Bill Ouchi

December 14, 2009

UCLA Anderson Professor Bill Ouchi 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, Ouchi examines the success these districts have achieved by adopting these reforms. Ouchi, the Sanford and Betty Sigoloff Distinguished Professor in Corporate Renewal, recently discussed his work with UCLA Anderson staff writer, Paul Feinberg (This Q&A was conducted in conjunction with a podcast for the UCLA Anderson website.)

Alright Bill, just to get everyone on the same page, what is TSL? Define it for us.

TSL stands for Total Student Load, which is the number of papers a teacher has to grade and the number of students - human beings - 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 forty-five students per class, that's 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?

What I've found is that if schools decentralize important instructional decisions down to their principals, the result will be that teachers will have a lower TSL. For example, a principal might have the English teachers and Social Studies teachers combine the two courses into a single Humanities course. Let's say you have 25 students per class, now if you are an English teacher, you will teach a two period long block and with those 25 students and you will teach them both English and Social Studies. If you are a Social Studies teacher, you will also teach them both English and Social Studies, so the teachers must be competent in both subjects, which is not a difficult thing to do with those two subjects. Then, you'll teach another 25 students a two-period long Humanities course, and then you will have taught four periods and a total of 50 students. Then you will teach an elective course, perhaps an advanced placement course, and you'll have another 25 students but perhaps half of those would be students that you have in your other classes, so now you will have taught your full teaching load in five courses but your Total Student Load would be 62-1/2, not 125.

Now, what happens when you do this is that student performance, as measured by standardized tests and graduation rates, goes way, way up and the reason it goes way up is two-fold. One is 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 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.

In your new book, you describe the Four Freedoms that are essential to empowering principals and their schools as they decentralize. What are they?

Another way you drive down Total Student Load is through school empowerment. There are four critical freedoms the principal should have in an empowered school and those are the freedom to control the budget, curriculum, staffing and scheduling.

What we have found is when you give principals this freedom and you hold principals accountable for student performance, what they do is they eliminate almost all of the nonteaching positions in their schools, which ordinarily account for 43% of all the jobs at the school. They reduce these jobs to between 5 and 10% and instead hire more classroom teachers. So, the hiring of more teachers is what gets you from a teaching load of, let's say,150 down to 125 and then the combination of classes in Humanities or Math/Science integrated allows the teaching load to go down to 60 or 70, and there is a tremendous benefit for students.

Now, 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 teachers, higher paid teachers; if you adopt a new math curriculum, a new reading and writing curriculum; 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.

Do principals need a lot of training to become managers?

I will give you the standard academic response: yes and no. Do principals need special training to operate in an empowered way? Yes, they need training. 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. Principals need to understand how budgets work; they need to understand how people behave, so yes, they need training.

On the other hand no, they don't need training, because 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 managing something that complex and doing it effectively. So, if you want the principals to succeed, you have to give them human scale schools, basically schools between 300 and 500 students. The principal then has a manageable student population, and leads 15 to 25 teachers and about 3 or 4 administrators. A principal who was a highly-skilled classroom teacher with ten years of experience and a lot of energy can do that. But put that same young principal in front of 200 hundred teachers, 250 staff, 4,000 students and 8,000 parents, and no they can't handle it and neither can anybody else.

One of the byproducts of the decentralization you advocate is parents' choice - open enrollment where the parent can choose which school their children attend. What's the value of open enrollment and parental choice when it comes to the entire process?

To begin with, the principal must now behave like a person in business. If the guy with the push cart next to you is selling plain hot dogs, the last thing you are gonna do is sell identical plain hot dogs. You're gonna sell hot dog with kraut. You're gonna sell hamburgers or Polish dogs. You're gonna differentiate your offering somehow, and that is exactly what principals do in this empowered environment, they differentiate their offerings. 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 meet the specific needs of their child and everybody gets a better education. Also, with a choice system, if you're a principal with a half empty school, the emperor has no clothes and now everybody knows it and you're not going to have a hard time removing that principal.

How does this benefit parents with children who have special needs?

