Middle Management for America

By now most of you know that the chancellor has (all but) left the building in DC.

There’s no shortage of prognostication on this issue in the blogosphere, but here’s my two cents.  Having worked with the team at DCPS, I can say firsthand that it is composed of some of the most talented, dedicated, intelligent, and hardworking people I have ever known.  And despite the polarization inherent in the debates about school reform, the team is largely without idealogical bent, but rather singularly focused on creating a better education for children.  Michelle Rhee had a lot to do with attracting that group to Washington, but it doesn’t mean they won’t stay without her.

Which brings me to a point I’ve been making a lot lately.  As a country, we have talked a lot about the teaching profession, and we’ve done a fair amount to inject new energy into the teaching corps nationally.  There also has been substantial political and media focus on the chief executives of school systems, with Rhee being the prime example.  These are hugely important things, but there are substantial organizations that operate between the chiefs and the teachers, and that’s where a lot of critical strategic, tactical, and executional decisions are made.  So, my thinking is, we really need a “Middle Management for America.”

Of course, I’m being somewhat tongue-in-cheek.  But any strong organization – whether it be public, private, nonprofit, or NGO – relies on a strong core of both managers and doers at every level.  The work in the middle is largely unsexy,* but that “middle” does things like making sure kids are fed, deciding how to order curriculum materials, and procuring toner for classroom printers.  At lot of times that “middle” becomes a sprawling, unwieldy bureaucracy, and that’s not good.  The response to our current infrastructure shouldn’t just involve tweaking at the edges, but rethinking the entirety of the way services and education are delivered by our school systems.  Until we transform those systems into attractive, functioning, performance organizations, we will never sustain reforms – or the most talented individuals – for the long-term.

*Trust me, I’ve been there.


7 Responses to Middle Management for America

  1. Jenn C says:

    Timely post, Justin — related to this new study released?



  2. As usual, I’m impressed by your description of what you’ve actually seen, and I’m glad that your conclusions fit nicely with mine. You have more experience along this line, but I entirely agree that “The response to our current infrastructure shouldn’t just involve tweaking at the edges, but rethinking the entirety of the way services and education are delivered by our school systems.”

    My understanding was that Rhee was well-qualified and successful in those efforts. The problems occurred when she moved beyond things she was qualified for and into that masters of the universe grandiosity.

    But planning and implementing changes in middle management was enough challenge for middle management. We need a system of “team players” where everyone “helps out” but above all they play their own position. It was absurd to think that central offices – with their long lousy record – could figure out how to turn themselves around, and in their spare time learn how to turnaround schools. It was the absurd hubris of Rhee, Klein, et. al where they thought they knew enough about the blocking and tackling of classroom instruction where they went wrong. Had Rhee just stuck the job she knew, then I couldn’t have complained if she wrote Op Ed pieces that I disagreed with. Its when she acted on her opinions that she became a threat. If she wanted micromanage people outside of her skill base, why didn’t she volunteer to coach an NBA team or train Green Berets? Why did she try to impose her opionions – opinions that my experience, at least, says are weird – on teachers’ classrooms in her and other districts? Have she wanted to move outside her own field and into teaching and learning, she should have surrounded herself with veteran educators and not just raw young talent, and then taken the years required to learn.

    Got to go now. I’m off to teach theorectical physicists how to collaborate with atronomers and on my way home I plan to drop by the university hospital to ask them if I can conduct a quick brain surgery before getting back to my book on inner city school reform

  3. Pingback: Remainders: Duncan and union leaders call for summit | GothamSchools

  4. Creech says:

    You say this only because you’ve also been at the food coop.

  5. Creech says:

    Read this article — some of its stories would be familiar to anyone handed the keys to DCPS three years ago:


  6. Ari says:

    Notably, part of TFA’s mission is to get its alums into those kinds of positions. As someone working at the NYC DOE, I can tell you that it’s working. There are a large number of TFA alums among the ranks of the middle management. I’m sure the same is probably true in other progressive districts like DC.

  7. Jim Kohlmoos says:

    Right on the mark. Not enough attention has been given to the less sexy topic of bureaucracy and management in sustaining innovation and improvement. This deserves big time attention in education reform along with creating a knowledge infrastructure to continuously build on lessons learned.

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