School district leaders have reformed their central offices as part of broader changes to help all students meet high performance marks since at least the advent of standards-based reform in the 1980s.
The focus on central-office reform is on the right track. After all, student learning typically deepens at single schools or across school systems only with substantive support from the central office. Yet 30 years into the standards movement, persistent achievement shortfalls and gaps in student learning suggest these central-office reforms have made limited contributions to realizing the ambitious goals. What’s going wrong?
Michael Copland and Meredith Honig collaborated on a recent study, "Central Office Transformation for Districtwide Teaching and Learning Improvement." Photo by Mary Levin/University of Washington
The problem lies in school districts’ prevailing approach to central-office change. When district leaders change their central operations, they usually pursue structural changes — reorganizing departments, reassigning staff members and realigning supervisory responsibilities. However, structural changes are not enough to support systemic improvements in teaching and learning.
Consider the central-office restructuring efforts that charged administrators with supporting curricular reforms in the San Diego Public Schools in the 1990s. According to the 2006 book Reform as Learning: School Reform, Organizational Culture, and Community Politics in San Diego by Lea Hubbard, Hugh Mehan and Mary Kay Stein, the changes provided some support for implementing reforms at the school level, but rewritten central-office job descriptions failed to improve central-office support for better teaching and learning.
As the authors report, San Diego’s reforms redefined the roles of central-office leaders who worked directly with principals: Their focus shifted from operational issues to instructional support. Yet, as reforms played out, it became clear central-office leaders often lacked the technical capacity to work differently. The reforms also bumped up against long-standing cultural norms that defined the work of the central office as operational, not instructional, and didn’t adequately anticipate the support central administrators needed to make the transition to being instructional leaders for principals.
Matters of Practice
For central offices to become full partners with schools in improving teaching and learning, simply defining new roles or creating new reporting structures isn’t enough. Through our recent central-office research, we’ve confirmed that creating the conditions for improved teaching and learning districtwide demands new practices within central offices — fundamental shifts in how central-office administrators go about their daily work with principals and teachers.
So what practices did we find matter most? From 2007-08, we studied how district leaders in Atlanta, Ga., Oakland, Calif., and New York City’s Empowerment Schools Organization radically shifted how central-office administrators helped schools build their capacity for effective instruction. Their efforts amounted to a transformation of the central office.
We drew on the experiences of these school districts to identify five new lines of work that we associated with creating conditions that supported principals’ instructional leadership. Considered together, these lines of work constitute a new definition of central-office leadership for learning.
No. 1: Each district dedicated a cadre of central-office administrators to assist principals intensively in their schools and in networks to strengthen the principals’ instructional leadership. In so doing, the districts focused on developing the instructional leadership capacity of principals to leverage improvements in classroom instruction. Many of the district administrators we studied who worked with principals and principal networks describe this new assistance work as helping principals shift their main work from responding to the urgent problems that are always present (such as student discipline) to work that helps teachers improve their instructional practices.
One central-office administrator we studied characterized this challenging work with principals this way: “Taking a principal who has not spent time in their classrooms and getting them to shift their focus takes a lot of … intentional work. And then to be able to maintain that focus in a culture where [teachers] are used to … keeping [the principal] in an office to deal with this one [student] all day — that’s a whole other level of work … And then helping [principals] to prioritize their time so that they do spend their time on the core business in the areas that matter the most.”
When these central-office administrators actually created conditions supportive of principals’ instructional leadership, their practices resembled those of master classroom teachers, leading us to conclude that when these administrators function at a high level they are master teachers of principals’ instructional leadership. This work is a far cry from the usual role of central administrators. Traditionally, central-office administrators have not engaged in direct assistance for principals’ instructional leadership; they sometimes contracted out for this support. The school districts we studied recognized this work was so important they made it a main line of work for people in their central offices.
As we’ve helped districts of various sizes with their central-office transformation efforts, we’ve reinforced the message that, no matter whether a district is large or small, someone in the central office needs to be directly responsible for principal support. Job-embedded assistance designed to help principals continuously improve as instructional leaders is central to overall system improvement and therefore absolutely critical central-office work.
No. 2: Districts provided specific, intentional supports for the people who assisted principals, aimed at making their partnership work with principals most effective. Primary among these supports were professional development opportunities that helped the central-office staff improve their own practice at assisting principals. Intuition might suggest that central-office leaders who had been successful principals would know what to do to support principals’ growth as instructional leaders. Our examination reveals that even former expert principals need intensive supports on how to bolster principals’ professional skills.
For example, when we recently presented our research results in a small, Midwestern school district, a central-office administrator responsible for assisting principals explained she had served as a principal for 15 years in the same district and regularly complained over those years that her central-office supervisor rarely showed up in her school, even just to touch base or say hello. Yet in the three years since becoming a central-office administrator, she finds it virtually impossible to get into schools because of various competing demands, and she is not sure what she should be doing in schools or with her principals when she is there.
