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Navigating Survival and Transformation

Navigating Survival and Transformation

Posted on: January 11, 2021

Written by Sally J. Zepeda (Ph.D.) and Philip D. Lanoue (Ph.D.), authors of Developing the Organizational Culture of the Central Office.

Leading school transformation requires everyone in the organization to work together as one. Understanding and embracing new roles of central office divisions and leveraging their collective expertise is “mission” essential for superintendents in transforming their systems. Now, as leaders embrace the challenges emerging in the unchartered waters of COVID 19, they will need to use their resources wisely to effectively navigate both survival and transformation. More than ever, the coordinated engagement and the expertise of central office personnel is critical as systems respond to the changes needed to support their mission and their roles within their communities.

The gap in translating and enacting change from the superintendent to the school level closes only when central office divisions are involved and tightly aligned to the collective work needed to produce desired results. The organization of the central office and redefining the relationships of its internal divisions may be the most untapped resource to leverage lasting systemic change.

As systems move forward, especially in challenging times, the following analysis can serve to guide change by bringing coherence of efforts between the central office, school-wide personnel, and the programs to support student learning. The full impact of the collective efforts of the central office on system and school initiatives will only be realized when central office personnel work in tandem across and within divisions.

Collective Work

Typically, much of the ground work in school transformation is led at the school level with varying degrees of support and oversight by individual central office divisions. For example, the Finance Division engages in the budget; the Curriculum and Instruction Division selects materials and provides instructional support; and Human Resource coordinates hiring, etc. While these functions will continue to be critical, the collective work of these divisions can better leverage resources and provide greater support in school transformation efforts when their efforts are aligned to the outcome.

The work needed today goes far beyond the traditional individual and isolated planning to meet system strategic goals. Moving forward, district leaders must be able to mobilize the collective abilities of their teams to work together in moving the system’s educational agenda. This shift would bring all central office divisions to the table when discussing transformation initiatives.
A stronger sense of confidence and unity emerges to move forward the change process especially in difficult times when each division assumes a responsibility to collectively engage in the process. For school leaders and teachers, the direction of the district is articulated by the superintendent, but the operations to carry forward this direction is embedded in the work of central office divisions.

Transformation—More Than Change

To “simply” make change does not fall under the definition of transformation. Change is woefully inadequate during this time when leaders engage in piecemeal approaches that ultimately leads to a system of business as usual. Transformation requires continuous conversations to understand the beliefs that guide the systems and the actions that are operationalized. Deeply rooted in a successful transformation process is effective leadership at every level starting first with the collective efforts of central office divisions and permeating out to school leaders, teachers, support staff, students, and the community.

Transformation belongs to everyone. For example, the COVID-19 pandemic toppled systems and their schools. The response necessitated changing instructional design of the magnitude requiring strong collective efforts by every central office division to support the work at the school level. New terminology was needed to articulate new systems as using past terms such as traditional and non- traditional no longer fit the schema required in rethinking their instructional systems. As schools made monumental changes in response to the  impact of  COVID-19,  a brave new world has opened to operationalize new instructional designs.

The litmus test of a collective effort is the ability for every member of the central office to explain changes in design, its rationale, and the division's role to support movement from existing approaches. Key questions, include, for example:

● How is the change funded?
● How are personnel hired and supported?
● What messages need to be communicated to parents, the community?
● What modifications to facilities are needed to support changes at the school level?

Every district leader needs to be able to articulate the responses to these kinds of questions while examining internal and external tensions associated with change.

Internal and External Forces Create Tensions 

Both internally and externally initiated change creates tension. Effectively engaging in district and school transformational efforts requires divisions to look collectively at both internal and external stakeholders. Pressure from external constituents is not enough to “drive change by individuals or groups” and results in simple compliance. Compliance is not transformation.

Change driven from an internal approach by a single person (e.g., the superintendent) will not be successful if the focus is a lock-step model that does not reflect an understanding of the system. Change created internally first begins with understanding the system and the  beliefs of its stakeholders. Effective change and sustained transformation occur when the external pressures and internal beliefs are understood in ways to move the system. Moreover, leadership is essential if the superintendent is going to lead system leaders in these efforts.

Leading Leaders

Superintendents have the most critical role in shaping the leadership within the district and their work is about leading leaders. However, supporting leaders first starts within the central office and must be based on understanding system priorities and the barriers that get in the way of achieving the desired outcomes. The most significant indictment for  central office leaders is being perceived as the barriers that need to be averted.

Secondly, the superintendent and central office must have great focus on building and maintaining leadership capacity at the school level. Ultimately, the new leader is the new learner. Therefore,  transformation starts with the behaviors of the leaders in the central office and the superintendent. Preparing and supporting school leaders cannot occur without clear and deliberate processes of engagement, risk taking, and pervasive conversations of effective leadership practices that lead to student engagement and growth. For the superintendent, “modeling may be the most important practice for system effectiveness”.

Working as a Collective of One

The literature and research clearly identify the necessity for superintendents to engage all central office leaders in developing and enacting their divisional responsibilities as a piece of the whole. Effective approaches to transforming districts and schools require district leaders to build the infrastructure to provide the support needed to navigate the tension and turbulence created when systems implement something that is different.

The work of central office divisions can no longer function in isolation. District level goals should permeate the work of every individual in the system. Central office functions in supporting the goals of the district are neither linear nor are they hierarchical.  The work of central office divisions is to engage in critical conversations with every stakeholder about how to achieve district goals while also assessing the work from within their divisions.

Moving Forward

While core central office functions remain the same, organization transformation efforts can only be realized when every central office division is an active participant as new initiatives are designed and operationalized. School superintendents can move system change only when they engage their central office professionals in coherent efforts in response to a rapidly changing educational landscape.