Watching the NBA’s Cleveland Cavaliers—now led by the great LeBron James—struggle early in the season got me thinking: What does it take for a group of great individual players, including one of the best players in history, to work together to become a championship team? And, what can schools learn from such basketball teams?

The best basketball teams (see the NBA champion San Antonio Spurs as a great example) have hugely talented and hard working players, but they commit to implementing a system that maximizes the likelihood of team success, sometimes to the detriment of individual players’ statistics such as scoring. Similarly, in many cases, coaches with strong beliefs about how the game should be played adjust their approach to take most advantage of the skills of the players on their team and work endlessly to ensure that players understand and buy into the role that they are being asked to play.

Great schools and school districts are just like this. The San Antonio Spurs of school districts is Garden City Public Schools (GCPS), which serves about 7,500 students (three-quarters of whom are economically disadvantaged) way out in western Kansas.

Measuring Garden City’s success and growth is difficult. Due to difficulties with the statewide rollout of new assessments last year, neither Garden City nor any other district in the state has summative data from 2013-14, and the data from 2012-2013 was based on a state assessment that had not been aligned to the new standards. Moreover, the district switched formative assessment providers last year so trend data are not yet available.

That said, GCPS has been on an upward trajectory since 2008 when it joined the Kansas Learning Network (KLN).  KLN, created and managed for five years by Cross & Joftus (C&J), was the Kansas State Department of Education’s intervention for the lowest performing schools and districts in the state. Participating districts received an intensive needs assessment, coaching, and other supports.  We assigned Joan Evans—the LeBron James of educators—to serve as the coach for GCPS.

Since 2008, GCPS has been focused like a laser on proving Michael Fullan’s maxim: “Every successful school and system in the world proves the point that only collective engagement will get us the results we are seeking.” GCPS—which, like the Spurs, has enjoyed very stable leadership—has become obsessed with the need to include teachers in the district’s planning and decision-making processes in order to build capacity and buy-in to what they are trying to do while emphasizing the need to build systems that are consistent grade to grade and school to school. These systems include most notably the best “instructional rounds” I have ever seen. The rounds are low-stake classroom observations by administrators and teachers that create and enforce clear agreements about what effective teaching looks like. The data from these rounds are analyzed and discussed in principal meetings to understand school implementation of high-impact instructional strategies and identify types of coaching and supports needed to continue making progress.

GCPS leadership would tell you that they got off to a rocky start, much like this year’s Cleveland Cavaliers. Teachers and principals didn’t understand the purpose of the observations and didn’t trust how the data would be used. But the district stayed with it and the culture has been transformed. Teachers and school administrators now lead professional development and proudly discuss the changes that have been made at meetings and conferences. And student achievement—though difficult to track over time—seems to be climbing steadily according to Darren Dennis, a senior GCPS administrator and a key architect of the reforms.

Unfortunately, there are no trophies to be won in education. But if you want to see a district that has created a championship culture, go visit Garden City, Kansas (just give yourself a lot of time to get there).


Read more about the C&J approach to School, District, and State Improvement.

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Author(s): Scott Joftus

The question remains: can one person, the Superhero Superintendent, save a struggling, broken school district or is she a mere mortal, destined to be defeated by a lack of systemic coherence?

Back in 2008, I partnered with Susan Tave Zelman, former Ohio Superintendent of Public Instruction and current Executive Director of the Ohio Department of Education, to write an article for the AASA Journal of Scholarship and Practice titled Systems, Not Superheroes about the need for districts and states to stop putting all of their eggs in the basket of superhero leaders and start investing in “complete and interlocking systems to support reform.”  Six years later, it seems that little has changed as demonstrated most recently by the Los Angeles Unified MiSiS record-keeping system problems and the subsequent leadership upheaval.

Nabbing high-profile executives is not a comprehensive school reform strategy, especially given how long most of those individuals stay in the job.  A recent survey conducted by the Council of the Great City Schools found that the average tenure of urban school superintendents dropped to 3.2 years in the 2013-2014 school year, a decline after 10 years of modest growth.

