School & District Management

Central Office Is Critical Bridge To Help Schools

By Robert C. Johnston — March 07, 2001 12 min read
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Ramon Curiel oversees the recruiting and hiring of 6,000 bus drivers, custodians, teachers’ aides, and other classified employees for the public schools here. He visits classrooms, but he doesn’t work in them. Still, his bottom line is the same as that of teachers, principals, and the superintendent: raising student achievement.

That is why, when Long Beach students posted gains on recent exams, he gathered his central-office staff that hires the multitude of classified employees for a celebration. “I held up the grades and showed them,” Mr. Curiel recalled. “I said, ‘Look, you had something to do with this.’”

School experts applaud the simple gesture because it links the central office to the classroom in a way that is often missing. That connection, they add, is needed in order to clarify the leadership role that districts play in today’s increasingly complex schools.

A report by the Washington-based Institute for Educational Leadership concluded recently that the past two decades of school improvement efforts have largely ignored the roles of superintendents, school boards, and central-office administrators in promoting student performance.

“I’d argue that this is the most important untapped resource, and biggest obstacle, to reforming schools,” said Marla Ucelli, the director of district redesign at the Annenberg Institute for School Reform, based at Brown University in Providence, R.I. “There’s not a lot of effort to focus districts on seeing themselves in the role of helping schools fulfill their individual missions,” added Ms. Ucelli, who helped oversee the IEL report.

But managers are just part of that equation. In 1997, 5.3 million people worked in U.S. schools, according to the most recent federal data available. Of those, 1.5 million worked in district offices or provided support services such as driving buses, preparing food, and cleaning schools.

Rapid Response

Experts say that district leaders must integrate those often-disparate parts of the workforce into rapid-response teams that support student achievement. The good news is that—with the help of a growing roster of consultants, successful peers, and business leaders—many are doing just that.

“Ten years ago, districts asked for isolated training— the silver bullet we could give everyone,” said Phillip C. Schlechty, the chief executive officer of the Center for Leadership in School Reform, a nonprofit consulting firm in Louisville, Ky. “Now, the thinking is more sophisticated. They’re asking for comprehensive support.”

The considerable room for improvement in the central office might surprise even strong districts. At least that’s what officials here in Long Beach are finding out. Their goal, they say, is to make life as smooth as possible for the teachers and other employees who work directly with students. Located just south of Los Angeles, the 93,000-student system has enjoyed eight years of stable leadership under Superintendent Carl A. Cohn. Test scores are up, and innovations such as school uniforms, single-gender schools, and mandatory summer school have been embraced.

“Our reputation as an urban district that works gives us an excuse for maintaining the status quo,” Mr. Cohn warned. “But we must be about getting to the next level.”

To do that, Mr. Cohn and his school board agreed with local business leaders to study the central office using strategies from the Baldrige National Quality Program. With headquarters in Gaithersburg, Md., the program stresses rigorous self-evaluation, a focus on better service, and shared organizational goals.

The district hired Laurie Shaw, a former teacher and school principal, to co-direct the effort with Dawn Lukacs, an executive on loan from the Boeing Co.

“We have a lot of pieces in place, but they’re scattered,” Ms. Shaw said. “If we improve central-office processes, teachers won’t be confused and distracted.”

To date, most managers have received basic training in the Baldrige process. A few departments have moved to the next stage by training frontline workers and conducting customer-satisfaction surveys of teachers and other school employees.

The payroll department was one of the first to dig in, in part because it needed help with a backlog of some 500 overtime-pay cards, some of which had been been put aside for more than a year.

Sherry Thorpe, the payroll director, and her staff learned a lot from the surveys and subsequent talks. “Teachers don’t even know how to fill out the cards or who they should call for answers,” she said.

And schools felt the collateral damage. Jody Raeff, the office supervisor at Rogers Middle School, guesses she spent a third of her time sorting out payroll issues— something she shouldn’t have to do.

