The Center for Public School Renewal

A Review of William G. Ouchi's Making Schools Work (Simon and Schuster - 2003)
by Barry McGhan

This is an important book. As the subtitle – "A Revolutionary Plan to Get Your Children the Education They Need," – indicates, it proposes a restructuring of public education that will, in time, fix most complaints about schools. Making Schools Work contains a plethora of interesting examples of successful schools, and each illustrates key issues leading to success. The book has a research base, but since it is written for parents, only some information about that research is presented. [Note 1: Ouchi (a professor of organizational management, rather than an educator) and his team analyze the successes and failures of schools and school systems from an organizational perspective. Their findings clearly identify top-down, centralized management of school districts as the major roadblock to reform. For more on the actual research study see "The Organization of Primary and Secondary School Systems," by Ouchi, Cooper, Segal, DeRoche, Brown, and Galvin. (The Anderson School of Management, UCLA, revised 9/26/02).]

Ouchi's central recommendations are expressed in seven "keys to success" that, if followed, will make any school successful. They are:

1. Every principal is an entrepreneur
2. Every school controls its own budget
3. Everyone is accountable for student performance and for budgets
4. Everyone delegates authority to those below
5. There is a burning focus on school achievement
6. Every school is a community of learners
7. Families have real choices among a variety of unique schools.

Each key has a full chapter devoted to it, and the book concludes with two additional chapters filled with practical advice to parents for finding out how good the school their child attends is, and what to do to improve it. At this writing (April, 2004) there have been reports that California, under Governor Schwarzenegger's administration, is studying Ouchi's ideas with an eye toward possible implementation.

For those whose memories encompass the origin of the modern school reform era, beginning with the so-called Coleman Report (Equality of Educational Opportunity - 1966), one can hear echoes of what came to be called the Effective Schools movement.

This earlier reform movement, with some supporters still active today, was based on factor analysis studies of the organizational climate of schools by Wilbur Brookover and his students at Michigan State University. Their analysis identified a half-dozen key components in a school's success (as measured by a state achievement test), including: (1) the role of the principal as instructional leader; (2) a focus on school achievement; and (3) the need for a common mission to which everyone attends, all reiterated in Ouchi's seven keys to success. Also, on page 167, Ouchi identifies "the first requirement [emphasis added] of a school – providing a safe environment." This is well known as the first of the "correlates of school achievement" identified by effective schools proponents in the 1970s.

This connection with earlier research is a strength of Ouchi's work. Certain truths about successful school operation need not be reinvented. Another strength of Making Schools Work is the extensive use of examples from existing successful schools, coupled with Ouchi's practical insights about the features he finds notable and worthwhile.

The main new contribution of Ouchi's research is that centralized school bureaucracies are detrimental to individual school success. This finding extends the management revolution launched by Deming and others in business and industry into the field of public education. This revolution has led to the "flattening" of hierarchical organizations, with the movement of decision-making to operational levels much closer to clients and consumers. He also recognizes that parental choice is a key element of improved achievement, and cites a number of examples of school choice that are already in existence in public education. Neither of these critical factors were recognized by effective schools researchers.

Making Schools Work is one of only two books (the other is Teachers As Owners) that the Center for Public School Renewal endorses without reservation (although we have some quibbles in each case). We could hardly fail to endorse Ouchi's book, since his keys to success have considerable affinity with the three freedoms that CPSR has always held to be the basis for school improvement.

(1) The freedom of teachers to teach is supported by Ouchi's first, second, and fourth keys. He describes entrepreneurial principals as ones who fight for their teachers, who delegate authority to them so that they can decide the best way to do their job, and who, in conjunction with teachers, decides how the school budget is to be spent.

(2) The freedom of parents to choose schools for their children is supported by the seventh of Ouchi's keys – that families have real choices among schools.

(3) The freedom of the public to know what goes on in schools is supported by his third, fifth, and sixth keys. Everyone is accountable for results, there is a burning focus on student achievement, and every school is a community of learners, meaning there exists a consistent set of shared beliefs about what the school should be.

In short, the theoretical principles we endorse are given practical expression in Ouchi's book. If we might be so presumptuous as to boil Ouchi's seven keys down to their essence, it would be this – send the money to the schools (where it fertilizes the efforts of educators), keep a spotlight on what schools do with the money, and let parents opt in or out as they see fit.

If the ideas in Making Schools Work become even modestly implemented outside of the three exemplary districts described (Edmonton, Seattle, and Houston), CPSR would have few school reform ideas left to champion – a future we anticipate with great pleasure.

What quibbles do we have about this book?

