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Education Opinion

Response: ‘Authoritarian-Style Mandates’ From Central Offices Don’t Work

By Larry Ferlazzo — July 20, 2018 21 min read
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(Today’s post is the first in a two-part series)

The new question-of-the-week is:

How can Central Offices of School Districts best help schools, their administrators and teachers, and their students and families?

My experience with Central Offices has mainly (though not exclusively) been either having the principal of our school work hard at protecting us from being harmed by them or, if I have to physically go there, feeling that my life force is drained as soon as I walk in the door.

This series will explore ways that Central Offices can have better impacts on teachers, students and their families.

Today, Adeyemi Stembridge, Douglas Reeves, Amber Teamann, PJ Caposey, Rachael George, Dr. Patrick Darfler-Sweeney and Sherry Lanza share their ideas. Though this column doesn’t have an accompanying podcast, you can still listen to past ones here.

Response From Adeyemi Stembridge

Adeyemi Stembridge, PhD, provides technical assistance for school improvement with a specific focus on equity. He works with districts around the country to identify root causes of achievement gaps and formulate pedagogy- and policy-based efforts to redress the underperformance of vulnerable student populations. Follow him on Twitter at @DrYemiS:

In my consultation with district policy-makers, I often share an article published in the July 29, 2013 edition of The New Yorker magazine entitled “Slow Ideas,” because I think it conveys two key baseline premises that are essential to the understandings for how central offices can best support all of a school system’s various constituents in any improvement effort. In the piece, author and surgeon Atul Guwande wrote about the different trajectories of two enormously significant nineteenth century medical innovations - surgical anesthesia and antiseptics. In both cases, the potential benefits to practitioner and patient alike were immense; but only the idea of anesthesia spread quickly. Why?

Prior to the mid 1840’s, it was an expectation that patients would experience excruciating pain during surgery. But within a few months after October 16, 1846, when the surgical use of anesthesia was first successfully demonstrated at Massachusetts General Hospital, the practice was being employed in major cities all over the globe thus becoming standard operating procedure in the medical profession. While the idea of anesthetics was swiftly circulating, infection was still the greatest health risk to surgical patients claiming as many as half the lives of those who underwent major operations. In the 1860’s, the Edinburgh surgeon Joseph Lister discovered that sepsis infections were caused by microorganisms that could be eliminated through exposure to carbolic acids. He soon perfected antiseptic cleansing methods that expunged dangerous germs that might enter the operating field thus drastically lowering the rates of sepsis and death; but the use of carbolic acid in surgical practice neither disseminated widely nor quickly.

The difference in medical practitioners’ experience with the problems of surgery ended up being the most significant influencer of how solutions to these problems were spread and put to use in the medical field. Guwande proposes that while the problem of pain was obvious and immediate, the problem of infection was experienced differently because it was invisible and delayed - and thus, a less pressing issue for surgeons. More pertinently, although both anesthesia and antiseptics made life better for patients, only one made life better for doctors. “Anesthesia changed surgery from a brutal, time-pressured assault on a shrieking patient to a quiet, considered procedure.” Listerism, by contrast, required the operator to work with carbolic acid of which even low dilutions burned the surgeons’ hands.

The first of the two key baseline premises that are essential to the understandings for how central offices can best support its constituents in a school system is that authoritarian-style mandates will not likely change people’s practices. We are wise to remember that it’s human nature for change to occur more meaningfully and rapidly when people understand the change as in their own personal best interests. The idea of anesthesia caught on with surgeons because it made surgery an easier prospect for surgeons themselves.

Guwande went on in the article to make another critical observation about how innovative ideas spread:

“‘Diffusion is essentially a social process through which people talking to people spread an innovation,’ wrote Everett Rogers, the great scholar of how new ideas are communicated and spread.... Rogers showed, people follow the lead of other people they know and trust when they decide whether to take it up. Every change requires effort, and the decision to make that effort is a social process.”

The second key premise to pull from the “Slow Ideas” article is that neither penalties nor incentives work especially well to change cultural ways of being and practices to the point “where X is what people do, day in and day out, even when no one is watching.” Guwande advises that “to create new norms, you have to understand people’s existing norms and the [real and perceived] barriers to change. You have to understand what’s getting in their way.” The most powerful force for changing people’s norms and standards is not whether you pay them or penalize them but whether you talk to them. When people talk to people whom they trust and know have first-hand experience with the problem of practice themselves, they are much more likely to change.

