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How Central Office–School Relationships Shape School Leaders' Instructional Decision Making: Evidence From a Site-Based Decision-Making System

Sat, April 6, 4:10 to 6:10pm, Metro Toronto Convention Centre, Floor: 200 Level, Room 201B


Purpose. While many central offices re-imagine their roles as supporters of school-based decision-making rather than as decision-makers themselves, we know little about the ways in which central offices might exert influence over decision-making in decentralized arrangements. This paper examines whether and how relations between central offices and schools can shape school-level instructional decision-making in one site-based decision-making (SBDM) district.

Framework. Decentralization comes in many forms (Meyer, 2009; Peurach & Yurkofsky, 2018). Indeed, schools within the same system can experience different types and degrees of decentralization (Mayer, Donaldson, LeChasseur, Welton, & Cobb, 2013; Steinberg, 2014). We draw on institutional theory (Scott, 2005) to examine how central offices might influence school-level decision-making in decentralized arrangements. Regulative influence comes in the form of official policies and rules which mandate compliance. Given our focus on districts where decision-making is decentralized, we expect central offices to no longer rely primarily on regulative influence. Instead, we expect central offices to lean more on normative and cultural-cognitive influence. Central offices might exert normative influence by making suggestions or setting norms. Central offices may shape cultural-cognitive scripts by making certain beliefs or practices so prevalent that their presence in instruction is assumed as a given.

Methods and data sources. Data were collected over 18-months in one large, urban district that employs a SBDM model which devolves jurisdiction over most aspects of instruction to schools. We analyze data from 77 semi-structured interviews with 22 central office leaders and 15 school leaders from four elementary schools. Taking individual decisions as our unit of analysis, we analyze how school-level decision-making was influenced by three types of relationships between central office and school leaders, namely, jurisdiction, formal routines, and informal social networks.

Results. Even though the district maintained a SBDM policy, we found that central office leaders shaped school leaders’ decision-making in two ways. First, school leaders reported that central office leaders regularly exerted normative pressure to follow central office guidance and to participate in central office-sponsored initiatives. For example, central office leaders encouraged participation in a literacy project by inviting school leaders to a presentation where district leaders presented growth data, the project’s research base, and testimonials from other school leaders. Second, formal routines, such as professional development sessions and professional learning communities, had differential impacts on school-level decision-making. For instance, while all four schools sent leaders to a central office training, only two used information provided in this training to shape school-level professional development. This variation in normative influence appears to be mediated by informal social networks between school and central office leaders.

Scholarly significance of this study. By illuminating how central office-school relationships shape school leaders’ interpretations of central office guidance, we help explain both how central offices shape school-level decision-making and why schools may experience central office guidance differently, resulting in different instructional decisions. The findings can inform district and school leadership as they negotiate their work together to support teaching and learning. The findings also guide policymakers, funders, and researchers as they support educators’ instructional improvement efforts.


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