10 Questions for William Ouchi, public education expert
UCLA Anderson Professor William Ouchi
who teaches courses in management and organization design and conducts research on the structure of large organizations,
once said the whole point of tenure is that it affords one the opportunity to influence institutions on a national level. For the better part of this decade, the institution Ouchi has sought to influence is public education. In his 2003 book, “Making Schools Work,” Ouchi offered recommendations for management reform in public schools that were adopted by school districts across North America. In his follow-up, “The Secret of TSL: The Revolutionary Discovery That Raises School Performance” (
2009, Simon and Schuster), Ouchi examines the success of 442 schools in eight decentralizing urban school districts. Ouchi, the Sanford and Betty Sigoloff Distinguished Professor in Corporate Renewal, recently discussed his work with UCLA Anderson senior writer Paul Feinberg.
What exactly is TSL?
TSL stands for Total Student Load, which is the number of papers a teacher has to grade and the number of students a teacher has to get to know. It is a measure of the degree of intimacy of contact that’s possible between teacher and student. Let’s say, in general, every teacher in America who teaches in middle or high school teaches five classes each day. If they teach in Los Angeles, they have 45 students per class — a Total Student Load of 225. In Boston, it’s 140; New York City, it’s 170. Should your child be lucky enough to attend an elite private school, TSL can range from 60 to 65 students per teacher.
What is so important about Total Student Load?
Student performance, as measured by standardized tests and graduation rates, goes way, way up. The reason is two-fold. One, when there is this bond between teacher and student that comes from knowing one another well, the student is willing to let the teacher kick them in the pants when they know they need it. And two, the student is willing to come to the teacher during office hours and ask for help when they need it, in a way that would be perhaps too embarrassing for them to do in class.
There are many, many studies of school reform. School reform has been on the front burner in this country for at least 50 years, but many of the reform ideas from past studies did not prove effective. If you increase teacher training, it does not improve student performance. If you have longer-serving or higher-paid teachers, if you adopt a new math curriculum or a new reading and writing curriculum or if you reduce class size, none of those has any effect on student performance. But when you reduce Total Student Load, it has an enormous impact on student performance.
In your new book, you describe the “Four Freedoms” that are essential to empowering principals and their schools as they decentralize. What are they?
There are four critical freedoms the principal should have — and which drive down TSL — in an empowered school: the freedom to control the budget, curriculum, staffing and scheduling.
When you give principals these freedoms and hold them accountable for student performance, they reduce or eliminate almost all of the non-teaching positions in their schools and instead hire more classroom teachers. Hiring more teachers is what gets you from a teaching load of, let’s say, 150 down to 125.
In addition, teachers will have a lower TSL if school districts decentralize important instructional decisions to their principals. For example, a principal might have the English and social studies teachers combine the two courses into a single humanities course with 25 students. Whether you are an English teacher or a social studies teacher, you will now teach 25 students both subjects during a two-period-long block. Then you might teach a similar two-period-long humanities class for another 25 students. You have now taught four periods and a total of 50 students. Then you teach an elective or advanced placement course with another 25 students — but half of them are already in your other classes. The result: You have taught your full teaching load in five courses but your Total Student Load would be 62½ instead of what otherwise would have been 125. This is a tremendous benefit for students.
Do principals need a lot of training to become managers?
Principals do need special training to operate in an empowered way. They need to understand how to use a budget effectively. They need to understand how to lead a team of teachers through a collaborative decision-making process, because teachers are very independent professionals and oftentimes protected by a union, so the principal cannot simply dictate to them.
Yet what we have also discovered is that most schools in America are far too big for anyone to manage effectively. If you have schools of more than 1,200 students — and virtually every urban district has schools with up to 4, 000 students — no principal is capable of effectively managing something that complex. You have to give them human-scale schools, basically schools between 300 and 500 students. The principal then has a manageable student population, 15 to 25 teachers and three or four administrators. A principal who was a highly-skilled classroom teacher with ten years of experience and a lot of energy can manage that. But put that same young principal in front of 4,000 students, 8,000 parents, 200 teachers and 250 staff — no they can’t handle it and neither can anybody else.
One of the byproducts of the decentralization you advocate is parents’ choice. What’s the value of open enrollment, where the parent can choose which school their children attend?
The principal must now behave like a person in business. If the guy with the pushcart next to you is selling plain hot dogs, the last thing you are going do is sell identical plain hot dogs. You’re going to sell hot dog with kraut. You’re going to sell hamburgers or Polish dogs. You’re going to differentiate your offering somehow — and that is exactly what principals do in this empowered environment. So now parents have a real choice. When you give the parents the choice to choose any public school they want for their child, then they can sort themselves into the school that best meets the specific needs of their child and everybody gets a better education. Also, with a choice system, if a principal ends up with a half-empty school, "the emperor has no clothes” and everybody knows it, and it’s not going to be hard to remove that principal.
