Seattle Panel Demonstrates a Shift in Central-Office Priorities

by Melissa Gibson

Focusing the full attention of the central office on teaching and learning was the topic of a Thought Leader session, sponsored by the Wallace Foundation, on Thursday morning.

Panelists shared their own experiences and perspectives about this work in a presentation that was moderated by Richard Laine, director of the foundation’s education programs. The panel consisted of two top leaders of the Seattle Public Schools — Superintendent Maria Goodloe-Johnson and Chief Academic Officer Susan Enfield — and Meredith Honig, associate professor of educational leadership and policy studies at the University of Washington.

Honig summarized key research findings on the link between student learning and education leadership based on a study conducted between 2007 and 2009 on three urban school districts that she said are “getting it right.” She asserted that these school districts — Atlanta, Ga., Oakland, Calif., and Seattle, Wash. — have re-worked their existing central-office systems to more effectively support principals as instructional leaders. Honig said this is critical to ensuring increased student learning and achievement.

Goodloe-Johnson, who became superintendent in Seattle in 2007, said at the time she came on board few systems existed in critical areas, including instruction. One of her first priorities was putting systems in place and creating a culture in the central office that placed greater emphasis on support the work of principals.

“If we aren’t adding value to teachers and principals,” Goodloe-Johnson said, “then central offices shouldn’t exist.”

Enfield, the chief academic officer, said the work of supporting site leaders in Seattle meant a shift in priorities for central-office staff, who needed to focus primarily on school needs. District executive directors who previously spent most of their time at the central office now spend about 70 percent of their time in schools observing and interacting with principals. This face time, Enfield said, is key to deeply understanding student performance issues and making improvements.

Such significant systems and cultural changes can’t be without difficulty, pointed out Laine.

Goodloe-Johnson acknowledged that the work is both transforming and challenging, and “not for the faint of heart.”

When asked what Seattle principals might say are the best and worst aspects of the changes, Enfield said she thought principals appreciated the increased frequency and depth of contact with their executive directors. She added she believed some principals struggled with the tougher and more demanding accountability system.

Added the superintendent: “We do not have the district culture of coasting by any longer.”

To school districts looking at making similar changes and investing more directly in building site-based leaders, the panelists had some words of advice. Enfield stated that districts need to know that transformative work is difficult and that they should be open to learning and changing course as they go along. Goodloe-Johnson added that having an outside partner to help strategize and develop a game plan is also critical. The Seattle Public School District partnered with the University of Washington.

Both Goodloe-Johnson and Enfield agreed that being mission-driven and investing time and resources in the most critical elements of a district’s mission also have been important to their success.

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