Future Avenues and Directions for School District Central Office Reform

Direct indicators of student performance and achievement should be the focus, in order to better understand the link between student achievement and district central offices. For example, “teacher qualifications” such as expertise, certification, and experience are shown to have a large impact on student achievement, after home and family factors are considered.

Those seeking to reduce or eliminate the role of district central offices in school reform efforts often cite individual schools (such as charter schools) that move forward on reform efforts without help from a district office. Still, there are cases where central office logistical support is needed for ongoing success. Most schools, especially those with low-income populations, require outside help to improve instruction and achievement. This help can come from an external partner or the district office.

A Vision for Schools

The district (the school board, the superintendent, key staff, and influential stakeholders in the community) must be able to develop and articulate a vision and a set of practices that send a clear message of the mission of its schools . This message should be for educators, and also the community-at-large, and should create public understanding of the school system’s goals.

A clear vision provides the context for principals to make decisions supported by parents and the larger community. Parents and the larger community must also be included in the process. To support high schools in creating greater motivation of students through positive learning experiences, awareness must be developed among parents, businesses, and community leaders.

The school and the community should work together to help students see a connection between their studies and their future. Once schools understand why students are failing, districts may assist schools in defining how to address the problems using proven practices.

Ongoing Professional Development

Effective districts invest in learning of students, teachers, principals, district staff, superintendents, and school board members. Because many students enrolled in low-performing schools have trouble reading, these schools must first make literacy the centerpiece of professional development.

Districts should invest in preparing future school leaders, by identifying (early in their careers) talented teachers who have the potential to become principals. The district should develop a collaboration with a university or approved outside entity to provide these potential leaders with learning experiences.

Principals and leaders of low-performing schools need flexible resources and the ability to redirect resources toward school improvement design aligned with the districts’ strategic vision. Flexibility can help them improve the school’s climate, organization, and practices. Too many low-performing districts try to solve their problems by bringing in new superintendents every two to four years and removing principals from schools that do not meet goals. Without new policies, practices, resources, and additional operational flexibility these districts are unlikely to improve.

Cooperative and Collaborative Relationships

Districts must define schools’ core values for achieving identified goals. The cross-section of the community creating this educational vision must include views from less-educated and less-affluent residents, whose children make up a growing proportion of students. Also, developing cooperation with principals and school leadership teams helps create school environments that improve student outcomes.

States must assist every district in shaping a bold vision for improving schools. States can provide external consultants to work with districts in developing their district plan and involving the community in that process.

States should also ensure that principals have freedom to select their faculty, choices in allocating resources for school improvement, and authority to select professional development aligned with their school improvement plans. A system of incentives should be put in place to reward success.

Resources to Support Reform Efforts

Districts often have limited resources available for unrestricted use in supporting improved learning. Consequently, schools and principals have limited resources to help them raise student achievement.

Some schools receive revenues from parking passes, athletics ticket sales, vending machines, or other sources. In most cases schools lack the resources needed for significant changes. Generally, principals control about six percent of their school’s budget. Decentralized districts such as Chicago and New York City, have given principals discretion over 85 percent of their school’s budget. Schools under decentralized management were more likely to make decisions leading to improved learning outcomes.

Principals should be given a voice in budget decisions. A truly collaborative budget enables each principal to clearly explain his or her school’s unique needs, within the context of the district strategic plan. An environment of mutual understanding, respect, and ownership is created when principals and district leaders work together in this way.


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