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Getting Better by Design

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Transforming districts to support high-performance schools

Two major streams of school reform are operating in America today. One, which has been dominant over the past decade, holds that reform primarily requires changes in the school governance system--standards, assessment, accountability, site-based management, charters, vouchers. The other emphasizes school-by-school, classroom-based change, where the improvement process is aided by national networks of trainers, well-designed materials, and extensive, detailed professional development.

A growing body of evidence demonstrates that neither top-down system changes nor bottom-up school changes alone can lead to improvements in student achievement. What is needed is system change specifically targeted to support the improvement of classroom practice. Our experience at New American Schools bears this out and suggests that it is time we stop debating the approach, recognize that both kinds of action are necessary but not sufficient, and commit to work together to systematically apply what we know succeeds for large numbers of children in diverse communities.

Americans want their public schools to have higher standards and better teaching, integrated technology, connections to parents and community, and greater accountability. These are reasonable expectations and ones the nation can meet.

After five years of working with school districts across the country, we think we have documented lessons that can help all districts meet the challenge of bringing successful whole-school practice to scale in public education.

We have learned, first, that improvement efforts do not have to totally reinvent current governance structures from the outside. Communities also can overhaul their local school systems from within by reinventing individual schools around research-based models and retrofitting the governance apparatus to support these new school models. The reverse, we have found, is also true. If governance changes are initiated, they will not succeed unless schools also introduce research-based improvements in teaching and learning, redefine key stakeholder roles, and redeploy resources to focus less on specialists outside the classroom and more on helping teachers play multiple roles inside and outside the classroom. The overarching goal must be the development of results-focused, capable, decentralized systems of schools.

Too often, improvements are implemented in a single school or one lonely classroom--unable to gain influence and acceptance outside of that microsphere. These tiny islands of reform go unnoticed in a sea of mediocre performance brought about by unchallenging curricula, low expectations, and a central bureaucracy that makes real change difficult.

To develop the best teachers and curriculum and to help all students achieve high standards, districts will have to invest in knowledge and skill-building.

We have tried to transcend this problem by requiring that the districts we work with commit themselves to implementing design-based improvements in at least 30 percent of their schools within five years. With such a commitment, the relationship between the central administration and the campuses inevitably evolves. Educators at these design schools also gain strong networks of colleagues with whom they can discuss common concerns and collaborate on workable solutions.

Experience has shown us that, to ease the metamorphosis from school-based reform to districtwide reform--and, in fact, for any real improvement to take place--a district must do the following:

  • Redirect resources to the classroom. Putting greater focus on core services in the classroom requires that districts reduce the number of school "specialists." This means that more teachers will take on multiple roles, with smaller classes, and that they will need to have continuous training and professional development. These are two trends characteristic of most evolving, high-performance organizations today. A district needs to make more resources available and allow schools to use these resources in ways that support a whole-school, high-performance design. Participation in decisionmaking teams also can help teachers take control of instructional budgets and develop ownership of and accountability for their classrooms.
  • Invest in professionalism. To develop the best teachers and curriculum and to help all students achieve high standards, districts will have to invest in knowledge and skill-building. Professional development should be focused in at least four areas: (1) working together effectively in group or team settings; (2) developing new curricula and the pedagogical expertise required to teach a high-standards instructional program; (3) ensuring parent and community outreach and engagement; and (4) managing the fiscal aspects of the school, including the expertise to reallocate resources to support whole-school designs.
  • Share information. In current school systems, most of the data is kept in the central office. In a decentralized system, timely and relevant information is made available to--and used by--all teachers, administrators, parents, and the community at each school site to develop and refine strategies that raise student achievement.
  • Establish clear accountability, rewards, and sanctions. Districts can be more effective at supporting higher student achievement if they provide a focused accountability system that includes a clear and measurable set of educational goals; a set of measures that indicate the current status of student performance and changes over time; a reporting system that regularly informs the public, the school system, parents, and students of school performance in accomplishing results and degrees of improvement; and a set of both rewards and sanctions tied to changes in schoolwide performance over time.
  • Reinforce principal leadership. Under an effectively decentralized system, principals need a wider array of skills than traditionally has been required. They must be able to provide opportunities for teachers to engage in curricular and instructional leadership and to help educators create a culture of shared decisionmaking. They must also serve as brokers of information, knowledge, and resources between their faculty and the broader community. The district must be responsible for providing the level of professional development needed to assure that these principles of effective leadership are put in force by school principals.
Boards of education can provide the impetus for school change and be powerful advocates. They can also present difficult roadblocks.

One of the crucial changes in district-level governance that must take place involves identifying new roles for the school board, superintendent, and central-office staff--roles that enable the district's leadership to set the direction for the schools and run the accountability system, while at the same time freeing up the schools to do the hands-on work to accomplish their performance goals.

Boards of education can provide the impetus for school change and be powerful advocates. They can also present difficult roadblocks to successful school transformation. Effective efforts by boards include these: establishing long-term contracts and solid working relationships with the superintendent; serving as advocates for high-performance schools of design; and sustaining support for ongoing, design-based professional development for teachers. In a decentralized system, the board should also create the operating conditions that allow schools to engage in the site-based restructuring and resource-allocation processes and ensure that all children receive a high-quality education. For instance, the board might negotiate performance contracts with each school, setting benchmarks within the system.

In a decentralized system, the superintendent's main role is to provide leadership--creating the expectations that every school will have a comprehensive and workable plan to ensure that all children meet high standards. The superintendent serves as the CEO of a highly diversified organization, a system of high-performing schools of designs that meet the articulated needs of diverse school communities. Part of that leadership also requires that the superintendent work to foster a shared commitment among all the members of the school community by inviting parent involvement in schools, encouraging activities that connect students to the local businesses and organizations within the community, and supporting intensive design-based professional development for all teachers in the district.

In such a system, the central-office administrative structure as we know it--with large numbers of staff-development, curriculum, and supervisory specialists--no longer exists. Instead, central-office staff members are responsible for seeing that schools gain access to independent sources of help in these areas and supporting them as they implement their individual improvement plans. The main instructional functions of the central office are to create curriculum-content and student-performance standards and develop and administer an assessment system to monitor student, school, and system performance. The central-office staff also maintains a school-based information system; allocates funds to schools with minimal restrictions on their use; and provides automated fiscal services. Finally, this staff should also serve as a liaison to parents and the community, providing them with information about improvement-related changes in schools and informing the school choice process.

In the nearly six years since New American Schools was founded, we have refined our approach to respond to the changing circumstances and the lessons we have learned in the field. While we have never altered our mission of helping to create schools where all students achieve at high levels, we are now also working at the school system level to make high-performance schools the norm, not the exception. Perhaps the lessons we are learning about how to align systemic changes with meaningful school-by-school transformation represent the most significant contribution we can make to the wholesale improvement of our nation's schools.

"Getting Better By Design--A New American Schools How-To Guide" will be available this summer from NAS. Further information is available via the Internet at http://www.naschools.org.


John Anderson is the president of the Arlington, Va.-based New American Schools, a national nonprofit organization founded in 1991 to develop and support the implementation of innovative school designs to improve student achievement.

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