Blog Post

Toward lasting change: Supporting school district central offices’ use of research to address systemic educational inequities

My team and I work with school district central offices across the country as research and reform partners. Sponsored in part by the Foundation, this work focuses on how central offices drive equitable teaching and learning and how leaders use research and other evidence as key resources in that work.

Our district partners have launched important, and in some places unprecedented, efforts to tackle educational inequities systemically. For example, one district’s first-ever equity policy calls on district leaders to address inequities “at their systemic roots.” A leader in another district said that their equity work involves “a total rewiring of our district’s systems … who we are and who we really serve.” These efforts reflect research that shows educational inequities run deep, permeating daily practices and policies across entire school districts—not just at some schools, but at all schools and the district central office too. They reinforce the importance of disrupting schooling as we’ve known it and creating school experiences that center, value, and elevate the success of students that identify as Black, Latinx, Indigenous, students of color, or students who are affected by low-income circumstances.

The limitations facing districts

Despite the right intentions, many of these reforms that aim to tackle inequities systemically in school districts come up against limitations. Consider the following common examples:

  • One district launched a major initiative to train all teachers in antiracist, culturally responsive teaching. The district and teachers’ union created new, dedicated time for teachers to learn about it, and used the latest materials and experts in the field as resources. A year later some teachers had made a few shifts consistent with the new ideas, but most had not, and the no-longer-new professional development competed for teachers’ attention with other demands and its influence further waned.
  • A district Human Resources director aimed to dramatically increase the number of teachers of color in their schools based on robust research connecting teacher diversity with various positive outcomes for both students of color and White students. At the heart of that effort, HR staff participated in anti-bias training to sharpen their cultural sensitivity for connecting with candidates of color during recruitment and selection. But, three years in, the number of teachers of color in their district remained flat.
  • A third district passed an equity policy calling on the district to engage in substantial reform to advance the success of historically marginalized students and appointed a new equity officer to lead implementation. The equity officer routinely consulted with various central office units about equity-related matters. But those consultations generally did not translate into substantive changes in how those units worked.

Why are school districts seeing these disappointing results and what can district leaders and their research partners do about them?

Current challenges

Incomplete reform targets

Common reforms, including the examples above, tend to define “systemic” change as districtwide change—as in the first example where district leaders aimed to spread new curriculum and pedagogy across the school district. All three examples equate “system” with the central office and specificallythe behaviors of its staff, and its organizational policies and structures, like its processes for hiring teachers, or its own offices and internal positions. Research and practice are clear that inequities cut across entire districts and that central office functions related to curriculum, professional development, and hiring, among others, perpetuate inequities (e.g., Brayboy, et al., 2007; Douglass Horsford, 2014; Ladson-Billings, 1998; Lopéz, 2003; ).

Behavior-focused reforms like training in antiracist practices can change hearts and minds, but, absent institutional shifts, those changes can decay

But inequities are also systemic in the sense that they operate at an institutional level, permeating the premises that underlie school systems. Premises are the values and often taken-for-granted assumptions that form the foundation on which schools and central offices operate and define who schools should serve, which knowledge matters, and what counts as success. In U.S. school systems, those premises have historically centered the supremacy of Whiteness, not the value of racial or ethnic diversity or responsiveness. (Peurach, et al., 2019). Premises get reflected in individual behaviors and organizational arrangements, but the latter are symptoms of systemic inequities, not their root causes (Lewis & Diamond, 2015; Welton, et al., 2018).

In this view, behavior-focused reforms like training in antiracist practices can change hearts and minds, but, absent institutional shifts, those changes can decay. For instance, district leaders in one of my previous studies hired non-traditional central office employees such as those with expertise in community organizing. Like equity officers, those staff were to infuse the district with new ways of working, especially around the engagement of historically marginalized communities. But over time, their work resembled long-standing ways of working in the central office that did not promote community engagement (Honig, 2003). Likewise, when leaders focus on rooting out biases in central office policies, such efforts can result in a game of whack-a-mole where as soon as they rewrite one policy, others have been created on top of an already seemingly endless list of existing policies that also require revision.

Insufficient resources

Whole industries support teachers and principals with tools and research to guide their equity work, but resources specific to central office leadership of institutional change for equity are few and far between.

For example, proponents of some design approaches promise support for educators, including central office leaders, to foster innovation and improvement (e.g., Bryk, et al., 2015; Fishman, et al., 2013; IDEO, 2011). But the prompts in these protocols typically focus users on addressing discrete problems of practice at the level of individual behaviors and organizational arrangements, not institutional shifts in the premises that drive them (e.g., Bryk, 2020.) Some were derived from teachers’ experience adapting existing solutions to their classrooms, not with or for system leaders faced with the challenge of fundamentally reinventing work across their entire organization (Engeström, 2013; Honig, 2014; O’Neil, 2016).

Whole industries support teachers and principals with tools and research to guide their equity work, but resources specific to central office leadership of institutional change for equity are few and far between

Even if the problems-of-practice approach did result in solutions at the institutional level, shifts in any one part of a complex system typically run up against other parts, which can curb their success. For instance, we have documented how fundamental shifts in the supervision of principals to center instructional improvement and equity can erode absent aligned changes in other central office units like Human Resources and Teaching & Learning (Honig & Rainey, 2020). In our work across the country, we have not found one design approach in practice that addresses that complexity.

