Districts or Networks? or, Structures That Support Teaching and Learning? Organizational Structures Should Be Designed from the Bottom Up.

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.”

4 responses to “Districts or Networks? or, Structures That Support Teaching and Learning? Organizational Structures Should Be Designed from the Bottom Up.

  1. Eric Nadelstern

    I spoke at Google in Mountainview, CA not long ago, and was amazed at how many cars were still in the garage at 6:00 PM on Friday. When work provides ownership of effort and opportunities to develop skills, interests and aptitudes, people don’t need to leave to self-actualize.

    Similarly, I was amazed years ago at how many students and staff were still at school at 6:00 PM on a Friday evening at the Urban Academy.The same people management principles were at work.

    The problems come when those in authority, be they superintendents or network leaders, think they know better and can manage schools from a remote distance. As Thurber admonished, ” It is better to know some of the questions than all of the answers.” The next chancellor and her appointed mid-level leaders would do well to remember that lesson.


  2. Peter, I was raised in the ranks of Superintendents that would form committees of supervisors and top notch teachers to write memos on lesson planning, providing instruction to ESL students, remedial reading and mathematics, promoting access to advanced placement courses, Regents vs. RCT’s, etc. The educational leaders were not ambassadors from central but rather leaders in the field. Based on at least my experience, they spoke the language of schools. I may be sounding a tad idealistic, but that was my perspective during the eighties and nineties in the High School Division. The superintendent actually trained principals, conducted joint observations and joint problem solving. There was a stronger bridge between the schools and the district offices. There was more of a common language that defined curriculum and instructional practices. Hey, there was in many subject areas curriculum that was written centrally or by the most talented subject area specialists (teachers and supervisors) on the borough level. Without clarity of professional expectations and profession content, I don’t think the organization structures make much of a dent in quality improvement. These days it seems that everything is about process and content is sorely lacking. Ask a group of teachers from two different schools what the expectations are for lesson planning and instruction and you can expect varying responses that are not connected to central philosophy or guidance. Part of the problem I have been told is that currently the philosophy and guidance is not forthcoming.
    Now I’m not suggesting a one-directional top down system, but I am saying that leaders can’t hide forever behind processes and heavy handed frameworks and ridiculous evaluation systems – leaders need to lead; they can and should do it collaboratively, but they need to lead and to provide the staff with clarity and support. Expectations need to be clear and crafted in language that is comprehensible by supervisors and teachers. We are in dire need of recommended curricula and the use of much less frequent outside of school assessments that are aligned to the curricula.
    Without a common curriculum and aligned assessments, accountability is a sham. It is grossly unfair to supervisors, teachers and particularly to the students. For the past decades, in the absence of defined content, the assessments have rendered a prescription for skill drilling – and you know how well that has worked in inspiring and uplifting the kids.

    From my vantage point, the issue of organizational structures are not the first line solutions to our most pressing problems in education. Professionalism, expertise, common language, practicality, collaborative problem solving, curriculum, solid lesson planning and professional respect and expert support could go along way in improving student outcomes and lessening the weights that are placed squarely of the shoulders of school level personnel.
    The shift of multiple and specific responsibilities from the districts to the schools was a nifty trick. Now central oversees, monitors and evaluates the schools; the school staff is now responsible for doing everything. It’s a good deal to tell people what to do rather than do it yourself.

    First we need to stand for something that is not pie in the sky or reform-ish nonsense. The focus needs to be on solid curriculum, instruction and the availability of classroom books and materials. Then we will need a change in the organizational structures and personnel that will be best suited to advance the cause.


  3. Heywood,

    Several things at the beginning of the Bloomberg “purge” have made some of your excellent points very difficult to enable. When District employees were told to throw out all but one file box of paper, many person-years of invaluable material was lost. When ‘wet behing the ears’ new school leaders told their secretaries to dump all the ‘old’ files a similar thing occurred. Many well run schools depended upon tuning up the instructional and administrative material created from years of experience. All gone. A tragedy.

    All gone now. I hope that some can recreated or the system starts from scratch, which is exactly what Bloomberg, and the minions, was aiming for. We see how poorly that idea succeeded.

    There are still places where some of that knowledge resides. Better get it before it goes.



    A well run organization doesn’t need, or benefit from ( except under highly unusual circumstances) people working endlessly on never ending deadlines. You and I have seen the diminishing productivity from those folk, wandering about late at night, looking busy so that an accusing finger cannot be pointed at them-a ‘not really dedicated-are we’- finger.

    This well run organization does need well rested, productive experience at its head, not 90 day wonders. Not in the classroom, not as instructional leaders, not as Principals, and not as Chancellors.

    Unfortunately for you, by being a willing and major part of the destruction of the accumulated instructional wisdom and resources of what was the best school system in the USA, you have disqualified yourself. Too bad!


  4. Treating the school system as a business has not brought 6 better schools or more accountablity. Networks have fractued the smooth and rational discussion of curriculm and curriculm planning and have made the middle school — high school transitions a diificult and non student based process. How can districts zero in on neighborhood issues? How can they respomnd effectively to such things as ELL needs or social and physical barriers in specific communities. / How can after-school needs be usefuly planned? How can gifted and or special needs programming be allocated in accessible ways? With much difficulty. And the truth is that these educational services have suffered under the network system.


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