Opinion
School & District Management Opinion

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

By Marc Dean Millot — October 12, 2007 3 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

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.

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.

Events

School & District Management Webinar How Pensions Work: Why It Matters for K-12 Education
Panelists explain the fundamentals of teacher pension finances — how they are paid for, what drives their costs, and their impact on K-12 education.
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.
Sponsor
Curriculum Webinar
Strategies for Incorporating SEL into Curriculum
Empower students to thrive. Learn how to integrate powerful social-emotional learning (SEL) strategies into the classroom.
Content provided by Be GLAD
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.
Sponsor
School & District Management Webinar
Leadership in Education: Building Collaborative Teams and Driving Innovation
Learn strategies to build strong teams, foster innovation, & drive student success.
Content provided by Follett Learning

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

School & District Management Opinion Don’t Just Listen to the Loudest Voices: Resources for Ed. Leaders
These resources can help school and district leaders communicate with their communities.
Jennifer Perry Cheatham & Jenny Portillo-Nacu
5 min read
A pair of hands type on a blank slate of keys that are either falling apart or coming together on a bed of sharpened pencils.  Leadership resources.
Raul Arias for Education Week
School & District Management The Harm of School Closures Can Last a Lifetime, New Research Shows
The short-term effects on students when their schools close have been well documented. New research examines the long-term impact.
5 min read
Desks and chairs are stacked in an empty classroom after the permanent closure of Queen of the Rosary Catholic Academy in Brooklyn borough of New York on Aug. 6, 2020.
Desks and chairs are stacked in an empty classroom after the permanent closure of Queen of the Rosary Catholic Academy in Brooklyn borough of New York on Aug. 6, 2020. A new study examines the long-term effects on students whose schools close.
Jessie Wardarski/AP
School & District Management Video 'Students Never Forget': Principals Call for Help After School Shootings
School leaders are lobbying Congress for more financial support for schools that experience gun violence.
2 min read
Forest High School students console one another after a school shooting at Forest High School Friday, April 20, 2018 in Ocala, Fla. One student shot another in the ankle at the high school and a suspect is in custody, authorities said Friday. The injured student was taken to a local hospital for treatment.
Forest High School students console one another after a school shooting at Forest High School Friday, April 20, 2018 in Ocala, Fla. One student shot another in the ankle at the high school and a suspect is in custody, authorities said Friday. The injured student was taken to a local hospital for treatment.
Doug Engle/Star-Banner via AP
School & District Management Opinion In School Leadership, Busy Is a Given. Chaos Is a Choice
There will never be enough time, money, or resources to solve every problem in education, so we must learn to operate within constraints.
Kate Hazarian
3 min read
Two hands attempt to hold chaos.
Vanessa Solis/Education Week via Canva