The purpose of policy is to empower practitioners to solve problems of practice. In the case of schools - and particularly from the vantage point of Equity, in which the goal is to be responsive to the needs of all students - a problem of practice is anything that interferes with rigorous and engaging learning opportunities for students. When school staff and families trust that central office staff have experience with and understandings of problems of practice, the probability of effective support being incorporated into the system’s cultural schema are much greater.

Response From Douglas Reeves

Douglas Reeves is the author of more than 30 books on education and leadership. He blogs at CreativeLeadership.net and Tweets @DouglasReeves:

Dr. John Thompson and Dr. Thom Lockamy, respectively the former superintendent and deputy superintendent of the Broad-Award winning Norfolk Public Schools, oversaw one of the great transformations in urban education. They would regularly ask their central office staff, “what are you doing here?” The implication was that central office staff belonged not in the office, but in schools, helping teachers, students, and principals. They even set quantitative goals of 80% of central office time spent with schools. This is a very unpopular policy if the culture of a school system is that the central office is where people seek refuge from the uncomfortable presence of children.

I’ve been lucky enough to see great examples of superintendents and central office leaders representing “calendar integrity” - that is, investing their time in a way consistent with their values. But I have seen many contrary examples, where the central office is a refuge from classrooms, passing periods, recess, hallway fights, and school cafeterias. In my coaching of superintendents, much of the conversation revolves around difficult personnel decisions in the central office. The discussion almost always comes down one question: Does this person really like and respect students and teachers? When the answer is in the negative, then the central office is better with a vacant chair than one occupied by someone who generates work for principals and teachers without adding any value. These idea apply at a treble level for state departments of education, federal departments and ministries of education, and intergalactic federations of education. If you don’t like kids and teachers, then please find another place to exorcise your anger about the educational system.

Response From Amber Teamann

Amber Teamann is the proud principal of Whitt Elementary in Wylie ISD in Wylie, Texas. During her educational career, Amber’s comprehensive understanding of student learning has resulted in a successful blend of technology and teaching fro students and adults. From a 4th grade teacher at a public school technology center, to her role as a Title I Technology Facilitator responsible for 17 campuses to principal, Amber has helped students and staff navigate their digital abilities and responsibilities:

My first 12 years in education were in a very large district. There were 52 elementary schools alone and our opportunities to deal with Central Office were varied and far between. The supt. was never on campus, and if he was, eek! Someone was in trouble!

I am now in a smaller district and the mindset here is so incredibly different. We SEE our central office people weekly. I will come out once or twice a month and find my supt. opening car doors in the morning. Both he and our assistant supts are visible in our community and our campus. They also share via social media all the great things that they see each day. My supt. went to Texas Tech University and he is known for giving a dollar to the first student who gives him the “guns up” sign on every campus he visits.

My kinder kids squeal when they see him. It is the most powerful relationship building I’ve ever seen! They know my teachers, they know our data. They can speak to the ins and outs of my campus, my families, and our history. When I have a question, they are available. I can call, I can email, I can text...and know that I will hear back from them. If they don’t have answer, they get me one. I never feel as if I have to make hard decisions alone, unless I want too. Ever more importantly, when there is a situation I “may” need backup for, they are here. While I recognize that this may have to do with the fact that we are smaller, there is a mindset here that our central office people are here to HELP us, not judge or condemn us, after we have made a decision. It is incredible to feel that kind of support. Our relationships are so strong, I have zero hesitations calling them for advice or support, and I feel like that should be every central office’s goal!

Response From PJ Caposey

PJ Caposey is an award-winning educator, author of two books (Teach Smart and Building a Culture of Support), and sought after speaker and consultant specializing in school culture, principal coaching, effective evaluation practices, and student-centered instruction. PJ serves as the Superintendent of Schools for Meridian CUSD 223 in Northwest Illinois and can be reached at pcaposey@gmail.com or via twitter (@MCUSDSupe):

As a Superintendent, I pay close attention to my colleagues and districts that are excelling. This may be a result of my inner-student coming forward and wanting to learn, but I think this is mainly driven by my competitive drive. As I examine great leaders, inside and outside of education, I see many of the same or similar characteristics coming forward. My study of extremely successful districts, led me to believe the below is how a Central Office can most strategically and best help their schools and those they serve.

