Posted December 14, 2017
“I need a deputy or a chief of staff. What’s the difference? And which is best?” A newly appointed superintendent of a mid-size, urban school district on the East coast recently posed this question to us. She’s hopeful that having the right person in one of these roles will help her overcome an avalanche of challenges: low student achievement rates, declining student enrollment, budget cuts, and inevitable school closures, among them.
A chief of staff in another mid-size urban district on the West coast posed a different question: “Is our central office too large? Our student enrollment has declined but our central office has remained virtually unchanged.”
Underlying both of these questions is a broader one: Given resource realities, how should districts structure their central offices to make sure they are giving schools the supports they need to ensure student success?
We wish we could give these and other leaders a simple answer. But the truth is, it depends. Form must follow function, so before suggesting a specific path for districts, it’s important to consider what leaders hope to achieve and how they hope to get there. Here are a few common questions we pose back to leaders grappling with choices about central office structure.
Question 1: What is the district’s theory of action?
A district that is closer to the centrally managed end of the spectrum will likely have a larger central office with more functions devoted to compliance and implementation monitoring than a district closer to the school-based managed end of the spectrum. See our previous blog about theory of action here and my new leadership white paper here.
Question 2: How does the district want to address the frequent tension or lack of clarity around the following functions:
- Curriculum and Instruction – School Supervision
- Curriculum and Instruction – Student Services (especially related to students with disabilities and English learners)
- Principal Coaching – Principal Evaluation
- Talent Management – Professional Development
- School-Based Budgeting – Centralized Finance
- School-Based Hiring – Centralized Talent Management
Central offices need to create clarity—through departmental goals, job descriptions, staff evaluations, communications to schools and central office administrators, and performance management routines—to ensure efficient and effective supports for schools.
Question 3: To what extent has and/or can the district use talent management as a strategic rather than a transactional function?
Talent management departments must be focused on more than filling empty positions and making sure that staff get paid. For districts to ensure student success, talent must play a strategic role in recruiting, hiring, supporting, and evaluating highly effective teachers and principals.
Question 4: To what extent does the structure of the central office facilitate performance management across all departments?
A central office culture of support for schools in the interest of serving the needs of students and families can be fostered through a systematic process of setting indicators, collecting data, reviewing progress, and making adjustments across all departments. The primary purpose of this type of performance management routine is not to punish poor performance but rather to incentivize and enable excellence.
By addressing these questions, we can help districts create an organizational structure, refine job descriptions, develop department goals and action plans, evaluate administrators’ job performance, and manage the change process. This work, in turn, helps districts streamline implementation of key initiatives, reduce cost, improve operational efficiency, better support schools, and increase student achievement.
Organizational structure doesn’t impact student achievement directly but the right structure helps to create the context in which professionals—chief of staffs, deputy superintendents, and others—can operate effectively to improve teaching and learning.