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School Leadership and Educational Governance: On Silos and Onions

2009leadershipday02[NOTE: thanks to Scott McLeod for dreaming up this idea three years ago.  This is my contribution to Leadership Day 2009.  The Leadership posts I've already seen are great, and the collection of posts will ultimately make for an important and interesting contribution to the field of educational leadership.]

I have a doctorate in Politics and Education and when I’m asked what that means, I usually speak to a definition of politics I’ve “borrowed” (re-mixed?) from an adjunct professor with whom I took a course while in graduate school.  Dr. Dale Snauwaert, an adjunct professor at TC at the time, wrote about politics as the intersection of power and justice.  Combining my interests in the politics of education and educational technology, I’ve written much about justice and educational technology (see e.g. this article).  I have not, however, written much about power and educational technology…until now.

In my courses on the politics of education, I guide our exploration of power with two questions: (1) who has power? and (2) how is power organized/distributed?  Much has been written about who has power in the area of educational technology, though there’s more that needs to be written.  Today, though, I explore what I believe to be a major obstacle to school reform through the lens of educational technology: how power is distributed around educational technology.

Educational governance is ultimately about control and how that control is (or is not) partitioned among the various stakeholders matters immensely. I argue that in education, the system is multi-layered and overly partitioned.  I compare our educational system to onions and silos.

“The way authority is structured and exercised shapes the intellectual and moral character of the school, thereby profoundly influencing student development” (Snauwaert, 1993).



The U.S. education system is like an onion in that it has many levels and the more you try to peel away at those layers, the more you start to tear up.

Policy decisions are made by federal, state, and local education agencies.  Even locally, decisions are made at the district, school, department and classroom level.

In addition to aiding or hindering quality education, there are many consequences to the multilayered system, including the phenomenon of mutual adaptation (which I’ve written about here).  As McLaughlin wrote in an article in 1990 about school reform, “…it is exceedingly difficult for policy to change practice, especially across levels of government” (p. 12).

I was reminded of the onion last week at NECC, and my reflections from the conference reinforced my thinking.  The largest ed. tech. conference in the U.S. is nearly entirely classroom-focused and the conversations are nearly totally absent of policy context.  Yet, alongside NECC proper, SETDA (the umbrella organization of state education technology officers) was holding their Emerging Technologies Forum & Annual Convocation.  There was some overlap between the two events, but from my perspective, the state-level policy makers were meeting in parallel with the school and district-level folks at NECC.  Similarly, shortly after NECC, the Education Commission of the States held their annual National Forum on Educational Policy.

This sort of parellel play doesn’t advance anyone’s cause.



Even within the same levels of decision making in education, we have a serious silo problem.  Like policymakers across levels of governance, educators within any given level exist and work within separate silos; i.e. they play in parellel.  Think of all the silos: subjects, grades, departments, etc.

One silo problem that is particularly problematic is the curriculum vs. technology distinction.  I’ve long wanted to do an examination of school district organizational charts to see how technology is related to curriculum.  I know that in some districts, they are separate departments, each with its own director.  In some districts, there is an IT department (hardware, networking, etc.) that is separate from the instructional technology folks who may or may not live/exist under the direction of the curriculum folks.

I used to do evaluation research for education technology vendors who would often tell me stories about the “curriculum witch.”  They would usually pitch their solution(s) to the technology department and come very close to making a sale only to have the “curriculum witch” show up at the 11th hour and declare the program/software/etc. inconsistent with the curriculum goals of the district.  I’m certain there has been wasteful spending across numerous districts because the “curriculum witch” never did intervene.

In Virginia, our ISTE affiliate is VSTE.  They recently moved their annual conference to an early December date.  In fact, their conference is November 30-December 2.  From December 2-December 4 is the annual conference of VAASCD, the Virginia affiliate of ASCD.  That organization is focused mostly on issues of curriculum and professional development.  That these conferences are back-to-back in different parts of the state makes it nearly impossible for anyone (myself included) to be able to attend both.  So, the technology people will meet with the technology people and the teaching/curriculum people will meet amongst themselves.  I know people who I respect greatly that lead each of these organizations and I’m not at all blaming anyone for this situation.  I’m only pointing this out as a situation that reinforces the silo problem about which I am writing.

