The Treasure Hunter

A blog by Joanne Yatvin

The Problems with Large School Districts

on July 22, 2016

Over the past week I’ve read two newspaper articles that troubled and perplexed me. One, in the NY Times, was about the  difficulties Mayor Bill de Blasio is having with his project  to help New York City’s struggling schools. The other, in our local newspaper, the Oregonian, reported the abrupt retirement of Portland’s School Superintendent Carole Smith, under pressure because high percentages of lead were recently found in many school water systems.  I couldn’t help wondering why things had gone bad so suddenly for both these leaders and how any similar disasters could be avoided in the future.  In today’s post I have one suggestion: smaller school districts with fewer layers of leadership, accountability and communication.

Mayor de Blasio’s dilemma is the lack of progress in a 400 million dollar program he instituted to turn around the city’s struggling schools. The program focuses on pairing schools with community organizations to provide services, such as counseling, to students and parents, adding an hour to the school day, and providing coaching for teachers. The goals set for the program are higher graduation rates, better attendance and higher test scores. The school district is administering the program.

Under pressure from the state legislature de Blasio agreed that the schools involved should show progress by the end of the program’s 3rd year, which is 2017. But it just isn’t happening. Principals and teachers at several schools have been battling each other and at the end of the school year members of both groups left their schools for greener pastures. In addition, student attendance, test scores and graduation rates in the schools in question have not improved. In some cases they have even declined. What can de Blasio do about those problems? Almost nothing. He can talk to district leaders and groups of principals and teachers, but he has no power to take action.

For Carole Smith the story is very different, but just as upsetting. After several years as a teacher and principal in Portland schools, she was appointed to a position in the school district administration, and after two years was promoted to Chief of Staff for the Superintendent. When that superintendent decided to leave her position, Ms. Smith was chosen to take her place. Over the nine years of leadership her work has been praised and supported by the media, the school board, and the public for raising test scores and graduation rates and improving the performance of schools with high numbers of students of color.

Unfortunately, approval of her leadership came to an abrupt end this school year when high levels of lead were discovered in the water systems in a few Portland schools. After that the school board hired an independent group to do an investigation of the water in all schools and found lead problems in several of them. They also discovered that some district employees knew about the lead problems but failed to tell their superiors or take any action to solve them. In their report the investigators declared, “There has been no ‘top down’ management in this area.”

As might be expected, parents were outraged by the lead levels in their children’s schools and the district’s failure to recognize and address the problems much earlier. Ms. Smith was blamed for the lapses in her leadership by the local newspaper and School Board members. The criticism grew so intense from all sides that she decided to resign immediately just this past week.

Sad as these stories are, I don’t believe that Mr. de Blasio or Ms. Smith deserve the blame they are getting. The main problem, as I see it, is the “Pyramid” structures that exist in most of our governmental bodies. There are so many layers and people between the decision makers at the top of the pyramid and the workers at the bottom that communications commonly get distorted or lost along the way. A second problem is that the one person at the top is expected to act on all situations immediately, regardless of any conflicts or obstacles at the time.

One solution I see for school districts is to operate with flatter structures: one person at the top as decision maker, with a support team available; a second level of supervisors, also with a support team; and a third level of implementers. But, I think it would be even better to have smaller districts within cities, each one running only a few schools. That way the top administrator and the supervisors in each area would be familiar with their schools and aware of what is happening in each of them. They could–and would–communicate early and often with implementers and also monitor their actions.

Maybe I’m dreaming. In both school districts where I was a principal the pyramids were much shorter. In the middle size district there were four Area Directors who often visited the schools under their supervision and met directly with the principals. In the tiny district where I was the superintendent and principal of two schools, teachers, aides, custodians, and lunchroom workers came to me whenever something was going wrong and needed to be fixed, or when everything was fine, just to talk. County support offices held monthly meetings for superintendents and provided any special assistance we needed. Because those were the “good old days” I suspect that not many short pyramids of school management still exist in these times of tight school budgets and national dominance over public education. I bet Bill de Blasio and Carole Smith miss them, too.

One response to “The Problems with Large School Districts

  1. Anne Kolibaba Larkin says:

    Part of the problem with the pyramidal structure is there is only 1 person at the top. There should be two: a superintendent of academics and a superintendent of operations. Both supers should report to the same board.


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