Central Office Transformation for District-Wide Teaching and Learning Improvement

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 Central Office Transformation for District-Wide Teaching and Learning Improvement

By focusing on the daily work of central office administrators, the findings in this report contribute substantially to knowledge about how central offices matter to the fundamental goals of teaching and learning improvement, and provide important guidelines for practitioners interested in strengthening central office leadership for realizing ambitious educational outcomes. Our findings reveal that central office transformation moves beyond old debates in education about whether schools or the central office should be driving reform and show that improving teaching and learning district-wide is a systems problem—a challenge that requires the participation of both central offices and schools in leadership roles to realize such outcomes.

The tug and pull over where control for decisions about how to improve teaching and learning ought to reside—in arrangements that decentralize control and resources to the schools or in systems that assert strong and coherent control from the center—unnecessarily and unproductively dichotomizes the problem confronting school district leaders. This study makes it clear that both are needed, and that the real question is not at what level but how within and across levels. Creating entire systems of excellent schools requires the exercise of leadership throughout district systems. Our close examination of central office practice clearly suggests that work at both levels is absolutely essential to the creation of a system of schools that can serve children and young people well. Each of the districts we studied recognized early on in their respective reform efforts that the work people in the central office did, and how they did it, mattered in the service of better supporting schools in making productive changes in teaching and learning. Moreover, central offices that intentionally set out to improve teaching and learning as joint work with schools created the basis for ongoing dialogue about where and how efforts are and are not working, and where more support is needed, enabling smarter, more transparent decisions about how to allocate limited resources.

How Central Offices Can Engage in District-wide Teaching and Learning Improvement

More specifically, this study’s findings show that when central offices participate productively in teaching and learning improvement, everyone in the central office orients their work in meaningful ways toward supporting the development of schools’ capacity for high-quality teaching and expanding students’ opportunities to learn. This orientation toward teaching and learning throughout the central office moves far beyond rhetoric. As Atlanta superintendent Beverly Hall has said, “Every superintendent in America goes in [to the role] and says ‘this is about the children.’ I haven’t met one yet who hasn’t said ‘children first’.22 Despite this rhetoric, central offices rarely act as if the children come first, perhaps because it is not obvious how to do so or what this means for the many kinds of staff who inhabit central offices. Findings from our research can be used to demonstrate how. Leaders throughout the central offices we studied are putting their work where their rhetoric is and trying to orient what they do toward support for teaching and learning improvement in all their schools.

As the report elaborates, we found that across three different systems, leaders were working to reorient their work along five dimensions that touched on all central office administrators’ roles and responsibilities. These five dimensions provide new insight into the daily practice of central office leadership for system-wide teaching and learning improvement. Specifically, central office administrators were likely to make substantial contributions to those outcomes when they (1) develop learning-focused partnerships with school principals to deepen principals’ instructional leadership practice, (2) provide professional learning assistance to those partnerships, (3) reorganize and reculture the rest of central office units to support those partnerships, (4) steward overall transformation processes continuously, and (5) rely on evidence of various kinds to continually refine practice.

These findings highlight that what fundamentally distinguishes central office transformation as a reform is its unrelenting focus on central office administrators’ engagement in leadership practices that support improvements in teaching and learning in schools. On the surface, the activities we report on here might be confused with other kinds of district-wide reforms that call for central office reorganization through restructuring of units, organizational relationships, work roles, reporting channels, accountability systems, and the like. Efforts such as these to revitalize school districts, accompanied by significant reallocation of district resources aimed at a variety of reform targets, are numerous. Such efforts may resemble central office transformation at first glance, in part, because the transformation process, as we have described it, clearly involves significant structural change. District leaders, for example, did create new network team structures which schools in New York City could opt to join; or split apart Atlanta into geographically distinct school reform team groupings among the K–8 schools; or set up new operational support units in Oakland.

However, while the formal structural changes within these central offices helped promote central office administrators’ engagement in new practices, the changes in structure were not, and will never be, sufficient to fuel the practice shifts that transformation involves. Within new structures, and in the conduct of people in new roles in these systems, real changes in daily work practice were the focus of transformation, and were the aspects of transformation that held promise of actually improving teaching and learning. The overarching lesson is clear—if the practice doesn’t change, it isn’t central office transformation, and improved teaching and learning is unlikely to result.

Deep, sustainable changes in practice, furthermore, are not likely to occur spontaneously, or without concentrated attention to building capacity. Intentional efforts to build the capacity of people throughout district transformation initiatives seemed fundamental to the implementation of these initiatives. For example, central office staff (with various position titles) who we referred to as “Instructional Leadership Directors” (ILDs) specialized in building principals’ capacity for instructional leadership. In turn, other central office administrators focused on strengthening ILDs’ ability to engage in that work. The reorganizing and reculturing of the rest of the central office hinged fundamentally on restaffing and retraining. These capacity building efforts were a far cry from the sit-and-get, workshop-style professional development opportunities available in many school systems. Rather, the transformation efforts involved ongoing, job-embedded supports for school and central office leaders alike and the continuous use of evidence from experience to improve the quality of those supports.

Finally, our findings highlight the centrality of leaders taking a continuous improvement approach to their work in the process of central office transformation. Given that this is a new way of working, the importance of people “learning their way into the work” as it unfolded cannot be overemphasized. Continuous improvement meant leaders were always trying to learn from their efforts and apply those lessons to the ongoing improvements in practice. This stance is supported by various research on organizational learning (e.g., Argyris & Schön, 1996, and others previously noted) and more recent formulations of continuous improvement in schools (Smylie, in press), that suggests inquiry into practice is a foundational leadership endeavor. The continuous improvement orientation to transforming the central office requires leaders to engage in their own continuous learning from the work, paying attention to whether the outcomes that are intended for improvements in teaching and learning are being realized, and inquiring about why or why not. All three of our sites, each in their own way, embraced the idea that the work needs to produce tangible outcomes for principals’ practice and for schools in general, and when it doesn’t, this creates a learning opportunity.

Taking Steps toward Central Office Transformation

We present some concluding recommendations that can be helpful for central office leaders who are considering taking on central office transformation in their own contexts.

RECOMMENDATION 1. District leaders seeking to improve teaching and learning district-wide need to engage in central office transformation as a focal point of their efforts. While this may seem counterintuitive, the most powerful ways to change teaching and learning in schools are likely to prominently feature vigorous efforts to change central office work practice at the same time.

District leaders who read this report are no doubt already running school systems that have undertaken all kinds of reform efforts, underwritten by theories of action that outline how those various efforts are likely to improve teaching and learning. What research tells us is that virtually all existing reform work has focused squarely on changing practices in schools, without much attention to the implications of those school-level reforms for central office practice. District leaders should first understand that central office transformation is promising in its own right as an approach for improving teaching and learning district-wide.

District leaders should think about what central office transformation will mean for their contexts. For leaders used to overseeing a management structure devoted to oversight of busses, budgets, and buildings, redefining the focus around the core work of improving teaching and learning will likely feel very new and very different. Leaders might consider what new ways of thinking about their work are implied by the findings, perhaps starting with taking stock of what the central office practice looks like at present, and envisioning what the changes suggested in our findings would mean.

Taking on central office transformation does not mean that districts should stop investing directly in other efforts to improve classroom teaching and learning, such as initiatives aimed at curriculum renewal, instructional coaching for classroom teachers, teacher recruitment, and various forms of student academic support. Rather, central office transformation complements direct classroom investments by increasing central office leaders’ abilities to grow the capacity of school principals to exercise instructional leadership in schools. Put another way, transforming the central office is a way to build a better support system for efforts to improve classroom teaching and other school-level improvements that may strengthen students’ opportunities to learn. Leaders who are considering taking on the work of transforming the central office ought to consider the fit with other reforms currently under way that target the classroom, and whether there are ways to integrate the changes in central office practice with existing efforts at reform.

That said, as we write, each of the districts we studied continues to struggle with aspects of implementing central office transformation. Despite an admirable record of accomplishment in Atlanta Public Schools, leaders in this district would easily generate a long list of the challenges that remain with improving central office practice, even after ten years into the work. We know also from the experiences in Oakland Unified School District that increased accountability demands from the state and elsewhere have continued to obscure and distract system leaders from the important transformation work, as have the acute budget shortages in all districts. Many school systems currently face similar kinds of demands.

As these examples underscore, central office transformation is very challenging, new work. Central office administrators engaging in transformation should expect this to be the case, but to simultaneously anticipate and embrace those challenges and respond with strategies that focus on building capacity to do the work. Those who fail to understand the intensity of what the central office transformation approach entails, and make adequate investments in engaging in such work, risk misappropriating reform ideas and otherwise incompletely engaging in implementation.

RECOMMENDATION 2. District leaders should start the work of transformation by developing a theory of action for how central office practice in their particular context contributes to improving teaching and learning, and plan to revise this as the work unfolds.

Central office transformation is not a general approach to improving the efficiency or performance of central office bureaucracies. Rather, this approach aims fundamentally to strengthen teaching and learning in schools. Accordingly, however central office leaders choose to begin and develop such a reform approach in their own setting, they should start with a theory of action that ties their first and ongoing steps clearly and directly to teaching and learning improvement. Put another way, their strategy for changing central office structures, work practices, relationships, etc., must explicitly consider how each change connects causally to instructional improvement work.

Why start with a theory of action? The process of developing a theory of action demands that leaders not only articulate what they are intending to do (e.g., what strategies they are choosing, or what solutions they are pursuing) but also why those are the right strategies or solutions to pursue. A theory of action begs a rationale for the work. Without this all-important step in planning, leaders run the risk of heading down a path that is not well grounded in a sound rationale, and that ultimately may result in different outcomes than those that are intended.

The theory of action should clearly and logically lay out the rationale for the work—if we as central office leaders practice in X new ways, then we can expect principals to be able to practice in Y new ways, which will result in outcomes A, B, and C for improvements in teaching and student learning. District leaders might think about developing an “elevator speech” about the theory of action for this work that they can communicate briefly, succinctly, and powerfully to a variety of local audiences implicated in the work (school board, central office staff, school staff, community stakeholders).

Starting with the development of a theory of action provides an opportunity for district leaders to grapple with the findings from this research and what they mean in their local contexts. Leaders must take into account the contextual conditions they face in their districts; there is no set formula to be applied here, no particular model to be chosen, no program to be purchased. While we found a number of common types of activities that defined the approach to central office transformation in the three study districts, another lesson was that district context mattered greatly in specific choices district leaders made about how to approach the work.

That said, while it is clear from the study that there are many different entry points and facets to any given district’s approach to this work, there are some logical places to start. Our study emphasizes, for example, that the interface between district and school is the crux of central office transformation. District leaders should consider the current state of the relationship between central office and schools, and ask how—and how regularly—central office staff ask or assess what kinds of supports schools could benefit from, what supports they actually receive, and how those supports address expressed needs at the school level.

In addition, the theory of action districts begin with will necessarily require attention and possible adjustment, as part of the stewardship of the transformation process. District leaders who take on the work of central office transformation will need to start somewhere, perhaps piloting some of these ideas in one part of the central office, and growing the effort through ongoing learning from outcomes. As the work develops, leaders will need to pay attention to evidence of progress—is what we expected to occur actually occurring? And if not, changes in the theory of action will likely need to follow. All three of our study districts began their central office transformation efforts with significant direct or indirect pilot periods during which time central office leaders established and elaborated a basic design and initial underlying theory of action to guide the reform effort. The New York City/ Empowerment Schools Organization grew out of a pilot effort started with a handful of schools, from which leaders learned lessons they applied later as the reform grew into a much larger systemic effort. The transformation process in the Atlanta Public Schools grew from a focus on ten of the poorest performing schools in the system and accompanying initiatives to drive resources and supports to help those schools rapidly improve. These activities caused new learning that subsequently shaped the broader system-wide transformation work. In Oakland, transformation work started in one part of the central office, and spread from there. And, in all three sites, the work evolved in context, guided by the stewardship of key central office leaders. District leaders who take on this work will need to exercise sustained leadership in seeding and supporting the implementation and ongoing development of the effort.

RECOMMENDATION 3. Invest substantially in people to lead the work throughout the central office, and especially at the interface between the central office and schools.

As our analysis suggests, central office transformation is complex and intense, demanding administrators throughout the central office dig down to the level of day-to-day work practices and how they understand the nature of their work and their relationships with schools. This is not a set of changes that will happen easily, or without significant investments of time, energy, and resources—most importantly resources in the form of people.

Central offices were not established, historically, to focus directly on supporting improvements in teaching and learning. As our report clearly shows, doing this work well requires people who have an understanding of what the work of improving teaching and learning looks like, and how to lead for it. Accordingly, district leaders interested in central office transformation should not simply assume that their central offices are staffed with the right people for this work. As we found across our three sites, district leaders moving forward with central office transformation efforts will likely need to focus on strategic hiring—which also may call for judicious removal of certain central office staff and school principals.

Moreover, since central office transformation specifically targets ongoing improvement in the practice of those in the central office—changing what people do, including how they work with each other in service of supporting schools—district leaders also need to invest in the ongoing development of those people, both newcomers and veterans. Building capacity to lead the work of improving teaching and learning is a continuous endeavor; even those leaders who are most expert can continue to improve their practice. Our findings suggest the importance of all five dimensions of central office transformation working in concert. Progress toward realizing the theories of action underneath transformation relies on all these parts of the work moving together, which means the continual development of people in all parts of the central office.

At the same time, our analysis also signals the centrality of the work, highlighted in Dimension 1, that occurs within the relationship between school principals and whatever central office staff take on the role of “Instructional Leadership Director”(ILD). The central office reform effort runs through this crucial relationship, and circles around teaching and learning improvement in classrooms, helping principals and other school-level leaders learn what they need to learn so as to be able to lead this work in schools day-to-day, and helping people in central offices continually get smarter about how they support school level leaders to know the work, lead the work, and realize improvements in the work.

To maximize the promise of central office transformation for improving teaching and learning, working through the ILD-principal relationship is absolutely crucial. In larger districts, it may be possible to do as the districts we studied did and create wholly new central office positions, call them by a new name, and in the process redefine the practice that occurs in the relationship. In smaller districts, hiring new people may not be possible or even desirable, and many central office functions need to be accomplished by one or two people. Regardless of district size, someone needs to do this work of supporting schools through regular direct contact with school principals; developing this relationship is central to transforming the central office.

RECOMMENDATION 4. Start now with engaging key stakeholders, political supporters, and potential funders in understanding that central office transformation is important and requires sustained commitment.

Transformation requires key partners who understand the work and how it matters. For example, each of the three systems we studied had external support providers—foundations and business people, among others—as key strategic partners that invested in the work. What they were investing in was the work of the central office, not just in individual schools or a specific programmatic approach. For many funders, this may be a very new way of thinking about investment in educational reform. Central office transformation calls for a shift in mindset, embracing the idea that central office practice matters for improving teaching and learning, and moving from short-term support for programs or projects to longer-term investments in developing leaders’ practice. District leaders ought to consider what steps they will take to keep key stakeholders informed and supportive of these transformation efforts, and not just assume that people will understand why the focus on central office practice matters so much.23 Focusing on central office practice is not the norm in reform conversations.

Moreover, this work requires stamina to stay the course over time. As the examples of Atlanta, New York City, and Oakland reveal, central office transformation is not the kind of work that districts do once and then move on. Rather, it sets in motion new ways of working that will never end, but hopefully improve with time and experience. Not all important reform partners—including school board members, community members, and representatives of external support organizations— come to reform with the resolve or staying power that complex, long-term work demands. Evidence from our study suggests that changes in central office practice may not (and likely will not) register quick gains in students’ achievement scores. Rather, this approach to reform bets on a longer trajectory, that over time good results will come from central office practice that takes the improvement of teaching and learning as the primary goal.


In defining and elaborating on-the-ground details of the practice of central office transformation, this study is among the first and most comprehensive efforts toward filling the gap in existing knowledge about the work practices of central office leaders, and improves on a number of concerns with existing district research we identified earlier. This work moves beyond the notion of the district as a single background variable or “monolithic actor” in implementation (Spillane, 1998). Our findings highlight the varied people, units, work practices, and other conditions within urban school district central offices that seem to matter to district-wide teaching and learning improvements. Further, the robust methodological approach to data collection and analysis of central office practices responds to shortcomings associated with district research to date (e.g., one-time interviews with a small handful of central office administrators or school principals’ and teachers’ responses to a survey about the performance of their central offices). Further, we studied the work of three districts that were actively and intentionally trying to change their central office practice for the better, avoiding the tendency toward “autopsy research” (McLaughlin, 2006) that chronicles what district central offices ought not to do when it comes to teaching and learning improvement, and not exploring how to enable the desired outcomes.

Asking for and expecting improvements in teaching and learning is a policy imperative that all districts face. Not only is a focus on learning for all a commitment of public education systems in the United States from the federal to the local level, it is the right thing for districts to do. What central office transformation adds in the current landscape of policy efforts is specific, concrete images of how to move school systems to a place where all teachers are working to teach at the highest levels, and all principals are capable of leading that work. Doing this well implies changes in everyone’s practice in the central office, not just changes in what teachers or principals do. If school district leaders take seriously the challenge of teaching “all” students at ever-higher levels, then everyone’s work must be fundamentally reoriented around that goal.

Central office transformation represents an exciting and promising new reform approach to improving teaching and learning across school systems. As evidence from the practices we observed in our study sites reveals, the work is complex, challenging, but ultimately very much worth doing. The experience of the three districts chronicled here shines new light on how entire school systems can organize to support district-wide teaching and learning improvement.

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22. Webcast from the Center for Comprehensive School Reform and Improvement, originally broadcast March 26, 2009., downloaded 8.7.09.

23. See the discussion in a companion study (Plecki et al., 2009) concerning what district leaders do to “shepherd the equity conversation” over time. A similar and difficult process is involved, that entails an ongoing conversation with key stakeholders to make a case for a different ways of doing business in reforming education.