When schools are failing, new research from Indiana University suggests, administrators should focus on a single, annual goal if they want to obtain higher graduation rates. Schools will be less effective if they focus on a range of what could be considered less critical goals including athletic success, compliance with No Child Left Behind standards and discipline.
To reach their conclusion, authors William G. Resh, assistant professor in IU's School of Public and Environmental Affairs, and David W. Pitts, associate professor of public affairs at American University in Washington, D.C., studied a range of statistics, including graduation rates, for all Georgia public high schools.
Their article, "No Solutions, Only Tradeoffs? Evidence of Goal Conflict in Street-Level Bureaucracies," was published in the January-February issue of Public Administration Review. That journal is edited by faculty at IU's School of Public and Environmental Affairs in Bloomington, Ind.
"It is tempting for school administrators to think that by making improvements across a variety of areas, they'll see higher graduation rates," Resh said. "That may be true in schools serving relatively well-off families. But we've determined that's not a strategy for success for schools serving neighborhoods with average or above-average poverty rates."
Compounding the challenge for school administrators is the pressure to meet a host of "lower order" objectives such as effective discipline and athletic success. A focus on several of these more immediate goals can result in a "zero sum trade-off" where one area improves while results in another slide.
"If struggling schools truly want to excel, then their efforts, energy and resources should go toward narrowing the range of lower-order goals to those that are most likely to align with the ultimate goal of improving graduation rates," Resh said. "But there's a lesson here for any street-level bureaucracy that's not seeing results. 'Keep Your Eye on the Prize,' as civil rights activists used to sing, and don't get sidetracked by diversions."
The authors acknowledge that's easier said than done and there are unforeseen consequences for choosing one goal over another.
"For example, what are the implications of focusing on academic achievement in lieu of student discipline? If a school chooses a basic, no-frills, punitive discipline policy, will the ramifications in the community in terms of lower civic engagement and higher crime outweigh the initial benefits that the school might see in the way of higher test scores and more effective classroom learning?" Resh and Pitts write.
More research will help answer questions like that, the authors conclude. For now, though, they say it's clear that administrators at impoverished and struggling schools are better off focusing on one goal instead of many.
- William G. Resh, David W. Pitts. No Solutions, Only Trade-Offs? Evidence about Goal Conflict in Street-Level Bureaucracies. Public Administration Review, 2013; 73 (1): 132 DOI: 10.1111/j.1540-6210.2012.02623.x
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