By Christina A. Samuels
As "chief talent officer" for the Hartford, Conn., school district, Jennifer Allen finds herself in a different role from many central-office personnel who work in human resources.
Rather than serve as a conduit for flowing district policy to school principals, who are then expected to act on those centralized decisions, Ms. Allen and her team in the 20,000-student district help principals learn how to best exercise autonomy in their schools, from making staffing decisions to figuring out instructional priorities to determining if there's enough money in the school's budget to buy a van for after-school activities.
In her position, power doesn't come from a title, Ms. Allen said. It "comes from providing a service that principals decide they need."
Like Hartford, districts around the country are shifting responsibilities that once rested at the central office to principals, who may be operating magnet schools, charter schools, or neighborhood schools with varying levels of autonomy, all under one school system umbrella. These new-breed "portfolio" districts also require new thinking at the central office, where administrators once used to command, control, and compliance are now just one of many potential sources principals can tap for professional development, curriculum assistance, or help analyzing student data.
The Center on Reinventing Public Education, based at the University of Washington Bothell, has long tracked the progress of portfolio districts. It counts 26 school systems as members of its "portfolio district network," including New York City, Los Angeles, the District of Columbia, Baltimore, and the Recovery School District in Louisiana.
Among the many central-office positions that need to change in a portfolio district is that of the chief academic officer, said Paul T. Hill, the center's founder. Central-office administrators generally offer "a standardized approach, coaching, and professional development. But as much as possible, that needs to be put into the schools" in a portfolio-model district, he said. "At the extreme end, the chief academic officer can become a broker or a tender of the supply of options for schools. The district is not the default provider of anything."
From Mr. Hill's point of view, school administrators need flexibility not just in their schools, but freedom from mandates from the top in order to design programs, hire teachers, buy materials and technology, choose vendors, and own or lease their own property. Central offices can keep longitudinal data on students, assess schools based on student performance, distribute money to schools, recruit teachers to the district, and manage an enrollment process for the schools that do not use neighborhood boundaries, he said.
But this change, though easy to describe, is not always easy to implement, he added—in part because of concerns from central-office administrators about loosening the reins of power.
"District people are always worried that their school people are not ready for the responsibility," Mr. Hill said.
Giving Up Control
One of the first steps for central-office administrators, according to Eric Nadelstern, a former deputy chancellor in the New York City school system, is to get past the idea that they have that much control in the first place. They don't, he argues.
"You can have programs and say we're going to implement them across the district in all the schools, and make sure that everyone is capable of doing the same thing, at the same time, on the same topic," Mr. Nadelstern said in an interview. He is currently a professor of educational leadership at Teachers College, Columbia University.
"That is the prevalent modus operandi of most district superintendents, and you can do that and get a short-term gain on 4th grade reading scores, but there is never any lasting impact at the 8th grade level or in high school graduation rates," he continued. "When a teacher closes the door in the morning, they do whatever the hell it is they think needs to be done."
Mr. Nadelstern recently wrote a paper for the University of Washington center on how New York created networks of autonomous schools. He said rather than fight the heterogeneous practices taking place behind closed doors at schools, central-office administrators should embrace them. "The people closest to the kids in the classroom—the principal, the teachers in consultation with parents—are the best people to make decisions," he said.
New York, with 1 million students and 1,700 schools, manages its diverse portfolio of schools by setting up networks of schools linked by similar educational philosophies but not necessarily geography. The networks provide some central-management activities and are compared yearly for performance and principal satisfaction. Schools are free to switch networks yearly as they choose.
Mr. Nadelstern said New York started small. "You can't go in there and say to everyone we're going to change and expect them not to fight against that. What you need to do is to create something entirely new and protect it from the old while you're nurturing it," he added.
Growth of a Network
New York started with an "autonomy zone" of 26 district-run and three charter schools, which Mr. Nadelstern oversaw. The zone eventually grew to 48 schools, and the initiative was then rebranded as Empowerment Schools and open to any principal who chose to participate.
"The thing you're nurturing eventually replaces the entire system," he said.
Not every district chooses to transform itself the way New York did. Alyssa Whitehead-Bust, the chief of innovation and reform for the 82,000-student Denver school district, said she believes the changes at the central office need to happen at the same time that a district is giving more autonomy to its schools.
"At a minimum, you have to have support at the superintendent level, along with some other top leaders," she said. Her office oversees performance management for the district's charter schools and "innovation schools," a state designation growing in popularity that gives some regular schools control over parts of their budget, hiring, and curriculum, as well as freedom from some union rules.
Ms. Whitehead-Bust said that her position and that of her team can be described now as "coaching," and it's not always an easy shift.
"It's a value for us not to get caught up in one school type as being preferable to another," she said. "We try to focus not on the differences between these schools but the similar goals." School officials also try to borrow good ideas from the innovation of charter schools; for example, seven district-run schools will be piloting an extended school day and year in the coming school year, as is done in some Denver charter and innovation schools.
James Meza Jr., appointed in July 2011 to be the interim superintendent for the 45,000-student Jefferson Parish, La., district, has also worked fast, rolling out changes like principal-leadership programs and more autonomy for school leaders while eliminating 200 central-office positions and working to streamline central-office operations.
"We have 7,000 employees, and 3,500 of them are not in schools," Mr. Meza said. "Most of them could go away tomorrow and not much would change."
Moving on Monitoring
As an example of central-office streamlining, he said that the district is eliminating central-office-based compliance officers for the spending of federal Title I funds targeted to economically disadvantaged students and shifting the monitoring task to schools. State permission was required to make that change, he said.
The district also removed 15 principals and could have removed more, Mr. Meza said, but found that it didn't have a deep pool of better candidates waiting in the wings. That prompted the creation of a new office that will be in charge of leadership training.
"The skill set for these principals is very different. We're not going to be at the central office telling them what to do," said Mr. Meza, who prior to his appointment was the dean at the University of New Orleans' college of education.
The shift to a portfolio process is not without critics.
Kenneth J. Saltman, a professor of educational policy studies and research at DePaul University in Chicago, wrote a 2010 paper saying that such efforts offer instability with no reliable empirical evidence of success.
"The portfolio district approach looks like a recipe for high risk and no clear reward," he writes.
Mr. Hill agrees that the evidence in favor of portfolio approaches "is far from a slam dunk." But, he added, it's implausible to think that a central-office administration can meet the needs of a diverse district using a traditional structure. "You have to ask if this one solution fits all the problems," he said.
Special coverage of leadership, extended and expanded learning time, and arts learning is supported in part by a grant from the Wallace Foundation at www.wallacefoundation.org.