From tinkering to transformation: Strengthening school district central office performance

20070222_EducationOutlook_195Meredith I. Honig at AEI Education has penned a new report urging reform of school district central offices. Honig sees these offices as good candidates to lead schools to higher rates of student progress, but because these central offices have traditionally focused on issues of business and compliance, they are not making the grade when it comes to meeting the mandate from NCLB to help schools cut achievement gaps.  Honig, based on the model of successful school district central offices, suggests “creating partnerships between principals and executive-level central office staff, developing and aligning performance-oriented central office services to support district-wide instructional improvement, and establishing superintendent and other central office leadership that will help staff build their capacity for better performance.”

Despite many often criticizing NCLB, Honig believes that the 2001 law was right to point to school district central offices as a key part of reform. Honig argues, “Evidence shows that school reforms tend not to take root at single schools or achieve district-wide improvements when district central offices do not participate productively in those reforms’ implementation. For example, during the effective schools movement of the 1980s, features of effective schools were difficult to realize within single schools and across multiple schools when school district central offices did not support the kinds of principal leadership and school-level changes at the heart of that reform movement.”

Since the institution of school district central offices do not have experience fulfilling demands to help improve school and student performance, they have not been successful at doing this since 2001. For most of the 20th century, “both urban and rural school district central offices continued to focus on a relatively limited set of business, regulatory, and fiscal functions, paying little attention to improving the quality of teaching and learning. For example, school district central offices generally screened teaching candidates to ensure that they met basic qualifications to work in the school district rather than strategically recruiting high-quality teachers, or rigorously assessing their teaching quality, or holding them accountable for results.”

Honig concludes with a plea for central offices to set aside small-scale reforms and begin systematic reforms of their structure along the lines of private-sector management. “The time has come to stop tinkering with central offices and begin more fundamentally transforming their core work so that they realize the performance demands of supporting high-quality teaching and learning at scale. Pioneering districts’ efforts provide some initial anchors from which districts of all sizes can design their own strategies. These strategies start with innovating central office leaders’ willingness to set aside central office business-as-usual behavior and to re-imagine a system of support for schools that is oriented toward results. These strategies draw from private-sector change management tactics and adapt them to central office settings.”

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