Central Offices: The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly – Part One

This is the first installment of a two-part blog series that looks at the role of central offices in school districts. Two former central office administrators recount their experiences and make recommendations to improve the effectiveness of central offices at a time when public education is in peril. In Part 1, Edjacent co-founder/Chief Design Officer Meghan Raftery asks fellow designer and regular blog contributor Doug Wren to answer a few questions. In Part 2, Doug asks Meghan the same questions.

Meghan: How did you end up in the central office?

Doug: At the end of my 14th year teaching elementary school, I applied for a position at the central office of my school district, the third largest in Georgia. It wasn’t that I didn’t enjoy teaching – I loved my job, my school, my students, my co-workers, and my principal. It was about the money. My wife had quit her teaching job a several years earlier. Most of her salary had been paying for our firstborn’s childcare, so we agreed it would be best if she stayed home with our kids until they were old enough for school. 

M: What were your goals for supporting teachers?

D: I really didn’t have any specific goals, but something that happened right after I was hired as a research specialist in the district’s Department of Research & Evaluation set my intention for the rest of my career. When I told the teachers at my school I’d be working at the central office (known as Building B) their response was, “You’re going to be one of them?” I immediately promised that I’d never lose my teacher’s perspective. My vow came from what I’d heard other teachers say since my first year of teaching, which was that the people in Building B had forgotten what it was like to be in the classroom. I kept my promise and always looked at things through a teacher’s lens during the time I worked in the central offices of two large school districts.  

M: What was it like when you first started working in the central office and how did your viewpoint change over time?

D: I was completely naïve when I began working at Building B. I became a teacher because it was a calling for me. I mistakenly believed that everyone who worked in the central office were as committed to bettering the lives of students as most teachers are. After two years, I’d seen so much cronyism, backstabbing, and entitlement – for example, former principals bragging, “I got my retirement job at Building B!” – that I needed a change. By then I was director of the Department of Research & Evaluation, a position that made me even more aware of corruption on different levels. Within two years, I had taken a job in the central office of a school district in a different state. 

M: What were the rewards and challenges of your central office roles?

D: The rewards of working in research and evaluation included providing district leadership with up-to-date information to help them make decisions. I also assisted numerous educators earn their graduate degrees. Looking back, the primary reward of my Building B experience was monetary, although I made lifelong friendships with two amazing co-workers. I already mentioned the main challenges and won’t go further into that. I took a big pay cut when we moved out of state for my second central office experience, but the job was challenging and required knowledge of classroom teaching plus expertise in assessment and educational measurement, the focus of my doctoral studies. It was very rewarding to work with students and teachers in the development and implementation of age-appropriate performance tasks that measured children’s critical thinking, problem solving, and communication. The challenges arose when district and departmental leadership changed. I witnessed power grabs and saw an increase in backstabbing and cronyism, as well as the rise of opinionists – people who became “instant experts” after being promoted to positions they weren’t necessarily qualified for (see Peter Principle). 

M: What recommendations do you have for people who currently work or who want to work in the central office of a school district?

D: My principal suggestion (no pun intended) is to remember that, regardless of your job title, you are no better than anyone else in your school district. Sure, the hierarchy exists, but reaching a higher pay grade does not mean you’re special. The top brass at central offices can do much better acknowledging the work of teachers and school staff who make $75K-$125K less than they do. The troops on the front lines need all the meaningful positive reinforcement they can get. Top leadership should stop patting each other on the back and recognize the people who do the real work of education, as shown in the Tweets below.

MORE OF THIS:

LESS OF THIS:

 

M: Last question – how can central offices better support the work of schools?

D: In keeping with my previous answer, the most important thing central office folks can do is figure out ways to not be seen as “them” by people who work at schools. Only after trust has been established can a central office work effectively with its schools. Central office leaders also need to stop dropping bombs (double entendre intended) on schools before leadership has (a) fully examined the consequences, and (b) comprehensively prepared school staff for what’s about to go down. A recent example from Virginia Beach was when the top dogs at the central office recommended a new mask policy. Teachers didn’t find out about the recommendation until the school board adopted it, just two work days before the policy went into effect. Because there were so many unanswered questions from teachers and other stakeholders about the new policy, the action was widely seen as irresponsible. It further eroded the trust between leadership and school staff.

Another idea regarding central office decisions is for leaders to determine whether a specific policy, guideline, or action should be universally enforced across all schools in the district. Circumstances at each school are not the same – there are different students with different needs and different educators with different levels of experience and expertise. The pandemic has caused numerous interruptions in teaching and learning; to think that everyone should be on the same pacing schedule with identical lesson plans is ludicrous. And don’t get me started on the number of tests required by the central office in some school districts. If you want to read about inane testing decisions made by central office leaders who don’t really understand educational measurement, please see my “Testing: To Infinity and Beyond Reason” blog posts, Part 1 and Part 2. For schools that have competent and trustworthy building administrators and teachers, the central office needs to let go and allow them to take care of the work of educating children. There are plenty of schools and teachers who do need help, so central office personnel should provide assistance only where it’s actually needed.

Implementing my most radical idea for how central offices can best support the work of schools would require a thorough reorganization of the central office. In other words, tear it down and build it back. Perhaps the time is ripe for starting over. Diane Ravitch, the Assistant Secretary of Education under the first President Bush, has long argued that there is “a concerted effort to destroy our public schools and undermine the teaching profession.” The current backlash against teachers, curriculum, and so-called controversial books “draws directly from the playbook of . . . dictatorships with their hatred of reason, truth, science, evidence and the willingness to use language as a source of dehumanization and violence.” Before it’s too late and a district is taken over by school board members who represent a virulent and vocal minority, the district’s leadership should consider a complete overhaul of the central office. Here’s a quick rundown of how things would get started:

  • Hire a qualified educational consulting firm to propose different models for the reorganization of the central office. The firm cannot have any current or past affiliation to the school district or any of its leaders. 
  • The models must include an organizational chart along with the duties, responsibilities, and salary of each position on the chart. No jobs from the previous central office are sacred; the goal is improvement, not imitation.
  • The school board will select the model that is the most efficient and economical so that teachers can receive a salary increase for the following school year.
  • At the conclusion of the school year, all certified and support staff who work in the central office will be terminated. Any qualified person from within or outside the district who wants to work in the new and improved central office would need to apply and interview. 
  • Interviews will be conducted by panels of outside experts who are experienced and knowledgeable about public education, well-versed in the art of interviewing, and not associated with anyone who is currently working or has ever worked with the district.
  • Successful applicants would be selected based on their qualifications for the position they applied for and not on their aspirations of becoming a building administrator. “Climbers” need not apply for curriculum coordinator and instructional specialist positions. These jobs should be filled by master teachers who have demonstrated their passion for and their expertise in a particular content area.

It would take another blog post to explain further details about such a massive restructuring of a central office and the inevitable growing pains as it works to support schools. I know that you were among many people caught in the middle of departmental reorganization when we both worked for Virginia Beach City Public Schools. That’s also a whole other blog post!

Meghan: Thanks for sharing your thoughts about central offices.

Doug: Any time!

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