This administrator’s confusion about her new support role should not be surprising given the lack of formal training that central office administrators receive. (If you have ever conducted a Google search on professional development for central-office administrators, you’d know virtually nothing comes up.) Central offices have not traditionally invested in the development of their own staff, but the experiences of the three districts we studied reveal how such investments are essential to transforming central-office work practices.
No. 3: In addition to setting up and supporting partnerships between key central-office staff and principals, districts worked on how the rest of the central office supported those partnerships. Unfortunately, inefficiencies in the practices of other central-office staff, including those in human resources and finance, significantly hamper principals’ instructional leadership efforts. The three school districts demonstrated the importance of not just setting up and supporting the partnerships with principals but of shifting the work practices of all other central staff to improve teaching and learning.
For example, central-office administrators in our study personalized their services to schools through what we called a “case management” approach, working closely with individual schools to understand their needs and to identify barriers to teaching and learning improvement and addressing those barriers. The leadership in all three systems we studied sometimes referred to such changes as bringing a “customer service” orientation to the central office. But, as one central-office administrator put it: “It’s not some touchy, feely thing … [P]eople think customer service training is like, ‘Oh, let’s be all nice to each other’… but it’s not. It’s about learning about the dynamics of what it means to be a customer and then how you keep that customer.”
This person went on to explain that customer service was not just about being nice to people on the other end of the phone. It was about actually providing a higher-quality service based on knowledge of schools’ needs.
No. 4: We found key leaders in the central office acted as stewards — communicating to various constituencies why the central office needed to be transformed and what the changes involved. Leaders who are stewards to central-office transformation engage in at least three practices. First, they develop a clear theory of action that outlines what the central office will do to support improvement, including a rationale for why those actions are the right actions. The strategies should tie directly to support for principal leadership and teaching improvement, and leaders ought to be able to articulate this connection clearly.
Second, stewards continually adapt their theories of action for how the central office can better support schools, based on evidence of progress. Strategies designed to work for the system today will need ongoing adjustments based on learning from what happens in doing that work over time.
Finally, stewards put the work of central-office transformation in the forefront of all communication and, in particular, continue to communicate how and why the central office matters to teaching and learning improvement efforts.
Putting these research-based ideas into action, the superintendent of a small, rural district in southwest Idaho developed a theory of action for transforming her central office to connect her work and the work of others in the central office to improving teaching and learning. This theory of action differed from strategic plans of the past in its clear focus on academic improvement and an explicit rationale for how this focus guided the work of the central office. The superintendent then clearly communicated about the work in back-to-school meetings with staff as well as through e-mail, announcements and frequent personal, one-on-one visits with staff members in the 2,400-student district. She shared her own recent learning from professional development activities and how it was affecting the way she thought and acted to support schools.
Further, the superintendent made a point to frequently ask for feedback on her own work from constituents, whether she believed the responses were going to be favorable or not. Routine attention to the role she and others played in supporting teaching and learning, relayed in part through communication strategies, helped her staff and others understand how they needed to change their work practices and actually engage in those changes.
No. 5: Central offices that support teaching and learning improvement gather and use evidence to continually improve central-office work practices and relationships with schools. Thanks to No Child Left Behind and related reforms, district administrators are typically awash in data. What was different in these systems was that central-office staff not only generated data and other forms of evidence but also used it to inform their ongoing improvements in central-office practice. Evidence from their own experience with reform proved a valuable means for assessing progress over time.
One central office leader described how her district’s superintendent used evidence intentionally gathered from regular meetings with principals to shape ongoing improvements in the practice of human resources specialists assigned to serve specific schools in the system. She said: “When [the superintendent] meets with those principals and they bring it to her attention that maybe [one department] is creating a barrier for them…. the [department] person was able to hear that and she went back and really worked with her department, reorganized the entire department so that they could be closer to the…schools.”
Our recent study suggests central-office transformation is not just another stab at restructuring the school district central administration. Rather, central-office transformation involves the improvement of daily practices of all central-office staff as a means to improve teaching and learning districtwide. These practices begin with the provision of targeted and specific assistance for principals’ growth as instructional leaders and include efforts to provide professional development support to those who directly support principals.
Central-office practices that support teaching and learning stretch across the entire central office, influencing changes in the work of all district-level staff, not just those who provide direct assistance to principals.
Further, the work requires stewardship from central-office leaders that both sets the course for change and communicates with constituents about the progress toward systemic improvements.
Finally, the work involves evidence gathering, analysis and use that informs ongoing adjustments to central office practices designed to support teaching and learning improvement. Taken together, these practices constitute a crucial new set of reforms that central-office leaders need to consider alongside existing school-focused efforts to improve teaching and learning.
Michael Copland is chair and associate professor in educational leadership and policy studies at University of Washington in Seattle. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org. Meredith Honig is an associate professor of educational leadership and policy studies at University of Washington. Their article is based on a Wallace Foundation study, “Central Office Transformation for Districtwide Teaching and Learning Improvement.”