When school principals and teachers look to their school district's central office to support their efforts to help all students learn at high levels, too often they find the central office disconnected from their daily realities. It's a misalignment that stems from central offices historically not being expected to lead for improved teaching and learning for all students, especially those traditionally underserved by public schools.
But research and experience are now highlighting the importance of central office leadership for such results, even as they struggle to assume such non-traditional leadership roles.
The University of Washington's District Leadership Design Lab (DL2) is working with central offices as they step up to the challenge of helping all schools realize ambitious learning goals for each and every student.
Meredith Honig, associate professor of education and DL2 founder and director, has spent almost two decades partnering with school districts to uncover how central offices can transform into true school support systems.
"What we see time and time again," Honig said, "is that when central offices don't support schools in particular ways they can actually get in the way of schools and initiatives to improve learning—even those they design themselves.
"Whole industries have sprung up to support school improvement, but who helps central offices work better and smarter with schools to help all students learn? Central offices are vitally important to the success of their schools, yet they've hardly received the guidance and support they need to lead in those ways."
Such guidance and support, Honig said, includes research that highlights the details of central office work practices and systems that matter for school improvement as well as intensive, hands-on partnerships that help districts use those ideas in their central office improvement efforts and learn from the process.
That's where DL2 is targeting its efforts.
Through the Lab’s partnerships with districts, it conducts rigorous research on how the work and systems of central offices can support student learning across entire districts. DL2 also builds tools and partnerships to help districts use that knowledge to improve their performance.
DL2 recently launched three new projects — each focused on working with district leaders to design and implement better central office systems and learning from their efforts to create the next generation of knowledge about central office improvement.
“Making Leadership Visible”
DL2 is creating a series of research-based tools and systems that help central offices improve the quality of their staff who supervise school principals as a key lever for school improvement. Funded with a $600,000 grant from the Wallace Foundation, DL2’s work will directly support Wallace’s main district grantees including Long Beach (Calif.), Broward County (Fla.), Minneapolis, Cleveland, DeKalb County (Ga.) and Washington, D.C.
"Our earlier research provided some of the first rigorous empirical evidence about the importance of principal supervisors as a direct line of support to principals leading school improvement," Honig said. "The new tools and systems we create will help principal supervisors use what we have learned from our research and district partnerships to engage in the right work and grow that work in consistent and sustainable ways. In the process, we will be able to learn from their work to build the next wave of knowledge about what principal supervisors do when they help principals grow as instructional leaders."
In a related project funded by the Spencer Foundation, DL2 will study how observation-based feedback can help improve principal and central office leadership.
"We know from medicine and law and teaching that feedback from observations of professionals as they go about their daily work is a powerful lever of professional growth," Honig said. "But rarely do leaders in education such as school principals and their supervisors and other central office staff receive such observation-based feedback. Moreover, leaders lack good systems for collecting information from observations that allow them to track changes over time."
DL2 staff will use findings from their research to inform the development of an online platform supporting leadership observation and feedback, helping leaders improve their performance.
Strengthening Workforce Diversity
DL2 is partnering with Highline Public Schools — funded in part through a grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation — on a fundamental redesign of their human resources and curriculum and instruction departments to improve the diversity of teachers and leaders and the quality of teaching and learning districtwide.
“Given their importance to improving the quality of teaching and learning districtwide,” Honig said, “an effective transformation of these departments within central offices — with a focus on fostering educational equity — promises to have widespread impact on student learning.”
Honig said DL2's research and experience with districts form the basis for how it helps districts support an overarching goal of closing achievement gaps.
"We learn a tremendous amount as researchers from the close partnerships with school districts that we've developed," Honig said. "Our focus is on creating rigorous and actionable knowledge for educational leaders."
Dustin Wunderlich, Director for Marketing and Communications
Meredith I. Honig, Associate Professor and Director, District Leadership Design Lab