The problems had eroded her time for parents, students, and helping teachers, and had hurt morale.

“When teachers don’t get paid, they yell. When it’s wrong, they yell,” Ms. Raeff said. “It must be correct.”

Ongoing Effort

Long Beach’s laser-like focus on quality is having an impact, officials here say. For example, instead of merely trading blame for problems, as had been the case, they say, issues are being resolved. The backlog of time cards was erased by temporarily dedicating a staff person to handle them. A new employee was hired to deal full time with cards that have errors.

Next, Ms. Thorpe’s staff will go to union meetings to show teachers how to fill out paperwork—which, by the way, is being streamlined. Ms. Thorpe will also review the working environment of school secretaries to see if they have adequate telephones, cabinets, and computers.

Posters on the walls of her department also articulate the new attitude by employees who are pledging more prompt and friendly service. As for the time cards, Ms. Thorpe added, “in the past, they’d be put in a pile, and no one had time to fix them. Now we fix them in a four-week cycle.”

The surveys uncovered other problems. Teachers couldn’t reach a live person when they called the human resources department, or their calls were repeatedly transferred. Teachers also said that the offices were often empty early in the morning or during lunch, just when teachers were free to make calls.

Jennifer Thomas, a human-resource technician, is sitting on a new task force on “phone friendly” service that hopes to address some of those issues by getting people to understand one another’s jobs.

“We’re the office people come to first for information. We need to know how to refer people,” she said. “If someone has a bad experience when they come in here, we may lose a good teacher.”

Meanwhile, Mr. Curiel, the classified-personnel director for the district, is giving his shop a makeover as well.

People applying for jobs are now more likely than in the past to file paperwork, get fingerprinted, and receive physical examinations in the same office, and on the same day. The advantages are obvious: The faster qualified applicants can be on the job, the less likely they are to end up in another district.

“When I came in, people thought they were in a personnel department,” Mr. Curiel said. “They didn’t realize they were there to improve student achievement.”

As for Superintendent Cohn, he still has his sights set on improving the sometimes slow and cumbersome process by which schools get supplies. “I hope that some day I hear from the people in the schools that they can get their supplies cheaper and faster from the district,” he said. “That would be wonderful.”

Ultimately, district leaders can only do so much on their own. While stories about unpaid bills, corruption, and other self-inflicted public- relations wounds don’t help their image, district offices often are at the mercy of outside forces.

Tom Houlihan, who was an education adviser to former Gov. James B. Hunt Jr. of North Carolina, said that new demands imposed by state and federal education policies overlook the role of the central office.

“The consequence is that in many cases, central-office staff has become secondary in importance,” said Mr. Houlihan, who now consults with districts as the president of the North Carolina Partnership for Excellence in Smithfield, N.C.

In his state, schools get bonuses for improvement, but the incentive program ignores the districts’ role in that success, he noted.

Similarly, other states rate schools based on test results, but don’t ensure that districts receive test scores in time to help schools.

State budgets can also come too late to allow districts to plan spending priorities.

“A district working on its budget in June may not get its budget from the state until October,” Mr. Schlecty said.

Mr. Schlecty also faulted policies that force districts to continue ineffective programs rather than lose the funding. “You must use the money or lose it,” he noted. “In a corporation, you could pull the plug and invest it somewhere else.”

Robert R. Spillane, a veteran chief of five school districts, including Boston and Fairfax County, Va., said central-office staffs tend to get a “bad rap” and have, in his experience, “been extremely competent.”

Mr. Spillane, who is now the U.S. Department of State’s regional education officer for Europe, contends that districts are held back from taking more of a leadership role by superintendents’ frequently short tenure, which averages about two years. It takes five to six years to instill a vision and hire the people to carry it out, he said.

He also urged giving superintendents freedom to pick their staffs, without school board approval.

