Educators meeting

School districts across the nation are turning to research to transform their central offices in ways that support better teaching and learning for all students.

Yet putting that research into practice is no easy task, even when districts bring in high-quality outside help says the University of Washington’s Meredith Honig, associate professor of education policy, organizations and leadership and executive director of the District Leadership Design Lab.

Honig’s recent study of several district research partnerships attempting to implement central office improvement programs backed by research found that successful efforts require internal leaders who want to learn and improve along with their staff members.

In the following Q&A, Honig discusses implications from her study “Research Use as Learning: The Case of Fundamental Change in School District Central Offices,” recently published in the American Educational Research Journal.

Why is it important to understand how central office leaders are using research to improve their work?

Historically, school district central offices have not been a main focus for researchers. But recent scholarship begins to describe what central office staff do and how central systems operate when researchers associate those practices and systems with improved supports for excellent teaching and learning for each and every student. That development is incredibly important to our understanding of how to ensure such education—especially for students of color, low-income students, English language learners and others traditionally underserved by school systems.

Even though it’s a common refrain in education that barriers to equity are systemic, researchers have long neglected a main system—the central office—that may contribute to inequities. The new research could be an important resource to central offices as they seek new ways of interrupting how they contribute to educational inequities and ensuring an excellent education for each student. We wanted to know: Is it? Are central office staff trying to use it and what happens when they try?

What stood out in your findings?

First, the research calls for significant shifts in how central offices have traditionally functioned. Not surprisingly, using the research to inform how they work was not easy for central office leaders. But some were able to make those shifts.

Second, public and private funders have invested significant resources in outside organizations like university outreach units and leadership coaches to help central offices access and use research and other information to improve. So we went in thinking that we would see the greatest growth in central office leaders’ practice, consistent with the research, in the districts with the highest quality outside supports. But we didn’t. In fact, the districts with no growth were the ones receiving the most intensive and best teaching from outside coaches. The districts with the growth cases were those working with coaches that tended not to coach very effectively.

How is that happening? What does make a difference is getting district leaders to use research?

We found that the number one, most important commonality across the high growth districts was leadership—the superintendent or the deputy superintendent leading their own staff in understanding how and why to use the research to inform their practice. This was true even when those leaders were still learning for themselves what the research meant and how to use it and help others do so. We suggest that even outside coaches who are excellent teachers and on-site very frequently are no substitute for a district leader who is on-site all the time modeling how to use the research.

The better coaches didn’t have an explicit strategy for how to help district leaders lead the work themselves; instead, they basically went into central offices and did work for central office leaders. In the other districts, the coaches who were less effective teachers has a much clearer strategy for helping leaders lead their own and their staff’s learning. And central office leaders stepped up. Maybe because the outside coaches weren’t doing their work for them but partnering with them to lead more of the work themselves.

What should leaders who are looking to use research to drive school improvement keep in mind as they get started?

Be sure you are the one leading. Understanding what the research says and how to use it can be challenging, because much of the research calls for very different ways of working for you and your staff. So you may want to rely on some outside help. But if you do, ensure that the support is clearly helping you build your capacity and opportunities to lead the work yourself.


Dustin Wunderlich, Director for Marketing and Communications