First, the target audience – parents – may not be the most effective point at which to apply pressure for change in entrenched bureaucracies. Every education professional who benefits from the subservient status of schools and teachers will oppose the radical transformation of power that Ouchi's "send the money to the schools" message suggests. Education elites are sophisticated in ways of retaining power and authority, and parents will need political allies in positions above the elites, such as governors and legislators, to create Ouchi's revolution. Making Schools Work recognizes the need for an attack on the education establishment from two directions. "[C]hange should be initiated bottom-up and supported top-down." (p. 251) It will be interesting to see what kind of traction these reform ideas gain in the Golden State, and from which quarter they come.

Another strategy concern has to do with how far and how fast this revolution can proceed. Immediate sweeping reforms that send the money to all schools will cause huge disruptions in normal routine, whether there is opposition or not, simply because the vast majority of schools have no experience in spending their own money, and no organizational structure to handle the multiplicity of decisions that must be made. The culture of traditional school operations is geared to a subservient "Daddy-may-I" form of operation, and culture is a most difficult social phenomena to change.

Ouchi, however, believes that "If you alter the structural arrangements and then have patience, within a year or two the culture will begin to change."(p. 248) From this view we might imagine that he may be willing to tolerate some initial disruption. We would like to propose a measured passage from old to new school cultures.

While we believe individual school administrators and teachers are perfectly capable of handling their own affairs, a period of transition (perhaps two to three years per school) needs to be part of the plan. We also recommend a transformation that begins with volunteer schools and then moves on to providing incentives for less-than-enthusiastic building staffs, so that, over a period of, say eight to ten years, every school is coaxed to take the leap into autonomy. A measured transition will also enable those employees at the central administration level to adjust to new roles, rather than trying to scuttle the whole plan. If family choice is effectively implemented, schools that continue to resist the transformation will likely lose the support of parents.

A third quibble, this one specifically about one of Ouchi's keys to success, has to do with the role of the principal as entrepreneur. Our concern here is tactical, like the recommendation to first work with schools that volunteer to become autonomous. We are skeptical as to how many current principals can perform successfully as entrepreneurs. Our experience has been that principals are the most poorly supervised class of employees in a district, and they often have low credibility for leadership with their teachers. While Ouchi feels that leopards can change their spots and non-entrepreneurial principals can become entrepreneurs (pg. 65), we remain unconvinced. We feel that not just faculties, but principals too need to volunteer to become part of an autonomous school operation. As much as we believe in the reforms Ouchi proposes, we feel that the spread of autonomous schools is like missionary work – one convert at a time – rather than like a blitzkrieg.

Ouchi's identification of entrepreneurial principals as one of the seven key indicators of success may be an artifact of the traditional centralized governance system. It seems based mostly on cases of exemplary principals who have been willing to stand up to central bureaucracies on behalf of their schools. While such principals deserve great credit for their courage and perseverance, we don't think such special skills should be depended on to make the difference for all schools. In fact, the traits that enable some principals to act as entrepreneurs may not be compatible, for example, with developing a community of learners. The change in governance brought on by sending the money to the schools may very well require a different notion of school leadership altogether.

If this is about right, how might schools with incompetent principals become autonomous? We believe that some sort of mutual dependence must be constructed between principals and the teachers in their buildings. If principals have the power to decide who can teach in their building, then teachers should be able to decide whether or not their principal has the best interests of their school at heart. In short, if principals can make personnel decisions about teachers in their school, so too should teachers (collectively) have a say in who might be the principal in their school. In fact, school-level personnel decisions for all employees will have to be handled in the least bureaucratic manner possible.

Ultimately, we foresee new leadership forms developing from a new governance structure. We believe schools will come to be managed in ways that other professions manage themselves. Lawyers, for example, band together in practices with junior and senior practitioners, whose offices are managed by individuals who are not lawyers. The firm's employees and partners are all subject to personnel decisions made collectively, for the good of the partnership. We recommend that those who find Ouchi's ideas attractive also take a look at the research into distributed leadership being conducted by James Spillane and his associates at Northwestern University. Further examples of views that support the concept of a more diffuse and collegial leadership can be found in CPSR's list of Recommended Readings.

A final quibble is essentially technical. As far as I know, Ouchi's school research is limited to that reported in "The Organization of Primary and Secondary School Systems" (mentioned above in Note #1). This research, by its own admission "takes the school system as the unit of analysis." (p. 8 in my copy) In this case, we must conclude that the seven keys to success, which are essentially school level characteristics, are derived in some unspecified way from the present research, and/or are the result of research and experience in non-education organizations.

In sum, we find Making Schools Work stands on its own as a seminal effort in real, practical, meaningful school reform. Ouchi's recommendations, properly implemented, will transform public education from the troubled and controversial endeavor it is now into an institution that enjoys wide public support and respect.


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