Working Together for Improvement or Compliance: School and Central Office Leadership Relational Trust in School Improvement Efforts within the Accountability Era

Page, Clinton, Administration and Supervision - School of Education and Human Development, University of Virginia
Eddy-Spicer, David, CU-Leadshp, Fndns & Pol Studies, University of Virginia

The advent of the standards-based accountability movement was focused on the reform of schools through high educational standards, rigorous assessments, and accountability through sanctions for schools not meeting goals (Darling-Hammond, 2004; Lee & Reeves, 2012). Yet the reform movement has not reached its intended outcomes, and numerous unintended consequences have emerged. Among the most salient consequences, a reduction in trust has been seen within educational organizations (Finnigan, 2010; Sahlberg, 2010; Tschannen-Moran & Hoy, 2000). Bryk and Schneider (2002) found that trust is a requisite ingredient to the school improvement outcome sought by standards-based accountability. Researchers have further suggested that the relationships, and specifically trust, between central office and school-based leaders in school improvement efforts is ripe for exploration (Daly & Finnigan, 2012).
This study investigates trust between central office and school-based leadership and how central office leaderships’ roles and practices in school improvement efforts work to support or hinder trust within a standards-based accountability context. To explore this further the study’s research questions focused on how central office leaders conceive their leadership roles in relation to schools; the practices central office leaders employ within school improvement efforts and the impact on trust; the manner in which levels of trust vary, if at all, by schools with accountability sanctions; and any differences that exist in central office leadership practices across schools with and without accountability sanctions.
This study took place in a medium sized, urban-suburban school district in the mid-Atlantic. The research studied a new initiative within the district, quarterly chats, which focused on bringing together key central office and school leaders to discuss school improvement efforts within the school year. A phased mixed-methods approach was used. Phase one comprised surveys sent to school (n=68) and central office (n=6) leaders and document reviews conducted. Survey results were analyzed using quantitative descriptive and inferential statistics as well as qualitative coding. Phase two focused on 60-minute semi-structured interviews of central office leaders (n=6) incorporating a further exploration of initial findings from phase one. Semi-structured interviews and document analyses were analyzed using an initial deductive coding scheme which was updated iteratively through the coding process.
Findings from the study suggest that all central office leaders interviewed within the district viewed that their role as central office leaders was to support schools and school improvement efforts. Findings suggest the practices central office leaders employed within the quarterly chats had a direct relationship with the extent of school leaders’ trust of central office and their willingness to engage meaningfully in shared work focused on school improvement. Specifically, the central office leadership practices of listening, questioning, affirming, providing feedback, seeking alignment between school and department priorities and actions, and following through on promised supports were critical through either their presence in expanding trust or restricting trust through their absence. Finally, SPS central office leaders viewed their roles in working with sanctioned schools as a support and aimed to position themselves to mediate the increased external pressure. The central office leaders interviewed highlighted the practices of affirming the work of the school, avoiding blame, providing constructive feedback, and modeling shared responsibility as ways to best advance school improvement. At sanctioned schools, despite increased external pressure, trust levels were not found to be significantly different between school and central office leaders.
Based on these findings, this study concludes with several practitioner focused recommendations aimed to inform central office leaders in how they can best position their organizations and schools for improvement. First, a clear vision must be established of the role of central office as support agents in working with schools. For this vision to take root, building the capacity of all central office leaders to act as support agents including a focus on the specific practices discussed in this study. Leaders need to also build structures of frequent improvement discussions and horizontal accountability advancing the conditions of shared responsibility and psychological safety. Finally, central office leaders must be prepared to mediate the impact of external accountability sanctions on trust by framing sanctions within the established vision of support and working to maintain trust as a required ingredient of school improvement.

EDD (Doctor of Education)
Central Office, Relational Trust, Accountability, Trust, Improvement, Leadership
Issued Date: