An English Joke
A man in a hot air balloon realized he was lost. He reduced altitude and spotted a woman below. He descended a bit more and shouted, "Excuse me, can you help me? I promised a friend I would meet him an hour ago, but I don't know where I am."
The woman below replied, "You're in a hot air balloon hovering approximately 30 feet above the ground. You're between 40 and 41 degrees north latitude and between 59 and 60 degrees west longitude."
"You must be a teacher," said the balloonist.
"I am," replied the woman, "how did you know?"
"Well," answered the balloonist, "everything you told me is technically correct, but I've no idea what to make of your information, and the fact is I'm still lost. Frankly, you've not been much help at all. If anything, you've delayed my trip."
The woman below responded, "You must be a school administrator."
"I am," replied the balloonist, "but how did you know?"
"Well," said the woman, "you don't know where you are or where you're going. You have risen to where you are due to a large quantity of hot air. You made a promise, which you've no idea how to keep, and you expect people beneath you to solve your problems. The fact is you are in exactly the same position you were before we met, but now, somehow, it's my fault."
The Ministry of Education and Science of Georgia has devised a new model of public school management. How much this model can improve management practice in schools is as yet unclear. However, the negative potential of the new scheme is conspicuous.
Under the new model, a new unit will be introduced in school management – the school district. One self-governing school district will be created per ten schools, on average, and will be administered by six elected representatives from society who live in the respective area of those schools and three members appointed by the state.
A district will be delegated those functions which heretofore have belonged to schools or the state. School boards of trustees will be abolished and their main functions assumed by school districts, responsibilities such as: the hiring/firing of school directors, approving documents on strategic goals, the school curricula, internal regulations, and school budgets. In addition, the state will entrust school districts with some of its functions, such as: maintaining infrastructure, setting the maximum number of students per class, making decisions on the closure or merger of schools, and distributing state resources allocated to students with disabilities. Moreover, school districts will try to attract donor assistance and conduct information campaigns.
The concept identifies two problems which the school district model is expected to resolve. The first problem is that the teacher-members of the boards of trustees were accountable to the school directors – their employers. The second problem is described ambiguously and is thus not clear. In short, according to the concept, parents who are members of the boards of trustees fall under the improper influence of school directors.
A positive point of the school district model is that a local body will be engaged in the maintenance of infrastructure and the distribution of program resources. Enabling schools to have a representative body with higher clout that is able to protect their interests may be viewed as a positive development. The promise to introduce the model based on discussions and consideration of the results of trials is also an encouraging step. The problems with the new concept, however, are numerous. I will try to discuss some of these.
The concept repeats a problem of the existing model. Namely, it is unclear whom the district self-governing body will be accountable to and what kind of responsibilities it will have. The problem was similar in the case of the board of trustees. If a school district is responsible for the approval of strategic plans, budgets and curricula, it must also bear at least partial responsibility for the performance of schools. The presented concept says nothing about that.
Instead, it says that the top priority for school directors will be the interests of the district and only thereafter, those of the school. Under the new model, parents will only have a consulting function. Nor will students be involved in governance. The powers of the director are enhanced within the school whilst the mechanisms of transparency and checks and balances are reduced. The risk arises of directors gaining unrestrained and imbalanced power at the school level.
The possibility for the state to politicize schools increases. Over the period between 2010 and 2012, a number of boards of trustees defied decisions of the Ministry of Education regarding the dismissal of school directors on political or other unfounded grounds. In each of such cases, the state disbanded the boards of trustees to achieve its aim, but it had to pay a political price every time it took such actions. Under the existing situation it is more difficult for the state to politically interfere in the self-governance of 2,000 public schools than it will be under the new model where the state will have to control only some 300 school districts.
A bureaucratic body existing outside a school adversely affects the speed, flexibility and efficiency of decision-making. Schools will have to reach agreement with the school district regarding changes to their budgets. Let's imagine that a district cannot get a quorum. Until a quorum can be obtained by following certain procedures, the entire process will be impeded. With a high degree of bureaucracy and a low degree of responsibility, the model provides the possibility for a reversal to the pre-2005 situation where the district and city education departments then existing created numerous useless barriers for the education system.
The situation can be improved even within the existing boundaries of the self-governance. For this to happen, one needs to consider the problems and their causes seriously. Legally, schools today are autonomous, though in reality they find it very difficult to carry out self-governance. The reasons for this must be sought in the broader system, beyond the issues with the boards of trustees alone.
For some reason, school administrators, management and the boards of trustees either cannot or do not want to conduct active school policy. The root of this problem is often thought to be the low competences of school administrators. Schools vary significantly in this regard. However, more significant are those problems which condition the failure of those schools with competent staffs as well as those schools which could make better decisions were the proper system in place.
For example, the state gradually introduced accountability tools at schools, such as granting or removing authorization and accreditation, and rewarding or punishing school directors based on the results of school graduation exams, but none of these schemes really encouraged a need for strategic planning and a more systemic approach. School graduation exams were first conducted about one year after it was decided to introduce them. Based on the results of these exams, the state punished some and rewarded other school directors; thereby encouraging approaches which favored the fast improvement of performance indicators rather than improvement based on a long-term strategy (taking into account, for example, grade repetition, expulsion of students, et cetera). The establishment of districts does not address this problem. A clear-cut system of accountability is needed.
The state did not support and even obstructed school initiatives. The more active a school, the higher the risk of it making a mistake when documenting a process – something which could entail sanctions for the school. It is, for example, very difficult for schools to implement procurements in a legally correct manner. Therefore, it is structurally much safer for school administrations to do as little as possible for the development of their schools. Regulations need to be simplified and schools must be assisted in the implementation of some of their functions.
Schools face problems in terms of both symbolic and financial capital. Decisions taken on the level of schools do not enjoy high legitimization and the state does not promote a perception of schools possessing sufficient management competences. Establishing correct rules of the game is also important. For example, when the Ministry of Education slackened its accountability to society in the period between 2010 and 2012, the schools did the same. If the ministry does not respond to a citizen, schools are quick to align themselves to that low standard. The ministry needs to force school management bodies to meet high standards of accountability and transparency to the public. Among other measures, this can be achieved by obliging them to make their information public.
Self-government needs corresponding financial provisions. Imagine you need a complex medical treatment involving a special diet, physical exercise, a healthy environment and medicine. Imagine also that you have a limited budget and the pills prescribed by a doctor, with their minimal prices known in advance, require between 70-90 percent of that budget. At the same time, the doctor interferes with the majority of your decisions and repeatedly changes the prices of your pills. Under such conditions it would be really difficult to undertake a complex scheme of treatment. You will mainly stick to the pills and will not have enough means available for the other treatments.
The situation is similar in schools. Little funding and state established norms leave virtually no free money which can be used as the boards of trustees decide. The state changes the norms frequently, thereby limiting the possibility of long-term planning. When everything is allocated in advance, one can neither take care of school development nor plan a budget. Consequently, interest to become involved in the boards of trustees is low. Therefore, there is a need to stabilize regulations and significantly increase financing.
The above listed problems are only a few of many which this concept cannot solve. Nor is the list of problems which may emerge because of the proposed model complete. The potential for the new model to improve efficiency and the level of democracy is doubtful. The establishment of this model will itself require ample resources. Rather than implementing a new system, and thereby wasting those resources already spent on the establishment of the existing model and neglecting the experience gained, it would, therefore, be better to focus on making the current model work properly and on improving the practice of state administration and the school boards of trustees.