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Reformers say school managers lack focus

Yearlong review of central office reveals disorder, inefficiency

A national school reform group in a report Monday heavily criticized the Portland school district's central office administrators for working in confused and inefficient ways, for not collaborating with one another, and for doing little to help the district's schools, teachers or students.

The report followed a yearlong examination of the Portland school district's central office system by the Annenberg Institute for School Reform at Brown University. Portland district leaders volunteered to undergo the review, which was paid for in part by the nonprofit Portland Schools Foundation.

The review was led by a 25-person team that included Portland district employees, parents, community leaders and Annenberg Institute leaders. The team talked to a range of district employees and reviewed procedures and documents. Its goal was to assess how central office administrators Ñ people who don't work directly in the schools but whose work is meant to support schools, teachers and students Ñ do their jobs.

In a range of areas, the review found the administrators and the system don't do their jobs well enough.

Among the report's findings:

• Frequent reorganizations of central office senior leadership contributed to miscommunication and confusion about 'who is responsible for what.'

• Within the central office, 'there is little clarity about roles and responsibilities.'

• Some district employees 'perceive that the human resources department has a disproportionate influence on decision making.' The department is led by Steve Goldschmidt, who has been heavily criticized by the Portland teachers union in the 31Ú2 years he's been in the job.

• The central office's 'provision of professional development (for principals and teachers) is said to be weak, inconsistent and fragmented.'

• The central office does very little to help teachers with their curriculum. 'Several school-based staff noted this absence and expressed concerns about the consistency of what is taught and how teaching is supported.'

The report also noted that, overall, district leaders pay too little attention to student test results in assessing how the district's schools and teachers are doing or could improve.

'Hardly any responses to questions about student achievement and well- and under-served populations cited performance data of any kind,' the report said.

The Annenberg report suggested that the district needed to develop a system where central office administrators could give better guidance and support to teachers to establish a more consistent curriculum across schools.

It also said the district should give greater priority to 'collecting, organizing, analyzing and acting on data' from student test scores, which can help the district understand what kind of teaching is working best with students.

And, the report said, district leaders should 'clarify roles and responsibilities of central office staff; set clear lines and accountability and supervision (and) change reporting lines and committee structure that send mixed messages.'

District and Annenberg leaders were unavailable for comment by press time.

Cynthia Guyer, executive director of the Portland Schools Foundation, which raises money to support Portland district schools, said: 'The findings in the report, although tough and somewhat critical É mirror what many voices have been coalescing around for a good eight to 10 years. É Our best and brightest teachers and principal leaders have identified many of these same issues that are in the report.

'Now, the name of the game É is how we're going to address the issues.'

In an e-mail she planned to send to district employees after the release of the report, Superintendent Vicki Phillips Ñ named to the city's top schools job five months ago Ñ wrote that 'none of the findings in the report É are too surprising, but together they lay out the challenges that the Central Office must face.'

Phillips wrote that since 1991, 187 of 313 jobs in the school district's central administration have been eliminated.

Her e-mail also indicated she's likely to make significant changes to the district's central office. She wrote that the district will 'undertake a thoughtful, strategic realignment of our Central Office functions.'

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