School & District Management Opinion

Middle Mismanagement

By Diana Nelson — November 23, 2004 9 min read
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Midlevel district staff members need to be seen—and to see themselves— as brokers.

The story of reform in urban school districts usually comes from the extremes of the system. At one end stands the visionary superintendent with a bold new plan and a treacherous path to win over board members, unions, and public opinion. At the other end are the students who, in large numbers, are performing below expectations and often failing to find the inspiring and nourishing education that might point their lives in new and more promising directions.

These are the familiar stories of reform. In city after city, the spotlight is on striving leaders and struggling students (or struggling leaders and striving students). In that glare, we keep trying to find answers; but our attention and curiosity might better be spent in the murkier and unexplored middle—the place on the organizational chart where leadership and new initiatives should be translated into action that benefits needy students and invigorates schools.

Superintendents, school boards, and reform-minded community activists need to start rethinking the mundane but essential world of midlevel managers in central offices—the not-very-glamorous ground that many people lump together as “the bureaucracy.” It’s this important territory that is home to an army of administrators including program managers, content-area directors, budget specialists, and more, who have a significant impact on how district reform policies are understood and acted upon by school leaders.

Three years studying how central offices work in Chicago, Milwaukee, and Seattle provides convincing evidence that basic changes in the midlevel offices, where the central office and schools intersect, could help produce the greater success we keep anticipating for both superintendents and students. After school boards and superintendents set new policies or launch sweeping initiatives, it’s the middle-level administrators who face the task of turning ideas like “improving literacy districtwide” or “closing the achievement gap” into the kinds of usable strategies, clear guidelines, and efficient procedures that are handed down to schools. This is a critical stage for reform momentum, and it only gains importance as districts become more focused on initiatives intended to influence teaching and learning in classrooms by the thousands.

Besides locating the pivotal point between district leadership and school leadership, our study shows that midlevel administrators are also key players because they have staying power. In an era of urban education marked by turnover in the superintendency and other top district jobs, midlevel managers have routinely worked in their districts for a decade or more. Principals and school staff members often see these district personnel as fixtures in a fluid system.

Tackling the ways these midlevel managers can become key players for making reforms happen—ways they can pinpoint real needs and issues facing schools and be responsive and helpful in their dealings with schools—will be a tough job. What it might deliver, however, is both impressive and imperative: new effectiveness for both urban school districts and schools, and, ultimately, for the students who need the system to work far better.

Our close look at this area of urban central offices finds several places where superintendents, school boards, foundations, and others could start to make needed changes. The ability of districts to deliver on their plans for improved instruction hinges on meaningful and productive interaction between midlevel district staff members and the principals, administrators, and teachers at individual schools.

Too many district staff members don’t really see school leaders as true colleagues. Communication that should be described as dialogue more often comes across as directive.

Building relationships might seem obvious, but our study shows that midlevel staff members spend very little time in direct communication with their colleagues in schools and feel as though district meetings and paperwork take a higher priority than any work with schools. In fact, too many district staff members don’t really see school leaders as true colleagues. Communication that should be described as dialogue more often comes across as directive. We’ve seen too many midlevel district staff members who spend too much time explaining policy expectations, rather than engaging in real conversations with school leaders about real teaching and learning issues.

Across the districts we studied, principals and teachers wanted central-office staff members to visit and get close-up looks at the challenges they encounter every day. They could use that kind of witness and testimony in administrative meetings at district headquarters. Instead, contact frequently takes the form of memos and e-mail messages from people who may never have set foot in the school they are hoping to influence. It’s hard to know whether this is a cause or a result of a lack of expertise about teaching and learning among midlevel district staffs. We found many school leaders who bluntly said that real knowledge of teaching and the process and content of learning is a weak link in what is offered from district headquarters.

The underlying need, of course, is for stronger relationships and greater collegiality, a climate in which the district and schools feel that everyone is moving in the same direction. At the Cross City Campaign, a nationwide network of urban school reform programs, we’ve been focusing for more than a decade on how central offices influence improvements in instruction and achievement. We’ve recommended that centralized bureaucratic structures be dismantled and that more money and authority be shifted to schools. The needs and concerns of schools should be higher on the agenda in urban districts and communities. To that end, the midlevel district staff should be carrying the torch for what schools need and how policies and reform initiatives need to be modified or customized to really work in classrooms.

