Will Our Phones Go Dead? The Changing Role of the Central Office

With increasing frequency, districts and schools are restructuring in order to achieve new results in educational outcomes for students. Restructuring, as defined by Corbett (1990), refers to changes in roles, rules, and relationships. As districts and schools are restructured, the role of central office changes too. District-level administrators, once accustomed to operating from positions of power and authority, are being required to rethink their place in a changed school environment. Some may even be wondering whether they will still have a place in the new scheme of things.

Traditionally, the primary role of central office staff has been to deliver policies made by the central office and to monitor policy implementation. In the decentralized district, the central office takes on the role of service provider or support agency. Central staff are no longer the sole authority figures, distributing directives and monitoring compliance. Instead they become active resources for, and facilitators of, school-level efforts for change.

The goal of central office staff now is to support school staffs by giving them the authority, flexibility and resources they need to solve the educational problems particular to their schools. Meeting that challenge must be a primary focus of the new model for central office school leadership.

New Roles for Old

A popular restructuring initiative is site-based management. In settings where site-based management is accompanied by broad-based decision making, the roles of district and school personnel undergo significant changes. Cotton gives, as an example, the "principal [who] moves higher in the district chain of command because of the increased authority and account-ability that shift to the school" (1992, p. 6).

As site administrators begin exercising the power and authority that were once the exclusive realm of the central office, central office administrators take on roles that facilitate the development of student and staff performance standards. In addition, they offer a menu of technical assistance to schools, including "locating and providing resource materials; establishing funding formulas; and carrying out system-wide planning, monitoring and evaluation" (Duttweiler, 1989, p.3).

Rather than advocating a particular change, central office personnel assist schools in their own individual change practices (Reavis & Griffith, 1992). This can be seen in the examples of new central office roles found in practice in SEDL's region, reported in this paper.

Tackling the Human Factor Headon

On a human level central office reorganization can be a difficult challenge. Traditional cen-tralized administrative structures can serve as an impediment to change and must be modified if real school-based reform is to be successful (Parsley, 1991). In cases where change of power is involved, this transition can be the cause of much stress and anxiety. Mutchler (1990) has found that people in decision-making positions in the school and district can experience fear of losing power as they move from a traditional hierarchical decision-making model to a shared decision-making model.

To help alleviate this fear factor, it is important that roles be redefined clearly and supported by adequate training and other resources. Districts moving to site-based management should distinguish carefully between decisions that are the prerogative of the central office and those that are to be site-based (Harrison, Killion, & Mitchell, 1989). Districts might also consider designing a memorandum of agreement between the district and site-based school councils. This clarifies purposes and "spells out conditions and guidelines to which all can agree" (Marburger, 1985, p. 47).

Putting It in Perspective: Traditional Roles and Activities

To aid in understanding the changing role of the central office, it may be helpful to trace the evolution of the central office mission. In 1963 Harris described the traditional role and activities of district office staff as consisting of certain supervisory tasks including developing curricula, organizing for instruction, staffing, providing facilities, providing materials, arranging for inservice education, orienting new staff members, relating special services, developing public relations, and evaluating. These tasks were implemented through planning, organizing, leading, controlling, and assessing.

These administrative, evaluative, and facilitating activities were clustered or differentiated into line or staff positions. Staff personnel were those who had no authority over persons for whom they provided consultation, advice and counsel (i.e., teachers). Line personnel had persons reporting directly to them and appeared on the organizational chart somewhere between superintendents and teachers. Line personnel supervised and evaluated personnel under them in the organization. Staff personnel were responsible for programs or projects rather than positions (Hall, Putman, & Hord, 1985).

In the traditional model, staff had different central missions. One responsibility was to help in district planning and to fulfill the many district administrative functions, including the basic bureaucratic operation of the district. Staff who fell in this category included budget, personnel, buildings and grounds people and managers of the supportive and organizational arrangements for the district's schools. Another responsibility was providing direct support of instruction and school-based activities. Teacher support might be supplied by generalists whose work was not academic-subject referenced, but focused on the processes of instruction. Other teacher support came from subject area specialists who supplied help within the context of a particular curricula. Yet another responsibility had to do with control and monitoring of school personnel. Typically, monitoring was done by higher level district office staff (Hall, et al., 1985).

The structure for the traditional central office was inspired by "private sector models and the military which employ familiar concepts of line and staff authority to describe positions and relationships within the chain of command" (Conley, 1993, p. 71). The general notion was that educational processes could be directed and controlled in much the same manner as military and manufacturing processes. Many of the people currently in central offices were trained in this philosophy of bureaucratic management (Conley, 1993).

Conley points out that just as school districts seemed to be mastering the implementation of centralized authority systems, the rules of the game started changing. "As early as 1981, the private sector began to adopt and extol the virtues of decentralized decision-making, worker involvement, and participatory management" (Conley, 1993, p. 71).

Backed by comparable research findings in corporations, districts began turning to management structures that delegated more authority and flexibility to school staff. "Professional responsibility replaced bureaucratic regulation; districts increased school autonomy in exchange for the staff's assuming accountability for results" (David, 1989, p. 46).

New Actions for the Central Office Workplace

With its goal of enabling staff to create a more productive workplace and learning environment, site-based management has an even broader scope. It represents a change in how the district operates, and how authority and responsibility are shared between the district and its schools. It not only changes roles and responsibilities within the schools but has implications for how the central office should be organized.

The crux of site-based management is the delegation of authority from district to schools. David (1989) pinpoints three critical areas of decision-making authority that make up the autonomy of school-based management: budget, staffing, and curriculum.

A real shift in management responsibility from the district to the school requires everyone to change roles, routines, and relationships. Such change, however, does not occur without leadership and support. Districts that have successfully delegated substantial authority to their schools are also characterized by leadership that enables others. Restructured school systems require their chief executive officers to act not as directors and controllers but as coordinators and as supporters (Murphy, 1991). Their job is not to dictate, but to facilitate, serve, and assist.

When the central office takes on the role of service provider, schools can contract with the district office for services as needed or desired (Thompson, 1988). The key here is that schools are not obligated to engage district resources. The central office, in essence, is faced with a marketing task.

In reviewing the literature on the enabler role of district personnel, Murphy (1991) reports the need to build the capacity of schools to take advantage of the opportunities of decentral-ization. District offices maintain responsibility for establishing overall direction and for measuring success of the school program. Energy is focused on parts of the organization experiencing difficulty. Central offices often become considerably smaller in the restruc-tured school district. The remaining organization is less hierarchical and more horizontal. As this leveling of the organiza-tional pyramid occurs, responsibilities historically undertaken and personnel historically housed at the district level are transferred to schools, and functions previously centralized are spread over a larger number of people. Role of the middle managers becomes more focused on providing services directly to schools (Murphy, pp. 24-25).

The day-to-day nature of work changes where central office administrators spend more of their time in serving as planning consultants and collaborating members of district or school level improvement teams. Because the work is knowledge-based, "district leaders may need to brush up on facilitation and planning skills, their ability to conduct effective meetings, and their information concerning current educational theory and research to support improved student learning" (Hirsch & Sparks, 1991, p. 17).

Metaphors for the New Central Office Administrator

In the transition from a "working on" to a "working with" model (Tafel & Bertani, 1992), central office administrators take on a new mixture of responsibilities. Conley (1993, pp. 72-75) uses the following metaphors to describe the new administrator's various functions:

assist in the development and implementation of an organization-wide vision and mission;


support the district or schools in systematic planning to determine their mission and goals;


facilitate change and all the interactions that surround it;


Boundary Spanner:
build linkages across institutional boundaries;


communicate effectively in a variety of ways;


Dispute Resolver:
resolve and mediate rather than suppress conflict and disputes;


Efficiency Enhancer:
enhance the efficiency of the organization;


coordinate efforts of different levels of the organization;


Standard Setter:
define standards for which different units of the district will be responsible.


The call and common thread among these roles is to develop capacity at the school level and enhance the school's possibility to develop a vision and plan.

Transformation in Several Districts

Several districts in SEDL's region are already experiencing the transformation from central control to site-based management.

