Improvement Tips for Central Office Leaders

by Rachel Klein, Partner of Strategic Initiatives

Dear reader, I have a confession. When I first learned about field-facing efforts to infuse continuous improvement practices in schools, I felt like this guy: 😩. As a former central office leader, I saw it as more process, more tools, and more of a focus on data which would keep teachers, counselors, and school leaders from trusting their knowledge, skills, and instincts to support student learning. But the more I learned, and the more I connected with folks in districts like Chicago, Dallas, and Baltimore who are deeply steeped in equity-focused school improvement, the more I came to understand that networked improvement can be a powerful approach to regularly and authentically letting teachers lead while incorporating the voices of students, families, and communities in school improvement. Far from a top-down bureaucratic process, networked improvement can actually be a tool that supports tailoring educational services to local contexts. 

And further, I came to understand that it should be the responsibility of central office leaders to set up the systems, processes, and tools to enable those closest to the work to find high-leverage, contextualized solutions and scale them across a system. Here are two ways this can look in practice:

  • Most leaders are looking for ways to empower their staff to lead. In a truly distributed leadership culture, principals’ roles would be to support the needs of their teachers, and central office teams would focus on supporting the needs of principals and teachers. What better way to do this than to have a collectively defined and shared aim and strategy (theory of improvement) with clear measures of success, and then rely on those closest to the work – teachers, students, and families – to figure out the “how?” Further, most teachers would agree that if they can do their work in a community – regular collaboration – with others working on similar problems (change ideas with practical measures), they will feel supported. Baltimore City Public Schools has been leveraging networked improvement practices for years, and credits their success and continued momentum to their underlying foundation of connecting teachers across schools, building a broad-base of commitment to shared goals across teachers, families, and district leaders, and creating deep alignment between their literacy coaching and district-wide literacy strategy with CI practices.
  • If we want our solutions to be rooted in context and community, we need to involve students, families, and community members in our regular work, not just through once-a-month board meetings or school coffees. Equity-focused networked improvement communities welcome students and families to join their improvement teams where strategies are shared, new approaches (small tests of change) are developed, and periodic reflection and explanation happens in a trusting community. Teachers and principals are understandably too busy to set up these types of structures, but system leaders serving as intermediaries between school teams are exactly the types of people who can. We see these moves happening in districts like Denver, Yonkers, Dallas, and more. 

But how can you fathom it, you think? You’re a system leader, you’re already completely overburdened! I hear you. I’ve been there. In being responsive to schools, you and your teams are pulled in a million different directions. But think of it, you probably have a lot of strong building blocks in place already: PLCs or teaming at the school level, cross-school content-based collaboration led by system-level specialists, and data cycles with periodic step-backs involving cross-school reviews. It only takes some short hops – intentionally designed and sequenced – to move from where you are to becoming a true networked improvement community that has the flywheel of improvement running at all times to make faster and more consistent progress toward the outcomes you demand for your students. We’re here to help! Check out the Learning Lab for School Improvement Teams for resources and tools from the districts mentioned here, or get in touch and we can connect you with expertise.

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