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The Central Office (II): Dysfunctionality's Cause or Symptom?


As the instrument of and transmission belt for policies made by every school district's elected and appointed leadership, the central office should be a force that accelerates school reform. Instead, it's been a drag.

Before deciding that "the central office" is responsible for the crisis in urban school reform, and cheering what at least one group of eduwonks calls District of Columbia Public Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee's "vow to mow down the bureaucracy," it's worth taking a closer look at its role in a district , where and how it's become dysfunctional, and the likely impact of proposed changes on teaching and learning.

In theory, the central office might interfere with school improvement in four ways:

• Obstructing reform efforts - actively or passively but, in either case, deliberately.

• Drawing more funds than are needed for its activities, and so “taking money from the classroom.”

• Following procedures that are too sluggish to support schools' real needs.

• Performing functions that make it harder to improve teaching and learning.

As a general rule, new school district leaders committed to reform emphasize the first three. Nevertheless, all but the last have a marginal impact on efforts to improve teaching and learning. And all, including the last, are well within the control of any school system’s leadership. They require hard work and will, but not extraordinary intelligence or even vast creativity. Finally, none require making an enemy of the bureaucratic class. Indeed, that approach only makes the new management's job that much harder.

Deliberate obstructionism.

In all my experience at New American Schools supporting the efforts of a dozen organizations to implement Comprehensive School Reform models in hundreds of schools under Memoranda of Understanding with dozens of districts, I never once encountered a case where the bureaucracy or even individual bureaucrats acted with a deliberate intent to wreck the superintendent’s reform plan. I’ve seen individual laziness, stupidity, indifference and borderline criminality in every bureaucracy I’ve ever worked with at the federal, state and local level, in domestic and national security policy. Still, I have never seen the bureaucracy as a whole adopt an intentional campaign to grind the wheels of change to a halt.

For what it's worth, I can’t say the same of teachers' unions. I have seen "working to the rule," slowdowns, walkouts, sickouts, refusals to permit school-by-school variances to collective bargaining agreements provisions, political campaigns to change the school board etc., etc. used to block a superintendent's reform plans. These results from deliberate union leadership decisions to draw on the standard set of tools every union has to make its interests known to management. I'm not saying these tools have or lack legitimacy. I'm just pointing out that the central office doesn't work as an independent, unified, rational actor in any school district.

That said, individual staff in the central office do get in the way of reform. Where staff members are not doing their jobs, they should be helped, reassigned to places where they can be helpful, disciplined or fired. In the case of the DC Public Schools, Chancellor Rhee has managed to get several employees who seem to have been individually incompetent or criminal out of the chain of command pending investigation and probable termination.

Yet the real disgrace here isn’t problem employees, so much as the fact that prior administrations' didn't get rid of them long ago. Yes, considerable paperwork and procedure is involved in firing an employee for cause. Guess what? The same is true of almost every company that approaches the size of a school district. Without procedural and substantive employee protections, it's just too easy for managers to get their institutions in trouble for sexism, racism, harrassment, and age discrimination.

Managers in large public and private institutions who want to fire someone have the burden of documenting poor performance, providing notice to the employee, offering a plan for improvement, and showing non-responsiveness. I’m sorry, but every worker deserves due process. If management wants to fire folks, they ought to be able to document their case.

Frankly, people who should be fired don’t get fired because their managers don’t find making that case a high priority relative to other matters in their in-box. In the case of DCPS, it's understandable that the Fenty Administration would like to deal with an accumulated mess of incompetents in one fell swoop. But the right way to do this is to put the required time and resources against the problem, rather than reduce the burden that protects every employee - not just poor performers.

Only by unfairly stereotyping central office workers can the Administration hope to lower standards that protect individuals against potential abuse. I find it hard to understand how a young African- American Mayor, and his young Asian-American Chancellor who almost certainly have personal experience with prejudice, are so much less sensitive to the moral issue at stake here than this 50-plus Caucasian male.

The Bottom Line:
Unlike teachers unions, bureaucracies don't block district change strategies as a matter of deliberate policy, individual obstructionism is rare, and incompetent individuals can be removed if their managers make it a priority.

Does eliminating bureaucracy really send more money to the classroom?


DCPS should not move to quickly to proclaim success in cleaning out Central Office. Most of the most flagrant employees who have committed crimes, and demonstrate lack of concern for constituents are still employed. I believe they will continue to be employed there. They are very good at ignoring constituents and playing to their bosses. Years of complaints have done little to move them. Why would they move now?

Part of the problem exists in the various commissions that oversee the functions as well. In teaching, the commissions to make changes are made up of the people most invested in keeping things the same - ed schools and teacher union members. Not surprising that things don't change.

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