School districts often use top-down approach to improve instruction

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Mid-level school district staffers play a vital role in communicating district initiatives to schools. They design materials, train school faculties, and monitor their progress. But according to a recent study, most central office workers use a top-down approach that overlooks the experience of school-level educators.

A survey of district staffers in Chicago, Milwaukee and Seattle found two-thirds believe that they could help schools improve instruction without substantial input from principals and teachers.

“There is a lot of expertise in the schools. To ignore what principals and teachers know is foolhardy,” says Diana Lauber, managing director at Cross City Campaign for Urban School Reform, the nonprofit group that directed the study.

Principals are more likely to implement district reforms if they feel part of the process, she adds.

Researchers also found that mid-level staff inundated principals with paperwork that distracted them from focusing on classroom instruction.

Cross City’s research team interviewed 82 cabinet- and mid-level district staff and 185 school leaders during the 2001-02 and 2002-03 school years. The research was lead by Patricia Burch, an assistant professor of education policy at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and in consultation with James Spillane, an associate professor of learning sciences, human development and social policy at Northwestern University.

During the investigation, researchers asked mid-level district staff to describe their work with schools, and then analyzed their responses for evidence of an authoritative or collaborative approach.

For instance, “authoritative” managers might emphasize their role in monitoring schools to ensure the timely submission of data. “Collaborative” managers talked more about helping schools interpret the data to improve classroom instruction.

But Burch warns against concluding from the study that a collaborative orientation is always good for schools and an authoritative orientation is bad.

“In complex organizations such as districts, some combination of the two is often necessary and welcomed by busy school leaders,” she says. “Unfortunately, in the districts we studied, this balance did not exist. An authoritative orientation was the norm.”

Through a CPS spokewoman, Chief Executive Officer Arne Duncan and Chief Education Officer Barbara Eason-Watkins declined to comment on the study until they have read it.

Inefficiency a problem

Catalyst spoke with nine CPS principals to get their reactions to the report. Arline Hersh, principal of George Armstrong Elementary in Rogers Park, was not surprised to hear that principals in the study preferred a collaborative approach. “It’s like asking, ‘What do dogs like better—being patted or hit by a stick?'”

Most of the principals who spoke with Catalyst, however, say they feel supported by mid-level district staff. Several cited the inefficiency and inaccessibility of central office workers as a larger problem than authoritarian attitudes.

CPS Operations and Academic Standards departments were two that several principals identified as difficult to reach. Catalyst contacted those departments for comment, but neither returned calls.

Some principals felt that central office inefficiency stemmed, in part, from the high staff turnover during the Duncan administration.

Sandy Traback, principal of Chavez Elementary, finds herself repeatedly explaining to new staff how to schedule deliveries of classroom materials to her school, which operates on a year-round schedule that is different from most. That chore detracts from the time she can spend on improving instruction, she says.

Many principals who spoke with Catalyst concurred with the study that mid-level staff often produces excessive paperwork for schools.

In 2002, Eason-Watkins announced an initiative to curb paperwork for principals. An administrator in her office would approve correspondence with schools to eliminate duplicate requests from different departments. More recently, she created web sites to post announcements and cut down on the number on faxes and letters principals receive.

Principals give the effort mixed reviews. Loretta Brown-Lawrence, principal of Leland Elementary in Austin, says the web sites for the chief cducation officer and the Board of Education have improved communication while reducing redundant paperwork.

But other principals were less positive.

Carlos Azcoitia, principal of both Spry Elementary and Community Links High School in Little Village, says the administration needs to make all the information it sends to schools “shorter, to the point and simple.” Azcoitia held high administrative posts under CEOs Paul Vallas and Duncan, serving most recently as deputy education officer before returning to Spry in 2003.

Azcoitia says the Duncan administration has helped improve instruction in the schools with its district-wide reading initiative. But he maintained that the system remains focused on compliance. “We are not driven by school needs and what really makes a difference in the school.”

Other principals agree, according to Lauren Allen, senior program director for Cross City. Five in Chicago whom she interviewed for the study said Duncan did a better job than Vallas in providing resources to improve instruction and holding schools accountable for doing so. But they still found central office out of touch with the needs of individual schools. Principals were saying, “If you are going to be about building [instructional] capacity, listen to us, hear what we have to say, know what our needs are,” she recounts.

AIOs get high marks

In September 2002, Duncan and Eason-Wakins launched a new effort to help schools carry out district initiatives to improve instruction. They divided the district into 26 areas, each with its own area instructional officer (AIO). AIOs serve as mentors for principals, and among other responsibilities, lead classroom “walkthroughs” at schools to provide feedback on instruction. (See Catalyst September 2003.)

Because the positions were new when the study was conducted, Cross City was unable to say whether they improved communication and collaboration between schools and central administrators. But Lauber says, “We would be optimistic.”

Principals who spoke with Catalyst were close to unanimous in praising the accessibility of their AIOs. That sentiment held true even for principals who had difficult interactions with some or all of the district departments. Indeed, in many cases, principals appeared to make a distinction between their AIO and other central office staff.

Kenneth Hunter, principal of Prosser Career Academy, credited the guidance he received from AIO Richard Gazda for the gains his students made on the Prairie State Achievement Examination (PSAE) scores last year. “I can attribute it to real leadership and support from Rich in particular, then from central office,” says Hunter, whose students gained between 7.2 and 14.8 percentage points in the five subject areas tested.

Deborah Clark, principal of Skinner Classical Elementary, a magnet school, says she valued the feedback she received during the AIO walkthroughs. “It was absolutely wonderful to look at the school through the eyes of an educated outsider who knows what they’re looking for,” Clark says.

But not all school leaders found the walkthroughs as valuable. South Loop Elementary School has had one walkthrough for each of the two years that Pat Baccellieri has been principal. “The first walkthrough was real collaborative,” he says. “The second one was more prescriptive.”

Shift focus to support, away from monitoring

Cross City suggests that districts are more likely to improve teaching when they collaborate with school staff rather than direct them. According to the study, principals and teachers reported that they were more likely to seek help from central office staff who listened to them and respected their expertise.

Cross City recommends that teachers and principals be part of the planning process for any new school reform policy. The report also calls for redefining the role of mid-level district staff to focus more on supporting schools and less on monitoring them.

To understand the complexities involved in changing instruction, district staff needs to spend more time in schools, according to Cross City.

But Azcoitia of Spry adds that visits alone are insufficient to understand teachers’ and principals’ work lives. “You have to show up, roll up your sleeves and work in the office or substitute for a class,” Azcoitia says.

Principals need to understand the challenges that district staff face, too, says Hunter of Prosser Academy. His own stint in the Office of Accountability not only helped him forge relationships with district staffers, it allowed him to understand the difficulties they encounter in gaining the trust of principals and teachers.

“The hardest job in the world is to come from central office [into a school],” Hunter says. “No matter what you do, it’s always an intrusion.” He adds that approaching school staff with respect was integral to building supportive relationships.

Jeff Kelly Lowenstein is a Chicago writer. E-mail him at editor@catalyst-chicago.org.