Networks versus Districts: Moving from a Structure of Compliance to a Culture of Collaboration.

Gotham Schools reports,

The next mayor should “reconsider” the current system of school-support networks, State Board of Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch said Monday, adding her voice to a chorus of critics – including mayoral frontrunner Bill de Blasio – who have questioned the signature Bloomberg education policy.

“Me, if I were going to take over the school system, I would look heavily to change the networks,” Tisch said …

“I think the networks have basically failed children who are [English-language learners],” added Tisch, … They have failed children who have special needs.”

The 32 geographic Community School Districts were not paeans of service to children. A few middle class districts were high functioning with a high level of community participation and support, the districts serving the poorest children were dysfunctional and too many districts were patronage pits for local electeds. I was speaking with a well-regarded superintendent of a deeply poor district, “I had to dance between the competing factions on the board, satisfying them with jobs for friends and still providing the best possible education under the circumstances … I feel I’m now fully qualified to take on the Israeli-Palestinian talks.” District offices were richly staffed and too often distant from schools.

Eric Nadelstern, a former deputy schools chancellor who led the design of the networks, forcefully defended the system in an interview, saying it was at the “center of the reforms” under Bloomberg that raised the graduation rate by 30 percent.

“It’s wonderful that people in authority offer opinions that aren’t aligned with the data,” he quipped when told of Tisch’s comments.

Nadelstern said the networks stamped out the corruption of the district system – where politicians would dole out jobs and school seats as gifts – while also slashing costs, since each network employs about 15 people, compared to some 120 staffers in the old district offices, he said.

The networks range from aloof to deeply engaged. One network, rated near the top of the 55 networks and serving poor kids with many English language learners, the teachers were deeply engaged in the Common Core with highly collaborative schools, a model for the remainder of the networks. A few networks worked, with the right leadership.

Unfortunately the network system has morphed into a top down compliance system totally driven by ukases from the leadership at Tweed. What was envisioned as like-minded schools working together with a network leadership is now an endless series of requirements, data collection and compliance checklists.

Are superintendents and network leaders capable of leading? Can they engage principals and teachers? Or, can they simply review data and check off boxes on check lists? Conducting Quality Reviews is not leading.

Ernest Logan, president of the city principals union, said that oversight of schools’ budgets and personnel should be returned from networks to superintendents, which would provide clarity to principals.

“People need a boss,” he said.

Logan is incorrect and reflects why schools struggle and teachers feel abandoned and unappreciated. With rare exceptions 110 Livingston Street and now the Tweed Courthouse “lead” by issuing edits, regulations after regulation imposing what the chancellor or superintendent of the moment espouses. The role of the principal was simply to comply with what the “flavor” of the day was passed down. School leaders never had to build capacity, never had to create teams of teachers, never had to explore and struggle and learn, as long as the check list was satisfied, all was fine.

Yes, there were extraordinary superintendents, very few, who worked with teachers and principals and communities, for most it was the old paradigm, the paramilitary structure: issue orders, monitor compliance, threaten, collect data, it’s the numbers that rule.

I was invited to a School Leadership Team meeting, after a long discussion, I forget the topic, the principal said; “I don’t think it can work, you’re all passionate, you have my vote, show me it can work.” Scattered around the city there are principals with the skills to work together, to create a synergy that is the essence of an effective school.

A network leader who routinely attended school faculty meetings and engaged staffs, challenged them to ask questions, to offer ideas, his team lived in schools interacting with staffs, s/he was the exception.

Charlotte Danielson’s other book, “Talk About Teaching: Leading Professional Conversations” (2009), in my judgment, is more important than her Frameworks tome.

…if formal school leaders …have forged consensus on big ideas underlying practice, there is transparency in what a visitor could expect to observe in a classroom, That is, if everyone in a school accepts that students learn through their own intellectual engagement with content (asking questions, making connections, analyzing information, etc.) then an observer would expect to see student engaged in such activities. .When consensus on such big ideas has been established, then it is understood that the implications of such ideas are always on the table for discussion…

Unfortunately the Department of Education Instructional Expectations 2013-14 document is construed at the network and school level as a compliance document, a checklist. How many principals actually engage teachers and staffs? How many superintendents, network leaders and principals engage kids on a daily basis? Actually engage with teachers?

Sadly, too few.

The essence of leadership, in districts, networks and schools, to quote Danielson, is “…forg[ing] consensus on big ideas underlying practice,” leaders are coaches, working with his/her “players” to improve their performance.

In one school, not uncommon, there are four schools, three public schools, all in different networks, and a charter school. Simple issue: how do we resolve the HR and salary issues so that we can share related-service providers becomes an enormously complex task.

We should return to geographic districts for most schools, not all. For example transfer high schools, schools dealing only with English language learners, alternative high schools, should remain clustered in network structures.

