Central Office Transformation for District-Wide Teaching and Learning Improvement

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 Central Office Transformation for District-Wide Teaching and Learning Improvement

The preceding three dimensions of central office transformation have concentrated on the work practices of three sets of staff in the central office—the ILDs, in their ongoing engagement with school principals; other central office staff who provide direct support to the ILDs; and staff in the full range of central office units, who are attempting to reorient their work so that it complements and supports the focus on helping schools improve. But the efforts of all these staff to reinvent their practice reflects a larger sense of purpose and direction, communicated by certain central office leaders who stewarded the development of the overall effort as it unfolded. As signaled schematically by Figure 5 below, they did so by shaping and communicating theories of action about how to create a central office that substantially contributed to the improvement of teaching and learning systemwide. In so doing, they offered system participants a “big picture” of, and rationale for, tackling and persisting in the difficult work of transformation.


A coherent, well articulated, and well understood theory of action acted as an anchor for central office transformation. The idea of a theory of action, derived from studies of individual and organizational learning (Argyris & Schön, 1974, 1996), articulates the underlying logic of work or leaders’ starting assumptions about how and why an action, or set of actions, such as central office transformation, will lead to some desired outcome(s). Theories of action for transforming the central office in each district were different than, for example, strategic plans, which are more formal policy documents that might be revisited, vetted, and decided upon once every five or ten years in an organization. The districts’ theories of action were more akin to a set of “best guesses” or hypotheses about what transformation strategies to use, and why those were likely to work with respect to supporting improvements in teaching and learning systemwide. As such, most of our evidence about the care and tending to theories of action came from what we observed in the way the work was planned, delivered, and discussed by central office leaders over time (what researchers would call the “theory-in-use”), or what leaders told us about why they were taking the steps that we observed.

This ongoing attention to steering the evolution of the overall reform can be understood as a form of stewardship—that is, “the careful and responsible management of something entrusted to one’s care.”18 District leaders exercised this stewardship through leadership actions that shaped the ongoing theories of action for the work, communicating and engaging others in understanding the work, and brokering support for the work from outside the system. In distinguishing what specific stewardship activities fostered the overall 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 the development and implementation of the overall transformation process. We were interested in how leaders shaped the overall strategies for central office transformation through decisions based on the evidence of results their theories of action led them to expect would occur. Specifically, in exercising stewardship, central office administrators:

  • Continuously developed the theory of action for central office transformation. As we indicated at the outset of this report, the design of the central office transformation effort was being developed in each context over time, based on initial theories of action about what a central office should and could do to systemically support improvements in teaching and learning. As such, the direction and substance of these theories of action was inherently fluid, not fixed, requiring ongoing tending from central office leaders, who took steps to continuously shape the work to produce better results.
  • Continuously communicated and engaged others in understanding the theory of action underlying the central office transformation effort. Along with developing the theory of action in each district, leaders also communicated about the strategies in use, and the underlying rationale for these strategies. Continuously engaging district participants and constituents in understanding the work of transformation proved crucial to continuing the work, and where this was lacking or missing, there was confusion or ambivalence about the effort on the part of some district participants.
  • Strategically brokered external resources and relationships to support the overall central office transformation process. In addition to ongoing development and communication of the theory of action, stewardship involved leaders in brokering support for transformation. Leaders brokered various kinds of support including the development of new sources of grant funding or in the engagement of external partners hired for their expertise.

Chief executives—superintendents or other highly placed administrators who had or shared in overall responsibility for the district’s performance and improvement— carried out many of these activities but not exclusively. Due to the special public accountability and attention their positions demanded, these executive leaders were often leading decision making processes that shaped the work of central office transformation, communicating what the work involved, or the rationale for that work, to various audiences as it unfolded. Other central office administrators, including deputy superintendents, chief academic and operational officers, and chiefs of staff, also participated in stewardship activities.

Continuously Developing the Theory of Action for Central Office Transformation

Leaders took action to establish theories of action in each district rooted in the fundamental assumption that the central office ought to exist primarily to support teaching and learning improvement in partnership with the schools. New York City/Empowerment Schools Organization (ESO) CEO Nadelstern put it plainly in a national publication,

    School districts have exactly the kinds of schools they’re designed to have. If you want something different to take place at the school level, then something different has to take place at the district. 19

Doing “something different” involved central office leaders making choices about what strategies to employ to make the central office more effective in supporting teaching and learning improvements.

In Atlanta, the theory of action for central office transformation began with the simple notion that central office leaders needed to closely examine what teachers and principals in schools needed from the central office, as the deputy superintendent noted:

    When you think ‘schools first’ and plan back up to the central office, the question is “What do schools need [from the central office] in order to stay focused on teaching and learning so that children learn at higher levels? What do teachers say they need all the time? What do principals say they need all the time so they can stay focused on their work?” Teachers say ‘I need somebody in my classroom to help me. I need them to tell me what I’m doing, help me do it better without it being evaluative.’ Right? ... Principals say ‘I spend most of my day navigating a system, trying to get my needs met—I can’t get HR [support] … . Alright? So you need to set up a one-stop [central office] shop that gives people that kind of support.

These comments from leaders in New York and Atlanta establish the basic tenet that leaders across all three sites took seriously—figuring out the “right” approach to transformation of the central office in service of improving teaching and learning system-wide required central office leaders to take their cues from schools about what was needed, and respond accordingly.

As the work of central office transformation unfolded, leaders stewarding the reform in each system kept the broader focus on whether the theory of action and accompanying strategies were the “right” ones, or whether they needed to be altered based on evidence as the work unfolded. For example, the creation of network leaders and network teams in the New York City/ESO, by initial design, was an effort to fully satisfy the support needs of the school principal to lead instructional improvement—working to broker between schools and the broader district and external environment to help bring various resources to bear on schools’ efforts to chart their own path for school improvement. A key steward of the ESO reflected on this aspect of the design,

    [We] have this thing around satisfaction, [where our] relationship building [has occurred] around advocacy. [Our] entrée with principals [has been:] “I can help you to get stuff done,” [and] that’s what they get to rely on us for.

As their central office work developed, leaders in the ESO, paying attention to this big picture issue that underlay the reform, gleaned new insights from evidence they gathered about what it actually took for a central office to support principals well in “getting stuff done.” For example, ESO leaders noticed over time that, while principals mostly reported feeling well-supported by network teams on the instructional leadership dimensions of their work, there were nagging problems with the nature of operations support provided from five New York City borough-based offices, called Integrated Service Centers (ISCs), that were often far removed from schools and not well-coordinated with what was happening in networks. Principals complained, for example, of time delays in getting basic work orders filled, special education cases for which decisions were seemingly never made, and the need to pierce a multi-layered regional bureaucracy in order to get to the person in the ISC who could finally address whatever the support need happened to be.

These insights from principals about the problems with operational support in the ESO resulted in a significant shift in the theory of action for network teams. ESO leaders moved from a conception of these teams as mainly providing instructional support, to a new conception that the teams would become “full-service” organizations which also supported business and operations functions, because integrating those functions would better support what principals said they needed. This change in the theory of action led ESO administrators to design and pilot the initial Children’s First Network [CFN], that featured support based on this conception of combining the instructional and operational sides of the work in one network team. The results from this pilot were positive and instructive, and in the year following the pilot several additional networks based on this model were created.

The ESO example above shows clearly how central office transformation was not an “off-the-shelf” policy or program; leaders in each district were inventing and reinventing their theories of action over time. In Atlanta we observed a series of shifts in practice that reflected underlying changes in the theory of action for how to best support high school change. Atlanta’s initial structure featured five school reform teams (SRTs), including four that worked with K–8 schools in regions of the district, and one assigned to provide assistance to all of the district’s high schools. What Atlanta’s leaders learned through examining practice was that efforts to support change in high schools lagged behind the work in the K–8 schools; elementary schools were smaller, and the SRT staff could focus their energies on particular content areas in very targeted ways. While not as immediately successful, strategies similar to those used in elementary schools seemed to take hold in most Atlanta middle schools as well. High schools, however, proved more complicated and more difficult to permeate in terms of providing the kind of assistance that would lead to improvements in teaching and learning.

This realization challenged the initial theory of action for how best to support improvements in teaching and learning in district’s high schools, which were continually failing to meet targets, and prompted district leaders to create revisions in the central office structure of administrative support. The newly created Office of High Schools included additional personnel who were hired because of their expertise in creating or turning around high schools. These staff initially worked alongside the existing SRT structure, and eventually took over the entire support function for high schools.

Atlanta district leaders shifted their underlying assumptions in other aspects of central office work, as it played out. Additional changes we observed in the theory of action included:

  • The streamlining and repurposing of central office–provided professional development support for schools, based on feedback from schools that these efforts appeared at times incoherent, and not well aligned with the actual work schools were trying to accomplish.
  • The development of an Office of Strategy and Development designed to bring a “project” orientation to the work of central office departments, pulling participants together in cross-functional teams to focus on nagging problems with the system’s performance (as described in Chapter 4). The work done by this office resulted in a number of systemic changes to central office practice, including the adoption of a balanced scorecard to track the work of improvement system-wide and to support deeper, more timely assessments of system progress.

Top leaders in Atlanta acting to steward the overall effort in each district thus appeared to take seriously the idea that central office practice was a “work in progress” and paid attention to where and how the transformation could continue to provide better, deeper, more responsive support for schools.

We saw evidence in Oakland, as well, of how executive leaders continued to grapple with their initial theory of action behind the creation of the ‘Service Economy,’ one substantial part of the overall central office transformation that was designed as a “strategic investment approach that place[d] schools at the center of all financial decisions, provide[d] all stakeholders with accurate and timely data about spending priorities and effectiveness, and ensure[d] that schools have the ability to choose the services that best meet the needs of their students.”20 As the work unfolded, leaders were faced with revising the theory of action based on the difficulty with realizing the original intent, as one senior central office administrator reported:

    We had a pretty interesting meeting this Monday in the afternoon session where it posed some real, I think, complications for our theory of action and in particular around the service economy and to what extent, you know the differences between espoused theory and theory in use … We are, I think running up against some real limitations in how we can actually operationalize the service economy and need to come to grips with … where does it sit in the hierarchy of design principles and reform strategies in the district anymore.

Continuously Communicating and Engaging Others in Understanding the Theory of Action Underlying Central Office Transformation

Along with ongoing efforts to develop and refine their approach to central office transformation, district leaders worked to continuously communicate their theories of action, including the rationale for why they were doing what they were doing, in ways that would help all constituents understand both what the work was, and why the work mattered. The ongoing attention to developing a theory of action for central office transformation established the basis for leaders to be able to tell a causal story about central office leadership practice—how what people in the central office were doing mattered for improving teaching and learning.

Communication about, and engagement in, aspects of districts’ theories of action for central office transformation emphasized several ideas. At the heart of this communication was the message that the work of central office transformation was serving students’ learning. Leaders acting to steward the work of central office transformation consistently conveyed that the work was successful only to the extent that it mattered for improving learning for children and young people. We frequently heard central office leaders communicate this emphasis on the collective nature of the effort, and the focus on serving children well. For example, in the New York City/ESO, the CEO’s communication with network leaders noted:

    If the work we’ve done doesn’t result in changing the behavior of teachers so more kids are more successful, it will not be worth the effort. The second issue is the profound impact we’ve had on how principals think about us. A 95% approval rate is unheard of for any service organization, and in public education, it is inconceivable. Understanding that the important work is what teachers do with kids. and our work is [to support] them.

Similarly, in Atlanta, Superintendent Hall often conveyed how central office transformation efforts were focused on improving results for students over time. A remark from a 2006 ‘state of the schools’ speech, for example, showed how the work was shifting focus, based on the significant improvements—a focus that resulted in a change in leadership for a new Office of High Schools and reorganized subject matter support for the middle grade schools from the central office:

    Our work has been systemic and targeted to ensure incremental system-wide student success over time. As I brought to your attention over a year ago, the majority of our elementary schools are making adequate progress, have reached their rigorous Atlanta targets at least once, and are into the details of fine-tuning their instructional improvements. We are now focusing more attention on improving student achievement at the middle and high school levels, while continuing our focus at the elementary grades.

The communication and engagement of others in understanding the work, where it was heading, and on what rationale it rested was important to the sustainability of central office transformation. For instance, in Atlanta, various executive central office staff made formal and informal presentations on the central office transformation effort at various stages of its development. Superintendent Hall was the most frequent, and most public, presenter, taking advantage of opportunities in various forums to discuss how the work was evolving and lessons that she and others had learned about how to help schools improve their performance. Such forums included meetings of all Atlanta administrators as well as community recognition ceremonies and speeches to other groups in the community. For example, in one such talk, Hall relied on metaphor to highlight how the theory of action for improving schools would necessarily change based on evidence from progress. Building on organizational change concepts from researcher Ronald Heifetz, Hall described the first part of the “climb” to improve the district as primarily “technical” change, and that on the final part of the climb in Atlanta, the deeper work of “adaptive change” was yet to come and would pose particular challenges for her staff:

    So what does this mean [that the work is now about adaptive change]? Let’s look in the classroom, for an example. [In the first years of the reform effort] [w]e took teachers’ current know-how and added prescriptive approaches, monitored by experts, to realize results. At the central office level, we hired a senior management team who were technically competent in each of their areas of responsibility. The same is true with operations. We redesigned our central support to be more decentralized with the school reform team structure and began working cross-functionally as an organization. Now as we embark on what I consider to be the most dangerous and difficult climb up the mountain, we must be prepared to do adaptive work. And again, Heifetz defines adaptive challenges as “Those that require us to learn new ways.” And who does that work? It’s the people with the problem. In other words, everyone must now own the work, not just at the leadership level, not just at the principal’s level, but at every level of the organization. We must all now learn new ways, and work differently, to get us to the top of the mountain and to sustain the reforms over time. And, we must still keep our eye on the technical work.

Hall explained that her role in the central office transformation effort meant not only developing the theory of action for change over time, but continually engaging her staff in understanding the history and evolution of the effort and the underlying rationale for changes related to her understanding of how central offices could support teaching and learning improvement. In her words,

    I must be able to articulate [what we’re doing and why] to every group of stakeholders. So I’m giving speech after speech, meeting after meeting, I go to everything from Rotary, Kiwanis, coalition of big business, to living room chats, to SRT cluster meetings of PTA—and I think people like for me to do that. They come out, they want to hear it.

Confirming the value of such communications, we found remarkable consistency between how Hall framed the importance of transformation in central office practice for supporting teaching and learning improvement, and the learning improvement that actually occurred in schools. This foundational rationale—that improvement in teaching and learning across the entire system was incumbent on the central office playing a critical support role—ran counter to the way business had been done in Atlanta, and required major changes in how people in the central office thought about their work, detailed in the preceding three chapters. The essential message that supporting schools was the paramount duty of the central office was captured in a refrain we heard consistently from multiple central office leaders that their work involved “flipping the script.” Consistent with the theory of action that redefined the central office as a service organization that existed to support the work in schools, “flipping the script” was Atlanta’s code phrase for a sea change in how the central office-school relationship was understood, and why the central office existed.

Similarly, in New York City, executive staff of the ESO frequently communicated internally and externally about shifts in how their central office transformation effort was evolving to reflect new learning, as the ESO worked to scale up their initial efforts to dozens, then hundreds, of schools. In one instance, an executive staff person explained the decision to expand network teams to include four to six additional staff people to help handle operational issues for school principals,

    We believe services are best performed by an integrated service team than a large geographically-based service center, who at a different time and [under different] leadership could revert back to [the previous] political system, since all politics are geographic. Going into this year, we’re not only quadrupling … [the number of networks with additional operational staff] but taking this opportunity to engage the [NYC] Department [of Education] in a conversation about whether this might be a better strategy for everyone. We have one network now. We’ll be at four next year. If the four work, there is no reason not to believe it can’t work for the entire organization.

In support of the value of such communications, network leaders offered remarkably consistent accounts of the history of the central office transformation effort and reasons for its growth in particular directions. Some pointed out that while they did not necessarily agree with some developments, particularly in the area of accountability, they were well aware of what those developments were and how the various leaders of the system expected them to participate in implementation. Where such communication regularly occurred, it helped to reinforce the importance of everyone tying what they were doing to the overarching efforts to improve teaching and learning; it seemed to help various internal and external participants in implementation engage more fully in understanding the work and how they contributed to the work.

Evidence from Oakland, too, confirmed the importance of such ongoing communication, particularly with regard to how the transformation effort addressed teaching and learning improvement goals, by both positive and negative example. We found one central office administrator particularly attuned to the importance of this form of stewardship. As this person described,

    I spend a lot of time with principals talking to them… about their budgets, their concerns, the services … . I’ve been going out to these staff meetings where we go as strategy team to talk to principals and staff. And I’ve been on purpose talking about [the budgeting system] more because I want to hear what people are saying. And what I’ve realized is most people, including principals, like when I really explain what was the theory of action behind … [the budget system] and how it was an equity strategy because it redistributed the wealth from the highland to the lowland schools … . And [if] you’re a flatland school you’d get more money, but you were supposed to use that money to hire more coaches and things to support your new teachers so that eventually … you would get a more and more seasoned staff. That was the way it was supposed to work. And the reality is … a lot of people didn’t do that. Instead of hiring a coach they said, ‘Well, let’s do reduced class size.’ Well sure, reduced class size is good, but if you’re all new teachers and you have reduced class size and there’s no one to coach you, guess what, those teachers are going to leave. You’re going to have a higher attrition rate because people are going to be frustrated.

Despite the efforts of this one speaker to communicate the theory of action of the central office transformation efforts, some central office administrators struggled to understand aspects of the central office transformation process and their underlying rationale: their lack of clarity or understanding had potentially negative consequences for implementation.

The challenge of changes in top district personnel was one reason Oakland personnel struggled with clarity about the specifics of transformation. NExOs, for example, reported that they were unclear why [their] position[s] had changed or how they were supposed to realize the outcomes for which they were being held accountable without the authority and resources they had originally been promised. This mismatch in expectations coupled with limited communication about the rationale for such shifts and other factors fueled sharp conflict between some NExOs and senior central office staff, ultimately resulting in significant turnover of these ILDs. Such results are not surprising. As one respondent put it, “I think it’s just like with any… change. Trying to get everybody on the same page about what the theory of action is, especially if the theory of action is complex, which ours is [is challenging].”

Oakland also faced the added challenge of launching their central office transformation effort while under state receivership, which included the removal of the superintendent, and the requirement to report to an on-site state administrator. The on-site administrator changed three times between the start of the central office transformation effort and the conclusion of our study period, six years later.

Communication of the underlying theory of action, as the evidence above suggests, forms a second crucial aspect of stewardship of the work of central office transformation. Data suggest this is a particularly important aspect of the work of executive leaders, who are often in the public eye, and have the ability to shape understanding of the work with multiple audiences.

Strategically Brokering External Resources and Relationships to Support the Overall Central Office Transformation Process

Stewardship also meant that central office leaders brokered resources and relationships with organizations outside the central office to support the transformation process. The benefits of such work seemed obvious: ambitious change efforts such as central office transformation require substantial investments of various resources and often new resources to grow and thrive. Such brokering activities also helped implementation when central office leaders were strategically selective about which resources they brought into the system, focusing on those resources that promised to fuel the implementation of their vision for central office transformation. Atlanta Superintendent Hall noted, “The other piece I spend a lot of time on is getting resources.” She went on to elaborate how an intensive amount of her time was required to elicit financial support from external partners to support the work. Hall’s efforts to find resources to support change began early, perhaps most prominently with ten schools supported through the Project Grad effort,21 and continued throughout our time in the district.

Superintendent Hall convened members of the corporate community in Atlanta as fiscal and knowledge resources. As one participant in those convenings described,

    When Dr. Hall first came, the business community … really wanted a change and were really willing to support her in doing that in any way possible, and she even had like a[n] [informal CEO advisory team] of the top CEO’s in the city— Coke, GE, Georgia Pacific—come together—Atlanta Gaslight, Bell South. And … she would meet with them once a quarter. And they would really talk about things … .They would give her that kind of wisdom that they’d get from those places.

