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Report that city sought finds room for improvement in networks

A study that the city Department of Education commissioned to boost the chances of having the next mayor continue the “network” school support structure concluded that while the theory is sound, the execution has not been.

Struggling schools have gotten too little support and communities and schools have had too weak of a connection under the networks, according to the report, released today by the Parthenon Group. One solution, the consulting firm suggests, is restoring some authority to district superintendents — whom the Bloomberg administration stripped of most power in 2007.

Networks replaced a system of school support that was linked to schools’ geographic districts. Instead of coaches and advisors giving professional development, curriculum, and budget help to all of the schools in a single area, they currently work with schools that choose their brand of support, no matter where the schools are located.

The new report comes at a time Mayor Bloomberg’s successor, Bill de Blasio, is deep into planning for his transition to City Hall. De Blasio has said he thinks districts should play a stronger role in school support, but he has so far offered few details about how he plans to change the way schools get help.

The report contains several ideas for de Blasio and his transition team. Before it got the contract to study networks, Parthenon secretly told the department that it would seek to identify “low-hanging fruit” that could be changed without overhauling the network structure entirely.

Parthenon interviewed more than 100 people inside and outside the department and examined city data to assess the strengths and weaknesses of the networks and point toward possible improvements.
The group found that principals appreciate being able to select who gives them support and being able to work with schools other than those that happen to be located nearby. It also found decoupling support from evaluation allowed some principals to seek help more often.

But Parthenon also found validation for longstanding critiques of the network structure.

One critique has been that the structure allows low-performing schools to operate with little intervention. The report backs up the charge, concluding, “The DOE today may provide too little empowerment for a set of schools that are high performing and experience little benefit from central supports, while offering too much latitude to principals who will not be able to figure out how to improve on their own.” It adds that when struggling schools have gotten intensive support, as the department has offered in recent years, they have usually gotten stronger.

The report suggests allowing superintendents, who must rate principals each year, to supersede network leaders for the worst-performing schools. “The formal authority of the superintendent is of greatest value when working with struggling schools that, without strong guidance, may not necessarily make the best use of their autonomy,” the report concludes.

Superintendents could also play a stronger role in helping communities feel connected to their schools, according to the report, which identifies community relations as a weakness under the Bloomberg administration.

“While the DOE points out that each district office has a family advocate position, there is a legitimate concern from parents that this position is disconnected from the day-to-day support, oversight, and resources that networks provide, and that district offices have few resources to act on their concerns,” the report concludes.

Staffing is another concern. The city does not have enough highly trained people to fill all of the difficult and specialized roles that networks must play, the report says.

“The current model, in which the DOE has to staff 56 network teams in addition to cluster teams and superintendents, has significantly increased the challenge of talent development and hiring for all of these positions, and left the existing talent base stretched fairly thin,” it says, adding that it might not even be realistic to find 56 strong network leaders. The staffing challenge is most acute in areas where network officials need specialized expertise, such as around special education, according to the report.

Shael Polakow-Suransky, the department’s chief academic officer, said Parthenon’s exhaustive interviews meant the report’s conclusions are worth considering. “I think it was a thoughtful report,” he said today.

From some principals, the possibility that the network structure might not survive into de Blasio’s tenure is a real concern, despite their drawbacks.

“I think that whoever is going to be in charge should be really mindful of not throwing the baby out with the bathwater,” said Donna Taylor, principal of the Brooklyn School for Inquiry, a citywide gifted school.

“Being able to go to a meeting and be able to walk into a room with 47 like-minded people means everything in the world to a principal and an [assistant principal],” Taylor added. “And without networks we wouldn’t have that. That’s big.”

Geoff Decker contributed reporting.

Parthenon’s complete report is below: