Superintendents? Networks? How do You Manage a 1600-School System? How Do You Lead and Empower?

How should schools be “managed?”

Elected community school boards? Mayoral Control? Superintendents? Mega Regions? Empowerment? Networks?

Should Chancellors drive educational policy in a top-down hierarchical system? Should superintendents, selected by an elected school board, or appointed by the chancellor, have wide-sweeping authority over day-to-day school operations?

Joel Klein, after moving from one management idea to another settled on the theories of the UCLA Management professor William Ouchi in “Making Schools Work” (2003)

1. Every principal is an entrepreneur
2. Every school controls its own budget
3. Everyone is accountable for student performance and for budgets
4. Everyone delegates authority to those below
5. There is a burning focus on school achievement
6. Every school is a community of learners
7. Families have real choices among a variety of unique schools.

Klein created an odd mix, 60 thinly staffed networks to support, not supervise schools, and, as required by law, superintendents, with no staffs, who conducted Quality Reviews, rated principals and made teacher tenure decisions.

The 25-school networks varied widely in quality, some prospered as schools flourished while others stumbled, the department began to replace network leaders and permanently fold up networks.

At one of the innumerable mayoral candidate panels in 2013, sponsored by the CSA, the principals union, the moderator asked, “Superintendents or Networks?” Each of the candidates, with the exception of Christine Quinn, responded “superintendents” Quinn turned to the audience and asked for a voice vote, the audience, an auditorium filled with principals were divided, and passionate. Many clearly favored returning to a superintendent structure while other strongly favored remaining with networks.

At the rollout of the newly selected superintendents the Chancellor gave a cryptic explanation of the new structure, Chalkbeat reports,

What she didn’t reveal was a plan for overhauling the city’s broader, complicated system of school support, which includes superintendents and school-support networks. But she did say that anyone looking for a full return to old systems in which district superintendents oversaw large staffs might be disappointed with her plans.

“Networks are very important in terms of assisting [schools] with doing their job,” Fariña said.

Meanwhile, Fariña offered plenty of specifics for how superintendents should approach their management of individual schools.

School visits should always be announced, she said. Getting coffee with principals is great, though not as important as visiting classrooms. Taking notes on index cards is a good way to keep track of standout teachers and principals.

Index cards? Do they still make index cards? Please, can someone show the chancellor how to take notes on an I-Phone or an I-Pad or a tablet?

The new UFT contract requires an extended professional session on Tuesdays, with a principal-UFT committee determining the focus of the professional development. 62 schools were approved to make sweeping changes in the contract rules, and half of schools report that curriculum is in place in all subject areas. UFT president Mulgrew announced that superintendents will be doing joint walk-throughs of schools with union reps in the future. At the union delegate meeting many delegates were enthusiastic, others clearly not.

My former district was fully engaged in school-based management, school-based budgeting. A third of the schools jumped on board; parents, teachers and the principal worked together to address both school management and instructional issues, a third of the schools struggled and a third couldn’t care less.

In earlier days a few highly competent superintendents lead; however, does the leadership at the district level create sustained leadership at the school level? The chancellor’s district was a completely top-down model that initially showed substantial academic gains; when the schools were returned to their district the gains rapidly eroded.

In a school system of over 1600 schools what we do know is “one size fits all” fits no one. Some schools may require a structured environment while in others ideas percolate up from classrooms.

Jeff Latto was a middle school principal and I was invited to the school’s Leadership Team meeting. An issue was being vigorous debated, most of the committee favored the idea, and the principal didn’t. At one point the principal declared, “I clearly disagree, everyone else favors the idea, you want to try it, go ahead, just make it work.” I have forgotten the idea, not the role of the school leader. He trusted his staff, and, clearly the staff respected him.

I’ve seen superintendents surrounded with sycophantic staffs, an “emperor with no cloths,” ordering this or that, everyone nodded and nothing actually changed.

I’ve seen angry and hostile staffs that “complied,” reluctantly, and the culture of the school was toxic.

I’ve seen superintendents on hall patrol, superintendents leading professional development sessions, superintendents leading teacher “think tanks,” and others who were great at issuing dreary memoranda.

As the taking heads and the sages criticize Tweed for not coming up with a management strategy the important element is creating structure that both leads and empowers principals and teachers to lead and innovate.

Fred Koury was the founder of City as School High School, one of the first truly alternative high schools. At his retirement party everyone praised Fred, the school was wonderful, Fred was the principal, and, a member of the UFT Executive Board, but Fred demurred; he said, “Wait until we’re two more principals down the road, if the school is still great then I deserve applause for creating something worthwhile.”

The chancellor has to get it right.


4 responses to “Superintendents? Networks? How do You Manage a 1600-School System? How Do You Lead and Empower?

  1. go back to boro superintendents, and allow for them tgo establish their own style of governance…….


  2. Eric Nadelstern

    The structure/plan issue is puitting the cart before the horse.

    The issue should be less which management structure and more what is the Mayor/Chancellor prepared to be held accountable for around student achievement. Once that is clearly defined, then perhaps, they can figuire out how to get there.


  3. Pingback: Should Poverty Be Acknowledged in Measures of School Accountability? If We Acknowledge Poverty How Do We Avoid a Two-Track System? | Ed In The Apple

  4. Dr. Jose Gabriel Maldonado

    As one of the architects of the Klein period of accountability, have we learned nothing Eric?
    The undressing of the emperor that has been occurring in NYC since Klein’s departure is deeply unsettling. I’m no longer a player, but my children are in the system and they suffer the long term effects of the overemphasis in ela and math test scores, which have driven schools towards bland homogeneity of offerings and a curriculum way too focused on the accountability metrics, and not on the important things of education. Increasingly the evidence is suggesting that the superficially sophisticated progress metrics – the obsession with accountability, were actually deeply flawed at many levels. And they did little to improve schooling. Much of the administrative responses to the accountability results were just tracking statistical noise, from poor instruments, and flawed constructs that were inherently unstable. Teachers outcomes scores that fluctuated wildly from year to year; school progress reports that jumped wildly from year to year – despite no changes in the classrooms, the teachers or the curriculum. The metrics were so complex that I know my superintendent and my network leader, did not understand them. I knew only a handful of principals who had the mathematical and statistical skills to make much sense out of them – and we all were either PhD or STEM area experts. In response to such a noisy accountability system, schools scrambled to make sense out of them, the public scrambled to make sense out of them, bad decisions were made all over the place and false senses of achievement and of failure were promoted throughout. I don’t say this lightly: I was both rewarded and victimized by this absurdly chaotic and irrelevant system: one year we scored among the highest 25 schools in the city, the next we plummeted to one of the lowest: despite no changes in anything in our school. One year I got a 7000 bonus, the next I was nailed to the cross, despite the school winning a blackboard award and I winning a principal of the year award. Two of my star teachers (Blackboard award winners also) went from being top of the class, to the bottom, one of them left the system in disgust, the other has weathered on despite being publicly humiliated by the absurd teacher accountability metrics. Several system wide analysis have now shown that both the top and the lowest scoring schools, there were serious instability problems with the scoring metrics. At the top of the performance curve we battled to increase our scores by 2-3 pts from the top possible score. Nobody in the system seemed to understand basic statistical concepts like regression to the mean and ceiling effects, nor were any corrections made for this in the test score metrics. All of this, as I look back on it, was utter nonsense. That this output obsessed nonsense has driven the largest system in the USA for so long should worry all of us. And this in a system that at the elementary level can’t seem to provide the children with basic things: like second language instruction, like 3-4 hours of PE per week, like 3-4 hours of science per week, like schooling that actually covers a full work day, like a rich and varied arts program, like a systematic field trip program that takes advantage of the richness the city has to offer.


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