As Dr. Zelman and I wrote in 2008, even the most qualified individual would have a difficult time leading when faced with disconnected curricula and assessments; nonexistent resource tracking systems; disconnected teacher and principal recruitment, evaluation, and retention systems; and a demoralized, unsupported constituency of students and educators.  As depicted in the following graphic, an integrated system must be developed in which human, fiscal, and community resources coupled with accountability support and extend the instructional system to improve student learning and achievement.

Superheroes Blog Graphic

Figure 1: Complex, interrelated organization with subsystems (Ohio Department of Education)

When we create such a system,

  • Teachers and school leaders have the knowledge, skills, and professional development they need to help all schools learn;
  • Funding is aligned to a plan, based on data, focused on clear goals, and provides effective support for educators;
  • Parents and families, business and industry, local community organizations, state and local health and human service agencies, and the media are actively engaged in the effort to improve school efficacy and student achievement;
  • Performance targets regarding knowledge, skills, and abilities are set for students and educators that are fair, attainable, but also a stretch; and
  • Instruction is based upon clear expectations of what we want our students to know and be able to do and is implemented by educators with the capacity to teach well thanks to aligned community, human, and fiscal resources.

A coherent, interdependent, sustainable system such as this allows the district leader to abandon the failure-bound role of Superhero and embrace the far more valuable role of Instructional Leader. The district leader will then have the freedom to do something truly heroic, that of helping educators teach students in the most effective way possible so that they can achieve their true potential.  Because while strong and charismatic leaders are essential, systems and extraordinary leaders need to live in harmony.

Now that is the happy ending we all wish to see.


Thanks to Torrey Shawe for her contributions to this post.

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Author(s): Christopher T. Cross

While our national economy is showing many signs of recovery including higher job growth and lower unemployment, many state education budgets are still feeling the effects of the recent recession. A recent report by the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities provided the following sobering statistics.

  • At least 35 states provided less funding per student for the 2013-14 school year than they did before the recession hit. Fourteen of these states cut per-student funding by more than 10 percent. (These figures are in inflation-adjusted dollars and focus on the primary form of state aid to local schools.)
  • At least 15 states are providing less funding per student to local school districts in this school year than they provided a year ago. This is despite the fact that most states are experiencing modest increases in tax revenues.
  • Where funding has increased, it has generally not increased enough to make up for cuts in past years. For example, New Mexico is increasing school funding by $72 per pupil this year. But that is too small to offset the state’s $946 per-pupil cut over the previous five years.

And even with reduced state investments, districts are being asked to do more—add more pre-K rooms; increase the use of technology; provide more options for high school students; support more STEM activities; ready teachers and students for new state standards and assessments; and upgrade their physical plan to support learning in the information age.

There is, perhaps, a hint of a silver lining in this very gloomy economic scenario. That is, in the face of declining revenues, district leaders are becoming more thoughtful and strategic in how they are choosing to deploy their resources (people, time, and money). Through our work with districts across the country, we are seeing:

  • A focus on trimming budgets where cuts can do the least harm rather than across the board cuts that were so common just a few years ago. For instance, some districts have been able to maintain investments in key reform strategies like a longer day or one-on-one technology while cutting other programs or activities.
  • The use of data to understand what approaches are working and attempts to preserve investments in those areas. The idea of calculating and measuring “return on investments” in education has gotten a large boost during this era of do-more-with-less.
  • More partnerships between districts and other city agencies and community organizations to bring additional resources into schools such as additional adult volunteers to support project-based learning or increase access to technology.

While some may argue that education budgets have become bloated over time, the reality is that districts can only do more with less for so long. Eventually, budget cuts will (and some argue already do) limit the ability of districts to provide students with the quality of education that we have come to expect and that is needed for continued national prosperity. If we believe that education is the driver of our economy and that investments to improve teaching and learning, in technology, and in the physical infrastructure of schools are necessary for the development of a competitive workforce, than the continued reduction in state education budgets should be a shared cause for concern.

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Author(s): Sharon Deich

What’s an appropriate pace for reforming schools and school systems? Put another way, is there a “speed limit” that attempted reforms cannot (or should not) surpass?

These questions were on my mind last week when I was visiting Omaha Public Schools (OPS). As I have written recently (see here), we have been helping OPS navigate the twists and turns of education reform for about a year. The district has planned and reorganized strategically, and due to a variety of factors—including a new board of education and administration, an incredibly supportive community, and an outstanding instructional framework—the district appears poised to really take off.

OPS began implementing its strategic plan this summer and, to no one’s surprise, has gotten off to a tremendous start. As I learned on my visit last week, the district is actively and aggressively implementing many key strategies in the strategic plan, including:

1. Cross-functional working groups are monitoring and managing implementation of strategies from the strategic plan. Groups meet monthly to monitor the status of implementation, problem solve, and discuss any issues that should be shared with the Executive Council. A dashboard displaying progress being made on each strategy was developed and shared with all working group participants.  The working groups have developed a five-year timeline to coordinate timing of implementation for all strategies.

2. District administrators are using a performance-management process (District Stat) to track and improve implementation of four strategies from the strategic plan.  These four strategies were chosen for the intensive Stat process due to their foundational importance and high-profile nature.

3. Principals and executive directors of school support have been trained on a School Stat process that will track and improve implementation of school-based strategies from the strategic plan.

4. The district has reorganized the central office with the intention of improving supports for schools. Most notably, four cabinet-level positions – executive directors of school support (principal supervisors) – were created and filled and training for these individuals has begun in earnest.

5. A bond proposal to raise hundreds of millions of dollars for OPS facilities will be placed before Omaha voters in November.

6. Teachers and principals have increased their focus on expanding and improving the quality of instructional time with students thanks, among other efforts, to a district-wide emphasis on increasing instructional time during the regular school day and principal “coaching” visits to classrooms.

7. In an effort to enhance equity, maximize the impact of district spending on student outcomes, and lessen principal workload, the district is in the process of shifting to “priority-based” budgeting, which will be in full effect for the 2015-16 school year.

8. The district is spearheading a number of important technology upgrades.

9. Central office is focusing on improving customer service for schools and the public by creating benchmarks and developing a number of satisfaction surveys.

10. The teacher and principal evaluation systems have been revised and improved. Starting this year, principals will be evaluated by a direct supervisor every year.

This is not an all-inclusive list, and even just a few of these initiatives would be considered a “heavy lift” for many school districts. But, as Mark Evans, the OPS superintendent, says, “They are all critical.”

But is it too much? Principals told me—as a consultant to the district—that they feel overwhelmed by the pace and scope of reform. Can reforms—even critical and strategic ones—succeed without the full support of principals? On the other hand, can important change take place in a school district without making at least some key stakeholders uncomfortable? I would argue that the answer to both of these questions is “no,” but finding the point at which stakeholders like principals feel uncomfortable but still engaged and supported is no easy task.

As a result of the feedback it has received, OPS is wisely (in my view) slowing down the implementation of some of its initiatives and re-doubling its efforts to engage principals and teachers. While the decision to slow down is disappointing to some in the district, it shows an instinctual understanding among OPS administrators and board members that education reform has a “speed limit” for meaningful and lasting change that will result in improved outcomes for students for years to come.


Learn more about C&J’s School, District, and State System Improvement practice area.


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Author(s): Scott Joftus

Why is it so hard to create a high-functioning HR team? We all want Human Resource functions that enable school systems to have the best and brightest in every role, but often times the challenge starts with the basics. The nuts and bolts operations of HR may not be the sexiest work, but if it isn’t functioning well, HR can get stuck in a cycle of reactionary firefighting that rarely moves to the strategic recruitment, development, and retention that every school system needs. I wanted to pay homage to this important work and share my own experience in this space.

In 2005, I became head of a newly minted Employee Services team in the Chicago Public Schools (CPS) that brought together all the transactional work of HR – data entry for new hires, salary changes, retirement processing, benefits enrollment, etc. Essentially anything that happened during an employee’s time at CPS came through our office. We had 65 staff members at the time to support 44,000+ employees.

