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Education | Expert Opinion

Cutting HISD's bloat isn't just about money. It's about time.

Bureaucratic timesucks are weighing down our teachers and principals.

By Vikas Mittal, originally published in the Houston Chronicle on Sept. 8, 2023.

Opinion by Professor Vikas Mittal

Acknowledging that “HISD’s central office has grown too much over the past decade,” Mike Miles, the new superintendent of Houston Independent School District, made his goals clear. “We’re cutting some of that bloat,” he said. Namely, by getting rid of 2,347 jobs in central administration, though only a couple hundred have been cut so far. 

Saving money by reducing administrative bloat may not be enough. HISD needs to begin the important work of taming what I call the “Whirlwind of Administrative Requirements” — W.A.R. — that burdens teachers and principals.

A 2013 analysis of public schools shows how fast their bureaucracies have grown: Between 1950 and 2009, they saw a 96% increase in students, a 252% increase in teachers and a 702% increase in administration.

HISD is no exception. In 2016, HISD was the largest school district in Texas with 28,267 employees serving 215,000 students. By 2022, HISD served only 189,943 students with 27,197 employees. Although HISD’s customer base shrank by 11.7%, its employee base only reduced by 3.8%. HISD lost customers three times faster than it reduced employees!

Of course, some administrative staff is needed to support students, teachers and principals.

But underperforming school districts become bloated with administrators — chiefs, chief officers, executive directors, deputy directors, deputy chiefs, support officers, to name a few. These well-meaning administrators naturally create administrative requirements — initiatives, trainings, meetings, mandatories, data-entry activities, small-group meetings, and myriad other processes. They believe that they’re helping the district.

In reality all those administrative requirements have the opposite effect. W.A.R. systematically crowds out the time teachers can spend on their primary responsibility — teaching. 

How much time are we talking about?

Since 2017, the Collaborative for Customer-Based Execution and Strategy has surveyed more than 4,300 employees at 53 organizations, including school districts. Employees describe how they spend their time at work. On average, employees spend only 34% of their time on the job they were actually hired to do.

Comments from the surveyed school-district employees reveal their plight.

“They are trying to eliminate…costs…but it seems like we keep adding administrative positions downtown. The salaries they are adding negate any savings.”

“District-wide strategy seems to be to use as much money as possible on programs that don't affect teachers or students in a positive way. In other words, wastes money.”

“A lot of people in higher positions make decisions without consulting those in the classroom.”

“Challenge: Spending less time documenting work that's been done.”

To win, HISD will need to go to war with W.A.R. How can HISD move in that direction? Ideally, teachers and principals should spend 75% or more of their time teaching, not only about a third.

The superintendent should lead a task force made up of teachers and principals to identify between 50 and 500 school-level activities stemming from W.A.R. and defer, pause, or eliminate them. I estimate that this alone could give back an additional 40% of teachers’ and principals’ time to teaching.

What could that mean for the district? Let’s say that HISD’s roughly 11,000 teachers and principals have an average salary of $60,000 (that’s a very low estimate) and can spend an additional 40% of their time teaching. That means that HISD would earn back roughly $260 million in freed-up time.

That could go a long way in the pursuit of academic excellence. The path ahead is difficult, but HISD is a treasured institution. Houstonians are rooting for its success.

Vikas Mittal is the J. Hugh Liedtke Professor of Marketing at Jones Graduate School of Business at Rice University. He is also the co-author of the 2021 book:FOCUS: How to Plan Strategy and Improve Execution to Achieve Growth.

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