In addition, central office leaders tell us they wish they had more reliable research-based models about which institutional shifts advance educational equity. For example, leaders in one district conducted an extensive five-day equity training for all district administrators, using the latest resources in the field. Participants demonstrated substantially deeper understanding of racism and how school districts perpetuate it. But when the concluding activity asked how their units would now operate differently, participants mostly identified how they as individuals would be more mindful when engaging in their otherwise unchanged long-standing work— not how they would fundamentally shift that work. One leader of the training reflected, “We just haven’t had that content” about the necessary fundamental central office shifts.

Promising approaches

Some leaders have had important successes overcoming these challenges and advancing premise shifts that promise to advance educational equity. We attribute those results, in part, to the following approaches, which suggest future directions for research and reform in education and likely other youth-serving sectors.

Using design methods that focus on institutional change for equity

We and our district partners have productively drawn on expansive learning methods from Cultural Historical Activity Theory (CHAT) infused with tenets from Critical Race Theory to drive premise shifts across central offices in support of educational equity (Honig & Rainey, In preparation).

For instance, one of our district partners was on their third round of trying to revise their long-standing school improvement planning process or “IP.” District leaders were concerned that the SIP was a report that school leaders submitted annually and then set aside. They believed that a fundamentally different SIP could provide an actual planning process that deepened schools’ capacity for equitable teaching and learning and helped the central office better align its supports to each school’s real staffing and professional development needs toward those results. But each attempt to change the SIP resulted in minor tweaks, such as more references to equity, not fundamental shifts in what the SIP asked schools and central office units to do.

With the Chief Academic Officer, we facilitated an expansive learning process that first guided a design team not in identifying a problem of practice but uncovering various premises underlying the long-standing SIP that fueled inequities. Such premises included that using aggregate, deficit-focused data about race-based achievement gaps would expand learning opportunities and outcomes for students of color, despite various research and experience on the negative effects of depersonalized, deficit-focused data-use practices on those students (Toldson, 2019; Tuck, 2009). Another premise participants uncovered was the assumption that meaningful change would result from school and central office leaders planning year to year, also counter to research and experience on the importance of longer time horizons to tackle historical, deeply entrenched racism (Lewis & Diamond, 2015; Peurach, et al., 2019).

The design team then constructed new equity-focused premises, including that the SIP should prompt school teams to take a strengths-based approach to data, seek to understand similarities and differences in the experiences of students of color, and plan backward from a five-year vision of how their school would advance equitable teaching and learning. As design team participants developed new SIP protocols, the new premises provided touchpoints to ensure the protocols reinforced the right work. Once implementation was underway, those premises anchored progress monitoring.

Having access to research-based ideas that expand imagination

Our district partners have also used research to help expand their imagination of what’s possible in their central offices—specifically research connecting particular fundamental shifts in core central office work with improved support for equitable teaching and learning.

To illustrate, a SIP redesign process in another district began by asking participants, “If you could change the SIP in any way, what would you change and why?” Participant responses reflected minor tweaks such as “fewer pages” and “in an online format where we don’t have to retype so much.” By contrast, we launched the SIP redesign process referenced above with a research-based case study that illustrated the experience of a school principal working in a district that had transformed their SIP and aligned aspects of school staffing and teacher professional development to drive equitable teaching and learning. Participants then used the case study as a jumping off point to review its underlying research. Principals’ reactions to the research reflected sentiments such as, “If I knew that central office would use our SIP to provide us with more relevant staffing and PD, I would definitely do it differently.” A central office staff person said, “I never thought I could want to the SIP to help me support schools like that.”

Participants also used the research to help them uncover existing and often unseen premises. For instance, one participant commented that the case study helped them realize that while their formative assessment data was better than data they had used previously, those data still didn’t help them take a race-explicit and strengths-based approach to student and school support. They then used the research to develop new premises that more clearly centered equity and central office supports likely to drive those results.

Ways forward

Our research program suggests that researchers and reformers in education and likely other arenas would do well to recognize how they are implicitly or explicitly defining “systemic” in their equity approaches and to understand some predictable limitations when their approaches do not focus on institutional change. An institutional approach surfaces and recasts the premises or values that drive individual practices, policies, and organizational arrangements without which the latter can become unsustainable. Such work is challenging but can be supported through certain design approaches and with research that reveals fundamentally new ways of working across central offices that truly center, elevate, and value the cultures and success of historically marginalized young people.

An institutional approach surfaces and recasts the premises or values that drive individual practices, policies, and organizational arrangements without which the latter can become unsustainable.

The ideas we have shared here focus us on the following questions that other researchers and reformers may find useful prompts for their own thinking and practice.

  • To what extent are we taking a systemic approach to addressing inequities that focuses us on the institutional level– on the premises that drive our practices and policies? If we aren’t, how might we adapt or adopt new change processes that help us do so?
  • How are we using research in our equity work and to what extent is it helping drive institutional change? How might we enhance our efforts in this regard?
  • As we develop new research programs, how can we fill critical gaps in knowledge about how central offices advance educational equity? And how can we come together as a field to build that knowledge base together in mutually reinforcing ways?
Mentioned in this post
How can school district leaders redesign their work processes to improve the district’s use of research evidence?

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