VISION - First and foremost, great leaders and great Central offices have a vision. They believe in something greater than what currently exists and what has allowed adults to be comfortable. They do not believe in maintaining the status quo. Having a vision may seem simple, but I assure you it is not. Many leaders cannot tell you where to go beyond taking the next most logical step toward improvement. Transformational leaders see several steps ahead and chart a course to, where perhaps, nobody has ever gone before.

PASSION - During administrative interviews in my district I ask the question, “What are you willing to get fired for?” This question brings some incredible looks from candidates. The question, however, is not intended ‘throw off’ our interviewees - it is a serious question. I want people on my team that care deeply enough something that they are willing to risk their own job. This belief, this passion, is what allows people to put forth the effort to be transcendent leaders. To be great often means we have to make sacrifices - without passion nobody is willing to make the sacrifices necessary to achieve uncommon results.

PEOPLE FIRST - I have never observed a district that was able to policy and protocol their way to greatness. This is not to downplay the importance of wise policies and systematic protocols, but this is not the answer to what ails us in education. If it was, everyone would have found the right policies, implemented them, and all kids would be receiving a world-class education as the result. This is simply not the case. Great leaders know this. They spend their time and energy focused on developing the most important resource in any school system - their people. Show me a district with wonderful adults working on behalf of kids and I will show you a successful district - regardless of policies, rules, and regulations.

THE SYSTEM - The best Central Offices put the above together in a very clear continuum of repeatable events.

  • First and foremost, great leadership sets exceedingly high expectations for their people. Targets for performance that do not push the envelope - do not change behavior.

  • An intentional focus on support is present. Great leadership understands that high expectations alone can be intimidating when not coupled with targeted and consistent support. Nobody can feel as though they are working alone if wonderful outcomes are going to be accomplished.

  • Results matter. Leadership must celebrate wins and hold people accountable when we fall short of our goals. It is vital to remember that our goals are important - because they focus on how we are serving kids. Our kids deserve our best and that is the easiest way to remember why results always matter.

    1. Remember - accountability is important, but firing people is NOT a strategy for school improvement. Great leadership knows that people in schools should be terminated for only one of two reasons - incompetence (unable to attain results) or insubordination. For a determination to be made of someone being incompetent or insubordinate; support must have been given first. Someone not achieving results without being provided targeted support is not insubordination or incompetence - it is simply a leadership failure.

Response From Rachael George

Rachael George is a member of the ASCD Emerging Leaders Class of 2015 and currently serves as the principal of Sandy Grade School in the Oregon Trail School District. Prior to serving as an elementary principal, George was a middle school principal of an “outstanding” and two-time “Level 5: Model School” as recognized by the State of Oregon. George specializes in curriculum development and instructional improvement as well as working with at-risk students and closing the achievement gap. Connect with George on Twitter @runnin26:

Some of the best support I have received from the District Office has been when they have been actively visible in the building, classrooms, and community, on a biweekly or monthly basis. Working at the District Office is a challenging job as you are often fielding parent complaints, dealing with frustrated staff members, and working to stay a step ahead of building needs. By keeping an ear to the ground and remember what it was like to be in a building makes a huge impact on the requests, meetings, and demands you place on these educators.

I have been fortunate enough to work for some amazing districts and the part that sets the good ones apart is the level of support you get from the folks above. For example, spring months are always insane and wonderfully packed with great events in school while state testing is going on. This isn’t the time to launch an entirely new program or add more onto the ever flowing plate of teachers or buildings. The way to come at this challenge is to be present in the real work we do. Come see what you are asking folks to complete and talk to folks that are working hard to implement the programs and strategies you suggest. You just might be amazed at what you find and hear.

Response From Dr. Patrick Darfler-Sweeney

Dr. Patrick Darfler-Sweeney is a retired Superintendent of Schools from New York State after 33 years in K-12 education. He currently teaches for SUNY Oneonta in the Masters of Education Technology Department. He also is the author of The Superintendent’s Rule Book: A Guide to District Level Leadership by Routledge Press:

A bad system will beat a good person every time.

-W. Edwards Deming

Structure/Start with great ingredients

In a single word, structure. People talk about leadership, but, that is hard to define. If you can’t describe it, how do you know you have it? A far simpler approach is one that has been used by great chefs and coaches for generations: good ingredients make for great eating (there is another saying that has something to do with not being able to make chicken salad out of something other than chicken...). What constitutes ingredients for a school? Personnel; the quality of the people that you hire determine how successful your school will run. You only control what you can control. The day to day authority of the Central Office is that of the Superintendent. The legal power of recommendation for hiring and firing is the linchpin of the superintendent’s successes and failures of their administration. How the leader uses this authority will determine if the structure will have a positive or negative outcome. It becomes the responsibility of the teachers, staff, and administration to ensure the goals of the school district.

