Central Office Transformation for District-Wide Teaching and Learning Improvement

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 Central Office Transformation for District-Wide Teaching and Learning Improvement

In a southern school district, the superintendent has declared the school district central office “broken” when it comes to supporting teaching and learning in schools and called for fundamental central office reform. Main pillars of the central office reform effort include adding and removing some central office units, reconstituting the superintendents’ leadership team, and shifting some reporting lines within the central office to centralize control in the superintendent and leadership team.

Leaders in another district have come to a similar conclusion about the dismal performance of their central office. In response, they have cut central office staff positions and have increased school autonomy over budget decisions.

And in a third, the central office has begun an effort to improve their support for district-wide teaching and learning improvement in part by increasing central office monitoring of alignment between schools and central office of efforts to improve teaching and learning. Such monitoring includes changing how school and district goals, curriculum, and assessments are aligned with central office priorities and decisions.

Are these leaders engaged in central office support for district-wide teaching and learning improvement getting the problem right? Yes and no.

Leaders in these systems have rightly recognized that central offices matter substantially to district-wide teaching and learning improvement. Decades of experience and research show that when central office staff do not exercise central leadership in teaching and learning improvement efforts, such initiatives at best produce improvements at a small handful of schools but hardly district-wide or in a sustainable way. So these leaders are on the right track in their recognition of the roles central leadership can play in district-wide teaching and learning improvement. Various guides and reports on school district central offices highlight the importance of organizational restructuring (such as the additional or removal of units and the shifting of reporting lines), shrinking or streamlining of central office staff, and aligning formal central office and school goals and strategies to districtwide teaching and learning improvement efforts.

But experience and research also show that, despite their popularity, such structural reforms alone generally have not been sufficient for district-wide teaching and learning improvements. For example, the experience of the high-profile districtwide reform in San Diego City Schools in the 1990s revealed, in part, that such restructuring, reallocation, and realignment at the central office level did help with the implementation of reform efforts at the school level. But deep changes in teaching and learning district wide did not materialize, in part, because the reform effort did not adequately support fundamental shifts in what people in central offices knew and could do (Hubbard, Mehan, & Stein 2006). These lessons reflect that high-performance depends not only on formal structures but also fundamentally on the practice of people—how central office administrators understand and go about their work day-to-day in leading for teaching and learning improvement.

Over the past several years, a small number of urban school district central offices have heeded these lessons about the importance of central office leadership practice. Leaders in these districts have aimed to substantially improve teaching and learning district-wide by radically shifting how central office staff work in ways that hold great promise for realizing such results. These efforts, which we call “central office transformation,” do not rely on typical organizational restructuring routes, but instead involve fundamental changes in what central office administrators do day-to-day and their relationships with schools. Leaders in these districts recognize that improving teaching and learning across a district is a systems problem, demanding engagement of people throughout schools and central offices in coordinated efforts to realize ambitious teaching and learning improvement goals for all students. And they have made substantial investments in fundamentally rethinking how central office administrators participate in such efforts. In so doing, these central offices are in largely uncharted territory and find they must invent new ways of working and relating to schools on the job.

With support from The Wallace Foundation, we conducted a research study of three urban districts engaged in central office transformation as a district-wide teaching and learning improvement strategy. To better understand what such reform strategies involve, we asked: Who participates in central office transformation? What are they doing to increase central office support for teaching and learning improvement? What conditions help or hinder them in the process? We explored these questions with an in-depth comparative case study of Atlanta Public Schools, the Empowerment Schools Organization in the New York City Department of Education, and Oakland Unified School District (CA). We grounded our study in two strands of learning theory, and focused data collection and analysis on particular dimensions of central office work that seemed promising for supporting school-level teaching and learning improvements. Our data set includes over 220 interviews, 252 documents, and verbatim notes from over 300 hours of observations, including meetings and shadowing central office administrators as they went about their daily work.

This report summarizes our findings. As we elaborate below, we found that when central offices fundamentally transform themselves in ways associated with strengthening central office supports for teaching and learning improvement in schools, central office administrators engage in five new lines of work that cut across the entire central office. These lines of work, which can be thought of as key dimensions of central office transformation, include:

  1. Engagement with school principals in learning-focused partnerships to deepen principals’ instructional leadership or their ability to support teaching and learning improvement at their schools.
  2. Direct, intentional support to the central office–principal partnerships.
  3. Reorganization and reculturing of each central office unit to support teaching and learning improvement.
  4. Stewardship of the overall central office transformation process.
  5. Use of evidence throughout the central office to support continual improvement of these lines of work.

These five lines of work touch everyone in the central office, not just staff in units assigned to focus on curriculum and instruction for example. Through the transformation process, everyone in the central office focuses their work— either directly, or indirectly through supporting their central office colleagues—on strengthening principals’ instructional leadership as a key lever for teaching and learning improvement in schools. Central office administrators also work directly with other school staff, such as the growing cadre of teacher leaders in the sites we studied and many others who, alongside or separately from the school principal, are exercising instructional leadership in schools.1 But a hallmark of the transformation efforts across all three systems was an intensive focus on school principals and their relationships with key designated administrators in the central office who created learning-focused partnerships with these school leaders. All other central office administrators reoriented their work not to serving children or schools in general but to advancing the particular work of the new principal–central office administrator partnerships.

Within each of these five dimensions, we identified specific work practices or activities that seemed particularly promising for strengthening principals’ instructional leadership. For instance, all the central office administrators involved in the learning-focused partnerships with principals convened these school leaders one-on-one and in networks to support their development as instructional leaders. These relationships provided powerful supports for principals’ instructional leadership when, in the one-on-one and network settings, the participating central office administrators modeled instructional leadership for school principals. Other promising practices in those principal relationships included developing and using particular kind of tools and brokering resources in ways that helped principals engage in instructional leadership.

In the remainder of this chapter, we discuss the concerns that motivated our study through a brief review of research on school improvement and the participation of school district central offices in school reform. This research underscores the promise of central office transformation—of remaking what central office administrators do day-to-day and how they relate to schools—for fostering district-wide teaching and learning improvements. Second, we introduce our study sites and provide an overview of the methods and analytic processes used to produce the study. Then, we introduce the five dimensions of central office transformation in greater detail, and set up the deeper exploration of each of these aspects of the work in the latter chapters. In each of the subsequent chapters (2-6) we summarize our findings about these five dimensions. We conclude in Chapter 7 with an initial set of recommendations about central office transformation for the research and practice of educational leadership that aim to strengthen teaching and learning district-wide.

What We Know from Research and Experience

For decades, efforts to improve teaching and learning in schools generally have not realized their intended results beyond a few pockets of success. While the limitations of school improvement initiatives have various root causes, many agree that district central offices have been key implementation impediments (Bryk, Sebring, Kerbow, Rollow, & Easton, 1998; Chubb & Moe, 1990; Malen, Ogawa, & Kranz, 1990; Ravitch & Viteritti, 1997). For example, the effective schools movement of the 1980s revealed how features of effective schools were difficult to realize within single schools, let alone across multiple schools, when school district central offices did not participate productively in their implementation (e.g., Purkey & Smith, 1985). In the 1990s, reforms to scale-up promising comprehensive or whole-school reform models likewise ran into central office roadblocks that curbed implementation (e.g., Berends, Bodilly, & Kirby, 2002). More recently, the implementation of standards-based curricular reform initiatives have been impeded in part by central office administrators’ limited understanding of and support for new teaching demands (Spillane, 1998, 2000; Spillane & Thompson, 1997; Stein & Nelson, 2003).

Clearly, teaching and learning improvements at single schools and multiple schools depend not only on what happens in schools but on how school district central offices create and implement supports for change. But what, more specifically, do central offices do when they realize such supports? The field knows far more about how central offices fail to participate productively in district-wide teaching and learning improvement than about what they do when they create conditions that might help to realize desired results. Prescriptions abound describing what central offices should do to improve teaching and learning district-wide, yet virtually none of these prescriptions rest on direct empirical evidence about how central office change might actually have a positive impact on school-level practice.

Such gaps in knowledge are particularly evident in the research on school leadership, which reflects a consensus that essential conditions for improving teaching and learning include school principals who engage in “instructional leadership” (Leithwood, Day, Sammons, Harris, & Hopkins, 2006; Murphy, 1990; Murphy & Hallinger, 1987, 1988). Accounts of efforts to improve principals’ instructional leadership practice suggests this work requires sustained, job-embedded supports (Fink & Resnick, 2001; Hale & Moorman, 2003; Houle, 2006), and that people in district central offices should somehow provide such support (Fullan & Stiegelbauer, 1991; Miller, 2004; Whitaker, 1996). What the research does not elaborate with any specificity is what supports are needed or how school district central offices might provide them regularly and at a high level of quality.

This inattention to examining what people in central offices do to support teaching and learning improvement, despite its seemingly obvious importance, stems from several historical and contemporary developments in practice and in research. For instance, federal and state policies for decades have barely recognized school district central offices as a main agent of change, often treating them as administrative pass-throughs for schools (e.g., Marsh, Kerr, Ikemoto, Darilek, Suttorp, & Zimmer, 2005). In fact, central offices were originally established in many city school districts at the turn of the last century to handle basic business functions for what was a rapidly growing number of city schools. When they turned their attention to matters related to teaching and learning, central offices mainly engaged in largely regulatory functions such as ensuring that their teaching staff met standards for licensure (Gamson, 2009a, 2009b). Perhaps not surprisingly, then, in recent years some state and other policymakers have aimed to improve teaching and learning in schools not by investing in school district central offices but by bypassing them, channeling resources into schools and classrooms directly (Busch et al., 2004) or into organizations outside the school district system (Honig, 2009b).