Lonoke School District is located east of Little Rock, Arkansas, in a small town of 4,200 that has a student population of 1,780. It serves as a bedroom community to the capital city where many residents commute to jobs thirty minutes away. Agricultural activity focuses on rice, cotton, and soybean crops, as well as fish farming/raising - a recent income-producing initiative.

The small Lonoke central office includes the superintendent, curriculum coordinator, special education clerk, bookkeeper, and secretarial staff.

Sharron Havens, curriculum coordinator, reports that she is currently very busy responding to the ideas that teachers have come up with to improve their school. "I have found myself, for example, focusing for the past two years on a major change - the junior high moving to become a middle school." According to Havens, her role has been to support teachers and help them with planning. The teachers initiated the idea for changing to a middle school, they went to training, and then they decided that they needed to team. This posed an interesting challenge for the teachers and Havens: giving the seventh grade core teachers a common planning period in which to develop their team meant setting new priorities. The only possible class period when the team could meet was first period, the traditional seventh grade athletics time. This would have to be changed if teachers were to be supported in teaming.

Havens is working hard to help teachers and principal determine how to do what they have elected to do. Havens reports that teachers don't have the time or resources or know who to call to arrange for their needs. Therefore she is working with the principal to help him think through a plan, predict the problems he might have, and address ahead of time the concerns that may be raised by the superintendent - in order to make a successful presentation, acceptable to all constituents.

In her current role, Havens is less likely to be the initiator of ideas and more likely to be the responder with resources and the supporter of the school's efforts. "I see myself helping them to do what they deem most important to do for their school" (Sharron Havens, personal communication, June 1993).

In the large urban North East Independent School District in San Antonio, Texas, the central office has also changed its mode of doing business. Linda O'Neal and Joyce Smith, who head staff development efforts for the district, recall the old model of central office staff offering courses and delivering them. Now O'Neal and Smith say the central office collaborates with campus leadership teams to create courses for school leaders and the school leaders deliver them. They agree these school leadership teams have raised the quality of the staff development program considerably.

Central office staff provides support through coaching, working with the campus planning process, helping schools evaluate what they're doing, and assisting them to do it better. The North East central office has also played a big part in helping organize study groups to help principals and school leaders improve their skills in the campus planning process. The focus is not only on presentation but also on transfer. The change process is approached in ways that focus energy on embedding skills in the work place. Emphasis is placed on leadership, reflection, and celebration of success (Linda O'Neal, Joyce Smith, personal communication, April 1993).

North East is following the example of other districts using study groups or work teams as structures for facilitating learning and change, and promoting collegial interchange and action (Murphy, 1992). Central offices can play key roles in organizing these groups, providing critical input throughout the research/study process, and encouraging ongoing interaction and dialogue.

Like Lonoke, Arkansas, Bernalillo is a small town that serves as a residential suburb of Albuquerque, New Mexico. Bernalillo has 8,000 residents and there are 3,400 students in the Bernalillo Public Schools. Ivan Archibeque, Basic and Special Programs Director, characterizes the culture of this school district as "innovative." He explains that creative ideas and risk taking to try out new ideas are valued. Central office reinforces this by providing support for schools' ideas and by making it clear that even an unusual new direction will not result in a school being punished, stepped on, or put down.

In the past, central office staff related to schools through a top-down hierarchy where communication was direct and people were told what to do. Central office staff were expected to make a lot of decisions and implement them. The new approach of the last couple of years has reversed all that. "We've had to learn to depend on the school sites for initiatives, while we try to stimulate the change process so people will try out new things."

The change process began with a reorganization of central office staff. The result was elimination of a level of administration directly below the superintendent and conversion of the role of five instructional directors from actual directors to a collaborative team of district facilitators. The role of Director of Human Resources was also modified toward enhancing site decision making by increasing information availability. These adjustments in district staffing provided a foundation that supported the function of the governance committees at each school site.

New structures have been developed to assist in the change to school-site initiated reform. One is a school improvement process designed for assessing a school's effectiveness, identifying needs to be addressed, and determining solutions to improve their educational program. A second structure is a series of committees representing the schools and academic disciplines that collectively make curriculum recommendations for consideration by the schools. This structure supports communication, articulation, and coordination between the schools that are devising their own curricula.

