Should Superintendents or Principals Determine School Policies? A Chancellor’s District Model, Superintendents or Principal Autonomy?

Elizabeth A. Harris, in a NY Times article (“Little College Guidance: 500 High School Students Per Counselor“) writes about the challenges of the college application process and the lack of counselors to advise students,

While small private schools can often afford to provide their students with tremendous hand-holding, large public high schools across the country struggle with staggering ratios of students to guidance counselors. Nationally, that ratio is nearly 500 to 1, a proportion experts say has remained virtually unchanged for more than 10 years. And when it comes time to apply to college, all of the students need help at once.

There are two college counselors at Midwood for about 800 seniors each year, most of whom apply to college. The office’s support staff has been cut in recent years from five people to two.

Since the economic meltdown in 2008 the number of guidance counselors, social workers and psychologists in New York State has steadily declined. One solution is to require a guidance counselor to student ratio in each school

I was discussing the article with a principal, he responded, “If you require a ratio what does the principal cut, fewer art teachers, larger class size, shouldn’t the principal decide on the staffing requirements of the school?”

Principals are assessed by data, in elementary and middle schools grades on state tests and in high schools credit accumulation and graduation rates, do the pressures of achieving a “good grade” influence the decisions of the principal? Should I add a counselor and cut an English teacher? How does the principal weigh college counseling versus the other needs of the school?

Some schools have adopted an omnibus counseling system; the guidance counselor follows the student for four years, from the ninth through the twelfth grades, including college counseling, others argue that college counseling is highly specialized and requires specially trained counselors.

Should principals be the decision makers or should the superintendent impose decisions?

The role of superintendents traditionally has been to oversee and guide schools. Rudy Crew, the chancellor in the 90s created the Chancellor’s District, the fifty or so lowest achieving schools in the city were removed from the school districts and run directly by the chancellor. The Chancellor’s District was highly prescriptive, a longer school day and school year and the highly regarded, also highly controversial Success for All reading program in all the elementary schools; the superintendent produced color-coded, laminated manuals setting forth step by step procedures: how to run a fire drill, how to order books, a “how to” guide for every action of the principal.

The Chancellor’s District, disbanded by Joel Klein; was praised in a 2004 report by NYU,

A special district under direct control of the New York City schools chancellor made substantial improvements at some of the city’s worst public schools, according to a study by researchers at New York University.

Gains in reading scores outpaced similarly low-performing schools that remained in their local community districts, said the researchers’ report, which is to be issued today.

The special district, a grouping of troubled schools from around the city known as the Chancellor’s District, was created by Chancellor Rudy Crew in 1996 and operated through the 2002-03 school year.

”The Chancellor’s District intervention significantly increased teacher resources and per-student expenditure across the district’s schools and significantly increased the percentage of students meeting the standard on the fourth-grade state reading tests,” the report states

The Chancellor’s District has taken on an iconic aura, the path to improving low performing schools is a highly proscriptive, closely supervised approach, and the role of the principal is to carry out the directives of the superintendent. The superintendent is the Chief Executive Officer, the CEO and the principal the middle manager, the guiding principles of the school district should be set by the CEO and the twenty or thirty middle managers, the principals, carrying out the organizational goals set by the superintendent.

A decade later, Rudy Crew, the creator of the Chancellor’s District, warns that the path was ill-advised,

The architect of the city’s “Chancellor’s District,” a school improvement initiative that flooded low-performing schools with resources over a decade ago, said Wednesday his much-debated approach was “dead wrong” and warned current officials not to repeat his mistakes.

“When we did this in the Chancellor’s District, I think the framework is dead wrong,” said Crew. The structure, he said, was too one-size-fits-all.

“Everybody got the same memo, everybody got the same dollars, everybody got the same requirements and then you were sort of off to the races to do the best that you could with what you had,” Crew added.

Over the last decade the enthusiasm with the superintendent as CEO waned.

Joel Klein collapsed the 32 school districts into ten regions that included high schools, a Klein iteration of the Chancellor’s District. Klein became disillusioned with the Regional model, he moved to Autonomy Zones, to Empowerment to Networks and became enthralled by perhaps the most influential book of the last decade, William Ouchi’s “Schools That Work (2003).

Ouchi’s central recommendations are expressed in seven “keys to success” that, if followed, will make any school successful. They are:

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.

The main contribution of Ouchi’s research is that centralized school bureaucracies are detrimental to individual school success. This finding extends the management revolution launched by Deming and others in business and industry into the field of public education. This revolution has led to the “flattening” of hierarchical organizations, with the movement of decision-making to operational levels much closer to clients and consumers.

The Department leadership programs committed to the Ouchi-Klein model, the “principal as entrepreneur,” principals ran their own schools with a focus on data and accountability.

Superintendents, with experience as teachers and principals, see themselves as leaders who have moved up the ladder to their present permission. Shouldn’t they be able to intervene in schools? Shouldn’t they be able to both supervise and guide principals and ultimately have the authority to direct principals to implement staffing and policy decisions?

On the other hand the top-down superintendent as CEO model has not raised achievement, for decades superintendents closely supervised schools, while scores may have increased in some districts the school system stumbled for decades.

Should we return to a model that empowers superintendents or continue to give wider discretion to principals?

Next blog: The new School Management Model: Farina 1.0


4 responses to “Should Superintendents or Principals Determine School Policies? A Chancellor’s District Model, Superintendents or Principal Autonomy?

  1. I think teachers—as a group—should decide school policy on an individual school by school basis, and then the administrators make sure that policy doesn’t break any laws but administration has no power to veto the policies the teachers create.

    In addition, the policy would be flexible and teachers would meet in their groups at least once a year to visit policies and make adjustments if they feel the need.


  2. Principals, in consultation with teachers, parents and the students themselves, should make the important decisions. The legititmate role of the supt/district is to find the best principals available, support them, develop them, provide incentives to do good work, protect themn from outside interference, and ultimately, hold them accountable for the highest levels of student performance.


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