Likewise, for decades, educational researchers studied school district superintendents but paid scant attention to the hundreds of staff in urban central offices whose work is consequential to what such offices actually do and how they relate to schools (Honig, 2008; Spillane, 1998). When researchers have looked beyond superintendents to study the work of other central office administrators they tend to report how “the district” participates in teaching and learning improvement efforts, significantly masking the various people, units, work practices, and other conditions within urban school district central offices that may matter to districtwide teaching and learning improvements (e.g. Berends, Bodilly, & Kirby, 2002). Similarly, researchers have focused on districts with upward-trending student achievement data, and concluded simply that whatever the district central office has been doing relates to those positive student outcomes (e.g., Togneri & Anderson, 2003), rather than substantiating what people in the central office did that might have helped achieve the positive outcomes.2

The experience of some urban school systems is beginning to demonstrate in broad terms what central office leadership for district-wide teaching and learning improvement may require. For one thing, their experience shows that what central office administrators know and do is consequential for the implementation and success of teaching and learning improvement efforts. For example, research on the implementation of various school improvement efforts including new small autonomous schools initiatives hinged substantially on how central office administrators thought about and engaged in their work (Honig, 2003, 2004b, 2009a). Many of the most promising central office work practices were non-traditional and outright counter-cultural for some school district central office administrators and required new forms of capacity throughout the central office for taking on and occasionally inventing new work practices (e.g., Honig, 2009a). District-wide teaching and learning improvement efforts in Community School District #2 and the San Diego Schools likewise depended heavily on the ready capacity of central office administrators to engage in new work practices supportive of district-wide teaching and learning improvements (Elmore & Burney, 1997; Hightower, Knapp, Marsh, & McLaughlin, 2002; Hubbard et al., 2006). There and elsewhere, central office administrators’ knowledge of high-quality instruction has been emerging as fundamental to implementing ambitious standards-based curricular reforms (Spillane, 1998, 2000; Spillane & Thompson, 1997; Stein & Nelson, 2003). Research also supports the importance of central office administrators’ work by negative example. For example, efforts to achieve district-wide “alignment” of formal goals and strategies fall short in many districts without substantial, increased capacity of central office administrators to change how they work with schools within those formal structures to support school improvement (Corcoran, Fuhrman, & Belcher, 2001).

Second, implementation of these reforms hinges substantially on central office administrators engaging in new partnership relationships with schools and community agencies to build the central offices’ and schools’ collective capacity for implementation (Honig, 2004a; Honig, 2009a). The emphasis on partnership relationships moves beyond long-standing debates about whether schools or the central office should direct educational improvement efforts. Rather, both parties— the central office and schools—possess knowledge and skills essential to expanding students’ opportunities to learn. These relationships are fundamentally dynamic (Murphy & Hallinger, 1988, p. 179) and rooted in notions of reciprocal accountability (Fink & Resnick, 2001) where central office administrators do not abdicate their traditional regulatory functions, but rather redefine them so that they operate in service of partnership relationships that help build both school and district capacity for learning improvement.

Researchers have variably called such changes in central office practice “central office administration as learning” (Honig, 2008); a “learning stance” (Gallucci, 2008; Swinnerton, 2006), “inquiry” (Copland, 2003), and “reform as learning” (Hubbard et al., 2006). In so doing, researchers have underscored that central office leadership for teaching and learning demands ongoing learning on the part of central office administrators as well—ongoing learning about the kinds of capacity, work practices, and relationships that might enable demonstrable improvements in teaching and learning.

In sum, central offices and the people who work in them are not simply part of the background noise in school improvement. Rather, school district central office administrators can exercise essential leadership, in partnership with school leaders, to build capacity throughout public educational systems for teaching and learning improvements. Such leadership requires new capacity, work practices, and relationships throughout central offices. However, a host of forces work against such central office leadership. As noted above, school district central offices have operated for most of their history in ways distinctly different from what efforts to improve teaching and learning across an entire district demand. Accordingly, efforts to engage urban district central office administrators in the kinds of leadership that district-wide teaching and learning improvement demands are akin to trying to reverse the direction of a large ocean liner cruising full-speed ahead. Inertia from long-standing institutional forces coupled with demanding job conditions and limited research-based and empirical guides work against the kinds of fundamental changes that such leadership seems to demand. Adding to the challenge, just as some urban systems have begun to take up the mantle of leadership for district-wide teaching and learning improvement, they are facing severe budget shortfalls (Bach, 2005; Davis, 2008; Garber, 2008; Song, 2009), the threat or reality of state takeover (Elmore & Burney, 1997; Goertz & Duffy, 2003; Katz, 2003), and desegregation and special education decrees that focus more on compliance with external mandates than on learning support (Boghossian, 2005; Chute, 2007; Haynes, 2007).

A handful of urban districts are working through these challenges and heeding the emerging lessons about the importance of central office leadership to district-wide teaching and learning improvements. Efforts in these districts reflect the recognition that meaningful and productive central office engagement in district-wide teaching and learning improvement is a far cry from central-office-administrationas- usual and represents a distinct reform approach in these ways:

  • The reform effort focuses centrally and meaningfully on teaching and learning improvement. Other reforms aim to increase the efficiency with which the central office provides basic services to schools. Many central office leaders say that they work in service of teaching and learning. Transformed central offices, by contrast, are able to demonstrate how their work matters in concrete terms to teaching and learning improvement. What is more, they put their work where their mouth is and actually change their work to leverage specific supports for teaching and learning improvement.
  • The entire district central office engages in reform. Some change strategies demand that certain central office departments work with schools in new ways (Honig, 2006, 2009a). By contrast, central office transformation involves remaking how all central office administrators work with schools. Accordingly, reform participants are not just those people working on curriculum and instruction or professional development, but rather include everyone from the entire central office, no matter what department, unit, or function.
  • Central office administrators’ fundamentally remake their work practices and their relationships with schools in support of teaching and learning improvements for all students. School district central offices routinely reform themselves by restructuring formal reporting relationships within central office hierarchies, adding and removing units, or revising their standard operating procedures. While structural changes can be helpful, participation in district-wide teaching and learning improvements is fundamentally about remaking what the people in central offices do—their daily work and relationships with schools.
  • Central office transformation is an important focus for reform in its own right. Some districts aim to remake central office work practices and relationships with schools in service of implementing a particular program or initiative. For example, as part of new small autonomous schools initiatives in some districts, central office administrators aimed to change the relationship between the central office and schools participating in that specific reform effort (Honig, 2009a). Portfolio management reforms seem headed in a similar direction (Honig & DeArmond, forthcoming). By contrast, districts engaged in central office transformation are working to change their central offices regardless of the particular programs or initiatives in which they may be participating at a given time. These transformation efforts involve ongoing work on central office practice that supports teaching and learning improvement that transcends particular programs or initiatives.

This conception of central office transformation is not just another rehash of old efforts at “restructuring” the district organizational chart or a top-down or bottom up approach to change. Rather, central office transformation is a system wide reform strategy that calls for changes in leadership practice at school and central office levels. And, while these ideas on paper may appear commonsensical to some, they are also extremely ambitious to realize in practice.

The Study and Study Sites

Given the promise of central office transformation and the centrality of central office administrators’ work practice to their design and likely success, we set out to understand how central office administrators participated in these efforts. With this focus we intended not to downplay the importance of formal structures such as new organizational charts to the performance of central offices but rather shine a concentrated light on central office practices and activities.

We conducted our research in Atlanta Public Schools (GA), New York City/ Empowerment Schools Organization (NYC/ESO),3 and Oakland Unified School District (CA). Each of these districts was in the process of implementing a major central office reform initiative that fit our definition of central office transformation in its emphasis on changing the work of all central office administrators to focus on teaching and learning improvement. We identified many other systems that had major teaching and learning improvement efforts underway but not efforts that called for coordinated changes in every central office administrators’ practice as an integral reform strand. For example, some districts were engaged in changing the work of central office administrators within single central office departments but were not yet engaged in central-office-wide changes in central office administrators’ work. While other school systems may have been engaged in central office transformation, the work of Atlanta, New York, and Oakland was particularly visible to us in part because of our prior research projects in New York and Oakland, and, in the case of Atlanta and New York City, because of our participation in a national network of state and district educational leaders convened by our funder, The Wallace Foundation.

In selecting sites, we also assumed that all three systems were operating with important experience-based knowledge about what central office transformation might involve and how to go about it. All three systems, prior to our study period, had been involved in a substantial effort to pilot the implementation of ideas that later came to ground the overall design of their central office transformation effort. We assumed that these prior experiences indicated that each system had established a base of support within the central office for transformation and a set of lessons about what such change processes might involve and how to support them.

Similarly, all three districts had made substantial financial and political investments in central office transformation, suggesting that they had an adequate base of support for implementation and that they would not run into the predictable implementation barriers of limited financial and political resources. For example, district leaders in each system appeared in the local and national media as avid, public sponsors of the work. Two of the districts worked closely with at least one outside organization to increase their capacity for implementation (Honig, 2004a, b). Among these organizations were private foundations that invested millions of dollars in discretionary funds in each district to support the central office transformation process.

In selecting sites, we did not look for cases of successful central office transformation. After all, central office transformation efforts are extremely complex and present various challenges of attributing central office changes to school-level improvements. Given the nascent stage of research in this area, we instead set out to find districts that promised to help us see what central offices do when they aim to shift their work practices, central-office-wide, to focus meaningfully on teaching and learning improvement. Research in such sites lays important groundwork for future studies that may subsequently explore the relationships between particular practices and activities in central offices and teaching and learning in schools.

Though we did not set out to attribute school-level changes to central office work, all three systems at the start of our study and throughout our study period posted gains in student achievement along various measures (see Methodological Appendix for a review of this evidence). District leaders attributed those successes, in part, to their central office change efforts. These data, along with the local attribution of gains to central office work, suggest that these system-level reform efforts were worth examining as a possible reason for achievement gains.

The three districts also offered important opportunities for contrasting how different conditions might matter for implementation. For example, our districts varied substantially in size with the NYC/ESO serving a student population 200,000 students larger than our other districts. Our districts also varied in total operating budget, with Oakland’s budget topping off at less than half that of Atlanta despite a comparable number of students. Oakland, like other California school districts, also struggled during our study period with extreme state budget cuts. Additionally, our districts had been engaged in central office transformation for different lengths of time. For example, Atlanta’s central office transformation effort began nine years prior to the start of our data collection with the hiring of Dr. Beverly Hall as superintendent. By contrast, the other two districts were each only a year or two into the central office transformation process at the start of data collection. Each district followed a different path into central office transformation, as described in the Capsule Descriptions on the next page.

Capsule Descriptions:
Launching Central Office Transformation in Three Urban School Districts

Atlanta Public Schools

The original designers of the central office transformation initiative in Atlanta describe the initiative as a moral imperative for a central office that, in essence, had avoided dealing with the plight of the poorest, least powerful children in the school system. As Superintendent Beverly Hall reported when she assumed the role of superintendent in 1999, “The system was in crisis. I was the fifth superintendent in 10 years, and so the central office reflected the total disarray that existed in the organization. There were clearly people there who were working really hard, but they were not sure of the vision, they were not sure of the direction, and they were almost sitting back and saying, ‘This, too, shall pass’” (Atlanta Public Schools, 2009, n.p.). Dr. Hall described how central office practices were far removed from immediate contact with schools and not necessarily focused on the kinds of work practices that promised to improve teaching and learning, especially in Atlanta’s mostly African- American and low-income neighborhoods. Hall’s approach to change stemmed from her view that improving the central office meant fundamental change—changes in the core beliefs of those working in the central office and schools about what was possible for student achievement.

Hall’s initial efforts focused on enlisting the support of an external support provider that she then used to inform broader changes in the central office. Specifically, Hall positioned Project Grad, a national reform organization, to provide support for ten of the district’s lowest performing schools. In that capacity, Project GRAD staff brokered relationships between schools and other vendors that supported schools in implementing improvement strategies, including intensive coaching. The district central office also deployed its own coaches to those schools to provide mostly job-embedded professional development to teachers and principals.

Subsequently, several developments converged to fuel the process of central office transformation. For one, Project GRAD schools posted significant and rapid initial improvement in teaching and learning. For example, fourth grade student reading scores in the first cohort of elementary schools increased by an average of 35 percentage points from 2000 to 2003 on Georgia state test scores.1 In tandem, Project GRAD received an infusion of resources from the district and private foundations for deepening its partnership with the district. Project GRAD leaders worked in concert with central office administrators to fundamentally rethink how the central office worked with all Atlanta schools. By the start of our research project in 2007–2008, all central office staff had been engaged in various strategic efforts to remake their work practices and relationships with schools to improve teaching and learning district-wide.

New York City Empowerment Schools Organization

The central office transformation efforts in New York City also began with a pilot effort, in this case called the Autonomy Zone. Under the sponsorship of Chancellor Joel Klein, the Autonomy Zone involved 30 schools across the city in piloting a new set of relationships with a subset of central office staff specifically dedicated to supporting teaching and learning improvement at those schools. As part of the pilot, participating schools received more autonomy and an increase in discretionary resources in return for improved results. According to Eric Nadelstern, primary initial architect and director, the Autonomy Zone aimed, to “put control in the school [and] remove any excuses for why the school is failing.” Central office administrators, in turn, focused on building the capacity of participating school principals to drive instructional improvement at their schools.

In tandem with the growth of the Autonomy Zone, Chancellor Klein and New York City’s Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who had overall control over the New York City Department of Education, became outspoken critics of the organization of the district’s administrative system that deployed central office staff throughout the city in geographically-based “regional” offices. These two leaders and other critics argued that, despite their physical proximity to schools, the regional offices worked with schools in primarily supervisory and distant ways not powerfully focused on learning improvement nor responsive to the diverse needs of individual schools. As Nadelstern explained, “I believe in the power of differentiation as the underpinning of the entire reform strategy. When the Chancellor talks about 400 successful schools, he doesn’t presume they will be successful in the same way.”

Concerns with the geographically based central office structure, coupled with the perceived success of the Autonomy Zone and its subsequent expansion into an “Empowerment Schools” arrangement (comprising more than 300 schools), fueled and informed the January 2007 decision by Chancellor Klein to dismantle the entire central office regional structure and most of the centrally located district offices and replace them with 14 School Support Organizations (SSOs). The Empowerment Schools Organization replaced the expanded form of the Autonomy Zone. The system required all schools to select one of the SSOs that would essentially serve as its central office—but a transformed central office that focused on supporting teaching and learning improvement at all schools served by this SSO.2 Chancellor Klein described the new systems design, in a 2007 letter to principals, stating,

    When you choose a School Support Organization [SSO], you and your school community have the chance to select the team that is best suited to help you, your staff, and your students succeed. All of the School Support Organizations are designing their offerings to support your efforts to meet student performance goals. The services they offer will include coaching, guidance and instructional support for students with special needs, help in using the accountability tools, professional development, and many other dimensions of support that relate to your educational mission on a daily basis.

Oakland Unified School District

Many trace the emergence of Oakland’s central office transformation effort in part to the Bay Area Coalition for Equitable Schools (BayCES), an external school support provider. As part of its efforts, BayCES helped the central office and community launch new small autonomous schools but also began to conceptualize a new central office to support the transformation of all Oakland public schools into new small autonomous schools. Whereas the then-current district central office weathered routine criticism for its inefficiencies and lack of attention to high-quality teaching and learning, the new central office would be entirely oriented toward working with individual schools to help build capacity for improving learning and, through a new budget structure, more equitably distribute resources across the district to support such outcomes for all students. Steve Jubb, then Executive Director of BayCES, envisioned piloting the new central office with a cadre of staff outside the current system and then taking the pilot to scale throughout the central office. Other external organizations, such as the Oakland Cross-city Campaign for Urban School Reform,and local foundations brought in various experts such as the superintendent of the Edmonton School District (Alberta, Canada), known for central office change, to inform the process (Honig, 2009).

