Closing the Achievement Gap Requires Closing the Gap Between Schools and Central Offices

on Mar 9, 2016
Boy in classroom

In many ways the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) marks a departure from No Child Left Behind (NCLB). But at least in one way it stays the course: the notion of school turnaround is alive and well.

Under ESSA, the federal government still requires states to identify their worst-performing schools and come up with a plan to make them better. If ESSA plays out like NCLB, then schools and districts will be working mightily to stay just above the line that triggers a turnaround — an aspirational low bar for sure.

As part of these efforts, schools and districts will be reaching out for the helping hands of a variety of newly minted — or as is often the case, re-minted — programs and solutions.

Unfortunately, we already know that most of these programs will not adequately meet the needs of students. While they might keep some schools away from the dreaded turnaround designation, the achievement gaps between their students will continue.

Command and control vs laissez-faire

Before looking at ways to get at this achievement gap, let’s take a closer look at a reason why we think it persists: the chronic gap between schools and their central offices.

All too often we hear of schools that are challenged or encouraged to “go it alone” and figure out how to address the learning struggles in their schools. Whether in the name of autonomy or site-based control, these schools at best experience moral support or cheerleading from their central offices.

One main reason for achievement gaps: gaps between schools and their central office

Ultimately, this approach relies on hoping for some kind of superpower of a school leader and her team to go it alone and achieve the learning improvement that many others failed to bring about.

Other schools will experience the exact opposite approach and be forced to implement district initiatives designed to raise the achievement of all students regardless of context. Principals are required to fall in line and lead the latest literacy or math approach in lockstep with other schools. Any variations from the plan require intense lobbying to meet the unique needs of their students.

A new model of school and central office collaboration

True, the examples above slightly exaggerate what happens in many schools. But I have no doubt that many school leaders have their own experiences in navigating these poles.

Here at the Center for Educational Leadership (CEL), we are trying to replace this false choice between school autonomy and centrally mandated initiatives with a new model of school and central office collaboration focused on eliminating achievement gaps.

With this approach, central office leaders become co-learners, teachers, and strategic resource partners to principals rather than just cheerleaders or implementation monitors.

This model is firmly rooted in these foundational ideas:

  • Student learning or the lack thereof is ultimately a result of the quality of teaching received by students.
  • Teaching is a highly sophisticated endeavor.
  • The improvement of sophisticated endeavors requires reciprocal accountability — that is, folks higher up in the system are accountable for the improvement of performance by those they manage or support.
  • Ultimately, leaders throughout the system must have a deep understanding of high quality instruction and the leadership skills necessary to improve the quality of teaching at scale.

In practice, this new approach calls for central office leaders to take these key actions:

  • Working side-by-side with teachers and principals observing teaching and learning, attending professional development sessions, and consistently looking at student work and other data to make adjustments in their work.
  • Collaborating with principals to get clarity and consensus on the day-to-day work of principals as instructional leaders. (For a real-world example on how this is done well, check this recent webinar.)
  • Providing the focused professional development and coaching needed by principals to successfully implement the agreed-upon practices.
  • Working proactively to provide differentiated supports based on school need.

It’s no small feat, but together central office leaders can plot courses for one or several schools based on a deep understanding of their own unique cause-and-effect relationship between teaching and student learning. 

With this approach, central office leaders become co-learners, teachers, and strategic resource partners to principals rather than just cheerleaders or implementation monitors.

Teton County’s success

Teton County School District (TCSD) in Wyoming chose to take on its unique achievement gap and chart a new path.

By many accounts a successful district, TCSD’s Hispanic students were far underperforming their white peers. Rather than mandate a change or leave the schools to go it alone, central office leaders decided to try out this new approach.

Teton County School District created a vibrant adult learning community focused on improving practice and outcomes for kids.

Over the next few years, teachers, principals, and key central office leaders focused their learning and practice improvement specifically on the needs of their Hispanic students.

With the help of literacy, math, and leadership experts, TCSD created a vibrant adult learning community focused on improving practice and outcomes for kids. All in all, this effort of learning and working together had a large impact on closing the achievement gap. (Read more about this story here.)


Building this new model of school and central office collaboration is not easy. It requires changes in how teachers, principals, and central office leaders work together. Here at CEL, we are growing more convinced that the path to turnaround is not paved by mandates or simplistic accountability measures, but rather it is a road of learning, collaboration, and reciprocal accountability.

If you are ready to follow Teton County’s example and tackle achievement gaps in your district or school, we invite you learn how to take a good first step at our upcoming institute on how to create results-focused environment.

About the author

Max Silverman is the executive director of the University of Washington Center for Educational Leadership (CEL) where he provides leadership for improving school systems focused on equitable outcomes for students.
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