A while back, I met with a superintendent of a large school district in Missouri. He told me about the good work his school district is doing. He described it as a systems approach. Interestingly, I recently spoke with some people from the Recovery School District (RSD) in Louisiana who also described their work as a systems approach. The strange thing is that these two systems could not be more different.

After Hurricane Katrina, the RSD ramped up its operation in New Orleans. The district takes over failing schools, operates some schools directly, and authorizes others as charter schools. The system that one chief of staff described to me is one that allows schools autonomy in exchange for accountability. The RSD is actively working to put the structures in place for choice and competition to work, while ensuring students in poverty or with special needs are being served.

The system that the superintendent from Missouri described to me is very different. He views the system as being optimal when the district has sole control of all the public schools in the area. Rather than letting those schools be autonomous, he wants to develop the “best practices” and implement them throughout the entire district.

I believe the superintendent from Missouri has the best of intentions. He wants to make sure his system meets the needs of students, but I think his system has a fatal flaw in that it is built around a leader. When a good leader is in place, the system may work well; but when an ineffective leader is in place, the entire system can fail.

The RSD’s model builds the system by aligning incentives in the right direction. This includes giving school administrators the power to lead through autonomous schools and giving parents the power to choose. In this system, an individual school may fail, but the system as a whole moves ever forward because the incentives are aligned in the right direction.
James V. Shuls, Ph.D.

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