School & District Management

The Central Office Is a Mystery. A Researcher Broke the Code

By Denisa R. Superville — March 31, 2023 4 min read
Conceptual image of an organizational chart.
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How districts’ central offices are set up varies tremendously, and little research explores how they’re organized—or what models may best work to improve school-level outcomes for principals, teachers, and students.

But now, thanks to pioneering research from a California school administrator, the picture is a little clearer. Among the new insights: Fewer employees work on teaching and learning than operations, equity officers really are a booming new position, and some staff have dozens of direct reports.

William Eger, the chief business officer in Ravenswood City School District, in the Bay Area of California, recently defended his dissertation containing the findings.

“Historically researchers have almost downplayed the impact of central office, and they’ve said the action is at the school-level, so let’s focus on individual schools—that’s where we need to get really excellent principals, really excellent instruction,” Eger said. “And then there are also the policy wonks, who are focused on state and federal policy. And no one, for the most part, is thinking about the central office as an agent of change.”

Here are five of the many things he found after digging into data from 87 districts across the country—plus some recommendations for school districts and future research.

  • Districts don’t agree on what positions and functions are considered “central office.” Of the 87 districts that responded to Eger’s requests, he found 86 different ways their central offices were organized.
  • The majority of central office staff focuses on operations and management—bus routes, procurement, finances—the kinds of activities that keep things humming along, according to Eger—and not directly on teaching and learning. Thirty-three percent of central office staff worked primarily on processing, while another 28 percent spent their time primarily on operations. Twelve percent focused on supporting schools, while another 12 percent worked on student supports.
  • Some K-12 central office managers have a lot of people directly reporting to them. Some directly oversee 50 or more staff members. Thirty-eight of the 87 districts said that at least one manager had more than 50 employees. It was more common, however, for managers to have a small number of direct reports. The median direct reports for a superintendent was 10 people, though that varied by district. But districts also have more managers than other fields, Eger found. Twenty-two percent of the staff members in Eger’s sample were considered managers; nationally, that percentage is 18 percent of employees, he said.

    Why does it matter that K-12 managers have a large number of direct reports? For one, the manager may not be able to provide good individualized feedback, evaluation, and support to their team members if they’re running large teams, he said.

Image is a chart. How Central Office Staff is Classified: 33% are classified as processing roles, 28% operations, 12% school supports, and 15% strategic.

  • Districts aren’t always monitoring who reports to whom. Ten percent of districts said they did not track employees’ supervisors. The districts, he said, may know informally but they’re not systematically monitoring it. That’s problematic, he said.
    “It was very surprising because it shows up in so many different ways,” he said. “Who is approving sick leave? Who is approving time off? As well as, who is doing evaluations? Who is responsible for helping people grow?” Additionally, he noted, research highlights how the bonds that people have with their supervisor can drive employee satisfaction and retention.
  • Equity offices are a new central office position that have emerged in recent years. About 30 percent of the districts in Eger’s sample had equity departments. Those officers were more common in larger and more diverse districts. In Eger’s sample, none of the districts with fewer than 1,000 students had an equity office, and school systems where more than half the students were Black or Hispanic were more likely to have those roles. District location did not seem to matter, either: Eger found that equity offices were more likely to be found in Texas and Florida than in California, though he urged caution about the small sample size.

Eger recommends districts worry less about how many people work in central offices—and more about what the people in the central office are doing and how they’re spending their time. Is it aligned with the district’s priorities?

“It is worth doing an audit and benchmarking your organization relative to national norms on the size of your central office—how your central office is organized, who is on your management team, and [their] typical spans of control,” Eger said. “And then comparing the results of that audit to your actual organizational strategy.”

He also recommends an organization-wide audit.

“What I have seen is that a district does a reorganization and don’t address the fact that their director of transportation is overseeing 500 bus drivers,” he said. “It’s more focused on the leadership and not the whole organization. It seems that these reorganizations trickle down only so much.”

And third, there should be a lot more discussion in education schools and programs about managerial norms and practices, he said.

“We don’t talk about spans of control on top management teams,” he said. “I think we need to get a little bit more familiar with what other large bureaucracies have viewed as normal.”

Further research, he said, could explore whether there are specific central office organizational structures that lead to better school-level outcomes for principals, staff, and students.

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