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May 20, 2010

Learning first: Refocusing central school district offices to improve teaching and learning

Central offices of urban school districts have been able to shift their focus from administration and compliance to improvement of teaching and learning districtwide by making five key changes, according to a new report by researchers from the UW College of Education.


The report, researchers say, fills a gap in knowledge about strengthening teaching and learning throughout school systems. The study, Central Office Transformation for District-Wide Teaching and Learning Improvement, uncovers the daily practices of administrators in three districts with transformation efforts under way: Atlanta Public Schools, the Empowerment Schools Organization in New York City, and the Oakland (Calif.) Unified School District.


“All three districts were making significant investments in strengthening leadership throughout their central offices to support powerful teaching and learning not in some schools but in all schools,” says Meredith Honig, UW associate professor in Educational Leadership and Policy Studies and the lead author of the report. “The engagement of all central office administrators in focusing their work on those results represents nothing short of a transformation of long-standing ways of doing business in many school district central offices.”


The report was commissioned by The Wallace Foundation and published by the Center for the Study of Teaching and Policy (CTP) at the UW’s College of Education. The report was co-authored by Associate Professor Michael A. Copland and a team from the UW.


Another UW College of Education entity, the Center for Educational Leadership, has already started implementing the findings in school districts around the country, and will be a collaborator on future on-the-ground work stemming from this research.


Rather than remain in the background focused on “buses, budgets and buildings,” central offices must work closely with school principals and turn the attention of all staffers to teaching and learning improvement, the report finds.


The five changes key to this transformation are:



  • Creating learning-focused partnerships between central office staff and school principals to help deepen principals’ instructional leadership;
  • Providing supports for the district-principal partnerships;
  • Reorganizing and “reculturing” all central office departments so that they focus their work on strengthening teaching and learning improvement, i.e. concentrate less on delivering services and more on solving problems that can help improve schools;
  • Cultivating — or, providing “stewardship” — to the efforts, which begins with the development of a “theory of action” describing how to proceed and a well-thought-out rationale;
  • Using evidence throughout the central office to continually improve practices and relationships with schools.


“We found that central office transformation is not a rehashing of old efforts at restructuring the district’s organizational chart,” said Copland, chair and associate professor in Educational Leadership & Policy Studies at the UW. “This kind of transformation goes right to the heart of practice, what people in the offices do day in and day out to help improve teaching and learning for students.”


A striking feature of all three central office transformation efforts was the focus on building the capacity of school principals to lead instructional improvement within their schools. For example, each of these districts designated central office administrators whom the study authors call “instructional leadership directors,” or ILDs, to be directly responsible for ongoing support of principals’ instructional leadership.


The findings suggest that specific “high-quality” ILD practices were likely to help principals improve by personalizing supports to principals around instructional leadership; modeling strategies and developing tools to improve instructional leadership; and help bring outside resources and ideas to principals.


From the examination of the three districts, the researchers developed four recommendations for central office leaders who want to engage in this type of transformation:


  • Engage in central office transformation as a focal point of a districtwide reform effort and as a necessary complement to other improvement initiatives;
  • Start the work by developing a theory of action for how local central office practice contributes to improving teaching and learning and plan to revise this theory over time;
  • Invest substantially in people throughout the central office to lead the work, especially those who work most directly with schools; and
  • Immediately engage key stakeholders, political supporters and potential funders in understanding that central office transformation is important and requires sustained commitment.


“Urban district administrators now have research-based ideas and strategies that they can use to transform their own central offices to support principals and improve learning,” said Richard Laine, director of education at The Wallace Foundation. “Existing Wallace research has repeatedly confirmed that leadership is crucial to turning around high-need, urban schools like those profiled in the report. We now know they can’t do it without help from their districts.”


The report is the third in a series from the CTP that investigates leadership in urban schools and districts.

Leadership for Learning Improvement in Urban Schools reports on how urban school leaders help improve student learning by setting high expectations for their schools, provide meaningful staff training, and organize teachers to share leadership for carrying out improvement agendas.

How Leaders Invest Staffing Resources for Learning Improvement identifies three strategies districts take to improve how they invest in staffing.


All the reports in this series are free and can be downloaded from The Wallace Foundation’s Knowledge Center or the CTP.