Funding for site curriculum development and staff development was collectively provided from district sources by each of the five Instructional Directors. Some of this funding was also the result of savings that resulted from eliminating two central office positions. The flexible funding has made possible training to enhance instructional changes at each site and has provided time for planning and development of curriculum and related projects.

Archibeque perceives that his role has expanded, because his involvement with the schools is much greater. He sees himself as a teacher - "more so than ever before as I encourage, model, and walk school staffs through the process of collaboration in order to create an open environment where people listen carefully to others and take a little risk."

Bernalillo's central office staff do not see themselves as administrators but as supporters who clarify the limits on occasion to keep the systems running smoothly. "There are still limits we have to make people aware of."

Archibeque cites three lessons learned by his district while implementing site-based management. First, it takes a lot of time to work this way and it's necessary to develop a lot of patience. Second, "it's a scary kind of process, with its ups and downs; it's frustrating when you expect people to act and they're afraid or have hesitated because they don't believe they really have the authority to act." And third, a strong leader is needed. The key is a superintendent who is strong in his/her beliefs and who spends a lot of time talking to people to help them understand the new order of things. "It's never clear sailing and little problems continually crop up, so it's important to have an active superintendent who doesn't capitulate." The board also supports this restructured way of working and is "willing to be patient although they occasionally get a little anxious."

In this district, the challenge to central office staff is to provide school sites with an optimally risk-free environment that eliminates punishment and encourages creativity (Ivan Archibeque, personal communication, June 1993).

Other Issues in Reorganization

The Vancouver, Washington, district offers an example of other issues to be faced in restructuring the central office. The new roles of facilitator and resource coordinator require staff "selected for their group process skills, problem solving abilities, curriculum and pedagogy expertise, and communications ability. They frequently serve on building-level or district level teams and are expected to be generalists beyond their immediate background or span of control" (Parsley, 1991, p. 13). The district office continues to do "those things it can do most efficiently, notably strategic planning, curriculum coordination, transportation, legal services, accountability and research, payroll, and food services, while emphasizing new and expanded roles at the building level" (p. 14).

The National LEADership Network Study Group on Restructuring Schools offers a similar description. "Central offices might retain small troubleshooting staffs, competent in the specialities of plant management, personnel and bargaining, law, transportation and other technical subjects, who would be detailed to work in trouble spots with administrators in charge. Field administrators might rotate on occasion into these slots where they would develop and use expertise in the subject matter as well as in facilitation of problems of site administrators" (National LEADership Network Study Group on Restructuring Schools, 1991, p. 51).

Depending on district size, central office staff members hold assorted titles and perform more or less specialized functions. "The important shift is from power by virtue of title to power based solely on knowledge and ability to serve" (Prasch, 1990, p. 19). The idea that all impor-tant functions are based in the central office is challenged. Prasch suggests that these func-tions not be eliminated but relocated and demonstrates how three traditionally defined roles in the central office might change (pp. 20-21):

  • The subject specialist, e.g., in mathematics or reading, assumes the role of facilitator or helper. "A change in title from supervisor or director to consultant can convey the direction of intended change... The best way for specialists to play their new role is to work with individual schools on an on-call basis." Specialists should be helped to realize that they are more effective when their services are sought rather than imposed.
  • The business manager takes on the role of educator over the role of money manager, dedicating the job to the instruction of students in concert with all district employees. Business managers become more concerned with how to manage resources to achieve outcomes for students and less concerned with efficiency. The business manager must "play the role of enabler, helping site managers stretch dollar resources."
  • Personnel directors "give up the power base of being the final selector of staff and play a role that facilitates sound selections by others." The title human resources manager may more accurately describe this function in the district. The personnel director would also facilitate a broad-based program of improving staff relations.

Preparing for Change

Those who have experienced the restructuring process seem to agree that an "important part of getting a system ready for change is for central office personnel to provide leadership in developing a common vision and goals" (Sparks, 1991, p. 1). Thus, with more autonomy at the school level, the central office takes on an even greater role. "As central office administrators shift to a more service-oriented role and provide schools with support that is valued, they will be in high demand... Central office administrators need to learn the skills necessary to be helpers, facilitators, and brokers. It takes a high degree of skill to provide schools with a blend of pressure and support - pressure to encourage schools to do their best and support for experimentation and risk-taking" (p. 6).

The superintendent and board members play key roles in providing this support. Site-based management does not change the legal governance system of schools, but in delegating accountability, "boards change from an inspectorial role to providing a forum for staff to report progress on goals" (Prasch, 1990, p. 17). Similarly, the superintendent must clearly understand that "sharing power in no way relieves him or her of the burden of leadership... [However] the 'command and control' approach gives way to a 'beseech and facilitate' mode. The superintendent must abandon a 'take charge' style for one that encourages and supports others to take charge" (p. 18). Superintendents become mentors who work behind the scenes helping people grow.

The culture of a district becomes collaborative. Members work together, introducing new ideas, sharing information, making decisions. Schools assess their needs, and the central office responds by providing service.

A 1991 study by Pajak and Payne exploring principals' perceptions of the central office indicated principals want "district office administrators and supervisors to become more actively supportive of school-based change efforts" (p. 1). Instead of the traditional monitoring function that centered on enforcing existing policy, principals preferred an orientation that facilitated creativity and risk taking. Principals also "favored shared responsibility with the district office for most supervisory functions, rather than complete autonomy... [Data collected in the study] also suggested changes in attitudes and values may be as important to success of restructuring as changes in organizational structure" (p. 1).

Tips for Restructuring Roles

To serve a new vision of schooling, Hirsh and Sparks (1991) offer the following hints for restructuring central office roles (p. 17):

  • Do long-range planning. Use action plans to outline the process for achieving the mission and objectives of the district.
  • Stay on the cutting edge; be the expert. When a question or problem arises, be recognized as the "source for the most timely and accurate information."
  • Be customer driven and pro-active. Keep up with school improvement efforts throughout the district.
  • Be a friendly critic. Be visible and demonstrate "sincere commitment to assist schools in achieving their goals."
  • Celebrate success. Recognize the efforts of school leadership teams. Note worthy achievements.
  • Generate new services to offer. Determine your niche.

The New Central Office: Looking Ahead

Certainly challenges and difficulties are embodied in any change in power relationships. Changes in the relationship between central offices and school sites will occur only with great effort on the part of everyone involved. It is also evident that regardless of the changes that are made, the central office still has an important role. Phones won't "go dead," at least not in the foreseeable future.

In fact, the new central office will be one where "leadership by knowledge replaces leadership by authority, collaborative decision making replaces bureaucratic directives, high expectations replace accountability, and interactive collegial cultures replace patterns of isolation" (Tafel & Bertani, 1992, p. 44).

Inherent in this concept is the building of coalitions between and among people within the system and outside the system who seek to become partners in creating and sustaining change. The central office takes on the additional metaphor of "matchmaker" - bringing people together to plan and work toward change.

The ultimate goal of that change is to ensure success for all students. Keeping focus on the students will continue to be the most important role for the central office.


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Credits and Disclaimer

Issues . . . about Change is published and produced quarterly Southwest Educational Development Laboratory (SEDL). This publication is based on work sponsored by the Office of Educational Research & Improvement, U.S. Department of Education under grant number RP91002003. The content herein does not necessarily reflect the views of the department or any other agency of the U.S. government or any other source. Available in alternative formats.

The Southwest Educational Development Laboratory (SEDL) is located at 4700 Mueller Blvd., Austin, Texas 78723; 512-476-6861/800-476-6861. SEDL is an Equal Employment Opportunity/Affirmative Action Employer and is committed to affording equal employment opportunities to all individuals in all employment matters.

This issue was written by Shirley M. Hord, Senior Research Associate, Services for School Improvement, SEDL, and Angela Smith, Educational Communications Specialist.

Published in Issues ...about Change Volume 2, Number 4, Will Our Phones Go Dead? The Changing Role of the Central Office (1993)