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Will the system really decentralize?

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

Response to the October 2012 edition article “A new blend of public and private

I think the decentralized approach to school management that is a component of the portfolio model is questionable due to the lack of actually decentralizing.

Decades ago, Chicago did something similar to what is happening in Philadelphia and gave schools more autonomy. There it was followed by other major changes. For starters, school councils were formed that were in charge of overseeing the principal and leveraging community resources. Principals had much more flexibility over staff and resources, and the decentralization transferred additional dollars to school budgets for each to use as it saw fit. For example, some schools used the money to bring on extra teachers and get better professional development. However, studies confirmed that the most impoverished schools with poor leadership did worse under this model.

If we are to apply this lesson to Philadelphia, we should be very worried about decentralization efforts as a cost-saving rather than capacity-building enterprise.

For smaller and more responsive school districts, this approach could be a definite plus. But like Teachers College professor Jeffrey Henig warned in this article, trying to quickly scale up successful schooling models is dangerously ambitious. Over and over again, research has shown that attempts at aggressive scaling up usually struggle. This is because it all depends on people who run the institutions. Intensive training and scalable structures need to be cultivated.

Marc Brasof

The writer is an education fellow at the National Constitution Center and education leadership and policy studies doctorate student at Temple University.