Indiana Policy Review

Weighted Student Formula and School Empowerment

Interview with Dr. William G. Ouchi

William G. Ouchi is the Sanford & Betty Sigoloff Professor in Corporate Renewal at The Anderson Graduate School of Management at UCLA. Drawing on the results of a landmark study of 223 schools in six cities funded in part by the National Science Foundation, Dr. Ouchi's book Making Schools Work shows that a school's educational performance may be most directly affected by how the school is managed. Now, he may be the nation's leading researcher and proponent of the concept.

Dr. Ouchi was interviewed by Reason Foundation's Director of Education Lisa Snell on September 15, 2007 in his office at UCLA, where he provides an update on his ongoing work on weighted student formula and school empowerment.

How is your current analysis of case studies of weighted student formula progressing?

We are analyzing the data, and it is really interesting. The way you organize a district is hugely important. We've looked at eight districts, all of which are implementing weighted student formula, school choice, and school autonomy: Boston, Chicago, Houston, New York City, Oakland, San Francisco, Seattle and St. Paul.

There is extreme variability in the percentage of resources that principals are allowed to control under weighted student formula. The amount of resources the principal controls makes a difference.

I studied 66 schools in New York City in the year 2000, and I went through with each principal their budget to figure out how much they controlled and on the average it was 6.1 percent. Today, these data show that 85 percent of the budget was controlled by the New York City principals who were part of 42 schools in the autonomy zone in 2003 and 2004. As a result of the success of the experiment, New York has expanded this budget control to all 1,467 schools for 2007.

When you give principals freedom what do they do with their money?

What they should do is reduce the hiring of administrative staff at the school and increase the number of classroom teachers. And then use their freedom over curriculum, schedule, and staffing to further reduce total student load.

Autonomous schools have largely used their autonomy to drastically reduce total student load in high school and middle school classrooms. In New York City, student load is 88. In Boston, it's 76 (in the high school). In New York City, by contract, a teacher may be asked to teach 170 students, five classes of 34 in middle school or high school. In Boston the contract requires 140 and in Los Angeles 225.

The stand out here is New York City. In New York City, although the contractual max is 170, the actual district-wide average is 111, because there are a lot of magnet schools, special schools, and special-ed schools that have much smaller total student loads. In the 42 original autonomous schools in New York City the total student load fell from 111 to 88. That is a big deal.

In some cases the union can be an impediment but that's really not the issue, because New York City has one of the most powerful teachers unions in America. And Randi Weingarten is no pushover. But they have been able to find a way to work together. Clearly, this reducing total student load is in the interest of all teachers and all students. It is in the interest of everybody except for the central office bureaucrats.

How did New York get to smaller student loads and higher achievement?

Under the tutelage of Eric Nadelstern, who had been working with those populations his whole career, and followed the work by Ted and Nancy Sizer, who preached that no teacher should ever have a student load over 80. Eric figured out how to restructure schools. He said, "My gosh, if you could get there, think of all the things you could do that are good for the student."

So now the question is "How do I get below 80?" Through trial and error he figured out how to do it. So Eric has been personally training all these principals in New York City and it has made a huge difference.

About half of getting to 80 is less administrators and more teachers, but the other half is your creative use of curriculum and schedule. If you are a school that uses block scheduling it causes your average student load to rise by 17 students. If you are a school that uses combined courses you combine social studies and language into humanities and you combine math and science into integrated math/science curriculum, on average it reduces your average student load by three. But, if you use both block scheduling with combined courses on the average it reduces your total student load by 23.

What are the most important effects of weighted student formula?

Weighted student formula has a couple of different kinds of effects. It has a fairness effect and it has a governance effect.

The fairness effect is very difficult to implement because it involves income redistribution from the rich to the poor. That's never been easy to achieve in this country or in any other. However, it is not impossible to achieve if you have the political time, meaning several years, and the political will and enough political astuteness.

The governance effect is immediate and easy to achieve. The governance effect is that weighted student formula brings transparency to school finance. It makes it real simple for parents and the public to understand how much money is in the school and what it is supposed to be used for. Therefore, it brings parents and teachers into the argument over how a school spends its money. This is a really healthy thing.

If you are going to give schools money rather than positions you have to figure out how much money you are going to give to each school. When you think about that for more than five minutes, you come to the conclusion that there is no way to allocate money to schools except by allocating money to students. And letting the money follow the student to the school. Now you have got to figure out how much money you are going to allocate to each student, and that's known as weighted student formula.

Once you have done that, you have created autonomy with a financially transparent funding formula. If the next superintendent that comes along tries to take away the autonomy, they will have an immense fight on their hands with all the parents and all the teachers and they will lose that fight. So, if you are a fan of local school autonomy, competition, and transparency then you want to introduce autonomy with weighted student formula because a weighted student formula protects the autonomy.

If you were going to start to implement this, do you have a favorite governance level, should it be started through state legislation, superintendent driven, or started by a local mayor?

I am a fan of the superintendent as the change agent. I think a superintendent who wants to do this can do it with their school board. I also think we now have enough districts who are trying to find their way that we are going to see more successes. I think St. Paul is doing a really good job. Boston is also doing some things right.

Boston pilot schools are a joint venture with the BTU. So there is a lot of union input. The good news is the BTU agreed to a three page contract for those schools. So they do have a lot of flexibility.

Now, why haven't they had a bigger impact? I think one reason is that the other schools, the non-pilot schools, in Boston have been improving which narrows the gap--perhaps because they have been learning from those pilot schools.

I think the other one is that the pilot schools in Boston do not display with consistency what I consider to be the full blown New York model. But they have a lot of it. They are getting down to some good student load numbers with 86. But given the amount of money they have per student perhaps they ought to be down to 70.

The full blown New York model includes in addition to the things we've talked about, having advisories. The advisories are a very important element of the horizontal school. The advisories are typically 12 or 13 students who meet with a teacher for four years. They become very cohesive.

Another element is the teacher grade-level meeting. Teachers meet is another aspect of the horizontal school. The teachers meet usually once a week, it might be twice, or three times a week - all the grade level teachers. And they go through every student who needs special attention. And each teacher has something to contribute, sees some different angle on the student. And they discuss why the student's performance has been declining or why the student has become so superior that they now need additional challenges and then together they figure out a strategy, and then if they need to they engage the student's family and they implement it.

People say education should be personalized, that's what personalization is. That's the real thing.

Lisa Snell is Director of Education