Importantly, Hall and other central office administrators did not accept all resources that became available to them but rather scrutinized resources for the fit with the central office transformation effort. As one described,

    My role quite often is looking at various types of programs. People contact Dr. Hall [saying], “We have this fabulous program. We wanted you to do it.” So nine times out of ten, she sends it down to me for me to investigate it. I’ll investigate it. Meet with the individual if it makes sense and it can support what we want to do. Then I’ll move it on to my boss or go back to Dr. Hall [and say], “This sounds good, you might want to [consider engaging this work].” If it doesn’t, I [choose not to engage this work]. … [A]ll too often a lot of the vendors just see us as a cash cow and they try to bring in anything and we’re supposed to … take it. [Here] it doesn’t work like that … .

Similarly, senior central office administrators in New York City routinely engaged in the strategic brokering of resources for the central office transformation effort— both fiscal as well as knowledge resources. For example, ESO leaders sought out experts from the United Kingdom to help inform how they structured and provided resources for their Network Leaders and teams. As noted by one central office administrator, this brokering effort focused on:

    … understanding the policies and the support pieces that would have to happen to assure that people in leadership positions in the network get resources driven in the right direction, and some … guidance in choosing those resources … . We had a visit from … . the guy who was in charge of instruction and all the reform in England under Tony Blair … . I spoke to him about how did he think was the best way to work with principals around some of the instructional issues when you’ve given them so much autonomy and you’ve removed curriculum mandates. How do you still get them to understand what’s at stake, and how do we avoid being like [three other urban districts] … who tried all of those things—tried autonomy, tried accountability, and didn’t have instructional gains at the end—how do we avoid that.

Oakland stood out in our data for its efforts to work strategically with members of the private philanthropic community, to tap them both as knowledge resources as well as funders of their efforts to transform central office practice. In this district, central office administrators staffed and otherwise participated in quarterly meetings of representatives from various foundations that contributed to their central office transformation effort. At those meetings, we observed how central office staff provided updates on their progress, engaged funders in discussions about next steps, and challenged funders to consider how they might work together to fund their ongoing efforts, especially in light of persistently large budget shortfalls in California districts.

In addition to brokering fiscal and knowledge resources, central office administrators also fueled the central office transformation effort by brokering relationships with school board members, union representatives, and philanthropic and corporate funders. These relationship-building efforts focused on building political support for central office transformation. For example, leaders in Oakland described and demonstrated that the custodians’ union had become an ardent supporter of the central office transformation effort, thanks to central office leaders’ efforts to engage union leadership as partners. Through the partnership, custodians agreed to higher standards for their performance while the central office created professional opportunities to support them in meeting those challenges, including the creation of a partnership with a local community college to help district office staff complete their associate degrees.


Stewardship of the central office transformation effort was crucial to the development of the work in each district context. Stewardship involved the ongoing development of a theory of action that necessarily changed over time as the central office work unfolded. Changing central office practice to more centrally support improvement in teaching and learning system-wide proved to be a work in progress for each site, requiring ongoing attention, in particular from executive leaders who focused on the bigger picture of where the reform was heading and why, not just on the details. Parallel to their work with attending to and steering the ongoing development of the theory of action, stewards also played an important communication function, engaging others in understanding the work and the strategies and the underlying rationale for central office transformation. Finally, stewardship involved leaders brokering external resources to support the work of central office transformation over time.

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18. Merriam-Webster Online,, downloaded 3.2.10.

19. Horace, Summer 2005, Vol. 21 No. 3.

20. From Oakland “Expect Success” Annual Report 2006-07, retrieved on March 25, 2010 from

21. Project Grad is a comprehensive school reform organization that uses a combination of several other comprehensive school reform programs in concert to support increases in student achievement. See the website for more information (downloaded 3.22.10). Superintendent Hall had previously worked with Project Grad during her tenure as Newark, NJ superintendent.