The most important single indicator of a school’s quality is a metric you’ve never heard of: total student load. It’s the number of classes a teacher teaches times the number of students per class. In New York City, by union contract, a teacher may teach up to five classes, and a class may have up to 32 students, for a total load of 160. English teachers at Bronx Science, one of the greatest high schools in America, have to figure out how to comment on the essays of 160 students. In Los Angeles, the total load is 200; in some districts, it’s as high as 240. Then visit an elite private school, like those where many of your readers send their children. The total load is 55 to 60.
In October 2005, I visited pilot senior high schools in Roxbury and South Boston — hard-core, inner-city neighborhoods. Both had total loads of 53. Each teacher handles two classes of 20 students each and a writing workshop of 13 more students. The teachers meet three times a week and they discuss each student one by one, because they know every student well.
A young woman at an autonomy school in New York said to me, “When I came here, I was always getting into fights. But at this school, everybody knows who you are. You can’t get away with that kind of thing.”
S+B: And why would the total student load drop simply because the principal is more powerful?
OUCHI: First of all, the principal is the key to every school. A strong principal attracts strong teachers. Then, when you give autonomy to the principal, the principal has no choice but to consult with the teachers. And they invariably decide they don’t want a large school of 3,500 students. It’s unmanageable. So they break it down into small schools, each with its own principal, bell schedule, and teaching staff.
Next, they get rid of administrative overhead. New York City has 75,000 credentialed teachers, but only 50,000 of them are in the classroom. When you give principals autonomy, they put their resources into the classroom. Everybody teaches. There’s no registrar; a teacher handles scheduling. There’s no dean of discipline or guidance counselors. They also dump the seven-period, five-day-a-week class schedule, which nobody likes; it produces a tremendously inefficient use of the scarce teacher resource.
Then they innovate. At one school I visited, the math and science teachers set up a combined program. They all went to night school to get credentialed in both disciplines, and then they created a joint course, team-teaching twice a week in a three-hour block. The students got more class time, and the teachers were in class a bit longer, but they each had half as many students as before. What teacher wouldn’t sign up for that?
S+B: Some parents might want to keep to the old system, with more advanced math and science.
OUCHI: That’s why you also need school choice. Every one of these districts has a system where students can attend a variety of schools without a waiver from the central office. If schools are oversubscribed, they run lotteries, giving preference to neighborhood children. This introduces a healthy form of competition; no principal wants a school that’s 30 percent empty.
I visited an elementary school in Seattle where they established a core objective: Every child, including those from non-English-speaking families, must read English well by third grade. They hired 12 reading and math coaches, drawing on retired teachers who could work part-time without benefits. They changed the curriculum as well. The result was a flying squad, moving from classroom to classroom, working with groups of five to seven students at a time. In that school today, black and white children have identical reading scores and 100 percent of them are at or above grade level.