Public education in the United States is at a critical juncture. Decades of public attention and reform have yielded few measurable results. “Nontraditional” public schools, alternative routes to teacher certification, and a reduced role for human judgment in teacher-evaluation models are just a few of the examples of a waning trust in educators. What’s more, federal policymakers are years overdue in reauthorizing the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (currently known as the No Child Left Behind Act), and all of this comes amid a changing cultural and technological landscape that has dramatically redefined centuries-old definitions of information and knowledge.
Oh, and we should probably mention the recession, which has caused some of the greatest drops in state education budgets our generation has seen.
As we consider this troubling picture, there is hope in an unexpected place: district offices. District offices are full of successful former teachers and principals who signed up for a district role in hopes of helping schools improve. Sadly, these reform resources are often underleveraged. Ask a teacher or principal what role the district has played in improving teaching and learning, and you’ll likely get a blank look. Ask district folks whether they feel their expertise and experience are fully leveraged by schools, and you’ll get an earful.
There is a fundamental reason why this key variable is left out of most schools’ improvement formulas. Simply put: Schools don’t know how to leverage the talent in district offices, and district offices don’t know how to contribute meaningfully without overstepping. Because of this disconnect, we have arrived at a point where many bright, successful, and well-paid former teachers and principals end up managing paperwork and processes for important but not mission-critical functions.
What’s missing is an understanding within schools and district offices of the ways in which district personnel can engage to scale up best practices into a system standard—so that one phenomenal teacher’s techniques could generate many excellent teachers, and one administrator’s effective methods could serve other district professionals. These findings leave us with questions that have significant implications for scaling up improvement. If we understand the power of the classroom as the lever to realize improvement at the school, then what practices can districts adopt to become essential partners with schools in scaling up this work?
Addressing this question appears to be the next great quandary that education researchers, policymakers, and practitioners must address, as understanding the role of the district in school improvement will be critical to systematically improving education at scale. What’s more, district offices have been a largely ignored resource for schools as they seek to improve teaching and learning.
One of the challenges to district personnel assistance is that schools in typical American districts enjoy a tremendous amount of autonomy. Such independence can create a dilemma for district personnel, who feel a responsibility to support school improvement yet are uncertain about their exact role when it comes to issuing mandates and requiring accountability versus deferring to school leadership.
The ambiguity that exists in the district’s role in school improvement is particularly dramatic when examined beside the other critical roles in which districts engage. There exists considerably more clarity in the district’s role in hiring, a process for which districts traditionally screen applicants and verify credentials, as well as in accounting for school expenses and paying teachers and other school employees. Unlike hiring or accounting, however, the work of school improvement is more nuanced and embedded in the specific context of a school environment.
The lack of clarity has left us wondering how schools and districts can partner more effectively for wide-scale improvements in teaching and learning. In our work as consultants supporting district and school transformation, we have seen powerful changes occur when motivated teachers, school administrators, and district leaders work hand in hand toward shared goals. Through better leveraging the resources of the district and facilitating the transfer of best practices, they are able to produce phenomenal gains in student achievement that extend beyond the high-performing pockets that exist in many districts.
These relationships go beyond traditional supervisory structures that have failed to result in the cultivation of best practices districtwide. Instead, these district-school relationships reflect true partnerships—those in which the outcome surpasses the individual contributions.
For example, districts can be critical partners in connecting schools engaged in similar improvement efforts. When district administrators lead and facilitate opportunities for schools to exchange ideas and innovations, the path clears for sharing and replicating best practices. Rather than toiling through the nuanced work of school improvement in isolation, we’ve found that schools are often each other’s best resource. The practice of connecting enables success to diffuse across schools, driving improvement across a district.
In Evansville, Ind., a district team prioritized cross-school collaboration, creating regular, formal opportunities for all 40 schools in the district to connect.
District offices have been a largely ignored resource for schools as they seek to improve teaching and learning."
On one occasion, the district decided to focus on practices around peer observation as a tool for progress monitoring. From the district-office vantage point—and because the office staff had invested the time to know what was going on in each school building—the district team identified one school that had created and implemented an effective observation plan. Harnessing this pocket of success, the district invited several teachers from the school to share details about their successes.
As the team shared their tools—including templates and protocols—and answered questions about time constraints and teacher anxiety, excitement for the work across the district grew. By demystifying the process of peer observation, one school’s innovative methods scaled up across the district. Furthermore, as schools in Evansville engaged in opportunities to share their work, a culture of collaboration emerged. Excitement reached fever pitch when the district made adequate yearly progress for a second consecutive year, fueled by growth in every grade and every subject rather than by a few successful strongholds.
Districts can be powerful partners in scaling up school improvement, a reality highlighted by the recent announcement by U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan of plans to funnel a portion of $550 million in new Race to the Top funds to districts rather than states.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, we’ve discovered that when district and school leaders focus on the same horizon, any rough terrain under foot begins to level. In other words, when districts have greater clarity in how they can best support scaled-up school improvement, the relationship between districts and schools becomes more productive overall, and existing dysfunction (even unrelated dysfunction) dissolves as they work toward dramatically improving teaching and learning, and then scaling up those best practices.
A version of this article appeared in the April 18, 2012 edition of Education Week as School and District Collaboration