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Education Opinion

Response: Central Offices Shouldn’t Be ‘Directive Arms’

By Larry Ferlazzo — July 24, 2018 17 min read
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(Today’s post is the last in a two-part series. You can read Part One here.)

The new question-of-the-week is:

How can Central Offices of School Districts best help schools, their administrators and teachers, and their students and families?

In Part One, Adeyemi Stembridge, Douglas Reeves, Amber Teamann, PJ Caposey, Rachael George, Dr. Patrick Darfler-Sweeney and Sherry Lanza shared their ideas. Though this column doesn’t have an accompanying podcast, you can still listen to past ones here.

Today’s guest responses come from Scott Ratchford, Michael Lubelfeld, Jody Spiro, Dr. Jonas Chartock, and Victoria L. Bernhardt. I also include a comment from a reader.

Response From Scott Ratchford

Dr. Scott Ratchford is Manchester, CT’s Director of Family & Community Partnership. Prior to taking on that role, Dr. Ratchford has served as a principal, school psychologist and teacher of English in his 30-year career in public education. Scott, a parent of three children himself, has presented at a number of national conferences on Family Engagement, including the Harvard Family Engagement Institute:

Central Offices and schools both have unique goals and demands to manage, and so a thoughtful, deliberate partnership will allow them to work together to support student learning. It’s all about communication and establishing clear roles, both at the district and the building level. Schools’ ability to create deep partnerships with families and the community is critical to leveraging student learning and growth. This work is most effective when families understand the work of schools, support learning at home, and help educators understand the unique needs of their children. On the whole, it falls to the Central Office to provide schools with a larger vision, a set of manageable goals, and the support and tools necessary to deliver on each.

In Manchester Public Schools, we believe that the Central Office has the responsibility to develop a clearly articulated vision for school staff on why family and community engagement strengthens--not competes with-- the daily work of teaching and learning. Teachers and principals are stretched to deliver on their promise that all students will reach their full potential. We help schools learn how to engage and support families by shifting, not adding to, the work they are already doing. At the heart of this vision is the knowledge that family and community partnership leverages student growth.

But we must go beyond offering a vision and clear, manageable goals. Because most educators begin their careers with limited training in how to effectively engage all families, Central Offices need to provide access to professional learning opportunities. It’s our job to identify and support best practices for school leaders and staff, such as how to effectively:

  1. build trusting relationships with all families
  2. enable families to understand the learning goals for their children
  3. communicate what families can do to support growth at home
  4. communicate student progress in a timely fashion
  5. guide families on how and where to find support.

The Central Office can also aid schools in recognizing and mitigating barriers to family engagement. As many families struggle with basic needs that can hinder engagement, we can, for example, offer resources around transportation, childcare and translation services.

And finally, there’s the question of resources. Many schools have limited time and resources to reach out to community members, agencies and businesses. The Central Office must identify schools that need help, and offer guidance and support around accessing resrouces.

District leaders are visionaries, unflinching in their commitment to the success of all children. It is through the establishment of that vision--and fulfilling the promise we make when families entrust us with their children’s future--that we remind all school staff to see each student as someone’s son or daughter, and see themselves as an extension of that family. They champion the idea that when educators and parents create a powerful bond and speak with one voice, children see themselves as part of a community of adults who share their dreams. Effective family engagement requires district leaders articulate this moral imperative and guide all educators in delivering on its promise. Just as student achievement grows when families are partners in learning, educators are best served by district leaders who are full partners in student success and truly equitable schools.

Response From Michael Lubelfeld

Michael Lubelfeld, EdD, serves as the superintendent of schools for the Deerfield Public Schools District 109 in the north suburban Chicago area. Mike was named the 2017 Lake County Superintendent of the Year. He and Nick Polyak co-moderate #suptchat on Twitter and they co-authored the 2017 Rowman & Littlefield book, The Unlearning Leader: Leading for Tomorrow’s Schools Today:

Most people have deep ties to their local schools and their children’s teachers and principals. Often people don’t have much to do with the central office beyond registration, enrollment and fee payments. Additionally, many look to their elected officials, Board of Education for representation and voice. So how can the central office best help the stakeholders?

Even though the Board is the governance arm elected by the people, it is the central office that directly serves the people. The personnel in the central office, led by the superintendent, carry out objectives and details of the vision, mission, and aims set forth by the Board. When the central office of a school district orients itself as a service and resource arm as opposed to a directive arm, all stakeholders benefit.

The central office should be the central area for communication, clarity, vision, mission and overall leadership. The superintendent reports to the Board and carries out their directives. The support personnel, assistant superintendents, directors, coordinators and others report to the superintendent.

