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May 2009  |  Return to issue home

Honig Highlights 'No Small' School Initiative Challenges

The University of Washington College of Education Policymakers Exchange Forum is a series of meetings focused on current challenges in urban education policy. Co-sponsored by the College of Education and the Daniel J. Evans School of Public Affairs, participants include, among others, local district superintendents and school board members, foundation officers, business leaders, and state and local policymakers. At meetings of the Exchange, attendees learn about the latest in educational research and practice and discuss what the implications are for schools in this state and the nation.

At the January 2009 Policymaker’s Exchange Forum, Meredith Honig, assistant professor in the Educational Leadership & Policy Studies area of the College of Education, gave a presentation titled, No Small Thing: Urban School District Central Office Leadership for New Small Autonomous School Initiatives. As Dr. Honig explained, new small autonomous schools initiatives have proliferated in urban districts across the country. These initiatives build on research and practice that shows schools that are new, small and have meaningful discretion over their work can create conditions important for strengthening teaching and learning. However, schools tend to struggle with implementing these promising reforms absent support from their central offices. Honig found that, "central office administrators who aim to provide such supports are essentially building the plane while flying it. Plenty of research shows how central offices curb these reforms but not what they do when they enable them." Across the country, central office administrators are inventing new, promising ways of supporting school improvement. But traditionally, funders and researchers have focused mainly on supporting and understanding school change. “Our field generally has not shined a meaningful light on the day-to-day work of central office adminitrators and how it matters to what schools do. If we are serious about improving teaching and learning for all students its clear that we need to focus not just on what individual schools need to do but on how whole educational systems—schools, central offices, and communities—matter to realizing those outcomes.”

Honig’s presentation summarized an in-depth, three-year study of how central office administrators participated in the implementation of new small autonomous schools initiatives in Chicago Public Schools and Oakland Unified School District (CA). She described how district leaders enabled implementation by setting up specialized staff in Small Schools Offices to work between schools and the central office and forge new supportive relationships between them. The presentation concluded with issues and questions for policymakers, district leaders, funders and others to consider, helping the group to realize the promise of new small autonomous schools initiatives and the importance of investing not only in schools but in school district central offices as important levers for districtwide improvement goals. Summaries of her findings are forthcoming in the spring issues of the American Educational Research Journal and the Peabody Journal of Education and will be posted on her faculty Web site.

At the College of Education, Dr. Honig’s work focuses on policy, leadership and organizational change in urban educational systems. Her study of new small autonomous schools is one in a series examining how urban school district central offices can help support districtwide teaching and learning improvement. Studies in this series include an examination of how central offices enable the implementation of school-community partnerships that expand students opportunities to learn in and out of school.

Read selected publications on Honig’s research, including work on Evidence-Based Decision Making in School District Central Offices.

May 2009  |  Return to issue home

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