Our team embarked on an effort to transform the way we provided service to employees every day.  Our data was staggering: 12 weeks to turn around a leave application, a 45% call answer rate, and a reputation among principals and teachers of unfriendly and unhelpful service delivery.

At the start of the effort, I thought the primary issues might be the people and the technology. Perhaps with a different staff and an updated HR data system we would improve. But as I observed the staff doing their work, I realized that our issues were not the people or the outdated technology. In fact, most of our issues came down to the way our work was organized and distributed, and a host of outdated and dysfunctional processes that slowed us down.

It wasn’t easy, but after one intense year and with the help of an amazing leadership team and staff, we found ourselves in a very different place. Most of our transactions took 24 to 48 hours to complete, our call answer rates were above 95%, and our first call resolution was north of 75% as well. And that was accomplished with the same staff prior to the implementation of a new PeopleSoft HR system.

So how did we make a dent in the work?

We started by connecting our work to the most important work of the schools: we served our children by serving our employees well.  We set clear performance expectations with three “Success Factors” for our work: 1) Impeccable Customer Service, 2) Accuracy and Efficiency, and 3) Cohesive Teamwork.  Each success factor had performance measures and we watched them closely, troubleshooting and problem solving over the course of a year to fix dysfunctional processes and bottlenecks that stopped us from reaching our goals. We also created a weekly meeting with our key partners in Payroll, IT, and Budget to work through any communication challenges our teams were encountering.

Next, we studied our work. We painstakingly tracked our transactions and measured our work. We came to identify every single transaction we processed in Employee Services, analyzed how many staff members touched each one, and analyzed how long each transaction took to complete.

We identified the bottlenecks in our system. At the time, many of our transactions were handled by only one staff member.  This meant that our specialists were also the only people who could answer any question, phone call, or unexpected walk-in. And if our specialists should have the misfortune of falling ill, their work would sit on their desk until they returned.

As an example, one process we examined was 12 weeks behind.  When we looked closer, we realized that the transaction only took 15 minutes of hands-on time, but the volume of work peaked twice a year. By the time our competent staff member cleared the first set of transactions, the next peak was upon her.  She was persistently backlogged.

Following in the footsteps of the private sector and the New York City Department of Education, we set up a call center to handle all calls and walk-ins coming into the office with the training and systems access needed to resolve nearly 80% of the incoming calls. This move alone eliminated a significant number of the interruptions that our transaction processors were experiencing.

We then cross-trained our team.  The days of one specialist handling a single HR transaction were over. With a cross-trained team of 3 to 5 people for any single transaction, we could allocate staff as needed to stay ahead of our now forecasted transaction volumes. In breaking down the silos and reviewing our transactions, we were able to take a more “customer-centric” as opposed to “work-centric” approach. A new mom could then add her child to benefits at the same time she was reinstating from her maternity leave. Or a new hire could sign up for direct deposit, learn about health insurance, and know their salary all in one sitting. A first for CPS.

Finally, we continued to monitor our work. Our leadership team met every week to look at all of our success measures. When transactions were delayed, we would troubleshoot until we solved process-flow issues. As our turnaround times decreased, complaints decreased, and so did our call volumes.  Eventually we were able to plan months ahead instead of days ahead, preparing for the predictable events of the year and staying ahead of our work volumes.

I once heard Mike Feinberg from KIPP say, “Operations should be like the air that you breathe, absolutely critical for your survival, but you never have to think about it.” That notion still resonates with me profoundly. If the HR operations work is seamless, in truth it should be invisible to the system. When teachers don’t have to worry about whether their paycheck is accurate then they can focus on what really matters, instruction in the classroom. And consequently, when HR operations are functioning well, the district frees up capacity to work on the strategic HR efforts that attract, support, and develop a great staff for each school.

