Feature                                                      Pages 18-22


Re-imagining the

Central-Office Role

How do you find the “sweet spot” for working with school staffs on improving their instructional practices?


David Doty, a former superintendent, is a principal in the consulting firm Education Direction of Salt Lake City, Utah.

Sitting at the meeting table with seven central-office leaders, Susan paused in mid-sentence. “As we discuss the current improvement efforts in schools across the district, I see a fundamental challenge,” she stated. “We have been primarily focusing on providing resources for schools, right?

“Over the past few years we have delivered professional development opportunities and curricular materials, and scheduled common planning time to facilitate teacher collaboration. We are seeing strong results at some schools, but other schools seem almost buried under of the weight of these initiatives. Instead of thriving, they are stalling out.”

As the school district’s director of professional development, Susan was sincerely invested in this issue. “So, it occurs to me that instead of discussing the allocation of additional resources, perhaps we need to open a much bigger conversation about our role in supporting schools,” she added.

Having a bird’s-eye vantage point makes it easy to see what needs to be done on the ground. However, seeing the need doesn’t mean you know exactly how to address it. As district leaders consider their role in school improvement, they often have more clarity about the practices they want schools to adopt than they have about how to support adoption of those practices, resulting in fragmented implementation and minimal achievement gains.

This challenge is not a new one. It is common for school districts to struggle with finding the “sweet spot” of the central office’s role. While one can highlight many examples of individual schools that have made sustained gains in student achievement, it is more difficult to point to examples of systemic, districtwide improvement.

Customary Routes
In partnering with school districts to overcome this challenge, we have seen central offices use one of two traditional approaches to ignite school improvement.

In a site-based management district, the central office acts primarily as a resource provider. Schools are given the autonomy to use these resources to meet their buildings’ needs. Not surprisingly, results of this approach vary widely because the schools most in need of supports often are the least likely to use resources for needed change. When this occurs, disparities in performance increase across the district.

The second approach to school improvement can be equally problematic. In the top-down model, central-office teams mandate initiatives and common practices and demand compliance across all schools. When imposed rigidly, this one-size-fits-all approach does not provide the necessary elasticity for educators to address building-specific problems and needs. Furthermore, it undermines school ownership of changes — which is essential if improvements are to be embedded and sustained in daily practice.

These approaches and their shortcomings are evidence of the need to more critically examine and define the central office’s role in school improvement. What can central-office personnel do to most effectively promote improvement in teaching and learning at all district schools? How can improvement efforts leverage the expertise of both those within schools and at the central office?

We have explored these questions with several school districts undergoing systemic change and have learned some applicable lessons. Focusing on data-driven instruction, each of these districts has discovered that central-office teams can effectively drive improvement across all schools.

Inquiry-Based Efforts
After conducting comprehensive research, central-office leaders in Denver Public Schools discovered large gaps in the capacity of schools and departments to effectively use data to improve teaching and learning. Therefore, they embarked on a serious effort to create a districtwide vision for inquiry-based improvement.

First, the district, with more than 84,000 students, spent considerable time and effort identifying and adopting a data-driven inquiry cycle, a step-by-step process for using data. Second, Denver began to provide information about the inquiry cycle to schools and departments districtwide through dedicated websites, professional development and employee affinity groups.

Establishing this vision for data use is essential because an inquiry cycle provides a process for schools to examine data, to focus on identified needs, to examine those needs to understand their root causes and to create (and monitor the progress of) an action plan in response. The resulting instructional changes in each building then speak to the unique school context and the learning needs of its students and faculty, avoiding the shortcomings of the one-size-fits-all approach to improvement.

Building Inquiry Skills
Selecting and adopting an inquiry cycle are necessary but insufficient for districtwide school improvement. Attention also must be given to building the capacity of school staff so they can implement the cycle with expertise, ensuring the inquiry cycle guides the identification of specific learning needs and relevant instructional improvements.

The Chandler Unified School District, a 41,000-student district in the suburbs of Phoenix, Ariz., has invested heavily in professional development over the past three years to help educators become proficient at using data to guide their practice.

