
Los Angeles Unified School District.
He has endorsed
Los Angeles mayoral candidate Bob Hertzberg's proposal to break
up the three-quarter-million-student district. And while Hertzberg's
proposal is far from fully formed, the governor's endorsement
has opened up the possibility of circumventing the political
opposition that killed previous attempts.
of charges and countercharges over breaking up the LAUSD already
threatens to drown out discussion of the central question:
Are bigger school districts more effective in educating students?
such as the LAUSD have developed because education professionals,
whose jobs are on the line, have answered "yes" for
a long time. However, except for consolidations of tiny districts,
the evidence, across many studies with different methodologies,
data sets and time periods, has answered that question with
a resounding "no." That suggests that the relevant
issue is not whether, but how, to break up the LAUSD.
but empirically contradicted argument that larger-scale, centralized
organization allows more efficient provision of education ignores
the incentives created by such centralization. However, those
overlooked incentives are crucial to an informed understanding
of school district organization.
disincentive arises because education has no clearly defined
goal. We don't agree on what to measure, much less on different
measures' relative importance. But centralization requires
uniform and objective measures of "success," because
it distances evaluators from those with the most intimate knowledge
of the problems and their potentially workable solutions. And
the resulting attempt to objectify complex and subjective issues
effectively throws away much of the on-site information necessary
for appropriate decisions.
teaching is an art, successfully practiced by people with highly
varied instructional styles. It is not something whose proper
practice can be imposed uniformly from on high -- making centralized
control over this art a recipe for poor performance. Rather
than making teachers and principals accountable to students
and parents, and empowered to make appropriate improvements,
it makes them answerable to bureaucrats, themselves largely
unaccountable, and almost exclusively in those areas that can
be objectively measured.
research finds that successful schools have strong, accountable
principals and focus on academic success. However, the larger
the school district, the more hierarchical it is, which weakens
the principal's authority, the agreement on goals, and the
extent of monitoring (parents will be less involved when their
investment in time and effort is unlikely to pay off in improved
policies). It is far from surprising, then, that smaller school
districts do a better job for their students.
incentives also helps us see the risks involved in breaking
up large school districts. Like any other organizational change,
it can be done in an ineffective way. For example, smaller
districts will be no more responsive if principals are not
given more power and tenured-for-life teachers can ignore parental
input without consequences.
breaking up a larger monopoly into smaller local ones, while
still denying parents any substantial voice beyond which monopolistic
district to live in, would hardly create true accountability.
Such "reforms" would only erode public support for
the sorts of real structural reforms that could successfully
raise educational quality.
has come to break up the LAUSD. However, it must be done carefully.
The process must come to grips with real trade-offs and legitimate
disagreements. But unless schools re-establish true local accountability
and flexibility, Los Angeles' schoolchildren will pay the price. CRO
2005 Gary M. Galles