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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 for 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.
More.... Read the full story
…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.
Read more of this special coverage of leadership, extended and expanded learning time, and arts learning, supported in part by the Wallace Foundation at http://www.edweek.org/ew/articles/2012/07/18/36portfolio_ep.h31.html?tkn=PWRF2IvhlJP26s4HjcZunCilG69WiMAbdKfM&cmp=ENL-EU-NEWS1/
Source: Education Week, July 17, 2012