Monday, January 11, 2016

Revisiting Span Of Control At SMHS

Back in 2012 when this issue first arose I wrote a piece on the subject of whether Southbridge Middle/High School should have one or two principals.Tuesday night's meeting of the Southbridge School Committee will once again address this issue.

Interim Superintendent Timothy Connors will recommend operating the middle/high school as two separate facilities in one building according to the Worcester Telegram.

The core issue is whether Southbridge Middle/High School will have one principal with oversight of the entire school or two independent principals – one for the Middle School and one for the High School.That is, which administrative model, one or two principals, makes the most sense from a management standpoint?

As I see it, the fundamental issue is a management principle termed span of control.

Span of control is a dimension of organizational design measured by the number of subordinates that report directly to a given manager. This concept affects organization design in a variety of ways, including speed of communication flow, employee motivation, reporting relationships, and administrative overhead.

There are a number of factors that come into play in determining an appropriate span of control for a given manager:

1.      Job complexity. Subordinate jobs that are complex, ambiguous, dynamic or otherwise complicated will likely require more management involvement and a narrower span of management.
2.      Responsibilities of the manager beyond oversight of subordinates. Such factors are membership on boards and committees, responsibilities to extra-organizational constituencies and volume of reporting requirements.
3.      Similarity of subordinate jobs. The more similar and routine the tasks that subordinates are performing, the easier it is for a manager to supervise employees and the wider the span of management that will likely be effective.
4.      Physical proximity of subordinates. The more geographically dispersed a group of subordinates the more difficult it is for a manager to be in regular contact with them and the fewer employees a manager could reasonably oversee, resulting in a narrower span of management.
5.      Abilities of employees. Managers who supervise employees that lack ability, motivation, or confidence will have to spend more time with each employee. The result will be that the manager cannot supervise as many employees and would be most effective with a narrower span of management.
6.      Abilities of the manager. Some managers are better organized, better at explaining things to subordinates, and more efficient in performing their jobs. Such managers can function effectively with a wider span of management than a less skilled manager.
7.      Technology. Cell phones, email, and other forms of technology that facilitate communication and the exchange of information make it possible for managers to increase their spans of management over managers who do not have access to or who are unable to use the technology.

For the purposes of our considerations, the most relevant of these are the first two.

The Superintendent of the Southbridge School System currently directly oversees 4 school principals, a business manager, a director of pupil personnel services & special education, a director of teaching &learning and a director of technology.

In addition he has demands on his time from the school committee and a wide variety of stakeholder constituencies as well as school and civic functions.

Thus the most compelling argument that favors the one principal position is that it would maintain one element in a span of control that otherwise exceeds usual expectations for optimal performance.

Second, there is the realistic factor that, while the Middle/High School encompasses two distinctly different academic cultures, it is housed in one building. The two academic frameworks can be amply accommodated by the proposal for two subordinate deans reporting to the principal. What cannot be handled reasonably by two principals is the day to day management of a single physical plant that embodies a substantial public investment.

A final factor to be considered is the additional complexity that will arise in the coming months with newly mandated requirements for evaluation of professional personnel at all levels from teachers through the superintendent using Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education prescribed instruments as mandated under 603 CMR 35.00.

This mandate will add substantially to the workload of management personnel at all levels.

In addition to the above, I undertook a survey of miidle/high schools in Massachusetts. I succeeded in finding thirteen (there may be more). As the following list illustrates, every one has only one principal:

Georgetown Middle/High School 1 Peter Lucia

Avon Middle High School 1 Elizabeth York

Manchester Essex Regional Middle High School 1 Patricia Puglisi

West Boylston Middle High School 1 Christopher Fournier

Mashpee Middle/High School 1 Mark L. Balestracci

Carver Middle High School 1 Scott Knief

Lee Middle and High School 1 Gregg M. Brighenti

Lenox Memorial Middle and High School 1 Michael Knybel

Hoosac Valley Middle and High School 1 Jeremiah Ames

Quaboag Middle High School 1 Mary LaFreniere

Holbrook Junior - Senior High School 1 Dr. Mary Ann DeMello

Tahanto Regional Middle/High School 1 Diane Tucceri

West Bridgewater Middle-Senior High School 1 Mark Bodwell

Given these factors, I am convinced that the current single principal at Southbridge Middle/High School is based upon sound organizational and managerial considerations and I recommend maintaining it.


  1. Mr. O'Brien makes a logical case but the pink elephant in the room was ignored. The High School is the worst performing comprehensive high school in the state. That makes ordinary logic open for re-consideration. If the thirteen middle high schools with one principal (there could be more) are all succeeding then there is no reason to add a new executive salary to the payroll in those communities.

    However, the Southbridge Middle High School is not succeeding so considering different approaches is imperative. I also think veteran educator Mr. Connors is more objective and informed when he makes the suggestion then a school committee member might be, so that adds credibility. It will be interesting to see what a Receiver might decide to do about this issue.

    1. If this had any bearing on the matter we would expect all (or at least most) of these schools to be underperforming. As it is, they are all Level I or II with the exception of Hoosac Valley which is Level III.

  2. In the evaluation of the schools mentioned, it is important to look at the demographics (Something that the state refuses to recognize except in the statistical analysis and breakdown of the MCAS scores). What is the median income, percentages of minorities, special education, and students who qualify for free or reduced lunch? Once those figures are compared to the Southbridge Public Schools we can determine the educational model that is most appropriate.

