The Three Essentials: Improving Schools Requires District Vision, District and State Support, and Principal Leadership

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 The Three Essentials: Improving Schools Requires District Vision, District and State Support, and Principal Leadership

Strategies of Highly Supportive Districts

  • Organize the central office — including human resources, finance, curriculum and instruction — to function cohesively to support principals and school leadership teams. The district hires a staff that fits the needs of school strategic plans, assists principals to remove ineffective teachers and, either through central-office staff or consultants, provides technical expertise to schools in implementing their own strategic improvement plans.
  • Focus not on micro-managing schools, but on developing school principals’ and staffs’ capacity to implement their school’s strategic improvement plan successfully.
  • Establish a collaborative presence in the schools, focused on building the capacity of principals and teachers to own school problems and to implement proven solutions.

Focus the Central Office on Support


“We’re going to flip the pyramid in [Chicago Public Schools] this year. When I say flip the pyramid, I’m saying that the job of the central office is to support the schools, not manage them. Principals run schools and we’re here to make their job easier and help them succeed in the only place that matters — in the classroom.”

Arne Duncan, CEO of Chicago Public Schools (and current U.S. Secretary of Education), August 19, 200510

Interviews with effective districts identified a desire to better engage district staff in supporting school improvement. In a few cases, district personnel could point to specific changes their organizational structures adopted for the purpose of raising student achievement. The most significant changes, however, involved changing the mindsets and job descriptions of central-office staff to focus more on curriculum, instruction and school support. Less important were changes in job titles, hierarchy and district organization. The following responses emphasize the mission of the district office in supporting schools:

  • “Our philosophy in the curriculum division is, ‘We are here to support the schools.’ That is the reason that we’re here.”
  • “ ... that’s the expectation from the teaching and learning department — that we are here to serve the schools, to serve the teachers and the principals.”
  • “Central office should not be something that is done to you. It should be an agent that’s there to help you achieve your goals.”

District support of schools requires staff to spend time in schools. One assistant superintendent in a medium-sized district, a former successful principal, described his work:

    “I spend a lot of time with the high schools working on school reform [and] the forming of ... true leadership teams in the school, so that the changes are owned by the people that are actually leading, down the hallways and the classrooms. So it’s been a very individualized approach. It has not been a top-down [approach], it’s been a combination of setting expectations and providing a support framework. ... I visit all the high schools every week.”

In the highly supportive districts, seven of 10 respondents indicated that central office staff spend a great deal of time in the schools; in the moderately and minimally supportive districts, only 11 of 25 respondents indicated that central-office staff spend a great deal of time in schools. This is consistent with The District Leadership Challenge study, which found that principals of most-improved high schools were more likely than principals of least-improved schools to report that the central office staff frequently and actively visited their schools. 11 As a respondent in this study said, district staff cannot be effective if they sit in a central office, “glued to a chair [and] waving a golden wand” to accomplish their work.§

Tailor Central Office Organization to Raise Student Achievement

Interviews revealed no quick-fix solutions for organizing district offices to better support principals’ work. How central office staff members organize their time and work to support principals’ work is more important than how the district office is organized. However, a few of the districts did report changing in their organization to better support principals. Benson County eliminated an assistant superintendent position for athletics and created a position to support curriculum and instruction. The superintendent said that schools in the district were having difficulty meeting AYP and that academic performance was down. The school board and the public supported the change, and it reinforced a message that the district was focusing on raising academic achievement.

Respondents reported several other changes to district organization:

  • Supporting students: A medium-sized district created a new division for student-support services to help its most challenged students.
  • Valuing professional development: In a few districts, the staff member in charge of professional development has been elevated from a coordinator position to a higher-level director or cabinet level position.
  • Building capacity to serve all grade levels: Multiple districts reported a practice (sometimes unofficial) of pairing staff who had experience working in high schools with staff who had experience in elementary grades. For example, a superintendent with more experience in elementary schools went outside the district to hire a new assistant superintendent with strong high school credentials. In another district, the director of professional development, whose background was in high schools, hired a person with an elementary focus to balance the ability of her office to meet the needs of all schools in the district.

Highly supportive districts reported tearing down the walls separating different district functions and involving everyone — including business administrators — in the fundamental business of educating students. One school board member described his district some years ago as “little fiefdoms” that did not communicate with each other. This district has changed that culture and become a highly supportive district.

Engage the Business Office in Curriculum and Instruction

A hallmark of a district organized to support principals as instructional leaders is active involvement of the head of business operations in curriculum and instruction discussions. Efforts to improve achievement and graduation rates — such as before- and after-school programs, credit-recovery programs, and career-focused learning opportunities — require the active involvement of business and finance directors.

One assistant superintendent described his district’s cabinet meetings this way:

    “A superintendent, four assistant superintendents, the finance officer and the public relations director are included in those meetings. So there are seven of us in those meetings, and I would say probably 85 percent of what we talk about is curriculum- and instruction-driven: how to make the teaching better, how to improve the curriculum, how to improve advantages for students. So it’s all centered around students.”

In the minimally supportive districts, the assistant superintendents in charge of finance and business often were disengaged from curriculum and instruction. Their focus was on budgets and building maintenance, and their interviews did not reveal a clear connection between their work and the business of creating effective teaching and learning.

Support Principals’ Human Resources Needs

The most important asset of a school is its instructional staff, and one of the most important roles of a district is to provide schools with efficient and supportive human resources. 12 Supporting principals’ ability to hire high-quality staff is indicative of overall levels of support. Eight of 10 respondents in highly supportive districts reported that principals have authority to hire their own staff. (See Table 4.) The superintendent of a highly supportive district explained why he allows principals discretion in hiring, saying that the central office does not tell principals whom to hire because the principals are the ones responsible for the teaching in the school.

In the moderately and minimally supportive districts, only 10 of 25 respondents reported that principals had an appropriate level of authority in hiring faculty. Respondents from three districts gave troubling reports that, for a variety of reasons, central offices were choosing teaching staff against the wishes of principals. Teachers are forced into schools because enrollment has fallen at another school and the district does not want to release them, or because they have connections in the central office, or because the district wants to release them but a prior principal was unable to document cause for dismissal. One respondent explained:

    “Sometimes [principals] interview and sometimes they get to recommend, but ... sometimes they’ll recommend their top two [choices] and they don’t get either one of them. ... It might be, ‘We thought you needed this, this, and this. So we picked this person for you.’ Or it can be, ‘This person needs a job,’ or, ‘We’re really trying to place this person.’ ”

Table 4
Comments Indicating Principals Have Authority to Hire Staff

District Level
of Support

Percentage of
Respondents Indicating
Principals Have

Total Number
of Comments

Comments per













Three districts mentioned screening job applicants to help principals narrow the field of potential candidates and actively recruiting the best available teachers on the market. Respondents in two districts specifically mentioned the human resources staff supporting principals in their efforts to remove ineffective teachers by helping with documentation, paperwork, and state and district policies and regulations on the termination of teachers.

Keep the Central Office Small

Another organizational strategy for supporting principals is to maintain a relatively small central-office staff — a strategy that several respondents advocated. One school board chair observed that keeping the central office small encouraged staff members to work more closely with principals and teachers, since there were not enough central-office staff members to complete tasks and achieve goals alone. The only way the central office staff could meet their goals was in collaboration with principals and teachers in the schools.

Make Support The Primary Mission of the Central Office

The key organizational action districts can take to support school improvement is to define the mission of the central office as supporting principals to create the educational conditions that promote the climate, organization, instruction and practices that lead to students’ success.

Districts cannot hold principals accountable for improved student results if they fail to provide necessary resources, to give them the authority to select staff and remove unproductive staff, and provide technical assistance, professional development and coaching to address problems and implement proven practices. Rather, they must establish “reciprocal accountability,” holding principals accountable, but also holding themselves accountable for providing support.13


§ Meredith Honig and Michael Copland, in their Wallace Foundation-supported research into the transformation of central office work in Atlanta, New York City, and Oakland Unified School District, have found that all three of those districts have incorporated as a key component of their reform model 1:1 relationships between central office administrators and schools. (Meredith I. Honig, Michael A. Copland, Lydia Rainey, Juli Anna Lorton, and Morena Newton. Central Office Transformation for District-wide Teaching and Learning Improvement. Center for the Study of Teaching and Policy, University of Washington, 2010.)

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