School Chiefs Lack Broad Authority for Reforms, UW Survey
by Deborah Bach, July 28, 2003, Seattle
Post-Intelligencer and the Associated Press
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A University of Washington study being released Monday suggests
the goals of No Child Left Behind -- a sweeping educational
reform that holds schools and districts accountable for student
achievement -- will be difficult to meet unless school
superintendents are given greater authority.
An advance copy of the report, obtained by the Seattle
Post-Intelligencer, said superintendents' efforts at educational
reform are frequently stymied by micromanaging school boards and
inflexible teachers' unions.
Nine out of 10 superintendents, according to the report, said
they need more authority to fix low-performing schools and help
improve student achievement.
James Harvey, a co-author of the study and a senior fellow at
the UW's Center on Reinventing Public Education, said
superintendents are "whipsawed" by competing interests within
their districts, making their jobs near impossible.
"Our major finding is that they have been set up for failure,"
he said. "The structure of the position virtually precludes them
from doing what they have been asked to do. They don't control
their own agenda."
The report stems from a survey of superintendents in the
nation's 100 largest districts, who collectively oversee 6.5
It points to an "iron triangle" composed of school boards,
unions and central office, which can act as a coalition to block
change. Harvey said researchers heard many anecdotes about
meddling school boards -- one in West Virginia, for example, had
to approve every field trip taken by students.
The survey findings were "so startling," Harvey said, that
researchers expanded their scope beyond an original list of 40
interviewees to ensure the feedback they received wasn't
What they found, he said, was a widespread perception of an
educational system driven by adults' demands, not children's
"You never heard that in public," Harvey said. "The public
discussion is all about students and achievement. The internal
dynamics are mostly about adults and employment."
Harvey said the results point to urgent changes needed if the No
Child Left Behind Act will succeed. Signed by President Bush
last year, the law represents the largest increase of federal
control over education in history and was designed to help close
the achievement gap between disadvantaged and minority students
and their peers.
Among other things, No Child Left Behind requires annual tests
for grades three through eight, starting in 2005, and highly
qualified teachers in every classroom. Schools that fail to
improve over two consecutive years must offer students the
choice to attend a successful school.
After three years, parents can get money for private tutoring
for their children, and after five years, the school would be
overhauled and reopened as a charter school, a state-run school
or some other alternative.
Districts may also face sanctions including cuts in state aid,
dismissal of the superintendent, a state takeover or other
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