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The Central Office (V): Doing Things Wrong or Doing the Wrong Things?

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The fundamental problem the central office presents to those interested in school reform isn’t bureaucratic obstructionism, individual shortcomings, an excessive draw on resources, ineffective procedures, or its very existence in the structure of school districts.

The problem is that school boards and superintendents are asking it to do the wrong things.

Unlike the teachers’ union, the central office is not a force independent of the superintendent and school board. Yes, it can go haywire without adequate supervision. Nevertheless, a superintendent who makes regaining control of a runaway central office a priority has the power to terminate staff members who get in the way of reform.

The central office may well be inefficient. But the urge to streamline only strikes superintendents when the entire budget is out of whack and the system is in a financial crisis. This is rarely a time for well-considered judgments about activity costing. The money saved doesn’t end up in the classroom. At best it keeps classroom budgets from being cut.

The central bureaucracy is slow to respond to school needs, primarily because school boards have not invested in effective information support systems, and have allowed it to become a place where professionalism fights a constant battle with patronage.

In short, if the central office is a monster to be mowed down – school district leaders might start with themselves, because they define it.

This gets to the heart of the matter. The central office gets in the way of school improvement not because it’s doing things wrong, but because it’s doing the wrong things.

In my own experience scaling up a dozen New American Schools’ and affiliated Comprehensive School Reform models in hundred of schools in dozen of districts, I certainly heard principals and teachers complain that “central” was making it hard, maybe even impossible, to implement the design they had selected for their school. But the protest wasn’t that books were late or the air conditioner wasn’t working, although those might well have been true.

The problem was far more serious. Activities that the school deemed essential to the implementation of its design were contradicted by policies the central office enforced. Invariably, the time teachers needed to conduct planning and other activities essential to address teaching and learning issues at their school was preempted in whole or part by district-wide training activities. Invariably, the school had adopted a design that featured some element of curriculum or instructional strategy that was inconsistent with a district-wide approach. The planning schedule and instructional strategy were part of the package the district had offered schools to choose, not post hoc decisions made by teachers after design adoption. Indeed it was often the case that district-wide policies were promulgated after design adoption. Of course, the district policy trumped the schools model.

The problem with the central office is the decision of school boards and superintendents to use it as an instrument of central control. The problem is not a central office; the independent charter school movement shows the disadavantages of giving up an important means of capturing economies of scale in school support, and some centralized activity is required to collect the information on performance for school accountability. But if school systems are serious about school improvement and holding schools accountable for performance, they have to give schools full control at least over decisions about time and curriculum

Mowing down one set of bureaucrats only to replace them with another performing the same control functions won’t get us to better schools.

1 Comment

but sound like you're advocating site based management!?! But the "research" has disproved it, and proved that centralization is the answer.

Except nobody seems to ask the basic question. When its the top down system that doing the counting, what else would the "research" prove?

Recently I've become aware that many centralizers are sincerely unaware of the diferences between magnet and other relatively low poverty schools and high poverty neighborhood schools. They seem to assume that someone has accounted for those differences in the "research."

Here's the single biggest issue that we could solve if there was a way to get the full picture to the top leadership, Block Scheduling especially within the context of attendance policies.

Many affluent schools love Block. It cuts class time by 1/4th, but that's not a problem in schools where the attendance rate approaches 100%, the students read at grade level, and the majority have parents that help supervise Project Based Learning. And there are Block hybrids that could work in inner city schools.

But high challenge schools face some huge logistiocal hurdles. In our state, students would get nearly 173 hours per year per course under a traditional schedule. Under Block, the maximum hours in class is 124. Then when you consider the average attendance rate is about 80%, however for students in regular classes, it means that the average student gets about 111 hours of instruction - if he's enrolled for the full year. Under the traditional schedule the same average student would get 42 more hours of instruction per class.

This made some political sense under NCLB because it allowed us to dramatically inflate our graduation rate. But now, our students will soon need to pass graduation exams in five areas.

In the buildings, we know its impossible to reduce class time by almost 1/3 (or 42 hours for the average neighborhood school student) and still bring our kids from their current skills (reading around 5th or 6th grade on the average) to the point where they can pass five tests which are written on a 9th to 10th grade level.

The the lost class time explains why we could spend millions of dollars in our system and still have a pass rate of about 5% for Algebra, 15% for Science, and 35% in reading in neighborhood schools.

Our central office understands these dynamics. But they don't see it as their job to educate the superintendant like that. And worse, we now have a superintendant from the Broad School who is bring policies from a district that spends THREE TIMES AS MUCH PER CAPITA. I can virtually guarantee you that nobody with an institutional memory has tried to communicate with the boss.

Having been intimately involved in reform for 10 years, I have a minority opinion. I think our biggest failure has been our inability to bring principals into the collaborative process. And weird as it might sound, the very best thing for students would be a merger of the principals' "union" and the teachers' union.

I love my AFT leadership but they think I'm nuts on this issue. Now, the principals and the central office are being terrorized, so why would we put our heads in their noose? But somehow we need to find a way to get honest information up the chain of command.


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