School & District Management Opinion

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

October 12, 2007 3 min read

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.

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