One of the thorniest challenges facing district leaders today is that of improving teaching and learning—not just in individual schools, but across entire systems of schools. Almost every district has a few effective schools, where principals and teachers have forged rich educational experiences for children. But how many districts have strong instructional practice across all schools? Systemwide school improvement is what Harvard University’s Ronald A. Heifetz calls an “adaptive challenge”—a problem for which no clear solution currently exists.
Standards, capacity, and accountability are the pillars of educational excellence. They provide the criteria, means, and incentives to drive instructional improvement. The states and the federal government are obsessed with standards, testing, and external accountability, but provide little support for the crucial capacity-building component of the equation. That work is left to the local school district.
Leaders must gain teachers’ commitment to reform efforts, not just their compliance.
Recent research has identified several promising strategies that can leverage a district’s potential to support systemwide instructional improvement. This body of knowledge, while not identifying a single, cookie-cutter approach, contributes important guidance. Here is a synthesis of some of the central lessons:
• Develop a clear vision of instructional quality in the major content areas. Substantial research and craft knowledge exist about what practices are more effective than others, and what practices can be advantageously used for students at particular developmental levels and in particular contextual situations. Educational leaders who do not use this knowledge to develop a clear vision of what instruction should look like—and then enact that vision in their schools—are virtually ensuring uneven quality and effectiveness. Contrary to conventional wisdom, implementing highly structured instructional programs does not necessarily result in the de-skilling of teaching. While the deliberate reshaping of instruction almost certainly will constrain the range of acceptable teaching practices, the effort may also spur teachers to higher levels of professional skill and judgment within that particular instructional framework.
• Balance persuasive and coercive methods of influence to build systemwide commitment to the instructional vision. Because of the vast discretion that teachers wield in their classrooms, leaders must gain teachers’ commitment to reform efforts, not just their compliance. Coercive methods include the overt use of authority to tell people what to do, regardless of the degree of their agreement with the request. Research suggests that reliance on coercive methods alone results in superficial compliance rather than deep commitment. By contrast, persuasive methods of influence can work to convince people of the value of particular approaches, appealing to their sense of professional responsibility. Purposive personal and social interactions, whereby leaders use softer skills and their passion and expertise to convince others to follow, are the hallmark of persuasive methods of influence.
A combination of persuasive and coercive methods—compelling, convincing, and cajoling—appears to work best. Certainly, there are nonnegotiables: Either use the accepted curricular and instructional tools and practices advocated by the district, or work elsewhere. But within these broad constraints, district leaders must employ persuasive methods to convince teachers and school leaders of the merits of the new tools, practices, and approaches. Through a combination of training, persuasion, incentives, and constraints, district leaders can convince teachers and school leaders that the approaches being advocated are legitimate.
• Build capacity through employee development at all levels of the organization. Over the past 20 years, educators have learned a tremendous amount about what constitutes effective professional development. The predominance of the isolated workshop has given way to a more sophisticated conception of such development. A commitment to building a district’s capacity requires a latticed network of both formal and informal learning opportunities at multiple levels of the organization. These might include introductory and advanced content-based workshops for teachers, school-level coaching and professional learning communities that focus on questions of practice, and leadership development for school and district leaders. All these efforts must integrate with and support the district’s instructional vision.
• Marshal external resources. All but the largest districts lack the resources and expertise to develop the curricula, support materials, and professional-development sequences necessary to support a concrete instructional vision—and such an in-house support system is suspect even in the Goliaths. There are numerous high-quality external educational-support organizations dedicated to developing these materials. Many of these are far more sophisticated than what a district could develop on its own.
Districts sit at the fulcrum of efforts to build instructional capacity across a range of schools.
The range of available instructional-support materials suggests a dramatically different role for today’s districts—that of searching, supporting, and orchestrating. District leaders must first search the educational landscape for appropriate tools, materials, and experiences for teachers and school and district leaders. Then they must become knowledgeable enough about the programs they have chosen to provide support for implementation. This likely will require establishing stable relationships with external partners, including clarifying what support the district will provide and what will remain the responsibility of the providers. Then, district leaders must orchestrate the various relationships and offerings, to ensure they are coherently integrated and consistent with the district’s vision.
• Use data formatively to inform both individual decisions about students and programmatic decisions. The siren’s song of using data for improvement is seductive, but few, if any, districts have figured out how to do it. There are four basic purposes to data use. First, data should provide feedback to teachers and students, to facilitate learning. Second, data should be used to hold individuals and groups accountable for performance. Third, it should be used to monitor the implementation and impact of programs, to inform decisions about maintaining, modifying, or eliminating them. Fourth, data should be used to facilitate continual learning across the organization. The secret of an effective data-use strategy is to combine these purposes into an orchestrated system of districtwide data use.
• Develop strategies to sustain reform efforts over longer periods of time. Connected to the issue of data use is the challenge of sustainability. Many contemporary thinkers in both business and education view sustainability as a challenge of persistence and prolonged organizational learning. Once a district starts to develop an instructional vision, the issue becomes how to deepen the work over time. Too often we fail to acknowledge how much time it takes for even the most promising changes to become infused into a district’s routines, regular practices, and culture.
In the long term, initiatives may be thought of as Trojan horses in service of the underlying instructional vision. A district may change programs over time, as they play themselves out, so long as the next generation of programming is consistent with the overarching instructional vision. In this way, new waves of energy can push powerful ideas deeper into systemwide practice, making sustained improvement possible.
Districts sit at the fulcrum of efforts to build instructional capacity across a range of schools. The field is beginning to develop a more focused view of what it takes for district leaders to spur and support systemwide improvement in teaching and learning. By developing a clear and coherent instructional vision, supporting that vision through smart external partnerships, using data formatively both at the student and programmatic levels, and devising systems to continually refine and improve their processes, deliberative district leaders can conquer the “adaptive challenge” of systemwide school improvement.
A version of this article appeared in the November 28, 2007 edition of Education Week as Why We Need District-Based Reform