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The Central Office (I): School Reform's Scapegoat

Truth is the first casualty of war. Why? Because it’s relatively easy to motivate popular support by settling on an enemy, fashioning a stereotype and demonizing it. It’s very hard to build that base by explaining that nothing is ever quite so clear; the world is a complex place; there’s a lot of fault to go around; and when it comes to large institutions, the root cause is a failure of leadership.

So it is with urban school districts. The public wants to fix responsibility for poor performance. When new superintendents and their managers come in to “turn things around”, the public wants to identify who is to blame for the mess and what the new team is going to do about them.

All too often the new management feels a need to throw red meat to the crowd.

Blaming parents is obviously a nonstarter. Blaming budgets doesn’t square well with the fact that most urban districts spend more per pupil than many more successful districts in the inner suburbs. Blaming political interference from elected officials is suicidal. Targeting specific schools only leads to local uprisings. Blaming teachers and principals always backfires politically, and the public has never been convinced that an attack on the teachers’ or principals’ unions is not an attack the members. Blaming janitors, bus drivers and kitchen staff would be laughable. Stating the truth, that the public school system has gradually become organized for failure, and that disorganization is ultimately the responsibility of leadership rather than employees, is unimaginable.

Hence, the interest of District of Columbia Mayor Adrian Fenty and Chancellor Michelle Rhee in targeting the school system's central office. It lacks an obvious constituency beyond its own staff. Even in a city like the District, where everyone works in, for or with government, no one really likes bureaucracy. Everyone on the planet has encountered a lazy, ignorant, uncaring bureaucrat; indeed several.

Attacking the central bureaucracy offers at least the impression of a commitment to change and some evidence of momentum. It buys time while the new leaders figure out how to address more fundamental problems – in DC, for example, an upcoming teachers' union contract negotiation. And it is an attack that has some basis in fact - the central office is part of the problem of urban school reform. Moreover, in any bureaucracy any manager can find a few truly poor performers, redundant employees, and obstructionists to make a generalized case in a way that just wouldn’t wash with the press or public if the target were teachers or principals.

I have no doubt that parents with children in DC’s public schools have no great quarrel with the Fenty Administration’s decision to take on the central office. And most education policy wonks – left or right, old philanthropy or new philanthropy, at least secretly agree when the Education Gadfly hails Rhee’s “vow to mow down the bureaucracy.” It’s understandable – everyone involved in urban school reform has been on the receiving end of “no” from someone in the central office responding to some request for a change in the rules to accommodate their school reform program. The accumulation of no’s eventually kills the program or prevents its expansion.

It’s hard not to personalize “no”. Its easy to fix responsibility with central office bureaucrats, rather than the central office bureaucracy. So while there is no greater political sin than attacking teachers as a class, it's entirely acceptable to stereotype and demonize bureaucrats.

Next: How the central office does get in the way of school improvement, the "value-added" of changes there, and why the problem is less the shortcomings of central office bureaucrats, than the failure of school district leadership.

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