Education Opinion

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

October 07, 2007 3 min read

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.

The opinions expressed in edbizbuzz are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

Let us know what you think!

We’re looking for feedback on our new site to make sure we continue to provide you the best experience.


This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Future of Work Webinar
Digital Literacy Strategies to Promote Equity
Our new world has only increased our students’ dependence on technology. This makes digital literacy no longer a “nice to have” but a “need to have.” How do we ensure that every student can navigate
Content provided by Learning.com
Mathematics Online Summit Teaching Math in a Pandemic
Attend this online summit to ask questions about how COVID-19 has affected achievement, instruction, assessment, and engagement in math.
School & District Management Webinar Examining the Evidence: Catching Kids Up at a Distance
As districts, schools, and families navigate a new normal following the abrupt end of in-person schooling this spring, students’ learning opportunities vary enormously across the nation. Access to devices and broadband internet and a secure

EdWeek Top School Jobs

7796 - Director of EAL (K-12) - August '21
Dubai, UAE
GEMS Education
Great Oaks AmeriCorps Fellow August 2021 - June 2022
New York City, New York (US)
Great Oaks Charter Schools
Great Oaks AmeriCorps Fellow August 2021 - June 2022
New York City, New York (US)
Great Oaks Charter Schools

Read Next

Education Obituary In Memory of Michele Molnar, EdWeek Market Brief Writer and Editor
EdWeek Market Brief Associate Editor Michele Molnar, who was instrumental in launching the publication, succumbed to cancer.
5 min read
Education Briefly Stated Briefly Stated: December 9, 2020
Here's a look at some recent Education Week articles you may have missed.
8 min read
Education Briefly Stated Briefly Stated: Stories You May Have Missed
A collection of articles from the previous week that you may have missed.
8 min read
Education Briefly Stated Briefly Stated: Stories You May Have Missed
A collection of stories from the previous week that you may have missed.
8 min read