Final Thoughts: A Constitution for Effective School Governance

January 12, 2011

By Kenneth Frank, professor of measurement and quantitative methods

Kenneth Frank

Economics is the current metaphor for educational reform. Schools must be more “accountable” in a bottom-line sense of educational achievement. Charter schools must be developed to create competition for public schools. All this should force schools to compete in an educational marketplace that will ultimately lead to improved educational outcomes.

But what if the standard economic metaphor is wrong? It says little about how schools should be governed as social organizations. Indeed, Elinor Ostrom and Oliver Williamson recently shared the Nobel Prize for economics by challenging the standard economic metaphor—Williamson for characterizing how transactions are more ef?cient within organizations and Ostrom for addressing collective action problems in small communities. Each of these could be applied to schools, which as organizations act collectively to reduce transaction costs among teachers who share knowledge and information to produce outcomes.

In order for schools to realize their potential as social organizations for delivering education, we must address the issues of school governance. Schools face competing demands from different sets of parents and community members who are vested in the educational marketplace. In order to adjudicate these demands, schools must systematically develop rules for governance.

Here, I propose a set of guidelines in the form of a constitution, a valuable genre for constructing institutions to negotiate among competing internal interests and external forces. I propose it because successful schools require broad buy-in from community members, parents and labor unions, as well as faculty and administrators. The articles of the constitution do not concern themselves with speci?c matters of leadership, pedagogy, teachers’ practices or curriculum. Instead, they pertain to the method of adopting and implementing changes in policies, practices and personnel.

Together these articles create a series of checks and balances as outlined in the constitution (right). Articles 1 and 2 provide the school with a check against community pressures, while Article 3 gives the community a check on the school. Article 4 provides the principal a check on the teachers, and Article 5 gives teachers a check on the principal. Thus, as a set, the articles provide a framework for schools to govern themselves internally while negotiating complex external demands.

Each of these articles will have opponents. Reformers and parents may feel obstructed by the need for a two-thirds vote of faculty and may not want to wait three years for improvement in their students’ education. Principals may not want to be vulnerable to a vote of a local lay board or to the career decisions of teachers. Teachers and their unions may resist “subjective” decisions of principals.

But the key to the constitutional framework is that the set of articles must be taken as a whole, protecting the interests of each set of stakeholders. For example, community members may not like Articles 1 and 2, but they have enormous power to shape school policy through Article 3.

Again, do not expect that adoption of this or any similar constitution will create short-term dramatic improvements in educational outcomes. Instead a constitution should give a school a stable and strong social foundation to implement current and inevitable future reforms while cultivating an enduring process that respects the positions of various stakeholders.

Think of it as an investment in the social infrastructure of the school that will serve the community for generations. Or perhaps longer.

• Article 1: Adoption of Reforms, New Policies & Practices.

No school-wide reform or change in policy or practice may be implemented unless two thirds or
more of the teachers in the school approve the change.

This is the practice used by comprehensive school reform programs such as “Success for All.” It allows teachers to make decisions for their school based on their assessments of how a reform meshes with their existing practices, commitments, student composition, etc.

• Article 2: Community Expectations.

The effects of any change in practices or policies on student achievement should not be expected for three years.

It takes teachers time to learn about a reform, adapt the reform to their contexts and then reestablish coordination with each other. Pushing for results before three years can generate super?cial change or exert counterproductive pressure on teachers and the relationships among them.

• Article 3: Community-to-School Link: Governing Board.

The school shall be governed by a board composed of at least 50 percent community members.

The board can replace a principal by a vote of two thirds or more. This applies to urban districts, giving them the localized school decision-making typical of suburban districts. Critically, the board can direct policy through their latent and manifest power to appoint the principal.

• Article 4: Removal of Teachers.

A principal can use a streamlined procedure to remove not more than 5 percent of the teachers in a given year.

This gives the principal the capacity to exert in?uence over the teachers. Note that it does not support a wholesale replacement of teachers, but a streamlined procedure for a select number of teachers. For example, in an elementary school of 20 teachers, the principal can use the streamlined procedure to replace not more than one per year.

• Article 5: Removal of Principal.

A principal can be evaluated for replacement if more than 20 percent of the teachers in the school request transfer or leave in a given year (excluding planned retirements).

This gives teachers, as a collective, in?uence over the principal. If a modest-sized group of teachers feels strongly enough about the principal to request a transfer, then the principal is vulnerable to losing her position.