Here’s a good question for the dawn of a new city administration: Did the CSDs, the ROCs, the SSOs, the ISCs and CFNs — all these successive Bloomberg-era school management structures — actually improve school management?
If the acronyms are a puzzle, don’t worry. Most of them don’t exist anymore.
The Boston-based Parthenon Group, the management consultants that gave the DOE lots of high-priced advice on how to help struggling schools (which the DOE ignored), has gingerly taken up this question.
In “An Assessment of the New York City Department of Education School Support Structure” [PDF], conducted at the request of the DOE, the Parthenon Group reviews the many iterations of management science that eventually became the CFNs, the Children First Networks. These make up the uneven, rather slippery, mechanism through which the DOE now manages the schools. And in cautious, exquisitely balanced language, the Parthenon Group raises deep concerns about the shortcomings of these “reforms.”
The networks are groupings of about 30 schools each that sign on to get “support” from one of 57 nonprofits, universities or former DOE administrators. CFNs were construed as a way to deliver educational and administrative services to principals without actually supervising the schools. They were a tool of principal “empowerment” under Chancellor Joel Klein’s fractured management vision. Principals, whether they are neophytes or veterans, get to hire and fire their “supervisor,” the CFN network, though they have to choose one and pay for it.
So, what does Parthenon find?
First, it finds that while there are some strong and innovative networks, there are others “whose leaders and teams cannot effectively manage the complexity of the job.”
Talent across the 57 network teams is stretched fairly thin. “There are fewer people but the jobs have become more challenging,” in the words of the report, and it has been hard for many networks “to earn authority and trust based on merit.” Maybe some functions should be re-centralized, the report suggests. Maybe the DOE should offer higher pay to network team members to attract more talent. Or maybe networks should themselves get together and hire some outside expertise. In blunter language, many are floundering.
Second, the network structure doesn’t differentiate between schools that are struggling and those that are doing well.
There is limited oversight of struggling schools, the report finds, “offering too much latitude to principals who will not be able to figure out how to improve on their own” and too much interference in high-performing schools. “It is clear that the [network] strategy cannot represent the DOE’s only mechanism for school improvement,” Parthenon concludes.
It suggests putting the weakest 15 percent of schools under superintendents with renewed powers, who will direct curriculum and instruction. That old superintendent structure in the community school districts was famously ripe for abuse, but Parthenon finds the nebulous supervision-by-consent of the network structure unequal to the task, at least in some situations.
Third, the current CFNs isolate school support from the input of local communities, especially in the case of struggling schools.
“(P)arents in the current system sometimes feel that they are left without a clear channel to seek resolution of issues,” the report says. (Sometimes is putting it mildly.) Especially in struggling schools, the report finds, parents have tried repeatedly to warn administrators but have not gotten a hearing. Nor do networks readily tap into the knowledge that families and communities have. The Parthenon Group finds it “hard to assess how frequently this kind of breakdown actually occurs.” But parents would tell them: it happens a lot.
Fourth, the Parthenon Group finds that “perhaps the most powerful support the DOE could provide for schools would be to relieve the numerous demands on a principal’s time.”
Bureaucracy and “layers of federal and state regulations” eat up school time. The DOE should improve business processes, streamline regulations and change the culture, the report says, but leaders who can do this are hard to find. The ones who can are stretched too thin.
What are the implications of these findings?
The Parthenon Group finds that principals like their newfound autonomy in hiring, budgeting and curriculum. But we know many principals are drowning in paperwork imposed by the new accountability and cannot provide instructional leadership.
Management does not get better simply by withdrawing. The DOE cut its school support budget by 32 percent from 2005 to 2011. “If anything the emphasis on efficiency within school support went almost too far,” the report hedges.
There’s little question that it did. While expectations were piled on students and teachers, a lean, voluntary and too-often inept management was put in place — but not exactly in charge — of the schools. This allowed the DOE to say that it wasn’t responsible for class size reduction, for example, or for supporting struggling schools. Principals were. The networks were. The report finds many of these networks were not up to the task. What’s worse, the DOE abdicated responsibility.
What do we need from the next administration? We certainly need a new management system. More support for struggling schools is essential. More expert, seasoned leadership would be welcome. But what exactly should this look like? It must be one of the many things keeping Bill de Blasio up at night.