If schools are going to adapt and improve in meaningful ways, then central office leaders must lead the way by being facilitators, funders, advisers, evaluators, and quality assurance agents.

One day, when I was a district superintendent, I visited two high schools we had identified as “needing improvement.” I was there to share our strategy to help them boost student achievement and also give teachers and staff a chance to air their thoughts and concerns. The schools faced similar challenges, and they served similar student populations, but the comments I heard on my visits were totally different.

At one school, faculty complained that students lacked respect for authority, had been poorly prepared by their middle schools, and were being raised by parents who didn’t value education. In short, they pointed to problems beyond their control. They wanted me to remove the kids who were giving them the most trouble, and they also wanted more money.

At the other school, teachers and staff told me about their collective struggle to improve instruction, talked about their desire for more professional learning, and described how they were challenging and changing their own beliefs about student abilities. That is, they found specific problems lurking in their own teaching practices and believed they had to learn and grow so they could serve students better.

I think back to that day whenever I need a reminder of the human side of educational change. Over the past few decades, far too many reformers have assumed that school improvement is mainly a technical design challenge having to do with organizational structures and systems. But, in fact, a single organizational procedure — such as designating schools as needing improvement — can prompt very different responses in different schools. In one, faculty and staff might react defensively; in another, they might do some deep soul-searching.

As organizational theorist Ronald Heifetz has argued, it’s helpful to describe change not as a technical process but as an “adaptive” one, having to do with how individuals come together to solve problems. That requires, first of all, that people reach a shared understanding of the problems, why solving them is necessary, who should be involved, what new skills and knowledge will be required, and whether achieving a change is even possible. All too often, school reformers try to skip this work, advocating for their preferred solutions without giving teachers, administrators, parents, and others a chance to decide whether there’s a problem at all, much less what sort of problem it is.

I’d argue that the primary responsibility of education leaders seeking to improve student achievement is to empower educators to learn together; in other words, their priority should be supporting the professional learning of the adults who work in schools.

This may seem counterintuitive for two reasons. First, today’s public discourse — rife with truisms like “children first” and “focus on student needs, not adult issues” — suggests that teachers and staff should devote every ounce of their attention to students; anything else is said to be a distraction. Second, many policymakers have been seduced by the idea that the best way to boost student achievement is by pressuring teachers to improve by holding them accountable for student outcomes and, perhaps, by dismantling their unions.

But these arguments rest on the dubious assumption that teachers already know how to provide better instruction, are too selfish and lazy to provide it, and need to be threatened and cajoled into doing so. Things look very different if we start from the opposite assumption: Teachers want to do their best for children and are willing to work as hard as it takes, but they may not know how to improve or what’s wrong with the way they’ve always taught. In that case, maybe it’s not such a distraction to focus on adult learning and adaptive change. Maybe school and district leaders should make it a priority to create opportunities for educators to help define the most important problems that need to be faced and then hash out solutions and learn new practices with and from each other.

That’s a lot more complicated than it may sound. To make it possible for educators to participate effectively in complex school improvement efforts at the local level, school system leaders must create the conditions that allow that to happen. Whether they work in  a centrally managed system or a portfolio district with various levels of autonomy, the superintendent and central office leaders must be willing to align policies, resources, metrics, and messages to support those efforts — otherwise, teachers and staff will have good reason to think they’ve been set up to fail.

First and foremost, system leaders must come up with clear and coherent guidelines about  who gets to make which decisions about local school improvement, how those decisions are to be made, what kinds of learning opportunities can be pursued, and how the district will ensure equitable access to and participation in the process. Today, though, few central offices have much experience or expertise supervising this kind of process. Historically, central offices have been designed mainly to ensure schools’ compliance with state and federal rules and regulations — and while that may be an essential bureaucratic function, it doesn’t do anything to promote the collaborative culture needed for local improvement. An enormous amount of district leaders’ time is sucked up by financial and human resource concerns, contract negotiations, and the other technical challenges of managing a complex school system. That doesn’t leave much bandwidth to support efforts to change adult practice.

Yet, if schools are going to adapt and improve in meaningful ways, then central office leaders must be facilitators, funders, advisers, evaluators, and quality assurance agents. When the members of the professional learning community at the local high school persuade colleagues that the curriculum is outdated and needs to be revised, central office must ensure that the new curriculum meets existing standards, the innovative teaching model is consistent with the collective bargaining agreement, resources are allocated according to student needs, parents of different backgrounds and ethnicities are fully engaged in and on board with the change, and so on. This might require the central office to collect survey data on staff climate and parent engagement; it may require district administrators to attend and observe PLCs and school meetings; it may require the superintendent to endorse a modification to the teacher evaluation process, the master schedule, or the formal roles that teacher leaders can play.

Further, given the enormous compliance burdens facing public schools, the Title I director or the special education supervisor may not be on the same page as the office of curriculum and instruction or the director of human resources. Invariably, when I visited schools or attended principal meetings, school leaders would tell me they were getting mixed messages from central office. The superintendent can’t simply applaud the new curriculum and promise to support teachers’ efforts to revamp their pedagogy; every other district leader must also be on the same page.

In an ideal world, if teachers and staff at a struggling high school voiced a strong commitment to improving instruction, developing their skills, and challenging their own beliefs about student abilities, their superintendent would just smile and say, “Great. Be bold! Ask forgiveness rather than permission. Think outside the box!”

In reality, few people leave the box without the superintendent coming along. District leaders must create the conditions for educators to do their best work by learning and growing with each other. If we attend to the adaptive needs of adult learning in schools, our educators and our children will reap the rewards. But in the meantime, we shouldn’t fool ourselves: There’s nothing simple about leading adaptive change; by contrast, technical management is a breeze.

Adapted from “Organizing adult learning for adaptive change management: A systems approach” in Teaching in Context: The Social Side of Education Reform, edited by Esther Quintero (Harvard Education Press, 2017).

JOSHUA P. STARR (@JoshuaPStarr) is chief executive officer of PDK International, Arlington, Va.

Originally published in May 2017 Phi Delta Kappan 98 (8), 70-71. © 2017 Phi Delta Kappa International. All rights reserved.