Does a decentralized, empowered system benefit children with special needs and their parents?
Special-needs children probably benefit more than anyone, although it benefits everybody. The reason is that a school district decides to no longer send the formulaic number of teachers, librarians, program directors, security guards, etc. but instead to just send money. Now the question is how much money will you send to each school? Not $15 million to every school or $5,000 for every student. You must have a weighted student formula using the already-known characteristics of each child. What happens is that the minimum each child will get is the standard allocation of $4,000, while the more-expensive-to-educate special education child would get eight times that or $32,000 a year, and the money would follow each child to the public school they choose. About 15 school districts are doing this and about 17 states have passed or are working on legislation to do this.
If you’re the parent of a special ed child, you are accustomed to having every principal put on a frown and explain sympathetically why their school is not the right place for your child. But with this new approach, now the principal thinks, wait a minute, this child is bringing $32,000, I want this child. It might cost them $200,000 to provide the special services, so they’ll want five or six children to break even, or a dozen or 20 so they will make some money on those programs, money they can spend elsewhere in their school. The principals start designing programs for various kinds of special education situations and are actively recruiting students, and parents of special education children feel like they’ve just won the lottery. It’s a wonderful thing for everybody.
When you go to a school district to conduct research, a chancellor or a superintendent brings you in and you meet principals, teachers and the people on the front lines. I can imagine there is some eye-rolling because people don’t like change.
The resistance typically comes from the central office because they hold the power in the centralized district. It is not necessarily that they just have a desire for power, but they are accustomed to being told by the state, “We are giving you $50 million dollars for X and you are legally responsible to see that the state’s money is spent properly,” so they want to control how every penny is spent. They set up rules, and when a principal says, “I’d really get a much bigger benefit for my children if I spend it differently,” they are going to say “No.” So the hardest part of decentralizing a district is to reorient the central office staff so that they will want and be rewarded for supporting empowered, autonomous, decision-making principals.
You spoke recently to a group of educators with the Los Angeles Unified School District. Where do you think they are headed?
I am very hopeful that the school board now in place at the L.A Unified School District is very forward-looking and very much committed to the idea of empowering principals of schools. The superintendent is leading the way. The board has asked me to serve on the Governance Committee of the Board of Education, and the superintendent has asked me to serve on an advisory committee to advise him and the staff in the implementation of decentralization. There are many, many issues for them to think about, many problems to solve, and lots of analysis to do. They are working their way through that. Meanwhile, they have already launched their first pilot group of 33 autonomously managed schools this year.
You have a charter high school named in your honor here in Los Angeles (William & Carol Ouchi High School). How does the charter movement, for lack of a better term, figure into all of this?
I think it is really important. The surest way to guarantee that the public school districts of this country will improve and stay on their toes is to provide them with real competition. In Los Angeles, charter schools now educate just over 7 percent of students, whereas the more traditional private schools educate around 9 percent. Private schools haven't changed much over 100 years, so it doesn't look like they'll ever go much above their 9 percent market share, but charter schools are going to grow. Some cities boast over 25 percent in charter schools, and others are approaching 50 percent, although nationally, they account for a little over 3 percent of all students. Charter schools provide real competition and they are also a learning laboratory. The L.A. superintendent has often said that he is learning a lot from watching the bigger charter school operators like the one I am involved with (The Alliance for College-Ready Public Schools), which runs 14 high schools and two middle schools, all of them in the deep inner city of Los Angeles.
What school district is the best representation of the research you have been doing?
The Edmonton School District in the Province of Alberta. Alberta, if you don’t know where it is, is second from the left as you look up at Canada from here. A blue-collar town, it has the highest rate of child poverty in the province, with twice the percentage of children living in poverty as the rest of the province — yet its students pass the diploma exams in math and English at the same rate as the rest of the province. The idea of decentralized decision-making at the hands of principals was created through trial-and-error in Edmonton starting in 1975, when a young superintendent named Mike Strembitsky was appointed. Mike, who had been a successful principal, remembered how much he had disliked having the central office tell him how to run his school, and he was determined to give control over the money to the principals. He got it all the way up to the principals controlling 92 percent of the money before he retired after 27 years. Today, principals in Edmonton control 97 percent of the money, and the schools are at an all-time high graduation rate and rising. They are the proof.