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Distributed Instructional Leadership: What School and District Leaders Can Do to Make it Happen

The Superintendent's and Central Office Role in Distributed Instructional Leadership

While district superintendents and central office administrators do not directly influence students’ learning and achievement, their beliefs and actions directly influence the conditions that promote or impede effective classroom instruction and high levels of student learning across the district. MacIver and Farley-Ripple (2008), for example, found that "central office administrators are crucial in the school improvement process" (p. 8). If central office personnel are working in isolation, providing conflicting directives, or reinforcing competing priorities, the progress of the entire district is negatively affected. The use of an aligned leadership team model to prioritize and structure the work across the district and to monitor implementation and evaluate its effects offers a productive way for districts to maintain a strong and unified focus on improving instruction.

Meredith Honig and Michael Copland (2008), in their work on how central office administrators can directly support district-wide teaching and learning, assert that district-wide improvements in teaching and learning do not happen without substantial engagement by the central office in helping all schools build their capacity for improvement. They offer the following key questions for district-level leaders to consider if their goal is to support learning improvements across the district:

  1. Are we adequately investing in our people within the central office to forge the kinds of new school-partnership relationships that seem fundamental to district-wide learning improvements?

  2. Are we reinforcing those partnership relationships with new work structures and accountability systems that promise to seed and grow learning improvements?

  3. Are we providing our central office administrators with the resources and freedom to invent new ways of participating in learning support?

  4. Are we engaged in strategic partnerships with external organizations not only to provide knowledge and other resources to schools but also to bolster the work of central office reinvention? (p. 8).

According to Honig, Copland, Rainey, Lorton, and Newton (2010), certain strategies have enabled some districts to reorganize (or “reculture”) central office functions to better support teaching and learning. These strategies involve (1) facilitating interactions among networks of principals, superintendents, and central office staff engaged in similar work; (2) creating easy-to-access supports enabling school principals to get the help they need with management issues; and (3) giving visible support to staff occupying new and restructured positions.

For more information about distributed instructional leadership, see the OLAC webinars: