President's Corner

The Central Role in Transformation
 BY KRISTI WILSON/School Administrator, October 2020

THE IMPORTANCE OF CENTRAL-OFFICE leadership never has been more apparent. Research clearly supports the central office’s role in strategically innovating systems and practices that will transform districtwide teaching and improve learning.

Yet some policymakers and even local constituents call for the defunding of central offices, the consolidation of elementary and secondary districts or the outsourcing of central-office functions to private management organizations. This line of thinking seeks to undermine the very force so clearly identified as critical to school improvement.

When superintendents set the vision and direction and articulate the roles and responsibilities of central-office staff in supporting teaching and learning as a top priority, they set clear expectations for central-office transformation. This prioritization of what’s important becomes the central guiding force behind everyone’s work in the organization.

True transformation is a long-term commitment. When superintendents are relentless in their focus on strategic goals, the result is better school engagement toward meeting those goals. School leaders’ work must align with these goals, and central-office leaders must make their stewardship of this mandate their primary purpose. Goals should be acknowledged and understood throughout the central office and all subsystems, with a shared leadership responsibility to keep members of the governing board apprised about how well the objectives are being met.

Further, superintendents can promote the development of leadership capacity through this shared ownership of common goals. Quite simply, deep sustainable changes in practice rarely occur spontaneously and are not sustained, transferred or maintained without concentrated attention by centralized leadership and high-capacity systemwide ownership.

How do you transform a central office to lead the work that stimulates continuous improvement? The Wallace Foundation research shows that providing district leaders with focused training and support around what teaching and learning priorities are — and why they are relevant to individual departments’ ability to fully engage in new practices — is an important step. More than that, all staff must be deeply engaged in the development of those priorities and be provided opportunities to explore their implications. Clearly, central leadership must establish and coordinate this work.

Modeling the importance of a continuous improvement approach to your work as a superintendent in the process of central-office transformation is also vital. Given that for some people these can be new ways of engaging, behaving or collaborating, the importance of people learning and leaning into their way of the work as it unfolds cannot be overemphasized.

The people in the organization must see the superintendent as an authentic learner alongside those who prioritize teaching and learning, as someone who values risk taking and “failing forward.” This then encourages learning-focused partnerships with principals to deepen their instructional leadership.

The constant need to communicate the relevance and the role district-level administrators play in supporting teaching and learning cannot be understated. Ongoing engagement with teachers, parents, political supporters and governing board members sustains commitment.

People often forget just how important the role of central-office administrators is, not only in the operations of a district, but in championing consistent reform efforts for teaching and learning. It is too easy for these administrators to be viewed as “the others.” 

It is up to us to be sure our value is understood.

KRISTI WILSON is AASA president in 2020-21. Twitter: @KwilsonBESD33