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Author(s): Monica S. Rosen

I have been a close, professional observer of elementary, secondary, and postsecondary education for most of my 30 years as a journalist and, more recently, communications consultant. Over time, I learned to avoid talking about what I do. Because, invariably, when strangers or casual acquaintances or even family members hear that I write about education, their memories and the experiences of their children and what they heard about at the office, at church or the synagogue, or at the beautician or in the barber’s chair, or what they read in a magazine or online pour forth like a river liberated from a dam.

The memories, anecdotes, rumors, and emotions yield strongly held opinions, usually lacking any shred of nuance. Get rid of tests! End teacher tenure! Pay teachers more! Longer school days! Who needs standards! Higher standards! Spend more money! No more money!

Interestingly, it doesn’t seem to matter how much education the person has had. Highly accomplished professionals, who one would think had been well-served by the schools they attended, are just as likely to offer silver bullet solutions (and spread wildly false, often ideology-driven assertions!) as people whose schooling failed them.

One reason people offer up these solutions is, I think, that they understand the fundamental importance of education for their children and their communities. If they didn’t, they wouldn’t bother.

I try to keep these experiences in mind when I work with educators and policy makers who are trying to communicate complex changes in policy or practice to a variety of audiences.

One current such Cross & Joftus project is helping the Statewide Special Education Task Force in California produce its final report and recommendations. The language of education policy and practice is often highly technical; the language of special education even more so.  But when their children need special education services, parents’ protective instincts kick in.  They’re willing to do whatever it takes to ensure their children are well-served.

The members of the Task Force, who all have experience with special education, are acutely aware of that reality. They are committed to pushing for improved services for students with disabilities so that they graduate from high school able to think critically, solve problems, read and do math, and communicate clearly orally and in writing. Doing so, the Task Force leaders believe, will require bringing transformational changes to the entire enterprise of public education in California. That won’t happen unless parents and educators themselves advocate for those changes. And they won’t do that if the recommendations are overly technical and seem to address only the concerns of adults and don’t put the needs of children first.

Our job is to help the Task Force express its analysis and recommendations clearly and forcefully, in a language that will resonate with key audiences—parents, educators, journalists, foundations, and policy makers. We will assist the Task Force in building a strong, rational, research-based argument in support of those recommendations. But we also have to keep in mind that education stirs up strong feelings, so we also have to help the Task Force tell the emotional story that supports the recommendations.

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Author(s): Richard Lee Colvin

I’m often asked why we should care about the history of federal education policy.

People usually want to know how past policy decisions are relevant to today. I always provide the same response. Knowing that religion and race were the issues that prevented any significant federal support for K-12 education until 1965, that IDEA was enacted to ensure that special needs children had legally enforceable access to education, and that the murder in Guyana of U.S. Rep. Leo Ryan in 1978 was perhaps the major event in creating the federal department of education are all important to understanding issues that we confront year after year.

All of this and more helps to explain how it is that we have such a vast number of federal laws dealing with education and why every major action has been driven by issues such as national defense, civil rights, economic conditions, or international competitiveness.

Over the course of the past 60 years, we have learned a great deal about both the strengths and vulnerabilities of our education systems, but we have never had a discussion about our national commitment to education, about appropriate roles for states and the federal government, about the value that we assign as a society to education. Education has been a collateral issue. Because of that, students, educators, and parents have often been whipsawed by the changing political winds that have captured them in the various jet streams of other issues.

While these issues may seem esoteric, they underlie a great deal of the turmoil that we experience today around such issues as Common Core State Standards, assessments, teacher evaluation, charter schools, and accountability.

In the new edition of Political Education: Charting the Course for State and Federal Policy, I explore these issues and do so through the lens of the evolution of federal policy since the National Defense Education Act of 1958. I also highlight the role that various figures – Bobby and Ted Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, Elliot Richardson, Carl Perkins, Ted Bell, Bill Bennett, Al Quie, George H.W. and George W. Bush, Arne Duncan, among others—have played over time in creating the policies that are with us today, and why those policies came into existence.

There is much that has been learned about the limits, as well as the need, for federal policy. Unfortunately, as political winds shift we are all too often eager to grasp solutions that swing from one extreme to another, never taking the time to recognize that complicated issues, and education is surely one of those, demand thoughtful consideration and solutions that draw on research, ideas, and experience that is neither simple nor partisan.