School and District Leadership Teams, required by the state, should be reinvigorated. School district leaders, teacher and parent leaders must engage and play core roles in establishing goals and assisting school teams.

Testing must be delinked from instruction. The current “end all and be all” of school instructional programs is satisfying the checklist to raise scores on the standardized test. We haven’t agreed to staple computer chips into earlobes, not yet.

Returning to a geographic structure and retaining the original goals of networks must be the goal of the new administration.

During the Autonomy Zone days I attended a professional development on a Saturday at Julia Richmond Complex – a series of workshops taught by teachers for teachers on topics selected by teachers. (I ran a session on School-Based Options in Article 8 of the Agreement).

It’s time to erase the words now chiseled (at least in teacher minds) over the Tweed Courthouse (Department of Education headquarters),

Lasciate ogni speranza, voi ch’entrate.

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5 responses to “Networks versus Districts: Moving from a Structure of Compliance to a Culture of Collaboration.

  1. Tweed Hall let loose…With the obvious finality to The Bloomberg Administration in sight last spring, folks @Tweed in a strangely” visionary” way, began to head out into the field ,many from whence they had never been before. Some of them somehow got assigned as real APs. I met one the other day, who interestingly enuff had observed a class that I myself had observed. The teacher was a first year novice, who while entitled to mentoring, and coaching, had not thus far received any of those services. The class itself, consisted of 7 learners, and six 250 lb male assistants. During my stay, There were several untoward incidents, which after 3 visits that I have made, I can tell you are par for the course. Yet thru it all, I noted that 3 of the 7 learners were meaningfully engaged in the lesson. They had notepads and the teacher was able to work with them as a group. The Tweed neardowell, after seeing the same situation rated the teacher as Ineffective. Doesn’t ineffective co-note uselessness? When I pointed out to our boy wonder that 3 out of 7 learners who are meaningfully engaged ,to me at least, represents close to 50% of the class, and that I would think that the teacher would be worthy of a rating of “Developing”. Mr Tweed alum refused to re-consider. Here we are 2months into school, in a setting, wheer compliance with entitlements are lax, and a Tweed alum whose job as a supervisor includes seeing to such matters, replies to me that he is an itinerant supervisor and it is the job of the Building supervisor to address compliance issues. So with that said, with the withholding of mentoring and coaching services, the novice who miraculously is able to reach 3 out of 7 mal adjusted learners is regarded as Ineffective. What should the supervisors in this setting be rated as? Anyone???I say this to say that a Bloomberg virus is being released subtly in scenarios like the one Ive described all over the school system. These are people who spent more time learning how to get rid of people then developing them. Its quicker, cheaper and less expensive. I can only hope that the new Mayor gets tuned into this virus quickly and acts accordingly.

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    • Amen!
      And what will “they” do as the jobs market improves and the pool of people, so desperate for a job that they are willing to put up with this terrible situation, evaporates? The legacy of horrible experiences becomes a true “urban legend”, and the “word out there” is to avoid urban, poor neighborhoods if you would like to enter teaching. That, plus the lower than surrounding communities pay scale, will undoubtedly bring a stampede of magically minted Mother Theresa types flooding into the schools! OBTW if you believe that I’ve got a bridge for sale cheap.

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  2. Nadelstern said the networks stamped out the corruption of the district system – where politicians would dole out jobs and school seats as gifts – while also slashing costs, since each network employs about 15 people, compared to some 120 staffers in the old district offices, he said.

    Has anyone seen who people the Regions? the Boro offices? and now the networks? the same old same old status quo bureaucrats!
    How do principals get picked? by the networks!
    And where do networks get new staff? from their customer schools!

    Talk about doling out jobs and sealing deals!

    As for size- networks now serve 20-25 schools, with staffs closer to 20.
    This is quite analogous to my old district/district office. Apples/apples.

    Corruption- has he failed to note the Bloombucks friends and family plan on the corporate level? IBM, Wireless, HSA, the corruption and cronyism are legend. If we can not change human nature let’s at least manage it, by keeping corruption local and small time.

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  3. Eric Nadelstern

    I agree that the network teams have been subverted from their original purpose of supporting schools, and now increasingly impose compliance mandates from central. However, returning to the failed structures of the past will not get the job done that our kids desperately need. Rather, holding networks responsible and accountable for raising student performance and principal/school satisfaction with their services, along with disbanding those that aren’t adequately supporting schools and raising student achievement, is a far better response than doing what we used to do, but hoping for better results this time.

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  4. This survey is designed by The Tripod Project, a consortium of schools and districts working together to close the academic achievement gap. Our district has decided to pilot the Tripod student perception surveys this year and the information will be used to provide feedback for teachers and administrators.

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