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November 2010  |  Return to issue home

Moving Beyond Business & Business as Usual

Moving Beyond Business graphic

For decades, educational research has shown that school district central offices can get in the way of efforts to improve teaching and learning in schools, even efforts initiated by district central office leaders themselves.

The problem dates back to the turn of the last century, when central offices were established to primarily handle administrative functions such as district finances, school transportation, facilities management, and ensuring teachers met state licensure standards. But in recent decades, policymakers have called on school district central offices to play central leadership roles in producing demonstrable improvements in teaching and learning district-wide.

Are central offices up to the task? Are they ready to move beyond business as usual?

A new study from the College of Education shows that school district central offices can be powerful players in creating conditions that support teaching and learning improvement district-wide.

"We'd be hard-pressed to find a superintendent today who didn't say his or her intent was to focus on supporting the improvement of teaching and learning throughout the district. Across the country, people know it's a priority — but there's a real gap in knowledge in explaining how you lead for that at the central office level," says College of Education associate professor Mike Copland, co-principal investigator of the study, Central Office Transformation for District-Wide Teaching and Learning Improvement.

The pioneering study, a strand of the Wallace Foundation-funded Study of Leadership for Learning Improvement, helps fill in that knowledge gap, turning a research lens on central office leadership in school districts that are working to fundamentally transform how they operate to support teaching and learning improvement in schools. "These districts are thinking about how their central offices matter in new ways. They are not simply reorganizing or restructuring a central office unit or two. What these systems are undertaking aims at the complete transformation of what central office administrators do to support schools," says Meredith Honig, co-investigator in the study.

The UW research team examined three urban districts engaged in central office transformation: Atlanta Public Schools, the Empowerment Schools Organization in the New York City Department of Education, and the Oakland Unified School District (Calif.). During the research period, all three had made substantial investments in fundamentally rethinking the work of each and every staff person in their central offices and how to focus that work on teaching and learning improvement.

In their investigation, the UW researchers dug deep into the day-to-day inner workings of the three urban central offices. Other research often ignores the central office or treats the central office as a monolith—"The District"—not a place where hundreds of people perform myriad tasks. "We focused on the central office and on uncovering the differentiated roles and practices of all the people in the central office," says Honig.

The UW team shadowed administrators, reviewed documents, observed meetings and interactions, and conducted extensive interviews, asking not just "What do you do?" but "How do you make sense of what you do?"

The study's authors identified five critical dimensions of central office transformation that can steer change and strengthen supports for improved teaching and learning in schools.

These include:

  • Assigning specific central office administrators—whom the study identified as instructional leadership directors—to forge learning-focused partnerships with principals to help principals work as excellent instructional leaders in their schools.
  • Assisting these instructional leadership directors by providing them with professional development, by protecting their time for working with principals, and by working through the directors and not around them.
  • Reorganizing and reculturing staff throughout the central office. This involves retraining or restaffing, shifting staff focus from delivering services to solving problems, allocating resources to support these activities, and developing new accountability mechanisms.
    Providing strong stewardship for instructional improvement goals, including the ongoing development and communication of the plan for improvement behind the transformation.
  • Engaging in evidence-based decision-making, using regularly collected evidence from student performance systems and from the experience of administrators in the transformation process to fuel improvement.

In all three districts in the study, the learning-focused partnerships with principals and central office instructional leadership directors were a focal point for change. When these administrators worked well with principals, they worked side-by-side with them observing classrooms, scrutinizing the quality of classroom instruction, modeling challenging conversations with teachers, connecting to outside resources, and otherwise helping principals build their capacity for improving instruction in all their classrooms. The directors also studied student data, helped principals analyze those data, and put the information to use in cycles of inquiry aimed at improving teacher performance and boosting student achievement.

To help principals strengthen their instructional leadership, the instructional leadership directors also convened their principals in networks of other principals. In the more promising networks, the directors encouraged principals to examine one another's practice for strengths and weaknesses, and to analyze school data together. The principals shared expertise, engaged outside speakers, and observed in one another's schools.

To clear principals' time to focus on instruction, instructional leadership directors also served as buffers for principals, running interference on tasks and duties unrelated to the work of learning improvement. "Buffering" could mean getting unnecessary meetings off the calendar or watching out for paperwork pile-ups. These leadership directors also often made themselves the go-between with the central office, so principals didn't have to cut through red tape.

One leadership director in the study described how a principal had to take time from instructional work to find a vendor to remove sexually explicit graffiti from the school building because other central office staff hadn't responded to requests for assistance quickly enough. Said the leadership director: "I was so angry that I had a principal (who) had to deal with that because that's not what they're supposed to be doing." In the new system, the instructional leadership director got the job done so the principal could spend more time focusing on improving the quality of classroom teaching. 
Findings from the research suggest that when central offices reorient themselves to support districtwide teaching and learning improvement, everyone in the central office, no matter the position, can participate in some way in realizing that goal. Strong leadership from the top is critical to ensuring that participation. "Executive leadership has to be out in front with the work of teaching and learning, modeling it, sponsoring it, creating the right partnerships to support it," says Mike Copland.

Executive-level leaders in most of the study districts made bold moves to reform their school systems. These "change agents" were willing to shake up entrenched bureaucracies, rethink the relationships between the central office and schools, and take a hard look at professional practice not just in schools but throughout the central office as well. They were stewards of teaching and learning improvement, helping people throughout the system and school community understand what changes they were making and why.

One extraordinary example of such leadership at the top was Beverly Hall, superintendent of Atlanta Public Schools, where district leaders described transformation as a "moral imperative" for a failing, poverty-impacted, low-performing district. When Superintendent Hall came onboard in 1999, she began redirecting resources from the central office directly to schools while at the same time focusing attention on improving practice not just in schools but throughout the system. In addition to the changes described above, she inaugurated intensive coaching for teachers, mandated accountability assessments and incentives, and let staff go when they didn't measure up. Over the course of nine years, the superintendent replaced 93 percent of her building principals, tied central office and principal pay to student achievement, and redeployed 72 percent of central office resources directly to schools. And from 2002 to 2008, the high-school graduation rate jumped from 39 percent to 71.7 percent.

This kind of sweeping transformation requires finding the right people to do the job of instructional leadership. Central office staff may be well prepared for the old central office business functions but ill prepared to support principals trying to improve classroom instruction. "Some systems find they have the wrong people in place for the new job—though they were right for the old job," says Honig. "Central office transformation is a people-intensive reform. These central offices are grappling with questions such as…How do you transition a system that's not just about offices—that's about people? How much investment do you put in retraining? When do you restaff?"

Shrinking budgets complicate those questions, but may also push needed change as central offices begin rethinking their relationship to classrooms and student progress. "Central offices will have to become leaner, smarter, more intentional, more efficient, and more economically viable," says Copland.

For more information:
Honig, M. I., Copland, M. A., Rainey, L., Lorton, J. A., & Newton, M. (2010). Central Office Transformation for District-wide Teaching and Learning Improvement. Seattle, Wash.: Center for the Study of Teaching and Policy, University of Washington.

Honig, M.I., & Copland, M.A. (2008). Reinventing central offices to expand student learning. An Issue Brief of the Center for Comprehensive School Reform and Improvement. Washington, D.C.: Learning Point Associates.

Brief also featured in the national webcast: Start at the top: How central office reform is improving student achievement (March 26, 2009, Center for Comprehensive School Reform and Improvement).

November 2010  |  Return to issue home

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