Central Office Transformation for District-Wide Teaching and Learning Improvement

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 Central Office Transformation for District-Wide Teaching and Learning Improvement

Our discussion in previous chapters has honed in on how central office transformation involves, first of all, central office administrators (ILDs) dedicated to working with individual school principals and networks of school principals to improve their instructional leadership practice. Second, we noted that direct support to those assistance providers seemed essential to their ability to carry out their work at a basic level of quality. In tandem with these developments, a third dimension of central office transformation, schematically shown in Figure 4 below, complemented the first two dimensions: staff in other units throughout the central offices (e.g., budget, human resources, and facilities) worked to significantly change their own professional practice to support teaching and learning improvement in schools, directly or indirectly.


This picture of what other central office administrators were doing is based on multiple interviews with such administrators about the nature of their daily work, corroborated by reports of three different respondents or at least three different data sources (e.g., an interview, documents, and observations). We considered activities promising for focusing other central office units on teaching-and-learning support if central office administrators could (1) provide an explicit rationale or explanation for why specific reorganization and reculturing activities mattered to teaching and learning improvement in schools, or (2) demonstrate that the reorganizing and reculturing activities had resulted in additional teaching and learning resources in schools (such as freeing up principals’ time for instructional leadership). Through this process we identified three sets of activities involved with reorganizing and reculturing all central office units to support teaching and learning improvement:

  • Shifting the practice of central office administrators across central office units to personalize services through “case management” and 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 it relates to the quality of support provided to school leaders.

We refer to these activities as “reorganizing” because they involved a realignment and reform of formal central office structures such as the nature of positions within each unit and reporting lines throughout the central office. But these changes also focused centrally on “reculturing” or penetrating how people actually went about their work and related to schools. The three school districts did not engage in such reorganizing and reculturing of all their central office units all at once. Rather, they phased in unit involvement over a series of years. In this chapter we concentrate on reorganizing and reculturing efforts that were underway during the study period.

Shifting to Case and Project Management for Teaching and Learning Improvement

A hallmark of our three transforming districts’ change efforts involved the reorganization of central office units to personalize school principals’ experience with different central office units and to focus central office administrators on addressing particular problems. Prior to central office transformation, many of these units were organized with staff assigned to deliver particular services to all or large groups of schools, and to deliver these services in a relatively one-size-fits-all manner. Under transformation, individual central office staff members specialized in particular schools, not services, and were assigned to address whatever needs arose in those schools across their department; likewise, staff were assigned to cross-unit project teams that addressed particular problems or challenges related to school support that did not fit neatly within any one central office unit.

Structural changes such as the assignment of schools to staff and the formation of cross-unit teams created necessary, but not sufficient, conditions for those central office staff to actually work differently with schools, serve schools better, and engage school leaders in ways that supported their teaching and learning improvement efforts. More consequential to shifts in the practice of central office administrators across all three central offices were efforts to help staff develop case and project management approaches to their work.

The shift to a case management approach. We use the term case management to refer to efforts to help central office administrators work closely with individual schools to understand their goals, identify barriers to teaching and learning improvement in schools, and address those barriers, even if they fell beyond the purview of their particular central office units. Respondents in all three systems sometimes referred to such changes as involving a “customer service” orientation to central office work. But, as one central office administrator elaborated,

    It’s not some touchy feely thing … . [P]eople think customer service training is like, “Oh, let’s be all nice to each other”… but it’s not. It’s about learning about the dynamics of what it means to be a customer and then how you keep that customer.

This respondent went on to explain that organizations keep customers in part when they know their customers well and develop and provide services that customers value and that help customers realize their goals.

In an example from Atlanta that captures this distinction between traditional central office work and working with a case-management orientation, multiple central office staff and school principals described how, prior to central office transformation, staff in the human resources (HR) unit mainly specialized in different aspects of the hiring process such as processing new teacher applications for all schools, with little attention to individual schools or how the work of the HR unit might support teaching and learning improvement in specific schools. Through the central office transformation process, HR staff shifted their work over time so that schools had a central office “generalist” assigned to them to help with human resources needs; importantly, the generalists worked to shift their fundamental orientation to their work from one focused on, “How can I deliver particular services to all schools?” to one centered on school-specific questions such as: “Who are the principals in the schools I am responsible for? What are these school principals and their staff trying to do to improve teaching and learning? What kinds of staff do they need and what can I do to help them recruit, hire, and retain those candidates?” One central office administrator described this shift as the HR generalists “know every school’s HR issues, what type of teachers they’re looking for, who’s left, who’s coming, who’s pregnant.” Another corroborated, by indicating that schools …