Before we make significant moves forward in state and federal policy, it would serve us well to engage in some thoughtful conversations about our expectations and commitment to education as a nation and from that derive a new model that builds on what we have learned about the strengths and limitations of institutions at all levels to fulfill those aspirations and commitments.

As Edmund Burke said, “Those who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it.”


The new edition of Political Education: Charting the Course for State and Federal Policy can be ordered on Amazon and Teachers College Press. It will also be available on eBooks at the end of the month.

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Author(s): Christopher T. Cross

How does a district support principals in reaching their goals?

Everyone talks about the importance of principal goal setting and surely the federal, state, and district bureaucratic requirements are chock full of expectations that principals set goals for improvement. But, how does one ensure these goals are the right goals and that the district is set up to support the principal in reaching their goals?

The principal supervisor may help answer this question. Districts have been shifting the principal supervisor position from supervision and monitoring to a focus on developing principal capacity. A natural role for the principal supervisor to play is supporting the principal in identifying the right high-leverage goals and then successfully reaching those goals.

The next challenge is building the capacity of the principal supervisors to provide this support. To accomplish this, some districts are developing principal supervisor competencies. While this is an important step, there also needs to be an effort to align the goals of the principal supervisor with the goals of the principal as depicted in the following graphic.

Goal Setting Graphic

Principal leadership development goals should be explicitly intended to impact student learning, with principal supervisor development goals directly aligned to supporting principal goal achievement. For example, let’s say a principal believes that building and empowering teacher teams is a critical action he/she needs to take in order to improve student learning and therefore sets a goal in this area. The principal supervisor needs to ask, “How can I more effectively support this principal in this area?” It may be that the principal supervisor selects an obviously aligned goal such as developing her own capacity as a team builder. Or, it may be that in order for the principal supervisor to be successful with this principal, she needs to expand her own coaching skills and learn how to ask the right coaching questions. Either way, the principal supervisor goal is aligned to the outcome of improved student learning.

Hillsborough County Public Schools has been a national leader in the work of developing school leader competencies for its aspiring and sitting principals. The district is continuing to be a national leader as one of the first districts in the country to have developed competencies for their principal supervisors (called Area Leadership Directors). These competencies define what effective Area Leadership Directors need to know and be able to do. Cross & Joftus has supported the district’s efforts to develop both the school leader and principal supervisor competencies and continues to support the district’s efforts to operationalize these new Area Leadership Director competencies.

This fall, the Area Leadership Directors will set competency-based goals aligned to the goals their principals have set. The expectation is that aligning the goals of the principal supervisor with those of the principals will result in a strong system of support for the principals in Hillsborough County and will ultimately result in improved learning for the students they serve. Because at the end of the day, the impact of the investment in principal supervisors will be judged by only one thing: Did the investment improve student learning?

(Photo of Hillsborough County Public Schools Area Leadership Director (ALD) Owen Young at July 2014 ALD Institute where participants developed their leadership skills to better support principals.)

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Author(s): Steve Gering

For the first 200 years of public education in this country, from ratification of the constitution in 1789 through the 1980’s, states delegated the executive powers and even many legislative powers, such as property taxation, to local school boards. The state’s role was typically limited to monitoring the use of state and federal funds.

The past three decades, however, have marked a major shift in the role of states in educational governance. Responsibility for statewide academic standards and assessments, accountability systems, strategic support for professional development, and improvement of low-performing schools are just a few of a growing number of responsibilities now typically assigned to state entities. This trend can be seen across the country, as the connection between quality K-12 education and the future economic and social health of a state has become clearer, and the US has slipped further from the top on international assessments. The improvement of public education has become a top priority for governors and state legislatures. Nearly every state has enacted significant legislative reforms designed to increase the ability of the state to drive improvements in student performance and equity.

