We Could Have Done More to Change the Systems

In this three-part series, STG Senior Field Consultant Michael Contompasis reflects on Boston Public Schools’ many accomplishments as well as how, in retrospect, district leaders could have been bolder.

Part 2 of 3

We could have worked harder on the systems pieces, to break down the silos, rebuild the culture and structure of central office — embedding many of its responsibilities within clusters of schools, where they would have had much more of an impact on teaching and learning. I think Tom would be the first to say that he’s a convert now; systems have to change before you can really drive and sustain change in central office and the schools.

We needed to change the culture of central office, not just the culture of schools. There was far too much working in silos, a compliance mentality where you really needed to be a total screw-up to get fired. HR was especially a disaster. When I was a principal, you needed to get 27 separate signatures to hire someone…and they had to be linear, in order. It was impossible. One learned that to get things done in the central office required a great deal of personal relationship development. The squeaky wheel got things done.

We should have totally shifted the culture and structure of central office — giving schools more autonomy and setting up decentralized units outside the office to provide academic and other supports to principals and teachers.  Such Lead Partner-type units, embedded in clusters of schools, would have been directly accountable to the superintendent for results. The traditional central office culture is simply too hard to change, and there is no evidence from the larger districts that – except for a few like Long Beach – it’s possible create a new culture and sustain it over multiple superintendents.

We made a lot of progress on the operations side, working in cross-functional teams and setting up project management solutions. But it was a real challenge to align our work with the academic side … to flip the district so that the central office role was to change from compliance to supporting schools and classrooms while helping to build a real system of schools.

Change is hard. There’s always lots of inertia. We needed to get to the point where everyone in the central office got that they didn’t work for the budget office, or facilities, or HR, or whatever. Folks in the central office had to understand that their primary responsibility was to support the reform agenda for improved student achievement and that they would be accountable along with the principals and teachers for increased student performance.   Accountability for student success is as much a central office responsibility as it is for principals and teachers.

Next: How too much choice got in the way of strengthening community schools

Previously: We Should Have Been Bolder