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New Year’s Resolutions: Chocolate or Broccoli?

Every New Year, I pledge to give up something that I love but that does not contribute to making me a healthy, happy person.  Last year was chocolate (successful!), this year potato chips (I am not so sure…).  My nephew participates with me in this annual tradition. Typical of a twelve year old, he tends to give up something that he dislikes but is good for him.  Last year, mowing the lawn (not surprisingly, successful), this year broccoli (not if his mother has anything to do with it!).

Unfortunately, the new year is bringing a grave revenue outlook for school districts around the country, with reports of potential budget cuts of anywhere from $60 million (Boston) to $100 million (Charlotte-Mecklenburg.  It looks like most school districts are going to have to pledge to give up something for the New Year (as well as potentially for a few more new years to come).  As I work with districts, I am encouraging them to give up something that they (or their community, unions and politicians) might love, but that research tells us does not contribute to student achievement, rather than something that is politically unpopular but does contribute to student achievement.

On the usual list of things to give up, the “central office” is a relatively easy target, viewed as the heavy and filled with bureaucratic bloat. Preserve all school spending is the cost cutting mantra. 

This approach overlooks two important considerations. First, it is unlikely that districts will be able to find the magnitude of the cuts necessary in central function spending – as this has already been the go-to solution year after year.  To find cuts of the magnitude required by the current fiscal situation, districts will need to tackle deep structural cost issues around school resource uses and in compensation structures. Second, when organized efficiently and effectively, the central office can play an essential role in supporting school improvement.  In fact, sustained and even increased investment is required for functions that directly support teaching and learning, including curriculum and instruction, human capital, accountability and professional development.

The December 2010 issue of The School Administrator focuses on the critical role of the Central Office in raising schools’ capacity to lift academics.  Included in this issue is an article that I have authored that provides more details about how to think about central office spending, including ways to measure and benchmark spending as well as thinking about investments for the future.

What will your resolution be this year….chocolate or broccoli? 


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