Student growth, learning, and emotional safety are the priorities of all districts. It’s the central office’s role to make sure that all decisions are reflective of and contribute to student growth. Central offices best serve their communities when they lead by listening, they communicate by sharing clear messages, and they realize their purpose is to serve. By sharing consistent messaging across the campuses with the “balcony” view and the big picture messaging, the central office shares the ends and provides the means.

While students are the number one priority of a school system, the employees rank a very close second in importance. The central office team that realizes that teachers and other personnel need their support and guidance, too, is a successful central office.

Response From Jody Spiro

Jody Spiro is director of education leadership for The Wallace Foundation. She is also the author of Leading Change Step by Step: Tactics, Tools and Tales (2011) and High Payoff Strategies: How Education Leaders Get Results (2016):

The structure of our school system was born of a different era. Designed to keep track of spending and monitor compliance with laws and regulations, today’s “central office” needs to be a main support for the teaching and learning of the district’s students and engagement with the larger community. Although the compliance/accountability function is clearly important, central offices across the country are recognizing their crucial role in supporting school leaders on behalf of improving teaching and learning for all students. In fact, the “central office” in Gwinnett County GA (that state’s largest school district) does not even call itself the “central office,” but the “Instructional Learning Center.” That name speaks volumes about how Superintendent Alvin Wilbanks envisions that role - with instruction front and center in everything.

Districts Matter[1], a 2013 report from my organization, The Wallace Foundation, highlights several main functions Central Offices can play. Below are a summary of the report’s findings, and an expansion of the role to include teachers. Since the publication of this report, its findings have been evident in several other major initiatives as they unfold. Here are some main things the Central Office can do:

  • Build a corps of well qualified candidates for school leaders and faculty. The best candidates and matches them with the most appropriate schools. This work includes:

    • Creating standards (position descriptions) for school leaders and teachers that spell out what they should know and be able to do;
    • Working with partner universities to improve the quality of the preparation programs to make them more relevant to the realities encountered once in the position.
    • Establish selective hiring procedures and processes to identify the most promising candidates and match them well with existing vacancies;
    • Use timely and accurate data to make such decisions; and
    • Ensure that hard-to-staff schools get top quality leaders and teachers.

  • Support teachers and leaders on the job:

    • Develop fair performance evaluation systems (A report from Policy Studies AssociatedFound principals in six districts implementing “principal pipelines” found their district’s evaluation system to be fair).
    • Offer mentoring to new principals [and teachers]. PSA found that principals in those six districts valued their mentors as their most important support.
    • Have those who supervise the schools concentrate on supporting teaching and learning, rather than compliance. Again, this focus was appreciated by the principals in the PSA report - helping them identify opportunities for improvement - and making that improvement;
    • Providing principals with supplicant time to improve teaching and learning (such as providing 90 minutes per week for school-based Professional Learning Communities).

It is often said that the systems we have are designed to produce the results we get. Let’s make sure that district Central Offices are redesigned to get the teaching and learning results we want for an all our students.

[1] Districts Matter (2013) is available free of charge on www.wallacefoundation.org, along with many other relevant publications on school leadership

Response From Dr. Jonas Chartock

Dr. Jonas Chartock is the National Founder/SeniorFellow of Leading Educators, a national resource to school districts and policymakers in their efforts to maximize the leadership development and impact of highly effective teachers. He resides in New Orleans, LA:

While much of the direct work of closing the opportunity gap among students lives in schools, central offices of school districts hold the critical responsibility of building the foundation and key conditions for schools to flourish. In particular, central offices can do three things:

  1. Create a shared mission and vision around teaching and learning;
  2. Build instructional development capacity in district leadership;
  3. Adopt and implement rigorous, standards-aligned curricula and assessments.

A challenge we at Leading Educators often see in our work with districts is an abundance of professional development happening at both the school and district level that, in fact, creates little improvement inside of the classroom. Last year, TNTP released The Mirage study which showed that this development comes at a steep price (about $18,000 per teacher per year) and yields little or no progress in teacher and student performance. Creating a shared mission and vision around teaching and learning will allow for coherent professional learning that is tied to district instructional priorities. Focusing on a shared mission and vision, rather than simply focusing on improving individual learning experiences, will guide districts toward a more relevant professional learning system.

While districts often prioritize professional development for teachers and principals, instructional, leadership, and management capacity should be strengthened at every level of leadership. Principal managers, district-level instructional leaders play an important role in the success and sustainability of school learning systems and should receive support and development that is as thoughtful as those opportunities provided at the school level. Prioritizing district-wide development creates a seamless model of learning from students to the highest level of district staff - one which students will internalize and normalize. We have seen this firsthand in our work with the Washington DC Public Schools’ LEAP program in which every instructional leader in all of the district’s 115 schools has the opportunity to learn and plan together at a series of intensive workshops while leading connected adult learning systems in their schools.

Still, the structure and systems for professional learning cannot be effective if the content is disconnected from students’ needs. At Leading Educators, one of the conditions for success in our district partnerships is the adoption of curricula and assessments that are aligned to college- and career-ready standards. We know that rigorous content is the cornerstone of equitable schools and college readiness for students, yet teachers often need additional support to understand and appropriately implement these standards. Additionally, assessments aligned to these standards give us key information about whether or not our systems of professional learning are effective in strengthening teachers’ skills and improving their practice.

Central offices can do a lot to create the ecosystem for collaborative, successful, sustainable teacher and student learning. In our work with districts, that’s actually where it starts. We work with central offices to establish the mission, vision, and key conditions for strong professional learning systems, build leadership capacity to support principals and teachers, and encourage wide-scale adoption of rigorous curricula and assessments to make way for the highest quality teaching and learning.

Response From Victoria L. Bernhardt

Victoria L. Bernhardt, Ph.D., is Executive Director of Education for the Future, a not-for-profit Initiative whose mission is to build the capacity of learning organizations at all levels to gather, analyze, and use data to continuously improve learning for all students. Dr. Bernhardt consults with schools and school districts throughout the United States and internationally on continuous school improvement, data analysis, and program evaluation. Dr. Bernhardt is the author, or co-author, of 22 books, including Data Analysis for Continuous School Improvement, 4th ed., published by Routledge:

Central Offices mean well by having districtwide initiatives. However, to really improve learning for every student in every school, strategies and services need to be specific to the student population, school culture, and teaching force.

Central Offices can help schools and their students and families by working with administrators and teachers to gather, review, and report school data to reveal student, teacher, parent, and school needs. Together, the district and schools can determine systemic solutions and services, which might be different for each school.

The work Education for the Future particularly wants Central Offices to perform on behalf of school communities is as follows:

  1. Establish standard data reports via the district data warehouse. We know the data schools need to review to understand where they are now, and how they got there. Because it takes time to pull the reports together, schools (and districts) often do not do this. Standard reports can become data profiles of schoolwide demographics, perceptions, school processes, and student learning data. The district can provide standard reports for demographics and student learning, each report starting with the most general information, leading the readers to more specific information. For example, a data profile would start with schoolwide enrollment over time, then by grade level, gender, ethnicity/race, SES, and lead to the details of behavior and special education. Student learning data start with schoolwide results over time, and the same disaggregation mentioned above, then follow cohorts to ensure that student growth and a continuum of learning are in place for the school. Central Offices can then help schools:

    • Identify and support administration of quality student, staff, and parent questionnaires that reveal climate and school-related needs.
    • Determine the School Processes (i.e., instructional, administrative, and organization processes) that each school uses to meet the needs of its clientele. After analysis, the school might determine changes are needed to get different results.

  1. Help all staff review the data for strengths, challenges, and implications for the continuous school improvement plan. When done well, the data profile will become the story of the school. Demographics give the context; perceptions give the viewpoints of stakeholders; school processes indicate how the school is getting its results; and student learning shows the results. It is important that all staff systematically review the data. They will see things others saw in addition to what they saw and, together, they can see the whole system and determine how to improve the system. Important things to remember as staff review the data profile, include:

    • Start with independent reviews, one data element (i.e., demographics) at a time, so all staff members read the data and come up with their own analysis. Have staff merge their thinking in small groups, and then merge the small group findings into schoolwide findings.
    • Use strengths, challenges, and implications for the continuous school improvement plan. These prompts will help staff see what needs to change to get better results. Many staff that use strengths and weaknesses as prompts complain that their data analysis does not get them to what needs to be in the plan. This is because most of the challenges of schools would never be referred to as weaknesses.
    • Look across the four types of data implications. If the strengths, challenges, and implications are done well, staff can look across the implications and lasso commonalities.

The result will be a plan that makes a difference for students, staff, and parents.

Responses From Readers

Mary Stokke Vides:

More training about the programs and services they offer to support families outside of school and how to connect students to those resources.

Thanks to Scott, Michael, Jody, Jonas, and Victoria for their contributions!

Please feel free to leave a comment with your reactions to the topic or directly to anything that has been said in this post.

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