Start at the Top: How Central Office Reform Is Improving Student Achievement
This Center webcast from March 2009 features Superintendent of the Year Dr. Beverly Hall discussing the successes of central office reform in the Atlanta Public Schools.
Reinventing District Central Offices to Expand Student Learning
In this September 2008 issue brief, authors Dr. Meredith Honig and Dr. Michael Copland examine the role of central office administrators in the reinvention process and what research and experience matters for expanding student learning.
Seven Actions That Improve School District Performance
This Center newsletter from November 2006 highlights seven actions school districts can take to improve their own effectiveness and better support the efforts of their schools to improve student achievement.
School Reform and Improvement Database
The Center’s School Reform and Improvement Database provides almost 5,000 citations and abstracts of screened, high-quality research reports, articles, and studies on school reform and improvement from scholars throughout the United States. In addition to the articles listed on this page, several new items on central office reform have been added to the database.
Resources and Tools:
Taking District Reform to Scale: The Role of the Central Office and the School Board, 2009
This PowerPoint presentation was made for the First Annual Symposium of the National Center for Urban School Transformation by Warren Simmons, Executive Director of the Annenberg Institute for School Reform. It looks at the Institute's recent work on central office reform, including current programs, features of transformed schools, characteristics of improving districts, and challenges facing urban school districts.
A Decade of Urban School Reform: Persistence and Progress in the Boston Public Schools, 2007
This Harvard Education Press book edited by S. Paul Reville with Celine Coggins looks at critical reforms of the Boston Public Schools under the leadership of superintendent Thomas Payzant. In 2006, the Boston Public Schools received the Broad Prize for Urban Education for being the most improved urban school district in the country. Chapters explore issues related to governance, human resources, instruction, data collection, disabilities, and community engagement.
Ordering information is available at:
Central Office Inquiry: Assessing Organization, Roles, and Functions to Support School Improvement, 2006
ERIC Abstract: This book by Kim Agullard and Dolores Goughnour, published by WestEd, is written for administrators. "Schools working to raise student achievement need the help of an organized, focused central office. Yet many districts lack unified direction, agreement on the central office role in supporting school improvement, and coherence and alignment between goals and strategies. Drawing on the findings of a three-year study of several districts focused on improving their schools, this book is intended to help central office leadership and staff examine their organizational arrangement,
their enacted roles, and their day-to-day activities, critically questioning both their theories of action and how their work is concretely helping the schools they serve. Chapter I explores the constraints under which districts operate, addressing the impact of local context, federal and state policy, a district's governing board, and local and national organizations. Chapter II deals with how districts can move forward, developing a cohesive central office theory of action with aligned roles and functions. Chapter III turns to the topic of supporting school improvement through implementation of aligned structures. The book includes exercises and activities designed to engage staff in this inquiry process. It is divided into the following sections: (1) Examining Support for Continuous District Improvement; (2) Understanding the District Context; (3) Creating an Aligned Theory of Action; (4) Conclusion; (5) A Note About the Try It Outs; and (6) References.
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Instructional Leadership: Beyond Instructional Leadership Abstracts, 2002
The May 2002 issue of Educational Leadership from the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development (ASCD) focused on the topic "Beyond Instructional Leadership." The issue contains articles on school culture, principal leadership, the role of the central office, and a research synthesis on unequal school funding, among others. Abstracts and many articles are available online.
Voices in Urban Education: Redesigning the "Central Office," 2009
This issue of Voices of Urban Education from the Annenberg Institute for School Reform at Brown University is focused on redesigning the central office. Article topics include a framework for district effectiveness, the implementation of small autonomous school initiatives, central office redesign, and connecting central offices with communities. Excerpts and some full texts of articles are available online.
Chicago School Reform: Lessons for the Nation, 2007
Parents United for Responsible Education (PURE) and the National Center for Fair & Open Testing (FairTest) released this report on the efforts of several successful Chicago Public Schools to expand fair and effective strategies for improving student achievement. The report covers the history of Chicago school reform from decentralization approaches to top-down, test-driven policies, including a look at the Renaissance 2010 plan. The report offers an alternative approach to school improvement and provides recommendations for change in policy and practice.
System Reform to Reach 98 Percent, 2006
In this Voices in Urban Education article from the Annenberg Institute for School Reform at Brown University, Pia Durkin provides insights on a system to enable districts to reach 98 percent of students by unifying general education and special education through supports for children. The author outlines the system, providing contrasts and challenges with current urban districts’ functions. Necessary supports are described along with contextual connections, the obstacles that have to be overcome, and the series of steps necessary to encourage school-based leaders and central office staff to make the organizational and conceptual changes in order to adopt this unified system.