Midlevel district staff members need to be seen—and to see themselves—as brokers. This new attitude alone would be a major step forward. Taking the role of a broker, district offices become responsible for building the exchange of information and expertise within schools and across the district. This brokering would logically extend to connect schools and outside groups, as well as create solid and meaningful connections between instructional leaders in the top ranks of the district and those running reforms inside schools.

Our study watched 55 midlevel managers in the three urban districts and found the makings of this kind of brokering in several ways. There were the tool designers who turned policy-laden reform plans into materials that schools could use. We found data managers who took test scores, implementation reports, and other information and converted them into snapshots of schools’ strengths and weaknesses that principals and teachers could use to discuss instruction. Trainers designed staff development that was built to provide meaningful support and prompt thinking and action focused on instructional-leadership needs. Network builders instituted routines and practices that created or reinforced connections between people who could learn from one another, but who might not be in contact without district support.

The most promising work in midlevel district offices comes from a commitment to collaboration from people who see themselves not just as managers in a specific area of policy or district operations, but as substantive sources of expertise who could benefit from what people in schools are experiencing. Unfortunately, the prevailing orientation in central offices involves assuming an authoritative role, not a collaborative one. There are far too many midlevel managers who see themselves as experts and view principals, teachers, and school staffs as the beneficiaries of what they know and think. The prevalence of this attitude is a problem that undercuts districts’ efforts to help schools improve instruction and damages the credibility of the central office.

A promising model for a new kind of school and district interaction comes from the work of the California organizational researcher and consultant Etienne Wenger. His “communities of practice” framework, now used by many businesses and public organizations, focuses on the interactions and relationships between people, the connections they make across workplaces and organizations, and the collective knowledge they build.

In the case of urban school districts and their midlevel managers, a community of practice would be a way to identify and understand the connections that district staff members, school leaders, and third parties like foundations, universities, or school reform organizations would cultivate to improve teaching across as many schools as possible. A stated goal of working in a defined community of practice would be to build expertise and create tools that would help get results in individual schools and classrooms.

The underlying need is for stronger relationships and greater collegiality, a climate in which the district and schools feel that everyone is moving in the same direction.

In this model, district managers would see themselves as building and leading teams in which everyone’s involvement strengthens the collective commitment to the purpose of the work. The networks and relationships need not be formal. The important part is that the midlevel district managers see themselves as the brokers and leaders of a community that operates to find new and better ways to meet the needs of educators and students. Over time, the community of practice matures to a point where its name makes sense—its connections create new ways of doing things and approaching issues that change the work involved to make it more useful and productive.

District leaders would be wise to seek such new approaches and take the first steps toward substantially changing the way their managers and directors and specialists work. Positive steps would be creating two-way dialogue with school staff members, making time to listen to principals and teachers, valuing the expertise of school staffs, and increasing knowledge of teaching and learning within the central office.

Such bold steps will likely mean that schools’ issues and needs come closer to driving districts’ policy agendas, which could be a real turning point in the difficult campaign to improve instruction and raise achievement. If urban superintendents and school boards want more from schools, they can take steps in a promising new direction by reorganizing their own operation to put visits to schools ahead of administrative meetings at headquarters, provide training that helps midlevel administrators become more collaborative and conversant on teaching and learning, start evaluating midlevel staff members based on their ability to deliver instructional improvements in schools, and look for ways to eliminate communication and paperwork that distract school and central-office staffs from achievement issues.

Between the obvious ends of any large urban school district’s spectrum—the pronouncements of the high-profile board president, the superintendent, perhaps even the mayor, and the students whose lives are dependent on schools that work for them—lies fertile ground for serious new thinking about why and where promising strategies either take root or wither. Under a new vision of leadership, those invisible middle-level central-office folks are collaborators in communities of practice, as equal partners with school staffs, successfully implementing initiatives focused on improved instruction.

Urban districts need to work smarter from top to bottom, and we believe that we have identified a fulcrum for change, right smack dab in the middle.

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A version of this article appeared in the November 24, 2004 edition of Education Week as Middle Mismanagement


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