    1. Assuming that an analysis such as you indicate does dictate some difference in the establishment of an educational paradigm, what are the consequences? You currently have a district where the bulk of the highest potential portion of the available students are going elsewhere through the school choice option. You would thus establish a paradigm that caters to a lower potential population (assuming there is a difference ). Consequently, if the new system succeeds, you end up perpetuating a model that rewards the underperforming segment of the population while maintaining the incentive for the rest to move out of the district.

    2. Part I.

      In looking at the management model of a school it is important to look at the demographics of the current population of the school. The current demographics of the Southbridge public schools is that it has a high minority population; high free or reduced lunch population (indication of a high poverty rate); high special education population; and a high English Language Learners population. However, you cannot use the variable of the students who have opted out of the district through school choice as a factor in improving the achievement of the current population. When addressing reforms that need to be used to improve the achievement of the students in the Southbridge Public Schools you have to focus on the students who sit in the desks not the ones who you wish were in the classroom.
      One key factor in increasing student achievement and decreasing behavioral problems is class size. The issue of class size and its benefits are highly debated. This debate usually centers on the financial cost of reducing the student to teacher ratio. One side will tout that the gains are minimal citing studies that examine a general population that reflect the national average population figures ( 75 % white, 12% African American, 12 % Hispanic ( ) which do not correspond to the racial demographics of the Southbridge Public Schools ( 43% White and 53% Hispanic, ( ))We need to look at management and educational studies that address Southbridge Schools’ specific populations.
      Below are excerpts from studies and articles that address the class size debate in high minority populations concerning student achievement and behavioral issues:
      “There are significantly larger (by two to three times) effects for minority students, a finding replicated by Krueger (1999) (although the overall effects are smaller).23 One way to think about whether from a policy perspective the effect for minority students is a large or small difference is to consider that the typical gap observed in achievement between minority and non-minority students on most standardized tests is about one full standard deviation. “ ( ; page 1)

      “Moreover, the great majority of highly segregated ethnic minority schools are located in urban pockets of concentrated poverty, which puts their students at greater risk for poor academic outcomes. High minority, low-income schools have fewer resources, fewer credentialed teachers, higher student-teacher ratios, and larger class sizes, to name just a few factors that contribute to the achievement gap. By some estimations, the increases in high minority schools over the past 30 years accounts for as much as a 60% increase in the Black-White mathematics achievement gap (Berends & Peñaloza, 2008) ( ; p 61)”

    3. Part II

      “Also, class size reduction is one of very few educational interventions that have been proven to narrow the achievement gap, with students from poor and minority backgrounds experiencing twice the gains as the average student. While many of the high-achieving charter schools, such as the Icahn charter schools in the Bronx, and those highly celebrated such as Harlem Children’s Zone, cap class sizes at 18 or less, class sizes in our inner-city public schools continue to grow.
      As a recent issue brief on the achievement gap from the Educational Testing Service pointed out, schools having high numbers of minority students are more likely to feature large classes of 25 students or more, with the class size gap between high-minority schools and low-minority schools larger over time. Don’t we have a moral obligation to provide equitable opportunities to all children?” (
      “On the other hand, bad behavior in the classroom by middle and high school students is commonplace and escalating. Because one of the benefits of smaller class size is fewer discipline problems, it would seem that smaller classes would be an advantage in middle and high schools as well as in grade schools. Also, graduation rates, particularly in urban districts, are far too low. It would also seem that a student who is thinking about dropping out or having trouble fulfilling the requirements for graduation would greatly benefit from the additional individual attention from the teacher that smaller classes allow.
      … Irrespective of the teaching methods, however, students in the study continued to perform better in the smaller classes. Thus, students may benefit from smaller classes no matter what teaching methods are used by the teachers. Like the earlier studies, the study also found that children in smaller classes were better behaved and concentrated longer than other students. The students in smaller classes also have more direct interactions with the teacher and work more in groups that alone.”
      ( )
      In conclusion, it is not a shift in an educational paradigm to design an educational management / leadership model to address the problems in the Southbridge Public Schools it is however a shift in how the district views its educational management / leadership and teaching practices. And, the bottom line is that the district has failed to adequately serve the students who actually fill its classrooms. (As a side note: One would expect that if the achievement of the current students were increased and the behavioral issues were decreased less parents would opt for school choice because improving the achievements of the current students would also benefit students whose parents have opted out.) (Sorry for any spelling or grammatical errors because this reply was quickly done and there was no one to proofread it.)

  3. Side Note:

    I feel that if the class sizes at the SMHS were reduced to no more that 15 students we would see a drastic increase in student achievement and a decrease in behavioral problems. In this reform it is important to note that having aids in the classroom does not reduce the teacher to student ratio. There are studies that address that issue. The certified teacher to student ratio must be below 1 : 15. (Not an average class size for the district. It must be attained in each and every classroom in the district.)

    1. You accept the material presented as gospel. The reality is that there is substantial difference of opinion over the class size issue, particularly at the marginal level that you discuss (i.e. 15 v 18). Many of the class size arguments are presented by advocates of the teachers' union. The reality is that there is little likelihood that Southbridge will cough up the money to fund such a proposal. Whatever the case, this is distinct from the issue as to whether we should adopt a plan to divide the middle/high and place a second principal there.

  4. Actually I have spent many years in the classroom in an urban district and can speak from experience on the matter of class size but I did not want to use anecdotal evidence and arguments when there are reliable studies on the issue.


All comments subject to moderation. All commenters must use their own name or a screen name. No comments labelled as "Anonymous" will be published. To use your name or a screen name select "Name/URL" from the drop down menu. Insert you name in the "Name" space and leave the "URL" space blank.