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Problems of Practice

Centralized vs. Decentralized Implementation: How do we decide what the district should hold tight vs. loose?

Key Takeaways

  • Even districts/CMOs with the most decentralized approaches employ “guard rails” or central standards to enable consistency and rigor of implementation.
  • Enabling schools to define their own path (that works for their students and community) can be an engine that generates the practices and ideas that system leaders will eventually use to scale more broadly.
  • One of the most important things district/CMO leadership can do is to define WHY it supports blended learning and what successful implementation will mean for students. If the driving values and desired outcomes for students are clear (both in terms of what they are and how they will be measured), schools can define their own path to get there.
Student shakes adult's hand, smiling up at her


No system’s context is exactly the same as another’s, and therefore pathways to system change cannot completely replicate each other. While case studies on system-wide implementation offer inspiration and ideas, they can be difficult to apply in new contexts.

Regardless of context, however, all leaders interested in scaling new approaches face choices about how to lead system change in a way that maximizes benefits to students. In interviews across the country, we found that certain decisions kept surfacing as critical to success, many of which contained competing priorities - forces pulling in different directions. Rather than choose one priority and ignore the other, leaders explain, the key is to figure out how to manage both in a way that best fits your context.

Overview of the Challenge

One of the most common challenges the leaders we spoke with faced was striking the right balance between managing blended and personalized learning implementation through the central office and giving schools enough autonomy to manage their own processes. A fully centralized model can limit teacher and school leader engagement, while fully decentralizing can create unnecessary redundancies and inefficiencies.

Why Centralize?

In its ideal form, centralizing implementation through the central office can enable faster and clearer alignment around the purpose and goals of the reform throughout the system. It can also make it easier to develop and communicate a unified definition of blended or personalized learning. The district/CMO benefits from efficiencies of scale (e.g. for professional development and coaching systems, technology procurement, or evaluation systems, etc.). School leaders do not need to reinvent the wheel for every aspect of their own implementation process and benefit from greater predictability when doing their own planning. Teachers can form communities and garner support with peers throughout the system who are going through the same learning cycles.

While no strategy is entirely centralized or decentralized, here are some examples that illustrate the benefits of centralization:

Why Decentralize?

Districts/CMOs that opt for a more decentralized implementation process often talk about creating the same kind of agency and personalized approach for each school that they are working to offer their students. The district not only benefits from a wide diversity of implementation strategies, but it is also able to test these approaches simultaneously. Teachers and school leaders are afforded greater opportunity for creative input and thus may also have the chance to take on new leadership roles. Students benefit from strategies that were built with them in mind, and may also have a greater opportunity to be part of the development process.

While no strategy is entirely centralized or decentralized, here are some examples that illustrate the benefits of decentralization:

What the Data Say

In a survey of 89 leaders from 60 systems across the country:

  • 35% report taking a more centralized approach, 26% report taking a more decentralized approach, and 39% placed themselves mid-way between the two
  • 87% of respondents reported that they had dedicated time and resources to managing this tension
  • 58% of respondents named this as a “top challenge” they were working through

Want a deeper dive into the data? Explore our white paper, entitled Look Both Ways for more information.

Take It Further

To jump start your own discussions, consider these questions:

  • What does your vision for blended and personalized learning look, sound, and feel like?
  • How might central office support enable more school autonomy?
  • What structures would enable schools to learn from one another and to feed ideas back to the central office?
  • What would an efficient decentralized strategy look like? What about a centralized strategy that provides genuine agency to all stakeholders?