On the other side of the equation, the central office needs to train all of its administrators how to effectively, humanely, and professionally evaluate and counsel teachers and staff.

Personalize PD and training for teachers, staff, and administrators

Personalizing professional development within an environment that does not demonize this approach is important, though, not always easy. Most individuals have no problem in engaging in PD if it is their idea to do it in the first place, the challenge comes with someone (read: administrator) who tells a teacher or staff member they need the PD. Central Office has to develop a duality when it comes to PD. First encouraging those teachers, staff, and administrators to consistently seek out opportunities to enhance student engagement skills and to make it an active part of the evaluation process for administrators and supervisors to assist in customizing a PD approach that reaches into their role as chief engagement officers.

Rule: We work with people, there are no simple solutions

At the heart of the belief that people are not simple is the myriad of different experiences, support, and grit that any one person brings forward. Therefore, the idea of forming an army of one marching toward the lofty mission and goals of the district is ridiculous. A Central Office must develop a team of marines to fill its ranks of teachers, staff, and administrators. Highly trained, fully engaged, who understand and act independently to adapt and execute the world-class education system we demand. What we know about how to educate students is not very lengthy (read: if you do x you will have learning outcome y). What we do know is that when students are engaged, we have a much higher yield in a student’s ability to apply and gain new knowledge. Teachers, staff, and administrators must understand that they have “permission” to use their tremendous skills to go beyond the prescriptions of the state education department.

The Central Office is responsible for staff and developing the structure and environment that encourages this approach. Teachers, staff, and administrators act to create greater student engagement based on the student performance and individual needs.

Serve with compliments for their efforts and show appreciation often. Enjoy the chicken salad!

Response From Sherry Lanza

Sherry Lanza is the Director of Districtwide Programs in the Kernville Union School District in Lake Isabella, California and is a member of the Instructional Leadership Corps, a collaboration among the California Teachers Association, the Stanford Center for Opportunity Policy in Education, and the National Board Resource Center at Stanford:

School District Offices set the stage for student learning. Support and capacity- building start and end with District Offices (DOs). DOs have to keep a dual focus at all times: on students and on school site leaders. A DO that supports site leaders will create a process that builds capacity for site leaders to support teachers, and, subsequently, for teachers that support students’ learning.

Just as teachers collaborate in Professional Learning Communities, site administrators need to collaborate in a community. District Offices have an opportunity to help site administrators with support in a cycle- of -inquiry process. DOs should provide site administrators with evidence, measurements, and data on a district- wide basis. By using common measurements, Principal Professional Learning Communities are able to evaluate growth and needs. This evaluation will enable growth of collective expertise in site leaders just as it does with teachers. A DO that supports site leaders with a “push/pull” process will ultimately help guide site leaders to ultimately further student learning.

District- level coordinators, directors, and other department heads have resources to research and keep ahead of the curve on many innovations in education. Their scope of work allows them to plan strategically while keeping the needs of the entire district foremost. County Offices of Education are excellent sources for support to School Districts. At Kern County Superintendent of Schools, there are networks for superintendents, district- level administrators, principals, instructional coaches, and support service providers. Within those networks, there are many opportunities to learn and infuse new strategies or programs. Stanford and California Teachers Association have created the Instructional Leadership Corps (ILC) for teachers and administrators. Through participation in ILC, administrators have opportunities to network and expand capacity for their schools. Other venues for researching and learning can be found through Association of California School Administrators (ACSA), edWeb.org, and Leading Edge Certification courses.

Since DOs typically provide financial and budget support for school sites, there also needs to be collaboration between the DO and site leaders. As a cycle of inquiry recommends actions and services, the DO needs to assist with resource allocation to keep student growth in the forefront. Schools and teachers are on the front line in delivering instruction. As they develop collective expertise and discover what works best, teachers and site leaders will need resources. District Offices should provide budgeting and funds to support professional learning and staffing.

Central Offices of School Districts have the responsibility to keep every action, plan, and service focused on students. As they directly support site leaders, they must also focus on how site leadership impacts teachers. By growing highly effective site leadership, teacher capacity will grow, and student learning will build.

Thanks to Adeyemi, Doug, Amber, PJ, Rachael, Patrick and Sherry for their contributions!

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