I could go on, but I need to bring this around to Leadership Day 2009.  For me, true school reform will not happen until leaders at all levels and across the many silos get together to think about governance arrangements. Especially at a time when collaboration and communication are easier than ever, we need to work together across levels of government and annihilate the silos in our education agencies.  Tha t is a huge leadership challenge.

“The real work of learning happens in the classroom, in the interaction between teacher and student.  This interaction is affected by innumerable large and small decisions made by principals, school boards, superintendents, state legislatures, education department officials, and the federal government.  These decisions and their implementation can either aid or hinder quality education in the classroom.” (Committee for Economic Development, 1994, p. 2)

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8 Responses to “School Leadership and Educational Governance: On Silos and Onions”

  1. [...] projects this year, NOT just parallel play ones. I want my leadership, at all levels, to reduce the silos and the parallel play in which they engage, as [...]

  2. Sean Nash says:

    The conference substory here is unfortunate. I’m wondering how much long term misunderstanding will be the result of such an accidental juxtaposition of conferences. I wonder how many, if any, will cross-attend. I can’t imagine that most folks could be away from the “office” for that long of a stretch. Connected leaders can work while away, but face time is invaluable.

    In regard to “silos,” I agree. I hinted at the importance of having C&I come together with technology and building administrators in my post from yesterday. I too, would like to study the charts you speak of to get a look at how this “power” is truly split up (or not) across districts.

    I’m curious, what might your ideal “power distribution chart” look like for a school district? That would be a good group planning exercise for a leadership group looking toward change.

  3. Rob Jacobs says:

    Silos, as you explain, are so problematic. The lack of cognitive diversity creates a myriad of problems, including communication, vision, goals, etc.

    I wish educational leaders spent some time on figuring how to organizationally and philosophically integrate/align their staff, departments, etc.

    This “onion” makes me want to cry sometimes.

  4. Jon Becker says:

    Sean, the conference substory is indeed unfortunate. It’s a problem all over the place. AASA is the national conference for superintendents. ASCD is for curriculum and PD people. NASSP is for secondary principals. NAESP is for elementary principals. We need more conference focused on learning where the idea is for schools/districts to send teams of folks including teachers and administrators.

    As for the “ideal” organizational chart, that remains an empirical question for me. I am watching with note what happens with @ddraper and @canyonsdave as they launch their new school district. Darren blogged about his organizational chart ( and at the time I noted how they were/are separate from the curriculum folks. We’ll see what happens there.

    Rob, I do wonder how often, if at all, educational leaders step up to the proverbial balcony and take a look at their organization.

  5. [...] a big part of me has also tried to wrap my head around the idea of power structures and how they affect our students. At the end of the day, whether principal, teacher, janitor, or paraprofessional, we have to move [...]

  6. I believe we educators perpetuate the silos by having “technology” conferences at all. Rather than continuing the misperception of tech as a separate content area, why not have it as a major emphasis within curriculum conferences? (I know. Would take a major cognitive shift.) Even our titles in the system perpetuate the division. I am a “technology” specialist for mathematics and science coaches. When I worked at SCDOE several years ago, the curriculum division and technology division were on separate floors and are still so today–as in our 85 school districts. When computers were put in a “lab” and students went down the hall to “do technology”–as still done in may schools–we were really shooting ourselves in the foot as they say–and turning this ship will take collective, strong leadership in all systemic areas. Perhaps it can begin to turn with the your ideas to reorganize the system. Thanks for the provocative post.

  7. Mary Warren says:

    I agree with Shirley. Why separate the ‘tech’ conference from the curriculum one? We techs sometimes perpetuate the problem. We so love our conferences, however, at the same time, wish these events could attract more teachers. I do believe if one were to look at the numbers attending NECC, we would find that the ‘teacher’ quality is increasing in attendance figures.
    As far as some of the previous comments on leadership, etc. I have often invited districts to send ‘teams’ made up of teachers, parents, administrators, etc. This to provide for diversity as well as collaboration of content to my events. But, most often the ‘team’ spirit fails to show up!
    Thank you for the most interesting blog topics. Keep ‘em comin’.

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