At one of the seemingly endless mayoral candidate forums the moderator asked, “Districts or Networks?” The forum was sponsored by the supervisors union, the CSA, the audience, hundreds of principals. Each candidate answered “Districts,” except Christine Quinn, who turned to the audience and asked the same question, most of the audience raised their hands for “Districts;” recently 120 principals (less than 10% of the 1850 principals) signed a letter asking for the retention of networks, defending their autonomy.
There are arguments supporting each point of view.
The decentralization law (1970) established 32 community school districts, geographic entities attempting to capture neighborhoods. Each district was governed by an elected school board that acted quasi independently of the central board. Until 1997 the elected school boards hired principals and superintendents; a change in the law moved that authority to the chancellor. Voter turnout sharply decreased through the years and the elections, a proportional representation system, was controlled by the power blocs in the neighborhoods, the elected official’s political apparatus. In a few districts parents and communities were deeply engaged, too many were apathetic and a few deeply corrupt.
The mayoral control law ceded organizational control to the mayor; who, in 2003 announced the abolition of district superintendents and the creation of 10 mega-regions encapsulating the former 32 districts.
Senator Carl Kruger (now serving time at the expense of the federal authorities) sued the city arguing that the mayoral control law did not abolish the position of superintendent. The city retained the position of superintendent, in name only
Currently the 32 superintendents (plus the high school superintendents) rate principals, grant tenure and conduct occasional Quality Review visits; the superintendent’s staff is slim, a parent advocate and a secretary.
The 55 networks, with staff of about 15, half operations and half instructional support are evaluated by the principals. The networks, 25 schools each, are affinity groups of schools without any reference to geography. The network leaders have no formal supervisory authority; their role is support, although they do participate in the hiring/removal of principals.
As I understand the argument for networks:
Decisions impacting children should be made by the educators closest to children: principals and teachers. High functioning organizations, from Google to Facebook to Microsoft all allow teams wide latitude in solving problems. William Ouchi’s Making Schools Work (2003), applies modern management theories to schools.
Today, Professor Ouchi is one of the very few writers who can claim substantial influence in both education and business management. His 2003 book, Making Schools Work: A Revolutionary Plan to Get Your Children the Education They Need (Simon & Schuster), is based on in-depth study of the few large urban school systems that made consistent improvements in student test scores. The book identified seven elements common to good school systems: giving school principals local autonomy (as if the schools were business units), giving families a choice about which school they could send their children to, making schools accountable for student results, giving local schools control over their budgets, delegating authority as low as possible in the hierarchy, instilling a “burning focus on student achievement,” and setting up schools as “communities of learners,” where all the teachers figured out solutions together.
Jim Leibman, the former accountability tsar at the department argues that districts were part of the local political process – too many decisions were made that were inimical to the best interests of students.
Top down supervision stifles creativity and innovation, one size fits all, fits no one. Decades of all powerful superintendents created a compliance-driven school system that served the interests of the adults not the students.
Supporters of geographic districts argue:
Schools are part of communities and solutions to academic problems are rooted in problems facing communities. To have three schools in a single building all belonging to separate networks is ineffective. There is no evidence that the network structure has provided better outcomes, in fact, the evidence challenges the reason for networks. Although principals hire all teachers the teacher attrition rates have increased, especially in high needs schools. With so many new principals with limited experience to cast principals adrift is simply not fair to students. The current accountability system intervenes too late. Superintendents must visit and assess schools on an ongoing basis, not allowing schools to stumble and close schools.
In my view both points of view have merit.
There are schools that should continue to be in affinity, not geographic network, schools dealing solely with English language learners, transfer high schools, alternative programs, etc.
Newly appointed principals should work closely with a superintendent, the current system, mentors who makes an occasional visit, is too light a hand.
Do superintendents have the skills to work in collaboration with principals? In the past too many superintendents worked in a compliance-driven, top-down environment that discourages innovation and individual growth, a few were collaborative and worked closely with principals and teachers.
The question should not be districts or networks. The answer should be districts and networks, a model that serves the interests of all students, organizational structures that reward success as well as supporting schools.
A senior teacher blurted out to me at a meeting, “Why don’t they leave me alone, I know what I’m doing.” I thought to myself, “Do the kids know what you’re doing?” When principals and superintendents aver “I know what I’m doing,” do the teachers, parents and kids know what you’re doing?
Participation reduces resistance.
There is little evidence that a supervisory observation report alone changes teacher practice, the ongoing conversation between supervisor and teachers and among teachers changes practice.
The conversation between superintendent or network leader and principals changes practice: memoranda from central, the ukase, the requirements closely monitored only creates innovative ways to avoid implementing what a school leader feels will not improve his/her school.
Sergei Brin, the CEO at Google was asked how he improves the performance of his employees, He answered, “More parties.”