A Delicate Balance: District Policies and Classroom Practice, 2005
ERIC Abstract: This report includes case studies from Chicago, Milwaukee, and Seattle. "The first report from this study, "Leading From the Middle: Mid-Level District Staff and Instructional Improvement," was published in August, 2004. Since its publication, Leading from the Middle has been an important tool in helping school and district staff, policy makers, researchers, and reform advocates think differently about the role of the district in instructional improvement. A "Delicate Balance: District Policies and Classroom Practice," the second report in this series,
moves the conversation to a deeper level by providing case studies that take an in-depth look at the challenges that these three urban districts faced as they attempted large-scale instructional reform. The case studies illustrate the demands on school systems as they balance central support and pressure, district mandates and school autonomy, and large-scale instructional reforms and school practices. Appended are: (1) Research Design and Methodology; and (2) District Demographics 2001–2002. [This document was produced by the Cross City Campaign for Urban School Reform.]
Leading from the Middle: Mid-Level District Staff and Instructional Improvement, 2004
ERIC Abstract: In this report, the Cross City Campaign continues to explore the district's role in instructional reform. In the fall of 2000, Cross City Campaign initiated a three-year qualitative study in three urban school districts that examined the role and importance of district/school interactions in the implementation of local instructional improvement. The three districts—Chicago, Milwaukee, and Seattle—already had promising systemic reform initiatives underway as well as experience in decentralizing authority and resources to schools. This report draws from a subset of that data
and looks at the role of middle-level central office staff and their relationships with staff in local schools. "Leading from the Middle" provides an important perspective on the role of the school district in improving instruction and will form the basis of a national dialogue throughout the Cross City Campaign network. The report recommends that district leaders should: (1) Make school issues and needs drive the district's policy agenda; (2) Redefine the role of mid-level central office staff; (3) Reorganize the work of mid-level staff; (4) Invest in on-going professional development for mid-level managers; (5) Evaluate mid-level staff member's performance; and (6) Minimize interruptions that distract school and central office staff from focusing on instruction.
From Bystander to Ally: Transforming the District Human Resources Department, 2004
ERIC abstract: Although policymakers and academics tend to overlook the behind-the-scenes role that district human resources (HR) departments play in education, the HR office's effect is far from small. HR departments determine whether qualified teacher candidates make it to the classroom, or slip through the cracks. They can help principals find teachers who meet their school's particular needs, or they can offer only perfunctory administrative support during the hiring process. The old adage that "the devil is in the details" is as true in school reform as it is elsewhere.
One of the important details is the back-office support provided by district human resource offices. This report sheds some light on how today's school districts are rethinking this critical district function. It provides an introductory look at the issues surrounding HR reform by considering three districts that are actively engaged in reshaping their HR offices: Houston Independent School District, Milwaukee Public Schools, and San Diego City Schools. To varying degree, each of these districts was in transition from a bureaucratic to a more performance-oriented approach to education, and had found that its HR office was not providing schools with the support they needed. Based on 49 interviews with district and school personnel during the
2002–03 school year, the report's aim is to identify some key issues that leaders in districts elsewhere can use to begin thinking about how they might make their HR office more efficient or effective. Conclusions about the overall impact of HR reforms on teacher quality or school improvement as well as other broad generalizations about school reform and HR, however, are beyond the study's scope. One of the report's central conclusions is that transforming the district HR function requires a combination of two things: administrative reforms to increase the department's capacity and close attention from district leaders. Appended are: (1) Methods; (2) The Three Districts in 2001–02; and (3) Acknowledgments. [Report funded by a grant from The Wallace Foundation.]
The Role of the District in Driving School Reform, 2004
In this review for the Denver Commission on Secondary School Reform, Robert Muller for Practical Strategy provides a literature summary on the role of districts in becoming an effective force for improving student performance. The paper provides highlights from leadership and management disciplines that are relavant to the school districts’ restructuring efforts. The author provides recommendations for actions that districts can use to support effective strategies, including supporting collaboration, providing incentives and support for instruction, and understanding the change process.
Bringing the District Back In: The Role of the Central Office in Improving Instruction and Student Achievement, 2003
ERIC abstract: This report was published by the Center for Research on the Education of Students Placed At Risk (CRESPAR). This literature review examines the functional tasks of the school district central office and the internal dynamics of relations between the central office and district schools (with their principals, teachers, and students). It builds on previous reviews of the role of school boards and superintendents. The review begins by analyzing studies of the central office more or less chronologically (since the late 1970s). Next, it examines the more recent studies by type of study, and then it proceeds to a more functional analysis of the roles of the central office with respect to improving instruction and student achievement,
focusing on: decision making about curriculum and instruction; supporting good instructional practice (high reliability recruitment of principals and teachers, professional development for principals, professional development for teachers, physical capital/material resources, and linkages between professional development and achievement); and linking evaluation research to district policymaking. The review concludes by outlining the kinds of research that still need to occur to further understanding of how the district, and in particular, central office activity, influences student achievement. (Contains 178 references.)
Central-Office Support for Learning Communities, 2003
This publication from the American Association of School Administrators (AASA) by Rebecca Burnette DuFour looks at ways that the central office can support learning communities. The article offers two suggestions for central office administrators for facilitating continuous improvement throughout their districts. The author provides highlights from two administrators' efforts to incorporate these techniques.
Central Office Review for Results and Equity, 2002
ERIC Abstract: The Central Office Review for Results and Equity (CORRE) is designed to help school district leaders improve support to schools by participating in a five-step analysis of the work of the central office. It enables a district to examine the impact, effectiveness, and coherence of operations across departments, units, and levels, and to help central-office staff members act in concert with the larger system's overall strategies, goals, and outcomes. The review process relies on commitments from the CORRE team, made up of representatives from the district and School Communities That Work (SCtW) members and consultants. Tools developed by SCtW and the Annenberg Institute will also support the work. The five steps of the analysis involve: (1) preparation;
(2) developing shared understanding of the district and identifying priorities; (3) deepening the understanding of the priority issue(s); (4) compiling and analyzing data on the priority issue(s); and (5) developing action steps. The major activities, primary goal, and supporting documents/tools are described for each step in this paper. After the action steps have been determined, SCtW will continue to work with the district. The work may involve varying levels and frequency of feedback and consultation on the implementation of the action steps.
Contradictions and Control in Systemic Reform: The Ascendancy of the Central Office in Philadelphia Schools, 2001
ERIC Abstract: This report was published by the Consortium for Public Research in Education. In 1995 the School Board of Philadelphia adopted Children Achieving, a systemic reform initiative. This report is an evaluation of that reform. The report examines the role of the central office and describes its evolution over the course of the program. The first section recounts how conflicts arose over theories of systemic reform, underlying beliefs and values of reformers, and the new role of the central office in the reform plan. The second section examines the capacity of the school district to effectively support the reform and discusses the contextual issues that affected implementation.
The evaluation used data on student test scores, promotion and graduation rates, and student and teacher attendance; school indicators describing teacher and student characteristics; and surveys and interviews of teachers, students, administrators, central-office staff, parents, and community members. The report concludes that Children Achieving was neither an unbridled success nor an irredeemable failure. Test scores improved, standards and curriculum frameworks were created for every grade, and accountability measures were designed. At the same time, flaws in the implementation, lack of capacity building, and inconsistency by stakeholders over the values underlying the reform led to the reform's demise. (Contains 92 footnotes.)
Reinventing Central Office: A Primer for Successful Schools, 1995
ERIC Abstract: Since 1993, school reform leaders from Chicago (Illinois), Denver (Colorado), New York (New York), Seattle (Washington), and Philadelphia (Pennsylvania) have come together in the Cross City Campaign to work for the improvement of urban education. In each of these cities rhetorical pleas for decentralization and the investment of decision making in the school community are common, but central offices continue to yield little real authority to the local schools. This report recommends a fundamental revision of urban public school systems, one that shifts virtually all funds and most authority to the schools and dismantles centralized bureaucratic structures.
"Reinventing Central Office" covers six key areas in which centralization can be reduced and local autonomy strengthened: (1) governance; (2) budgets; (3) curriculum and instruction; (4) personnel; (5) facilities and services; and (6) accountability. Large bureaucracies find it hard to change how they work. They may yield authority to schools in some or all of these areas, but they then take actions that show that authority still resides at the central level. Central offices have a strong tendency to recentralize, schools will have to watch vigilantly for possible recentralizations if these reforms are implemented. Communities have the intellectual, spiritual, cultural, and physical strengths that provide the essentials for raising children and revitalizing community life. Four appendixes outline powers and functions that should be shifted to the local schools; list proposed roles for schools, districts, and external groups; and provide lists of resources and individuals with expertise in educational improvement. (Contains 47 references.)
Issues…About Change: The Changing Role of the Central Office, 1993
In this briefing paper from the Issues…About Change series, Southwest Educational Development Laboratory (SEDL) authors Shirley M. Hord and Angela Smith discuss the central office staff's primary goals of monitoring the implementation of policies and how those goals shift due to site-based management. The paper proposes new roles for central office staff using examples from three school districts. An explanation of site-based management, metaphors for describing administrators' functions, and descriptions of districts undergoing transformation are included.
Annenberg Institute for School Reform
Housed at Brown University, the Annenberg Institute for School Reform works to share research and knowledge aimed at transforming school systems into "smart education systems." The Institute has developed several publications and tools for districts and schools.
Public Education Leadership Project (PELP) at Harvard University
A joint initiative of the Harvard Graduate School of Education and Harvard Business School, this project was started in 2003 to create and disseminate knowledge on managing urban school districts and identify effective leadership and management practices. A framework to identify key elements that support districtwide improvement strategies and a list of research and resources are included on the website.
School Redesign Network (SRN) at Stanford University
This initiative was established at Stanford University in 2000 to build, capture, and share research-based knowledge for secondary school and school system transformation. Policy research and assessment, news and events, and other resources are provided on the website.
Wallace Foundation—Education Leadership Resources
The Wallace Foundation is a nonprofit organization that seeks to support and share effective ideas and practices that will strengthen education leadership. The Foundation provides research to inform and improve leadership practices and engages in strategic grant funding to support effective programs.