In particular, Chandler is ensuring each school not only understands the process but also has the capacity to implement each critical element of the inquiry cycle:

  • Focus on the instructional core, the intersection of content, the teacher and the student;
  • Target narrow, concrete problems and solutions that address a root cause;
  • Expand the definition of data to include student work and instructional practice;
  • Use protocols and norms to guide data analysis and meetings;
  • Involve the whole staff in decision making; and
  • Monitor progress continually.

Building these skills among teachers and principals requires sustained training that’s differentiated based on school needs and progress. Such efforts pay great dividends because when schools know they are being supported in the hard work of implementation, they are much more likely to own the work, engage in the process with fidelity and leverage district support effectively.

Coaching and Feedback
A third component of central-office leadership that leads to systemic school improvement is regular, meaningful coaching. No one would hand a paintbrush to a novice artist and expect him or her to create a masterpiece. Likewise, district leaders cannot simply identify an inquiry cycle, even in tandem with stellar professional development, and expect meaningful implementation immediately. Outstanding performance with school improvement tools comes only with mentoring and honest feedback.

Mentoring and coaching can take many forms and often need both internal (central office) and external (outside provider) support to ensure the right candor and tone. We have partnered with achievement and data coaches in the Evansville Vanderburgh School Corporation, a 22,000-student district in southern Indiana, to provide team coaching sessions to all 37 schools four times annually. These coaching sessions, which focus on each school’s improvement plan, are specifically designed to give school teams honest, robust feedback on everything from evidence-based instructional strategies to implementation challenges related to their plan.

Most importantly, these sessions provide the foundation for follow-up performance management sessions with the superintendent, where the principal explains the school’s improvement efforts and the progress (or lack thereof) being made. The Evansville Vanderburgh superintendent, David B. Smith, Deputy Superintendent Susan McDowell-Riley and their senior staff use these sessions not only for accountability but also to understand the supports and resources schools may need to succeed. In doing so, the central office is better equipped to allocate resources to areas of greatest need.

Targeting Resources
When central-office leaders ground their vision for improvement in data-driven inquiry, they reverse the way the district identifies and allocates resources. This is particularly true when district leaders provide targeted support, rather than punishment, for schools that struggle to meet established district achievement goals.

Trent Kaufman

The 33,000-student Canyons School District in Sandy, Utah, illustrates how data-driven inquiry appropriately flips the discussion from strict accountability to need-based support. In 2008, Canyons’ superintendent and school board collaboratively adopted non-negotiable achievement goals based on college-readiness benchmarks. The district office also implemented curriculum-based measures to help K-8 schools gather formative data, and in collaboration with schools, adopted standards-based report cards, so all teachers are working toward students’ grade-level proficiency.

After two years of employing these tools and strategies, the data demonstrated a discouraging lack of improvement in one middle school, especially in math and science. Based on summative data, as well as formative data gathered by teachers, district leaders partnered with the principal to develop a unique curricular approach to STEM courses, with an emphasis on 1:1 technology, which the board enthusiastically funded upon seeing the need.

When the central-office support comes in response to the needs a school identifies through inquiry, the relationship between district administration and school-based staff improves markedly and raises the likelihood of producing real achievement gains. Schools notice when district resources speak directly to their highest needs, making site-based leaders more likely to leverage those resources effectively.

A Starting Point
While the practices we’ve described are straightforward in theory, their adoption will require focused and deliberate attention. Changing practices, particularly those embedded in years or decades of interactions, challenges teams at any level of an organization.

Begin with choosing an inquiry cycle. A data-driven inquiry cycle creates the foundation for all of these practices. However, adopting a cycle is just the first step on the path. Think through the process regularly. Effective implementation will affect the daily work of the central office.

Conversations about central-office improvement often focus on roles and departments, but our experience has demonstrated the importance of parallel attention to the central-office teams’ daily practices and processes. Successful implementation of districtwide improvement practices requires a fundamental shift in the way the central office supports improvement efforts at scale. n

Trent Kaufman is CEO of Education Direction in Salt Lake City, Utah. E-mail: tkaufman@eddirection.com. Twitter: @TrentKaufman. Emily Dolci Grimm and David Doty, a former superintendent, are both principals with the consulting firm. Kaufman and Grimm are co-authors of Collaborative School Improvement: Eight Practices for District-School Partnerships to Transform Teaching and Learning. 


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