Special needs children probably benefit more from an empowered system than any other children, although it benefits everybody. The reason that's so is once you decide you are no longer going to send the formulaic number of teachers, security guards, custodians, registrars, assistant librarians, attendance clerk, program directors, assistant principals, IT specialists (to each school) you're just going to send money. Now the question is how much money will you send to each school? Well, you are not going to send 15 million dollars to every school, whether it has 200 students or 2,000 students. You aren't going to send $5,000 for every student regardless of whether they are an English language learner, regardless of whether they are special ed or not, regardless of whether their special ed needs are simple versus very complex. So, once you've decided to send money to schools, you must have a weighted student formula. Take the known characteristics of each child, you don't have to do a new analysis, it's already all there, and in most systems, they do this. There are now about fifteen school districts that are doing this and about seventeen states that have passed or are working on legislation to do this statewide. When you do this what happens is, the minimum each child will get is the standard allocation of $4,000. The most expensive special education child would get eight times that or $32,000 a year, and then the money will follow each child to the public school they choose.

Now, 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 now they think, wait a minute, this child is bringing $32,000, I want this child. Now, the principal knows if they get, say, three expensive special needs children, it will cost them perhaps $200,000 to provide the special services, so they'll lose money, if you will, on those three children. If they get five or six children, they'll break even. If they get a dozen or twenty, they will make some money on those programs, money they can spend elsewhere in their school. So once again, now, every principal starts designing programs that meets the needs of various kinds of special education situations. Now parents have a cornucopia of choices, principals are actively recruiting them and the parents of the special education child feel often like they've just won the lottery, so it's a wonderful thing for everybody.

When you go to a school district, a chancellor or a superintendent brings you in and you have to all of a sudden meet some principals, meet a few teachers and meet the people on the front lines, I can imagine there are some eye rolls and some hands go up because people don't like change. What are the objections or skepticisms of the uninitiated? What do you hear the most?

Well, the resistance typically comes from the central office. It comes from the central office because they are the ones who hold the power in the centralized district and it is not necessarily that they just have a desire for power, it's that 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 their habit is to want to control how every penny is spent. So, they set up a set of 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, that's where the resistance comes from and the hardest part of decentralizing a district or a company 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. What's the status of your relationship with this district and where do you think they are going to go?

Well, I am very hopeful that the school board now in place at the LA 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 school board has asked me to serve on the Governance Committee of the Board of Education, which I am doing and the superintendent has asked me to serve on an advisory committee to advise he and the staff in the implementation of decentralization. There are many, many issues for them to think about, many, many problems for them to solve, lots of analysis to do and they are now working very hard in sorting and working their way through that. Meanwhile, they have launched their first pilot group of thirty-three autonomously managed schools already this year.

Not all of our readers will know this but you have a charter high school named in your honor here in Los Angeles. How does the charter movement, for lack of a better term, figure into all of this? Is it beneficial? Is it a competition? How does that work?

Well I think it is really important. In Los Angeles, charter schools now educate just over seven percent of the students, whereas the more traditional private schools educate around 9% of the students. I think that 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. Private schools haven't changed much over 100 years, so it doesn't look like they'll ever go much above their 9% market share, but charter schools are going to grow. Some cities boast over 25% in charter schools, and others are approaching 50%, although nationally, they account for a little over three percent of all students. I think that charter schools provide real competition. They also provide a learning laboratory, and the Los Angeles superintendent has often said that he is learning a lot from watching the bigger charter school operators like the one I am involved with which runs fourteen high schools and two middle schools, all of them in the deep inner city of Los Angeles.

if you had to pick one, what school district is the best representation of the research you have been doing?

Well that's easy. It's 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. It's a blue-collar town. It has the highest rate of child poverty in the Province. It has 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. This whole 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 had just been a successful principal. He remembered how much he disliked having the central office tell him how to run his school and was determined to give control over the money to the principals. He got it all the way up to the principals controlling 92% of the money. After his retirement, after twenty-two years of service, there have been four other superintendents appointed and today principals in Edmonton control 97% of the money. They are at an all-time high graduation rate and rising. They are the proof.

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