With expectations for student achievement at an all-time high, school district leaders say they are playing a more assertive role in shaping instruction, according to a national survey of superintendents commissioned by Education Week.
The nationally representative poll of 813 top district officials shows large numbers of them turning in recent years to common planning time for teachers, new forms of classroom observations, and, in particular, data-driven decisionmaking as systemwide strategies for improvement.
By showing the extent to which superintendents are employing specific practices, the results offer a rare snapshot of instructional leadership at the district level. Among the obstacles faced in providing that leadership, superintendents most often cited lack of money and competing priorities.
At the same time, the poll reveals clear differences depending on district size. Leaders of larger systems were more likely to favor standard approaches across their schools, such as “pacing guides” that show teachers what content to cover at what time throughout the year.
Other trends emerged for grade level and subject matter. Superintendents said they made greater use of common curricula and periodic districtwide tests in the early grades than in high school, and in reading and mathematics than in other subjects.
The survey did not probe how well districts are using the strategies that their leaders say they have put into place, and it did not connect them to student outcomes.
But the results do suggest the kinds of management tools that leaders are reaching for as they try to create a common understanding about instruction in their districts, while also encouraging their schools and teachers to become more targeted in how they meet students’ needs.
The Education Week research center designed the telephone survey with Belden Russonello & Stewart, a Washington-based polling organization, which conducted the research in June. The margin of error for the overall results is 3.3 percentage points. Responses were broken down by district enrollment size: fewer than 2,000 students, between 2,000 and 10,000, and more than 10,000—with margins of error of 5.3 percentage points for the group with the smallest enrollments and 5.8 points for the other two.
Sixty-four percent of all of the respondents were in their first superintendencies, but reported relatively lengthy tenures, despite the national concern about leadership turnover. About half the superintendents in each size category had been in their jobs five years or more.
Enrollment size had little bearing on some of the superintendents’ views of the No Child Left Behind Act, which aims to make schools more accountable for raising student achievement. Roughly three-quarters of those in each group agreed or strongly agreed that the federal measure, signed into law by President Bush in January 2002, has forced them to be more active “in guiding the kind of instruction that happens in the classroom.”
Size mattered in whether they saw such change as needed, however. Seventy-eight percent of the leaders of large districts strongly agreed that, regardless of the law, they should be more active in guiding instruction, compared with 68 percent in medium-size districts and 56 percent in small ones (See relating chart).
Asked whether, in the past three to five years, more instructional decisions were being made at the “district level, as opposed to at the school sites,” 75 percent of those in large districts agreed or strongly agreed, compared with 58 percent in medium-size ones and 52 percent in small systems.
Such differences evened out when superintendents were asked more generally about how much of a role they and their district staff members should play in “providing direction” on instructional matters for their schools. Ninety percent of all respondents said “a large role,” and 10 percent said “some.”
One of the most popular ways of providing that direction is through overseeing what gets taught. Ninety-two percent of all respondents said they use districtwide curricula (See relating chart). The practice is much more common in the early grades: Ninety-six percent said it was used for elementary schools, 88 percent said for middle schools, and 77 percent said for high schools.
Leaders of large districts see the most benefit in doing so. Eighty-eight percent of superintendents of districts with more than 10,000 students said a common curriculum could have a “great deal” of effect on improving student achievement, compared with 72 percent of those in systems with fewer than 2,000 students.
About 80 percent of all superintendents surveyed said they require schools across their districts to use the same reading programs; a similar proportion said the same of math. Roughly eight in 10 also said they had all their elementary schools use the same textbooks in those key subjects.
Although somewhat less widespread, instructional-pacing guides are spreading quickly among large school districts. Forty-four percent of the superintendents in large districts said they had had such guides for at least three years, but 65 percent said they have them now.
Also growing rapidly is the use of “instructional walkthroughs,” defined as classroom observations not for teachers’ job reviews, but for improving their instruction. Ninety percent of all respondents said their districts use walkthroughs, with 27 percent reporting that they had adopted the technique in the past three years.
For the most part, however, the practice is limited to school site leaders. Among superintendents who said that their systems made use of such observations, 96 percent said their principals did the walkthroughs, 46 percent said central-office staff members, and just 20 percent said teachers.
More often, district leaders use common planning time to let teachers learn from one another. Seventy-one percent said their teachers’ schedules let them meet by each grade level or department. Twenty-two percent said their districts had begun scheduling common time in the last three years.
In a similar vein, 54 percent of the large-district superintendents said each of their schools had a teacher freed from classroom duties to coach others on their instruction. That contrasted with 34 percent of those in medium-size systems, and 27 percent in small ones.
Few strategies appear to be growing as fast as those related to data. The survey results paint a picture of districts building up their technology systems and professional development so their educators can better use information on student performance to drive instruction.
For example, a little more than half of all respondents said their districts had been training principals and teachers on how to make instructional decisions based on data for three years or more(See relating chart). Another 40 percent said they had begun providing that training since then, meaning more than 90 percent now do so.
Twenty-three percent said that three years ago they had data-management systems that allowed educators at school sites to access achievement information on individual students online. But another 33 percent said they have put that kind of system in place since then.
Responses also pointed to big changes in the kind of performance data collected. A total of 68 percent of the superintendents said they now give districtwide student assessments periodically throughout the year. Twenty-seven percent of all respondents said they had been doing so for less than three years.
Of those who said they do such testing—often called “benchmark” testing—95 percent said it was in the elementary grades, compared with 60 percent at the high school level. Twelve percent said they gave the tests monthly, 47 percent said every six to nine weeks, and 37 percent said less often.
Data analysis has become a common part of schools’ annual planning as well. Eighty-one percent of all respondents, and 98 percent of those in large districts, said they had a standard process for schools to draft improvement plans that includes an assessment of student performance.
Leaders of large districts expressed the most faith in data-driven decisionmaking. Ninety-one percent, for instance, said training district staff members in using data promised to have a “great deal” of effect—the highest percentage among responses given to questions about 15 different strategies.
But small districts are making big changes in their use of data. Nearly a third of the superintendents of districts with fewer than 2,000 students said they had been using a student-data-management system for less than three years (See relating chart). That’s in addition to 17 percent who said they already were using one.
Asked about potential obstacles, 65 percent of respondents in small districts said “lack of the kind of staff” needed at the central office prevented them either a great deal or somewhat from providing leadership on instruction. Fifty-eight percent of those in large systems said the same thing (See relating chart).
Leaders of large districts were more likely to see union contracts as a problem. Fifty-three percent said labor pacts adversely affect their efforts on instruction either a great deal or somewhat, compared with 43 percent of superintendents in small districts.
But other factors were seen as far greater impediments. Eighty-nine percent of all respondents, with few differences by district size, cited scarcity of money as a great deal or somewhat of a problem. Sixty-nine percent said the same about distractions posed by other priorities.
In contrast, 55 percent of all the superintendents polled said they were prevented a great deal or somewhat from exercising instructional leadership by “teachers’ concerns about lost creativity.” Fifty-three percent characterized “lack of research-proven strategies” as a problem.
A version of this article appeared in the September 14, 2005 edition of Education Week as Guiding Hand