When the Oakland district fell under state receivership in 2003, BayCES, the Oakland Cross-city Campaign, and others successfully argued that the school district should continue the new small autonomous schools initiative but also engage in central office redesign—not as a pilot, but as a major district initiative. Steve Jubb and other Bay- CES staff members subsequently took on formal positions temporarily within the central office to further design and implement central office transformation effort. The district formally launched its central office transformation effort in 2005-2006 under the banner, Expect Success. As one central office leader described the initiative,

    … every employee, I hope at the end of this, has that mentality that everybody is responsible for teaching and learning. That’s why we [the central office] exist. That’s our core function. And so the responsibility of the central office is to make sure that you’re supporting that mission or that core function of what we do. And so you’re finding ways to improve your current job to make it easier on teachers and principals to focus on students.


1. Atlanta Project GRAD, Annual Report 2002–2003.

2. Under the new design, business services continued to operate in geographically-based regional offices called Integrated Services Centers (ISCs) serving all schools in their parts of the city regardless of a school’s chosen SSO. However, as part of central office transformation, ISCs were an attempt to significantly improve the quality of services provided to school staff as part of the overall emphasis on focusing school staff on improving teaching and learning, not mainly operational issues.

We conducted an in-depth comparative qualitative case study of these three districts, primarily during the 2007–2008 academic year.4 We chose data sources that allowed us to probe deeply into central office administrators’ work practices and relationships with schools, to triangulate findings across multiple sources (to increase the validity of our findings), and to take advantage of special opportunities for data collection in each district. Table 1 summarizes our data collection methods, which we briefly elaborate in the Methodological Appendix.

Highlights of our methodological approach include heavy reliance on observations of central office administrators’ engagement in reform activities. For example, in Atlanta we shadowed certain central office administrators as they worked with school principals. In Oakland and New York City we observed formal meetings convened specifically to support central office administrators in shifting their roles to focus more centrally than they had in the past on teaching and learning improvement. We triangulated our observations with interviews designed to probe for concrete examples and documents that demonstrated how central office administrators engaged in their work. With this and related strategies, our interviews moved beyond simply asking central office administrators to tell us about their work and focused on surfacing specific evidence such as examples and documentation to substantiate such self-reports. When central office administrators said they engaged in particular practices or activities, or that their principals achieved certain outcomes, we used those examples in subsequent interviews with principals to probe for evidence that might confirm or negate such self-reports. Similarly, we intentionally sought to corroborate reports from school principals with reports from central office administrators. We also interviewed a core set of central office administrators at the start, middle, and end of our data collection period to understand how their work may have varied over an academic year.

Our data analysis proceeded in several phases over more than a year and a half, during which time research team members scrutinized all data for patterns consistent with our conceptual framework and across districts. As described in more detail in the Methodological Appendix, we counted as “findings” only those examples and patterns we could corroborate with at least three different sources of data such as interviews with different respondents and interview, observation, and document data. Our findings reflect patterns of work practices and activities across all three systems that we derived from multiple data sources, and we found it challenging to present our data concisely. In the presentation of findings in this report, we rely on interview data to briefly illustrate key points and summaries of our observations but reinforce here that all findings rest on a substantial set of corroborating evidence.

The Five Dimensions of Central Office Transformation

Our study findings reveal what people throughout these three districts were doing to change their work to focus substantively on supporting teaching and learning improvement in schools district-wide. We organized our analysis into five distinct aspects of this work that we call the Five Dimensions of Central Office Transformation. These dimensions represent a set of tenable hypotheses concerning the kinds of central office work practices and activities that seem to matter in strengthening schools’ capacity for teaching and learning improvement (in the case of Dimension 1) or in focusing central office administrators’ daily work on teaching and learning improvement in substantive ways. We present those findings in the balance of the report and display them schematically in Figure 1 below, along with a brief explanation of how we established their connection to strengthening principals’ instructional leadership.


Dimension 1: Learning-focused Partnerships between the Central Office and Principals

In each district a dedicated cadre of central office administrators worked directly with school principals to strengthen principals’ instructional leadership; their work practices constitute the first dimension of central office transformation. We call these central office administrators, collectively, Instructional Leadership Directors or ILDs. ILDs all worked with school principals individually and through networks or professional learning communities. Despite those similarities, how they worked with individual principals and principal networks varied in ways that we associated with different results. We distinguished among ILD work practices that would be more and less likely to improve principal’s instructional leadership (and ultimately teaching and learning) using the following steps (a more detailed discussion appears in the Methodological Appendix).

First, we identified central office activities that reflected or conflicted with findings from research on learning about how to improve people’s professional practice. Various strands of research on how people learn indicate that when people (such as the ILDs) assist others (such as school staff) in improving their own practice, their assistance involves specific kinds of work practices such as modeling and the development and use of particular kinds of tools. Because these practices have been well established across disciplines, research settings, and research studies, they offer a research-based consensus regarding the kinds of “high quality” assistance relationships that are likely to help professionals improve their practice (for a summary of the features of high-quality assistance relationships, see Honig, 2008). In adapted form, they offered a template for examining ILDs’ work practices in their attempts to help principals. When applied to the substantial body of data we accumulated about ILDs’ work in these three districts, the template captured much of what the ILDs did, and particular types of practices emerged as having the potential for positive impacts on principals’ instructional leadership, while the absence of these practices (or negative examples of them) showed potential for the opposite effect.

We then corroborated the likelihood that these practices would—and did— strengthen principals’ instructional leadership with interview data and observations from four sources:

  • (1) reports from school principals (in interviews and also district feedback surveys) regarding the extent to which the ILDs helped them improve their instructional leadership practice;
  • our observations of the principals deepening their engagement in instructional leadership;
  • (3) reports from other central office administrators regarding their perceptions of the effectiveness of the ILDs in supporting school principals’ instructional leadership; and
  • (4) the ILDs’ own reports about their effectiveness in strengthening principals’ instructional leadership.

These data support the following pattern: ILDs who most frequently engaged in “high quality” assistance practices, as established by research, were also those that principals, other central office administrators, and independent observations unanimously identified as having a positive impact on their instructional leadership practice. While our research design did not allow us to causally attribute improved principals’ instructional leadership (or beyond that, specific improvements in teaching and learning) to what ILDs did, our findings strongly suggest that specific ILD practices were highly likely to help principals improve their instructional leadership practice.

These “high quality” practices for strengthening principals’ instructional leadership include:

  • Differentiating supports for principals’ instructional leadership consistently over the entire academic year.
  • Modeling ways of thinking and acting that exhibit the exercise of effective instructional leadership practice.
  • Developing and using tools that helped principals engage in instructional leadership practices.
  • Serving as a broker between principals and external resources, by bridging/ connecting principals to sources of assistance, and buffering them from negative external influences, both in service of supporting principals’ instructional leadership.

Additionally, in the principal networks, promising practices also included:

  • Engaging all principals as resources to their peers in support of each others’ instructional leadership (e.g., principals in other schools within their networks).

Dimension 2: Assistance to the Central Office–Principal Partnerships by the Rest of the Central Office

We found that in each district other central office administrators positioned themselves to provide direct support to the ILDs. In this second dimension of central office transformation, we distinguish activities of those other central office administrators that are more or less likely to support ILDs’ work. We defined positive ILD-support activities as those that helped ILDs maximize the time they spent working directly with their school principals, either individually or in networks, and focused on improving principals’ instructional leadership practice. We based our assessments of ILDs’ time on:

  • a random sample of their calendars, reviewed as part of interviews three times over the course of the study period, to determine time spent (if any) by other central office staff in supporting their work;
  • reports from ILDs about the impacts of different support activities on their time; and
  • reports from school principals about the amount and nature of the time they spent with ILDs, either in person or on the phone or e-mail.

We associated the following activities by other central office administrators with increasing the time ILDs spent supporting principals’ instructional leadership:

  • Professional development for ILDs that provided them with regular opportunities for challenging conversations about the quality of their work with school principals and how to improve it.
  • Taking issues and other demands off ILDs’ plates, freeing up their time to work with principals on principals’ instructional leadership.
  • Leading through—rather than around—the ILDs, and otherwise supporting the leadership of ILDs, vis-à-vis principals’ instructional leadership.
  • Developing and using an accountability system in which ILDs did not act as the sole agents holding principals accountable for improvements in student performance.

Dimension 3: Reorganizing and Reculturing Other Central Office Units, to Support Teaching and Learning Improvement

The reorganization and reculturing of staff in all central office units—from curriculum and instruction to facilities—in support of teaching and learning improvement constitutes a third dimension of central office transformation. What reorganizing and reculturing involved varied to some degree across different central office units, and we were unable to capture all the details and differences across all units within each central office.5 However, particular activities seemed promising for focusing the work of the rest of the central office on teaching and learning improvement. We base our claims related to this aspect of central office transformation, first, on multiple interviews with different central office administrators about the nature of their reform activities, drawing conclusions only if we could corroborate different claims with the reports of three different respondents. We considered those activities to be potentially focused on teaching and learning if central office administrators could provide an explicit rationale or explanation for why specific reorganization and reculturing activities mattered to teaching and learning improvement in schools or if they demonstrated that the reorganizing and reculturing activities had actually resulted in additional teaching and learning resources in schools (such as freeing up principals’ time for instructional leadership).

Across all three systems, three kinds of reorganizing and reculturing activities exhibit clear potential for furthering the improvement of teaching and learning in schools, and specifically for the work of school principals as instructional leaders, directly or indirectly:

  • Shifting the practice of central office administrators across central office units to personalize services to schools through “case management” and to focus on problem-solving through “project management.”
  • Developing the capacity of people throughout the central office to support teaching and learning improvement.
  • Holding central office administrators accountable for high-quality performance, especially as it relates to the quality of support provided to school leaders.

Dimension 4: Stewardship of the Overall Central Office Transformation Process

The implementation of central office transformation requires explicit “stewardship” or intentional efforts to develop and support the overall transformation effort. This fourth dimension of central office transformation distinguishes specific stewardship practices that were more and less likely to foster the central office transformation effort. We again triangulated observations and self-reports and inductively narrowed down a set of activities that we and our respondents consistently identified as supportive of their efforts to improve teaching and learning. In sum, we found that stewardship entailed:

  • Ongoing development of a theory of action for central office transformation.
  • Communication with others to help them understand the theory of action, including strategies used and underlying rationale for these strategies.
  • Strategic brokering of external resources and relationships to support the overall central office transformation process.

Dimension 5: Use of Evidence throughout the Central Office

We also found that each one of the first four dimensions of central office transformation involved staff collecting and using evidence to inform how they went about their support for school principals (Dimension 1), support to ILDs (Dimension 2), reorganizing and reculturing of central office units (Dimension 3), and stewardship (Dimension 4). These activities meant that administrators throughout the central office collected evidence not just from student performance systems but from the experience of central office administrators in the transformation process, and tried to use that evidence to inform their participation in the other four dimensions of the central office transformation process.

We based our claims about these activities mainly on observations of central office meetings as well as documents, corroborated by interviews. Our insights into the important roles these activities play in central office transformation are further supported by research on organizational learning that shows how the collection and use of information from experience can help organizations realize their goals (see Methodological Appendix). In addition, observations and interviews in each site demonstrated how integral such collection and use of evidence was to the implementation of the other dimensions of central office transformation.


How the Five Dimensions Work Together to Support Principals’ Instructional Leadership

As these five dimensions suggest, central office transformation involves everyone in the central office focusing their work on supporting principals’ instructional leadership as a main avenue for building schools’ capacity for teaching and learning improvement. To be sure, not all of the attention and energy of a transformed central office is focused on principals’ work alone. Through various other programs and initiatives, central office administrators worked directly with classroom teachers and staff, and many school principals shared responsibility for exercising instructional leadership with teachers and instructional leadership teams that were in evidence in many of the schools that we studied within these districts (see Portin et al., 2009). But central office transformation in all three systems prioritized the relationship between the central office and school principals as essential for school improvement.

The five dimensions of central office transformations do not assign roles and responsibilities by position, such as assistant superintendents or budget analysts; rather, these practices and activities seemed promising in the ways described above when some combination of central office administrators engage in these activities. For instance, in Atlanta Public Schools, the superintendent, deputy superintendent, and chief of staff carried out many of the activities under stewardship (Dimension 4), but in the Oakland Unified School District and New York City/Empowerment Schools Organization, those activities (when they were carried out) tended to comprise the work of the chief academic officers and a combination of other central office executive staff. Similarly, in New York City, executive central office staff designed and implemented most of the regular professional development for the ILDs (Dimension Two), whereas in Atlanta Public Schools this work was carried out by a combination of central office staff and external consultants, and in Oakland Unified School District, a non-profit organization partnered with the school district facilitated many of those activities. Whether or not the professional development seemed associated with actually supporting and strengthening ILD’s practice seemed less related to who delivered the supports and more to the strategies involved in the support. Accordingly, in the pages that follow we do not describe specific activities that superintendents, assistant superintendents, or other central office staff occupying specific roles carry out in transforming central offices but rather lines of work that transforming central offices support among their staff in various configurations. In this way our findings further reinforce that central office transformation is not simply a restructuring strategy but a new approach to central office work.

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1. See a companion study (Portin, Knapp, Dareff, Feldman, Russell, Samuelson, & Yeh, 2009), for a more comprehensive picture of the exercise of instructional leadership by supervisory and nonsupervisory leaders in selected schools within two of the districts (Atlanta and New York City/Empowerment Schools Organization) engaged in central office transformation efforts.

2. The limitations of the research literature are methodological as well. For example, many studies of school district central offices rely on reports by school principals and teachers about what their central offices do. While people who work in schools have important perspectives on their central offices, most central office practice takes place out of principals’ and teachers’ view, rendering such reports fundamentally limited. Other studies draw on single interviews with a small handful of central office administrators to represent the whole of the central office. While such methods represent an important improvement over previous studies that drew conclusions about the central office based only on superintendent responses to interviews or surveys, one-time interviews with a few central office staff do not necessarily capture what central office administrators across central offices actually do or how their work unfolds over time.

3. As explained in the Capsule Descriptions, as part of their overall central office transformation process, the New York City Department of Education radically remade its central office into distinct School Support Organizations (SSOs), each of which functioned as the “central office” for schools that chose to affiliate with it. Since it was not feasible for us to study all 14 SSOs, particularly given our emphasis on understanding the work practices of central office administrators across the central office, we chose to focus on the Empowerment School Organization (ESO). All 14 SSOs were charged with raising student achievement, but the ESO, at the start of our study, seemed particularly focused on strengthening the day-to-day work practices of central office administrators to support schools’ capacity for improved teaching and learning.

4. Our data collection in New York City began in the spring of 2007.

5. A coordinated companion study (Plecki, Knapp, Castaneda, Halverson, LaSota, & Lochmiller, 2009), sheds further light on the “reorganization” alluded to here. That study examined the reallocation of staffing resources in two of the three districts studied here (Atlanta and New York City/Empowerment Schools Organization), and documented various district-level leadership actions, among them the investment of staffing and other resources, that made it possible, or more likely, that central office staff would engage in the practices under study here.