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Central Office Transformation Can Support Teaching and Learning

New study highlights how central office staff can transform their roles to support teaching and learning district-wide.

To date, empirical research of the participation of school district central offices in school improvement efforts has primarily highlighted how central office staff, despite their best efforts, often fail to foster teaching and learning improvement. As a result, central office leaders are left with a heap of examples of what not to do, but few guides for what should be done.


“Central Office Transformation for District- Wide Teaching and Learning Improvement,” released in April from the Center for the Study of Teaching and Policy (CTP) at the University of Washington and the Wallace Foundation, turns traditional research on its head. “District studies have relied mostly on one-time snapshots with principal interviews,” says Michael Copland, associate professor of education policy and leadership at the University of Washington and a principal investigator of the study. “We got inside these places, observed their work, and spoke with people frequently.”

The study examines three districts during the 2007-2008 school year throughout their central office transformation: Atlanta (Ga.) Public Schools, Oakland (Calif.) Unified School District, and New York City (N.Y.) Department of Education Empowerment Organization.

The University of Washington researchers found comparable lines of work between the three districts. These similarities were identified as the “Five Dimensions of Central Office Transformation.” The findings emphasize that it is the central office employees’ daily work that must change to support school personnel.

APS had established school reform teams that were responsible for knowing what the schools needed and to communicate between the principals and the central office. “We wanted organization that was easily accessible to reduce the hierarchy,” says APS Superintendent Beverly Hall. “This requires everyone to think differently and cross functionally.”

And getting everyone to think differently is the crux of what their research has shown, says Meredith Honig, another principal investigator of the study. “School systems get mired in tired debates,” says Honig. “Central office transformation sidesteps these debates and focuses people’s attention on building the capacity of everyone throughout district systems.”

To view the full study, visit