Theory of Action

The idea that schools can improve on their own gives way to a focus on effective district leadership.

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Not long ago, a popular theory about school improvement went something like this: Put in strong principals and dedicated staff members, and then get out of their way. When it came to improving teaching and learning, the thinking went, the central office had little to add.

The upshot was an era of policies that limited the role of district-level leadership in matters of instruction. Site-based management and “whole-school reform” models flourished in the 1990s on the premise that individual schools alone could raise achievement.

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Read more about this year's report, “Leading for Learning: About This Report”

And the idea worked. Or rather, it worked for some schools, while others languished. As a result, a new consensus is emerging in the field that strong district leadership is needed to bring about large-scale improvement—now a mandate under the federal No Child Left Behind Act.

“Either you believe in district reform, or you’re going to have to be extremely patient in waiting for a school-by-school turnaround,” says Jane Hammond of the Stupski Foundation, a Mill Valley, Calif.-based group that helps districts with strategic planning.

Education Week is focusing on leadership at the district level for its second annual “Leading for Learning” special report. The key question is: What strategies should district leaders pursue to influence the quality of teaching and learning?

To answer that, we tell the stories of two school systems that re-established the role of the central office in guiding instructional improvement: the 10,000-student Gilroy Unified schools in California and the 26,000-student Clarksville-Montgomery County system in Tennessee.

The two districts—both of which work with the Stupski Foundation—have sought greater consistency across schools in content and teaching methods. They’ve created new ways for teachers to learn together and use student data. And, they’ve each seen more students succeed academically.

To get a sense of how widespread such approaches are, the Education Week Research Center also commissioned a poll of superintendents that asked what practices they use to improve instruction. The results show district leaders across the country embracing many of the strategies employed in Gilroy and Clarksville-Montgomery County.

True, districts still reflect a range of approaches. Some are more explicit in telling schools what instruction should look like—a method that some are now calling “managed instruction.” Others prefer to set broader boundaries and then step in where they see problems.

Many experts see the growing assertiveness of district leaders as a natural consequence of the movement for higher academic standards that has dominated education policymaking for more than a decade. It’s too much, they say, to presume that every school has within it the capacity to bring its students to the levels of achievement now demanded of them.

“When you have a policy environment now that expects change to occur at scale, that means that districts have to improve all schools, essentially simultaneously,” says Warren Simmons, the executive director of the Annenberg Institute for School Reform, located in Providence, R.I.

Tellingly, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation—one of the strongest promoters of designs for small schools—has drafted a new white paper arguing that schools are most likely to succeed if they’re part of a supportive district, or, in the case of charter schools, part of a larger network of schools.

“We’ve spent over a billion dollars on almost 2,000 schools, and what we found is that most people don’t know what to do, and how to do it,” says Tom Vander Ark, the executive director for education at the Seattle-based foundation.

Mounting evidence suggests that effective schools are most often found in districts with strong systemwide guidance. In 2002, the Council of the Great City Schools identified some parallels among improving districts in an influential report, “Foundations for Success.”

The council described strategies employed in Charlotte-Mecklenburg, N.C.; Houston; Sacramento, Calif.; and the subset of schools in New York City then known as the Chancellor’s District.

Each district had a common curriculum, and had set up training and monitoring systems to ensure consistent approaches toward instruction across schools. The districts also made frequent use of student-performance data to inform educators’ decisions.

“You have to take responsibility for the overall instructional program,” says Michael D. Casserly, the executive director of the Washington-based council, “rather than just abandon that to the individual schools without providing direction, technical assistance, or professional development, and just hoping for the best.”

Chrys Dougherty, the director of research at the National Center for Educational Accountability, says much the same is true in most of the districts named as finalists and winners for the annual Broad Prize for Urban Education, which recognizes improved student performance.

“When you go to effective schools that are in a district that has certain things in place, they will say their job was made infinitely easier by the fact that the district did these things,” says Dougherty, whose Austin, Texas-based center collects the data used to make the Broad Prize selections.

On the surface, this larger role for the central office might seem at odds with the concurrent push to give families more options. Some of the biggest urban districts, for example, are creating large numbers of new schools with different designs—what’s come to be called a “portfolio” model.

Likewise, decentralized decisionmaking still has plenty of proponents, as seen in the number of districts giving school sites more power to hire whom they want and to spend their budgets as they see fit.

But strong district leadership is needed for empowerment of school sites to succeed, says Joseph Olchefske, a former superintendent of the Seattle public schools. As a district chief, he gave schools considerable leeway to design their own programs, but that didn’t mean anything goes.

“You’ve got to set standards, you’ve got to create and implement assessments that are for all kids, regardless of the school, and have very clear accountability, which means consequences,” says Olchefske, who is now the managing director of a new consulting group at the American Institutes for Research, located in Washington.

Michael Fullan, an expert on school system management at the University of Toronto, says one of a superintendent’s biggest challenges is finding the right balance between central authority and site-based autonomy. Ideally, he argues, schools should feel ownership of a common vision of instruction.

“If you’re too loose, you don’t get the focus, but if you’re too focused, you get prescription, and narrowness, and rebellion,” he says. “The holy grail of school reform on a large scale is large-scale ownership.”

Whether most districts in the United States can achieve that balance remains to be seen. But as the survey results and the stories of the two districts in this report suggest, few district leaders are leaving things to chance.

Vol. 25, Issue 03, Page S3: special report

Published in Print: September 14, 2005, as Theory of Action
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