    … have the HR generalist and that person knows their schools inside and out. How many teachers they need, where they need them, what their reforms are about. So when they go out to recruit they say, “Well you know, school A has IB [an International Baccalaureate program]. School B has SFA [Success for All]. So if you’re interested in a more scripted approach, here’s SFA. If you’re more open and fluid approach, here’s IB.” They know it.

These shifts have not been without their challenges. Principals reported numerous examples of phone calls to human resources not being returned. Central office staff acknowledged this problem and generally characterized it as a growing pain: as the human resources unit came to provide higher quality service to school principals, staff faced increasing demands from principals for assistance. At the end of our study period, central office administrators were in the process of considering how to increase the staff of the HR unit to improve the timeliness of response.

One way New York City leaders addressed these burdens on HR staff through a similar redesign process was by separating out HR “transactions”—the routine interactions between school staff and central office human resources personnel that did not necessarily require customer service or even staff to handle them (if they could be automated). Separating these transactions from strategy or problem solving that did require specialized expertise freed up some central office HR staff to work with principals on school-specific issues and challenges in a case management fashion. As one described,

    … historically, HR managers have tended to say to schools “No” or “Here’s the 52 forms you have to fill out and if you jump through all these hoops, completely to my satisfaction, then ‘yes.’” … What’s evolving right now is taking this huge transactional burden off of them and putting it into this HR service center. And then … we’ll really build the customer service culture as well as the tools and technology for these people to be effective … . And right now if you were to ask three HR Partners what’s the policy around returning from maternity leave if you’ve taking more than eight months, I suspect you’d get multiple answers because it’s just not easy to know, right. So in that sense, we have hired some new people to be these HR Partners and we’ve hired, in theory, some of the best of the old, but we’re really just in the beginning of evolving their job description and taking out the stuff that could be done more mechanically and building the customer service …

Taking a project management approach. In tandem with the development of the case management focus throughout the central office, staff in all three of our systems, to varying degrees, also took a project management approach to their work. Project management16, in broad terms, called on central office administrators to shift their work from delivering services that they controlled to taking responsibility for work projects and marshaling resources from throughout and sometimes beyond the central office to address them. Through this approach, central office staff were not given discrete tasks to carry out but rather specific problems they had to figure out how to address. As a leader in New York City described such processes, first …

    … you had to have a way of conceptualizing work in smaller pieces. Even though it might have been a very big or systemic kind of [problem], you had to begin to conceptualize it in smaller pieces and call them “projects” so that they had a definable goal or outcome, and that they would be time-bound and budgetbound. So it’s like nothing magic. It’s just educators hadn’t necessarily been doing that that way … . And that [process] basically is a core group of experts [i.e. staff from throughout the central office] … who are deliberately put to a table to solve a problem under the guise of a project. And their time is outlined, their time is secured … . And so … [participants] … as a part of his or her work, has unique time dedicated to support that project. So it’s not “Yeah, I’ll try to get to the meeting.” Or “When are you going to schedule that? Tuesday’s not good for me.” And that kind of thing. There is a charter that outlines the elements of the project. Subject area experts that are needed to help think about and conceptualize the benchmarks and deliverables. To develop the timelines, do the work, and then they meet at a unique set of times. Then their performance on that team gets channeled back to their administrative agent or supervisor or whatever.

This shift to project management reflected a recognition, expressed by one central office administrator in Atlanta, that when a central office shifts its focus from delivering services to truly solving problems, staff begin to see that they have to work with their colleagues in more integrated and collaborative ways than they had in the past,

    No one department can accomplish anything by themselves. Even HR—they need technology, they need finance. You all need us to get it to the board. So we all kind of need each other and so why don’t we get together on a project team and figure out how to do it together. … We’re in the beginning stages of really solidifying that as a way of work. And it has been, I must say, the most effective way in which we are beginning to get buy-in from people at the central office. What we found is that people really like to collaborate with other people. And it has been amazing the problems that we have been able to at least identify.

The creation of the operations support unit in Oakland provides one example of how project management called on central office staff to solve problems, even if responsibility for those problems and promising solutions did not fall neatly within any one central office unit. Central office leaders launched this unit in 2005 in direct response to a problem with how the central office worked with schools. Demands to manage operational issues were keeping many principals from focusing on teaching and learning improvement, not only because of the sheer number of demands, but also because schools did not have efficient systems or staff in place to manage those demands. As the central office began its central office transformation effort and began to emphasize the importance of principals focusing on instructional improvement, central office leaders realized that the approach, as one said, “places a lot of emphasis on [other school staff] as … the operational manager [of the school]. The reality is most of our schools do not have support staff that can function at that level.” Building the capacity of school-based administrators other than the principal to manage various non-instructional school operations did not fall neatly into any one long-standing central office unit. Nor did staff in those units typically have current capacity to help schools with their myriad non-instructional demands. To address this problem, central office leaders convened a project management team consisting of some new and veteran central office employees around the problem of how to provide operations support to schools. Rather than tinkering within the central office’s traditional departments, team members asked more fundamentally what kinds of support they could provide to schools to address that challenge. The result, Operations Support, brought together 12 staff people from within and outside the central office to help build more effective systems for handling various operational functions.

In practice, when the unit was up and running, Operations Support staff applied case and project management foci to their work. Within that new unit, ten “operations coaches” worked directly with schools to address site-specific issues (i.e., case management) while two other staff people took on “Homerun Projects,” lines of work within the central office that, if improved, promised to dramatically increase principals’ time spent on teaching and learning improvement (i. e., project management). At the time of our study, “Homerun projects” included the management of a cross-unit team to improve the efficiency of the payroll function within the central office, work with custodial services to develop better central office systems for keeping schools clean, and reforms within the human resources department to improve the rate at which they provided substitutes for schools with teacher absences or vacancies. As one central office administrator described the identification of those Homerun projects,

    So last year there was a … retreat [with staff from throughout the central office]. And … [the central office leader facilitating the discussion] … had,like ,I think ten issues up on the board that are things that people commonly hear and said, “If we were really able to make a huge difference in five issues, what would the five issues be?”

The Oakland principals we interviewed were unanimous in naming Operations Support as the part of the central office that provided them with vital supports for addressing their challenges and freeing up their time for focusing on teaching and learning improvement. Operations Support also received consistently high marks on district-administered surveys of principals’ satisfaction with central office services.

The reform of the human resources unit in Atlanta also resulted from a project management process over several years aimed at addressing inefficiencies in how staff of that unit worked with schools as one strategy for improving teaching and learning. As one participant in these processes in Atlanta described the evolution of the project management focus in HR,

    So I had, with … members of the HR team and customer focus groups looked at five of our processes … . And when we looked at their process it took 21 people to get some of our real basic processes accomplished. So then we decided okay, if we change our process, that’s going to bring about some new roles and responsibilities … . So what we decided to do is assign a generalist to a [SRT] feeder pattern. So then you [the generalist] had the relationship with that executive director and those principals, … a better understanding of the culture of each school… [and] SRT executive directors. And could then better support the schools. We did a pilot with one of our feeder patterns … . We got positive feedback. So we went to a rolling implementation …

Atlanta stood out in our data for the remarkable consistency with which respondents described the explicit connection between the work of the project management teams and teaching and learning improvement: that through project management, Atlanta central office leaders aimed to help all employees understand their work as consequential, directly or indirectly, to increasing the time and other resources available for teaching and learning improvement in schools. Early in the central office transformation effort, district leaders conducted discussion groups with central office employees to raise their awareness of the central office transformation effort and convey that this teaching and learning improvement initiative would have a significant impact on their work. Executive leadership then required everyone throughout the central office, as one described, to

    … sit down and figure out how their job related to student achievement. Each one of us had to do that. And it was very difficult for some people on my staff. I remember my secretary said “Well, I don’t have anything to do with it.” I said, “Well if you don’t, then go home … Go home and think about it and come back.” And so she did and she says “Well, you know, I did do the [coordination of resources for the school board], and if I don’t do it well ,then the board gets mad and maybe they won’t approve something that the school needs.” Bingo—there you go … . That’s our first business: How do we make ourselves relevant to schools.

As another central office administrator put it,

    When an employee goes to work [in a school], [that school employee has] a lot of things run through [their] mind. If we assist those employees [we] … relieve them of a lot of their pressure so that they can go back into the schools and concentrate on the main focus of the students. We’re here for the students. So if we can assist them and accommodate them as much as we can to relieve that stress and that tension, they can devote their time to teaching the kids and learning them, so we’re here to assist and provide a service to the employees.

Across multiple examples of such efforts in Atlanta, we found that central office staff most commonly understood their work as related to teaching and learning in schools in one or two ways: If they conducted their work at a high level of quality then (1) school staff would not have to spend as much time as they had in the past dealing with delays in the delivery of services or problems associated with central office functions performed poorly, and therefore have more time to focus on teaching and learning; and (2) services would be provided more efficiently, which would free-up dollars that could them be reallocated to school classrooms. As one central office leader put it,

    The reform is to ensure that … all students, not just pockets of students, which is what we’ve had in the past, … obtain knowledge that allows them to be successful to continue to matriculate through graduation and be college ready … . So that means from an instruction standpoint where [teachers] have the direct contact, they’re teaching at a high level to all students regardless. And from an operations standpoint we are doing everything that we possibly can to support the schools in a timely and efficient manner. That we’re not wasting our money. That as many of the resources as possible go into the school or supporting schools. That we operate at the most minimal level that we can to be efficient. Which means really analyzing and understanding our needs and that we understand from our operations side that our only reason we’re existing is to ensure that our schools do well. That is it. There is no other reason. And if you don’t buy into that, you need to go work someplace else.

Central office administrators demonstrated that they had realized some cost savings especially in the areas of utilities conservation, preventive maintenance for facilities, and greater efficiencies in the school nutrition program.

Developing the Capacity of People Throughout the Central Office to Support Teaching and Learning Improvement

As the discussion above suggests, the shift to case and project management called for significant changes in how many central office staff accomplished their work. Many had been hired for a different kind of job and were not necessarily ready to adopt a new orientation. Not surprisingly, then, the development of people throughout the central office for this new work was fundamental to actually implementing these changes throughout the central offices. Central office leaders built such human capital by both (1) bringing in new staff who came ready to take the new orientation, and (2) offering particular kinds of professional development to help new and existing staff understand and execute what case and project management demanded.

Restaffing and retraining enabled the reorganization and reculturing of the central office in several ways. First, central office leaders aimed to build the central office’s human capital for project-management focused on teaching and learning by bringing in new and often non-traditional staff into the central office. These newcomers often replaced veteran staff in long-time positions or took on new positions created specifically under the central office transformation effort. For example, a cadre of Broad Fellows worked on a number of special projects throughout the Oakland central office, many of them eventually taking on more permanent positions related to community accountability and the oversight of over 28 “workstreams” or projects to help ensure that they operated in project management fashion. Many of these Fellows had limited educational background but some experience with organizational development and fiscal management generally unavailable in the central office. Oakland’s central office leaders also brought on McKinsey & Company, a consulting firm to conduct a “clean sheet” process of fundamentally rethinking the number and nature of central office positions throughout the central office that, in some units, led to the removal of a significant number of staff. As a result, some of the new project and department directors found they had up to fifty to sixty percent of their positions vacant.

Central office administrators identified the removal of staff to free up positions for new staff as essential to execution of the central office work. In the words of one, some people look at turnover in a system and assume that the turnover is negative, the “negative impact of environmental change or structural … change. I just think it’s kind of the shake-out that goes on when you’re trying to put the right people in the right seats.” Another added that getting some staff to change their work in the ways project management demanded was like trying to “teach a dog to meow” and that no amount of retraining was going to change their practice. An Atlanta staff member argued that being able to bring in new staff was essential to realizing the goals of central office transformation. One director colleague had over 10 vacancies coming into the directorship, which provided that person with …

    … lots of space to create a new structure that he’s looking to create. And the [number of] vacancies may not end up being [that many positions]. He may combine some and create ten super positions or eight super positions, but that’s part of our design that we were going through … . So, he has the luxury where I came in to almost a fully staffed [team] … didn’t have as much room to operate. I think having those vacancies gives you a lot more room to operate and get the skill set that you need to do what you need to do.

Because the Atlanta district is in a right-to-work state, leaders there had more flexibility for firing and hiring personnel than their counterparts in New York City and Oakland, who were bound by union agreements and, in some cases, state mandates that constrained certain positions. Nonetheless, leaders in those other systems generally worked creatively within union agreements and state law to increase their ability to restaff certain positions. For example, in New York City, state law required that community school superintendents evaluate school principals. Under the preceding central office structure, those superintendents also oversaw sub-district units that had been clustered together into large “regional” offices which essentially functioned as the central office for the schools in those geographic areas. Under transformation, system leaders disbanded the regions and replaced them with school support organizations. To comply with state law, community school superintendent retained responsibility for principal evaluation but otherwise had limited authority.17 In both New York City and Oakland, when central office leaders were unable to remove staff who seemed unable or unwilling to work with the new project-management focus, they generally moved them to positions that required discrete tasks or “transactions” that most staff could carry out, at the very least, at a minimum level of quality.

While some degree of restaffing was obviously necessary for central office transformation, restaffing was hardly sufficient. Ongoing retraining of new and existing staff also seemed essential. One Oakland central office administrator captured the dual importance of restaffing and retraining by identifying two approaches to central office reculturing. One is,

    scaring the shit out of people [through downsizing departments and letting staff go]. And then people say, Oh I guess it’s a new day … . The other way of doing culture change is to assume the best about the human beings that are in your organization. And … try to help them get engaged in “Why do we need to change?” And build a case for change and bring the people along with you … . [Y]ou have to be strategic about which one you use at which time and in organizational life cycles. So that [downsizing and firing people] … might have been the right thing to start but it had to be followed up fairly quickly by … then how do we make this work? How do we get everyone on board? ... I had to … be the person that said, “Okay we did this big structural change. It’s not really working as well as we’d hoped it would work. Principals weren’t feeling any more supported [than they were before].”

This administrator went on to specify that even new staff in new structures did not help people understand how to do their work differently.

Atlanta central office leaders described learning about the importance of re-training over time by trial and error. In one leader’s words,

    My mistake [early on ] was thinking that with that vague direction about “Go forth and … figure out the ‘what is’ and the ‘to be’ was going to get it … and to have them do it on their own—you know, identify a leader in the group and go forth. No. No. They started meeting. Now…to give the team credit … they jump into it … . Even when it’s not crystal clear, you know because they know I’m saying, “You are very smart people or you wouldn’t be on this team, so I don’t expect you to come to me with just questions, questions, questions. I expect you to come to me with solutions.” So that’s the reason why they said “Okay, we can do this.” But I didn’t think anything about the human side of that—what I was really asking them to do. I didn’t think about the skill set either for them to do it other than that they were smart and they knew something had to be done … . [I overestimated their] understanding of project management methodology, so you could do the ‘what is’ and the ‘to be’—even a good understanding of the system as a whole.

Others attested to this description that engagement in such a project management approach took extensive hands-on job-embedded training , from consultants who facilitated meetings and trained people in how to lead in a project-management model to central office leaders themselves. As one central office director reported,

    So what I learned is that when you have to rely on your team to get the work done, just like a principal in a school, you must make time for them. You must be very clear about the expectations. You must plan with them and make sure that everyone understands—and I mean planning down sometimes to the who, the what, the when, and the how. You cannot escape that. You cannot take it for granted that just because people are willing, they’re smart, loyal to the district, and you know that they’ve been here—[just because of those reasons you can’t assume] they know [what to do]. That you can leave that alone. They need feedback just like you’re telling principals to do with teachers, okay? They need that sacred time with you beyond just the general meeting. They also need validation.

In all three districts, executive central office staff launched significant efforts to provide ongoing professional development for staff throughout the central office to help them adopt the new orientation to their work that central office transformation demanded. In so doing, these district leaders charted new territory. As many respondents reported, prior to the transformation effort, professional development opportunities for central office personnel were few and far between. Our scan of central office professional development opportunities at that period of time suggested that, at best, central office administrators might participate in doctoral programs at universities alongside other educators or attend annual conferences. By contrast, the central office professional development efforts in these systems aimed to provide each individual central office administrator with multiple, whole district, unit-specific, and individualized job embedded supports for improving their practice in the ways the central office transformation efforts demanded.

For example, in Oakland, executive central office staff organized a series of professional development retreats, mid-year workshops, and ongoing unit-specific conversations to help central office staff come to see their work as providing highquality services to schools, specifically to strengthen schools’ teaching and learning improvement efforts. As one executive-level staff person described the hands-on, ongoing involvement in central office professional development,

    … in the beginning, I created a … boot camp and I just got different resources from around the district to train people on different systems and procedures … . Since then … I spent time with each person on … some different systems stuff, and then what we’ve done is breakdown the various areas of things that people should know. So the new operations support coach spends time with each operations support coach learning those kind of skills, and also about being an operations support coach. So part of that person’s training assignment is to teach them not only about those things but to take them on at least one school visit so you see … what does that actually mean to be at a school and how do you approach that relationship and all of that. And so then they get that perspective from a number of people.

Reports from participants indicate that these large-group meetings and jobembedded supports focused on basic central office procedures and how staff could come to know schools better to troubleshoot non-routine problems in ways that promised to be optimally responsive to schools. In addition, central office leaders created a new partnership with a local community college to increase some staff members’ access to associate degrees and other educational opportunities to increase their readiness for jobs requiring more skills.

Within the New York City Empowerment Schools Organization, central office staff convened the network team members on a regular basis, much as they did the network leaders, for professional development on central office systems and how they might work with schools in ways that supported teaching and learning improvement. Beyond the ESO, system leaders relied, in part, on market mechanisms to drive improvement in the central office—in broad terms, the strategy of redirecting a significant amount of funds to the school level and “selling” central office services to them on an as-needed basis, and in competition with similar resources they could buy from other parts of the public system or outside the system. New York City leaders did not simply create a market. They also launched a professional development group called the Market Maker to help prepare staff to work effectively within a “market economy” and thereby increase the chances that central office administrators would actually provide services to schools that schools would want to purchase. As one central office administrator described,

    So, Market Maker was developed to sort of catalyze that market, meaning both build an infrastructure so that the sellers could actually package the services and market them and sell them … . You’ve got people [in the central office] who are sort of accustomed to providing [various services to schools with a] take-it-orleave- it kind of mentality. [With the Market Maker we] … say to them … “Why does this service that you’re wanting people to buy valuable? “Why would a school want that?”

Multiple respondents described the importance of these professional development opportunities to helping staff throughout the central office successfully participate in their work with a project-management, customer-service focus. For example, several New York City respondents commented that they believed the Market Maker and other professional development efforts were essential to realizing the goals of central office transformation, so that staff did not revert back to the old ways of doing business within the new structure of the school support organizations.

Holding Central Office Administrators Accountable for High-quality Performance

Central office administrators also fueled the reorganization and reculturing efforts when they developed and used new accountability mechanisms that held them accountable for improving the quality of support provided to school principals either directly or through their ILDs. As Atlanta Superintendent Beverly Hall reflected,

    … [W]e came up with a school reform team model, which was to decentralize the central office, place them in schools within their clusters, give them a lot of instructional support and whatever other support they need for central office. So the services would be closer. And there would be more accountability. I would know who was responsible for those schools. For everything from facilities to improving instruction, there was a person, an entity that was accountable. And that, perhaps has been, again, one of the most strategic things we could have done.

Each system had always had some mechanisms for holding central office staff accountable for their work. But under central office transformation, the new accountability tools called for holding central office staff accountable for providing high-quality and relevant services to school principals. Some central office leaders also reinforced accountability measures with sanctions and rewards for employees.

As part of these new accountability tools, central office administrators in all three districts created or were in the process of developing specific metrics for central office performance. In Atlanta, for example, staff responsible for facilities decided that a meaningful metric of their performance vis-à-vis support for teaching and learning would be whether or not work projects came in at or under budget and on time, thereby freeing up central office staff and central office funds for other projects. Similarly, leaders in New York City described developing a clear set of measures for gauging individual central office administrators’ performance. In the words of one, “We went into great detail about what exactly it is that we wanted them to do and how we define low performance, high performance, mediocre performance and those in between.” Likewise, in Oakland, central office leaders launched a major effort to develop score cards for staff throughout the central office that defined high-quality work performance with specific measures and made those measures public throughout the system.

Importantly, central office administrators in these systems did not simply develop these accountability measures. They also used them to hold central office administrators accountable in ways that seemed at least to create the urgency for central office staff to improve their performance. In New York City, for example, central office executive staff often led other central office staff through processes of conducting self-assessments against the accountability system measures to help them focus attention on those measures and also develop personalized plans for building their competencies for meeting those standards. At the end of each year, executive staff evaluated those other central office personnel against the competencies and provided rewards and sanctions for different levels of performance. In perhaps the most extreme example of reliance on rewards and sanctions as an accountability lever, Atlanta Superintendent Hall tied her own compensation and that of her executive staff and other central office administrators to schools’ performance on student achievement tests. As one executive staff person explained,

    Well, there are approximately five general areas where I’m rated or evaluated, plus a sixth is how do the students do in terms of student achievement. Dr. Hall is a firm believer in, even though I don’t have direct student contact, my compensation is not going to improve if the students don’t improve. So a big piece of my evaluation is tied to how the students do. So we might have some bricks-andsticks- related objectives, but then we also have a big impact driven by the students.

Executive central office staff also gave legs to the accountability tools when they used them in public settings to ask central office staff challenging questions about their work and to publicly present evidence of their progress. One executive central office administrator in Atlanta described this public accountability as “a little bit scary for people” because “then they’re exposed.” In one example, an executive central office staff person described how such public accountability provided a significant impetus for some staff to change their practice,

    So [we] had this meeting [with one unit] and … say “Well, why can’t this get done?” [Staff responded] “Well, so-and-so’s … [a staff person in purchasing is not doing a good job with their part.] So at that next meeting, I had the purchasing guy there at the table. [I asked] “Well, why can’t this be done?” [They said] “It’s technology.” So the next meeting we brought technology in. “It’s HR” [they said]. So we brought HR. Then it’s other people in finance. So eventually we had everybody at the table—everybody. Because I said “Whoever you point the finger to, you will have to point it to their face.”

This person went on to say that as a result of such accountability efforts, central office administrators started to understand that they could no longer put responsibility for poor central office performance on someone else but they had to take responsibility to improve their own work. And, as the administrator continued, for some central office staff those meetings are …

    very, very uncomfortable … . [One central office staff person] told me literally … “No one has ever said that to me” [i.e. that I need to do a better job]. I said, “You’re living down here in a fog, buddy. Everybody thinks that you guys suck! I’m here to tell you! ... So let’s go about doing some of the things that we can do to help change that perception because that perception really is everyone else’s reality except yours … . What planet are you living on that you think everything’s going well?

Oakland stood out in our study for its efforts at least to plan to engage family members in helping to hold central office administrators accountable for their performance. For example, an initiative called ComPAS or Community Plan for Accountability in Schools focused on creating what one central office administrator called “two-way accountability” between families and the district that spelled out what central office administrators were “expecting from families and from community members in terms of their role in supporting children in achieving in school and becoming successful adults. And then on the other side of that is helping work with them so they know what to hold us accountable for.” Central office administrators described that by creating opportunities for public participation in accountability, including the public presentation of results, central office leaders aimed to increase the pressure on central office staff to provide higher quality supports to schools.


In this chapter we have argued that efforts to reorganize and reculture units throughout central offices are fundamental to realizing the goals of central office transformation. Such efforts seemed particularly promising in this regard when they moved beyond simply restructuring central office units but reinforcing substantially new ways of working with schools. This meant a number of things: shifting to “case management” and “project management” approaches to central office work; restaffing and retraining, so that central office units, old and new, were filled with people how knew how to tackle the new work of the central office; and establishing accountability systems that made the work of all central office units visible and connected them to the improvement of teaching and learning in schools. When these different practices worked in concert, the central office showed clear signs of becoming a far more supportive and responsive force in the overall equation of educational reform.

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16. In governmental reform efforts, such an approach to change is sometimes called the “new public management” (e.g., Barzelay, 1992).

17. This decision was not without controversy, however, some of which culminated in lawsuits calling for the district to restore statutory authority of the community school superintendents. After the conclusion of our data collection, the chancellor did return certain statutory functions to the community school superintendents but the superintendents no longer oversaw the main school support units of the school district central office.