School & District Management Opinion

Don’t Cut Out the Center

By Michael A. Copland & Meredith I. Honig — November 05, 2010 6 min read

In January, the superintendent of a 24,000-student Southern California school district, like so many education leaders around the nation, presented the school board with a plan to address a significant budget shortfall. Included in the plan was a 25 percent across-the-board cut in all central-office expenditures. About a month later, California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s proposed state budget aimed to reduce funding for school district central offices by $1.2 billion. The governor argued that the proposed cuts would prevent districts from using future funding increases to augment central administration at the expense of classroom funding.

These examples are not unique to California. In districts of all sizes across the country, when times are tough and educational leaders and policymakers must cut, they often look first to central offices.

But is that instinct right? Yes and no.

On the one hand, central-office cuts make good sense. No doubt there’s fat in many school district central offices—departments, positions, and initiatives not essential to realizing educational improvement goals. And, by comparison, reductions in classroom or school resources are more difficult to defend, practically and politically. On the other hand, research on school reform for decades has shown that school improvements tend not to deepen at single schools or spread across schools without substantial support from district central offices. Even the experience of charter schools reveals the emerging challenges individual schools face in going it alone without central-office-like support for groups of schools through charter-management organizations and other means.

Arguably, then, even in troubled financial times, educational leaders should not simply be looking to cut their central offices. Rather, leaders should strategically invest in their central offices to strengthen supports for classroom teaching and learning. But what strategic investments?

Until recently, central-office leaders grappling with this question have had limited research- and experience-based guides. Prescriptions abound, but they tend not to stem from research or experience that clearly demonstrates their success. Few prescriptions move beyond broad principles, such as “create greater coherence” or “develop superintendent leadership,” to specify in sufficient detail what a central office can do to help schools build their capacity for teaching and learning improvement.

To address this knowledge gap, we recently conducted a major study of three urban districts that were in the process of not just streamlining their central offices, but also of radically transforming how they work with schools. Our study found five critical steps that district leaders used to build their central-office capacity to support districtwide teaching and learning improvements:

Each district in the study dedicated core central-office staff members to focus on helping principals build their capacity for instructional leadership. Our districts all invested in a staff team to maximize their time with principals one-on-one and in principal networks to strengthen principals’ ability to help their teachers improve their practice. The intensive work of these “instructional leadership directors,” or ILDs, included ongoing modeling for principals on how to think and act like instructional leaders, as well as brokering resources and using classroom-observation protocols to bolster the process. For example, many of the ILDs we observed frequently showed principals how to use data from student assessments and classroom observations in challenging conversations with teachers about improvement. As one ILD explained, “I ... spend time in ... [schools] helping the principals ... working on the quality of teaching and learning, looking at the student work, looking at the rigor, looking at best practices, giving them feedback.” Otherwise, “it’s not going to pay out in dividends in student achievement.”

Districts invested in building the capacity of the instructional leadership directors to engage effectively in those principal partnerships. Supporting principals’ instructional leadership is not work that most central-office employees immediately know how to do well, even those with outstanding experience as principals themselves. One administrator recently shared with us that she spent more than 20 years as a principal criticizing central-office leaders for not being in schools enough. In the three years since she became a central-office leader herself, she has found it incredibly difficult to carve out time to be in schools, and when she is there, she is not sure what she should be doing to help the principal support teaching and learning improvement. Leaders in our study-districts helped the ILDs improve by engaging them in regular, challenging conversations about the quality of their work with principals, and by taking competing responsibilities off the ILDs’ plates, freeing up their time to work with principals on instructional leadership.

These districts seized the opportunity to strategically reorganize other central-office staff members and “re-culture” or fundamentally shift their work to support teaching and learning improvement. For example, all three districts reduced the number of employees working within their human-resources departments. But they also restructured those departments so that staff members were assigned to provide targeted service to a smaller “caseload” of schools. Importantly, those staff members worked differently from the way they had before—they immersed themselves in the dynamics of their assigned schools, getting to know school goals and existing personnel so they could find and recruit teaching candidates and other employees who might work particularly well in them. Where these changes were well under way, central-office staff members provided responsive, informed, and focused assistance to individual schools.

Key leaders in each system acted as stewards of the central-office-transformation initiative, keeping the process on track. In so doing, system leaders avoided the resource waste that typically results from incompletely implemented improvement approaches. Stewardship included central-office leaders’ clear communication with various stakeholders about what the reforms involved, why those reforms were so important to improving teaching and learning, and whether their central-office investments were leading to demonstrable improvements in schools over time.Stewardship also involved bringing new resources to the school system to fuel the improvement work. In two districts, leaders’ efforts to cultivate corporate and philanthropic funders resulted in unprecedented infusions of new dollars into the central offices.

The three systems continuously collected evidence about their progress and used that evidence to support improvements throughout the central office that promised to further strengthen teaching and learning districtwide. For instance, the twice-monthly meetings of instructional leadership directors in one district included facilitated conversations about how the ILDs handled certain situations with principals and the practical pros and cons of various approaches. As one central-office staff member reflected on those meetings, “It’s been a long time since I’ve been in a place where people invite that kind of criticism and see it as an avenue for your own growth.” Also in that district, we observed how senior central-office staff members periodically used data from principal-satisfaction surveys to inform changes throughout the central office to support school principals’ instructional leadership.

The experiences of the school systems we studied highlight how central offices can directly support districtwide teaching and learning improvement. Our findings suggest that as district leaders and school boards consider “what counts” in times of financial strain, they would do well to focus on the central office—not just as a budget-cutting target, but as a means to serve schools better.

A version of this article appeared in the November 10, 2010 edition of Education Week as Don’t Cut Out the Center


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