Moving Forward

To address areas they can control, districts are looking at governance—which often translates into decentralization of authority or the separation of instructional and business functions—as well as at how money is spent.

“There’s no question that the effort to redirect decisionmaking to the level of teacher and principal must come from all levels of government,” said John Murphy, a former superintendent of schools in Charlotte-Mecklenburg, N.C., and Prince George’s County, Md.

Mr. Murphy, the president of Education Partners, a consulting firm in Jacksonville, Fla., also urges district leaders to form “cabinets” of principals and to create the leanest possible central office.

Decentralization is the new approach, for example, in the Los Angeles Unified School District, which last July opened 11 area districts of between 60,000 and 80,000 students.

Previously, the 23 “cluster leaders” distributed to work on instructional issues across the 723,000-student district had staffs of just three to five people. The new area offices each have about 100 people, most of whom are organized to provide instructional leadership and to make frequent school visits.

“Now, there’s a flat line between schools and the superintendent,” said Anne Valenzuela-Smith, the executive administrator for business and finance for the district.

Meanwhile, New York City, the country’s largest school district, with 1.1 million students, has spent the past few years trying to redirect spending to support sound instruction.

Harry Spence, the district’s former deputy chancellor for operations, said that before 1996, school-level spending in New York’s 1,200 public schools was a mystery.

“There were endless arguments about how much was spent on high school versus elementary schools, because there was no data,” he said.

A new budget system, however, has since revealed that more was spent on middle and elementary students than on those in high school. The new system also allowed the district to ask each school to develop a budget with a plan for what it would do with 5 percent more money.

The new information forced schools to “prioritize rather than fantasize” about what they wanted, Mr. Spence said, and gave them more leeway to meet instructional needs.

Not all school leaders throughout the system are equally adept at merging a budget with a coherent instructional strategy, so the district is developing a huge software project that will allow schools to compare data on student performance as a way to help set spending priorities.

“Successful schools know how to relentlessly implement instructional programs based on data,” argued Mr. Spence, who is now a consultant to the College Board. “Unsuccessful schools are out of control and just trying to get by from day to day. They can’t tell you a damn thing.”

Center Stage

After years of taking a back seat to state policies that demand more out of schools, the role of school districts’ central offices is moving to the fore among groups that study school leadership.

For example, the Cross City Campaign for Urban School Reform has launched a multiyear research project to examine how district policies help or hinder school improvement in Chicago, Milwaukee, and Seattle.

The Chicago- based coalition of school advocates is enlisting several researchers and education leaders to study district personnel and the extent to which district policy matters in instructional change.

“The question we get is whether or not there is a model school district of any kind,” said Diana Lauber, the assistant director of the Cross City Campaign. “What we find are individual schools that are doing well, but we can’t find districts with a lot of schools like that.”

Meanwhile, the Annenberg Institute is one year into a five-year effort to identify ways to create school systems, particularly those in urban centers, that educate all students at high levels.

Ms. Ucelli hopes the work will lead to models of improvement. “Sometimes, there’s a tendency to focus on governance and control issues as a sort of panacea,” she said. “But when changing who’s in charge and where they’re in charge doesn’t change the core practices—that’s a real trap.”

Meanwhile, Frank Rodriguez, the 29-year-old principal of Hughes Middle School here, contemplates how the central office can help his 1,550 students reach their potential.

Like Ms. Ucelli, he doesn’t flash immediately to district structure or governance. Instead, he concedes he is not an expert in instruction, particularly in reading, which is where teachers want his leadership. This, he said, is where central office expertise can make a real difference.

“Teachers need people they can trust. And if I wasn’t confident in the people at the top, I couldn’t sell it to the teachers.”

About this series: This two-year special project to examine leadership issues in education is underwritten by the Carnegie Corporation of New York. This week’s installment was also underwritten in part by the Ford Foundation.

A version of this article appeared in the March 07, 2001 edition of Education Week as Central Office Is Critical Bridge To Help Schools


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