Wyoming, one state we are currently assisting, provides a strong example of this major expansion of state roles and responsibilities in recent decades. As these shifts in responsibilities are taking place, the state is re-evaluating their state level governance structure to ensure that the responsibilities are clearly defined and that each entity has the capacity and accountability to perform those duties more effectively than in the past. For some, the sense of urgency is palpable.

In January of 2013, the Wyoming legislature passed a law that transferred supervisory powers of the elected Superintendent to a Governor-appointed “director” of public instruction. One year later, however, the state’s Supreme Court ruled that law to be unconstitutional. The legislature has now sought the assistance of Cross & Joftus in reviewing trends in state-level governance structures and the strengths and challenges of the current Wyoming governance model. After in-depth interviews with more than 30 representatives of statewide stakeholder organizations and district leaders and with feedback from all interested residents through an online survey, we will provide a report that summarizes the input and frames important considerations for Wyoming in the design of a governance structure that will effectively allocate state-level responsibilities and support the delivery of high quality public education. The review will culminate in the presentation of one or more alternative structures that are appropriate to the Wyoming context for consideration by the Wyoming Legislature in the 2015 legislative session.

In many ways, the success of public education within each state, and in the U.S. overall, depends greatly on the effectiveness of state educational governance and leadership. Reviewing that structure periodically to ensure that it is meeting current state and district needs is an important investment in the state’s future.

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Author(s): Nancy Doorey

When it comes to consultant speak, it’s hard to beat “theory of action.” It’s right up there with “paradigm,” “change management,” and “value proposition.”

Whatever one calls it, we find that it is critical to help clients clearly articulate the rationale behind their strategy—aka their theory of action— for improving student achievement. Theory of action, we tell them, is just shorthand for describing how “beliefs about how organizational structure, policies, processes, and resources, when organized in a particular way, will lead to desired outcomes.”

Often districts think about a theory of action along a continuum of school autonomy—high levels of school autonomy (imagine a system of charter schools that have total control over curriculum, programs, use of resources, etc.) on one end of the spectrum and high levels of centralization (consider districts that require teachers to be on a specific page of a pacing guide on a given day) at the other end.

Obviously, most systems fall somewhere in between these two ends of the spectrum.  Research is limited to non-existent as to what the “right” theory of action should be. There are important advantages and disadvantages of both school autonomy and centralization (for an interesting discussion, see The Road to School Autonomy at For example, greater school autonomy is more likely to promote innovation but at the expense of consistency across schools (which can be problematic for districts with highly mobile populations). Centralization offers economies of scale but perhaps at the expense of educator empowerment and flexibility to meet the particular needs of students.

The important thing, we find, is for districts and states to clearly define and communicate their theory of action and then align organizational structure, strategies, policies, processes, and use of resources in a way that is consistent. Unfortunately, this often doesn’t happen.

And you can imagine the inefficiencies, confusion, frustration, and poor performance that arise when a district or state behaves in a way that is inconsistent with its theory of action. For example, what are the implications when district leadership defines school autonomy as its theory of action but then requires principals to implement specific programs, hire certain teachers, and use resources in a particular way? It’s not pretty, and it happens more than you might think.

Three great examples of districts we’ve been fortunate to work with—Omaha, Jersey City, and Lee County (which includes Fort Myers, Florida)—have been working hard to define their theories of action and align structures, strategy, policies, processes, and use of resources. Perhaps coincidentally, all three districts have recently experienced mixed success with school-based management. Challenges arose when former district leaders took school-based management to mean that the district’s central office needn’t provide schools with much support while nevertheless maintaining large staffs and using a significant amount of resources.

The new leaders of these three districts believe that they need to pull back some of the autonomy from schools in return for real supports in the areas of instructional frameworks, principal supervision and support, and more strategic hiring, placement, and evaluation of educators. These three districts have defined and communicated their theories of action through new strategic plans. Now comes the hard part: Implementing the theories of action and the strategic plans requires focus, collaboration, leadership development, and performance management (jargon alert!). We look forward to working with these district teams throughout their journeys.


(Photo: Omaha Public Schools’ newest elementary school, Gateway Elementary)

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Author(s): Scott Joftus