A big congratulations and thank you to Omaha superintendent and Cross & Joftus client Mark Evans, who recently announced his retirement effective the end of the school year.
In December 2013, I wrote a blog post entitled Watch Out for Omaha. In the post, I noted that the district had recently hired Mr. Evans and that the district “after years of persistent low achievement and a fortress-like mentality” was poised to “do great things.”
And great things they did. A recent editorial in the Omaha World-Herald credited Mr. Evans with “refocusing 7,000 employees and 52,000 students on what matters most: improving academic performance.” Indeed, academic performance in both reading and math has marched up, ACT scores and graduation rates have increased, and achievement gaps have narrowed.
Even before he was officially hired, Mr. Evans insisted that reforms would be steady, include all stakeholders, and be based on a high-quality strategic plan, which I’m proud to say was developed with the assistance of Cross & Joftus. At more than one point in the strategic planning process, Mr. Evans told me to be patient: He knew that the hard work ahead—perhaps delayed slightly in the short term—would be more accepted and more effective if we drafted goals and strategies that reflected the community’s input.
And yet, despite his patience, pushback from board members, teachers, and principals often reflected a perception that he was trying to do too much too soon. And, as the World-Herald editorial notes, Mr. Evans acknowledges that he moved too quickly last year in extending the school day without enough community input.
The success of the district despite these challenges can be attributed to many things. First and foremost, guided by Mr. Evans’ steady hand, teachers, principals, and staff worked incredibly hard to implement the strategic plan and provided valuable feedback throughout the process. Many times when I visited the district as an advisor, a group of principals would report that they were being pushed too hard with too little support. I would share that perspective with Mr. Evans who—far from getting defensive or saying “too bad”—would make mid-course corrections in response to the feedback.
Another critical success factor was the creation of four new central office positions known as Executive Directors of School Leadership. The Executive Directors assumed responsibility for ensuring, through coaching and supervision, that all principals in the district are outstanding instructional leaders. Mr. Evans overcame some opposition to increased funding for central office administrators—called for in the strategic plan—by insisting that the Executive Directors would be a key lever to improve school and instructional quality (with the help of a high-quality instructional framework, which was in place but was not being used effectively in schools). With coaching assistance from Cross & Joftus (using funds that Mr. Evans raised from Omaha’s very generous—but previously not engaged—business and philanthropic community), the four Executive Directors—all amazing educators in their own right—are now arguably among the most effective coaches and supervisors of principals in the country. And their work has been transformative.
Mr. Evans’ retirement is a big loss for Omaha. Such leaders, as they say, don’t grow on trees. But hopefully the foundation that Mr. Evans has laid combined with the outstanding leadership of OPS board chair Lou Ann Goding will ensure that the district’s success will continue to blossom. In the meantime, Mr. Evans deserves appreciation and recognition for his outstanding leadership.
In part one of this series, Systemic Approaches to School and District Transformation, I argued that we can avoid the Frankenstein’s Monster syndrome in school and district reform—parts may look ok but the whole is incoherent, producing inconsistent results—and that school transformation doesn’t occur in a vacuum. In this installment, I explain C&J’s Transformational Framework which, I believe, respects the complexity of the turnaround challenge while pushing for relentless execution of clear goals. Part 3 of this series will focus on the “black box” of district transformation; we’ll make explicit what is often tacit in practice.
At C&J, we believe that seven components are critical to every district transformation initiative; these are the foundation of our Theory of Action.
Leadership. Effective leadership is at the core of district transformation. We help leaders leverage their strengths and build their capacity to tackle the tough work of transformation. Student learning is the core business of schools. Because that learning is unlocked through interactions with teachers in schools, we need to pay special attention to coaching leaders—district administrators and principals—as they create cultures, structures, and practices that attract, place, and support great teachers.
Know where you are. For a plan to be successful, it needs to be grounded in a careful assessment of current conditions. We need to conduct needs analyses to understand and document the current state of human capital, financial, instructional, and other systems and practices, including the extent to which they interact to support district goals.
Know where you’re going. We need to help districts with metrics that they will use to measure success and select the key levers that will drive progress towards their goals. We need to then work with districts to create blueprints for reconfiguring systems and practices to achieve results.
Build a culture of continuous improvement. We believe that district leadership will move from pockets of success to system-wide results by carefully deconstructing challenges and systematically developing solutions. By routinely analyzing what’s working, what’s not, and why, districts can end a culture of firefighting and create conditions for school success at scale. We need to help districts establish routines and protocols for doing just that.
Build reinforcing systems. Beyond planning, we need to work with district leaders to reengineer systems and practices with a focus on coherence and excellence, helping districts leverage their full capacity to execute plans and achieve goals.
Coordinate citywide and create the conditions for learning. We understand that closing the achievement gaps for students of color, English Language Learners, and students with disabilities while at the same time raising the bar for every student is vital to the success of a school district. We need to look beyond the school walls and take a deeper understanding of the community and its effects on the classroom. Looking at correlating factors such as poverty and low achievement, we need to guide systematic change for all students, regardless of economic standing, taking into account that stress and adversity often created by poverty—limited access to good nutrition, nurturing adults, good prenatal care, high-quality early-childhood programs, and housing, among others—have a strong impact on learning outcomes. We also know that these issues can be addressed through a well-coordinated system of early interventions—academic and cognitive, social-emotional learning —provided by schools, city agencies, and partners.
Measure results. Through frequent review of data, research, and analysis, we need to work shoulder-to-shoulder with district leaders to keep major system reforms on track for success. Transforming a school district requires political courage, fierce commitment, and strategic focus.
We believe that these seven components are critical and form the basis for sustainable district transformation. By focusing on these components, leveraging districts’ existing strengths and building capacity where needed, leaders can position themselves to achieve the enhanced educational outcomes that their students and communities deserve.
In 2014, I wrote for the Aspen Institute in the Huffington Post that there is a lot that can be done to accelerate student achievement in our school system if we focus on results rather than intentions and implement reform efforts systemically, thoroughly, and deliberately. Each city has one data point, one element that parents and community look to as an indicator of success. In Rochester, NY, it is the 4-year high school graduation rate. In Chicago, it is access to a good neighborhood school. In Washington, DC, it seems to be access to a good school in your neighborhood. In Washington, DC, working with the Office of the State Superintendent of Education, C&J is using the Learning Network to help improve many of the District of Columbia’s district and charter schools. Developed in 2008 in partnership with the Kansas State Department of Education (KSDE) to rethink the state’s approach to school reform, the DC Learning Network is an approach that engages school-level professionals directly in co-constructing improvement efforts that results in capacity building and bypasses less effective, top-down attempts at reform.
School district leaders need to focus on the key levers that will drive progress toward that data point and understand that these levers must be interrelated and mutually reinforcing. District leaders can move school systems from pockets of success to system-wide excellence by creating integrated district-wide improvement strategies that are supported by critical enablers, such as a synergistic focus on effective instruction together with operational excellence. High-achieving systems are driven by leaders focused on results and have teams disciplined at effective execution of core strategies.
There is nothing magical about these strategies. Lean Six Sigma principles are employed in industries where repeated failure is unacceptable, such as in the airline industry. We learn, change practice, and get safer after each airline accident or incident, yet we are too tolerant of failure in our school systems.
In Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell reminds us “To build a better world we need to replace the patchwork of lucky breaks and arbitrary advantages that today determine success…with a society that provides opportunities for all.” Through a responsive, disciplined, and coherent approach, I know that this can be done.
The Keys to Achieving Success in School and District Transformation, Part 1
What does it really take to turn around a struggling school or school district?
More than 15 years ago, Michael Fullan wrote in Phi Delta Kappan that “the main reason for the failure of these reforms to go to scale and to endure is that we have failed to understand that both local school development and the quality of the surrounding infrastructure are critical for lasting success.” In his The Three Stories of School Reform, Fullan contends that the most significant enemies of large-scale reform are overload and extreme fragmentation. He argues for coherence and maintains that the work of reform must occur both inside and outside the system—from the schoolhouse to the state house.
As a former school superintendent, I have always found it puzzling that so many push for school-level reforms without a parallel focus on the central office, state department of education and surrounding community. It’s no surprise that under these circumstances the money and effort allocated to reform have not yielded satisfactory results. A look at the schools under review in any state or district shows a repeated cycle of failure and a depressing trail of dollars spent.
The work of transformation is neither simple nor easy. It is no small task to educate ALL of the children in our nation’s schools. While we have experienced successes, our children still have unequal access to quality education across communities. Why? Because partial reforms have led to partial progress.
The good news is that a number of states and districts are implementing or considering a much more cogent strategy of school improvement. Say Yes to Education (SYTE), for example, posits that we are often focusing on the wrong levers and has demonstrated that the city or county is the unit of change. SYTE leverages a complex network of schools, higher education, governmental systems, service providers, and community organizations to create a comprehensive strategy—with a unique data approach—to improve student educational outcomes and post-secondary success. Through our work advising SYTE and providing strategic support to its districts, we have been fortunate to witness firsthand the success of this approach.
At the state level, Massachusetts has a bold and well-thought-out plan for district and school turnaround. In 2014, the Massachusetts Department of Education commissioned the Institute for Strategic Leadership and Learning to conduct a three-year analysis of school and district practices, systems, and policies and use of resources contributing to successful turnaround efforts. The levers identified reinforce the argument that the effort must be comprehensive and coherent. They include:
- Employing strategic human capital;
- Getting the right leaders and teachers in place;
- Organizing the district for successful turnaround;
- Organizing district offices, policies, and resources to support, monitor, and expand turnaround efforts;
- Targeting resources on instruction and professional practice; and
- Understanding how districts and schools used funding to drive turnaround efforts.
Though specific approaches vary, no matter how it is sliced, reforms, strategies and initiatives must be integrated into a system-wide improvement strategy to avoid the Frankenstein’s Monster syndrome—parts may look ok but the whole is incoherent, producing inconsistent results. School transformation doesn’t occur in a vacuum. Engaging a broad array of partners in the work is essential to ensuring the success of any school or district transformation effort.
Opportunity in ESSA
With the latest iteration of ESEA, state and local education agencies will see significant autonomy and decision-making authority returned to them. School Improvement Grants in their current form are ended and states are being given the power to redefine school success. This provides a tremendous new opportunity for a coherent, systemic approach to reform and lift many systems and schools out of their current underperformance.
This post is the first in a three-part series examining the key components of successful school and district transformation.
Districts and schools across the country are working to promote deeper learning among students, which in many places requires a fundamental rethinking of school design. Making this shift can seem overwhelming, but several resources, including an example set by San Jose Unified School District, offer a solid place to start.
What is “deeper learning”?
Deeper learning, a term coined by the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, means teaching students to use their knowledge and skills in a way that prepares them for real life by mastering core academic content. Students learn to think critically, collaborate, communicate effectively, direct their own learning, and believe in themselves. The six deeper learning competencies are: Master Core Academic Content; Think Critically and Solve Complex Problems; Work Collaboratively; Communicate Effectively; Learn How to Learn; and Develop an Academic Mindset.
Taken together, these competencies result in students’ ability to use and apply what they have learned. They also align with the skills and competencies around which other efforts—21st century skills, the Common Core State Standards, Next Generation Science Standards, College and Career Readiness and others—are based.
How are schools designing programs to promote deeper learning?
Last year, the Hewlett Foundation and the Silicon Valley Foundation supported Cross & Joftus, in partnership with the Enterprise Development Group and The Institute for the Future, to help school leaders and teachers in San Jose Unified School District (SJUSD) re-envision and redesign their schools to prepare students for the 21st century. Schools designed programs that would change the very core of teaching. Their approaches use technology to personalize learning; activate learning through a model of inquiry or student-centered teaching strategies; and institute group work in which students help each other learn.
When I reviewed the various plans, I was struck by how consistent the proposed strategies and practices were with the strategies most common across the SJUSD school redesign proposals I examined and profiled in my book, Deeper Learning: How Eight Innovative Public Schools are Transforming Education in the 21st Century (2014). These practices include empowering students as learners; contextualizing knowledge so it is coherent; connecting learning to real-world experiences; extending learning beyond the school; inspiring students by customizing learning experiences; and purposefully incorporating technology to enhance, rather than automate, learning.
How can every school develop and implement a redesign plan that enables teachers to focus on and develop the six deeper learning competencies?
From a national perspective, one of the greatest challenges is bringing deeper learning policies and practices to underserved communities. While all students can benefit from deeper learning opportunities, students in underserved communities are less likely to have these opportunities. One program that is working to expand access to deeper learning is the Deeper Learning Equity Fellows, a cohort-based leadership program working to provide equitable access to deeper learning.
At the school level, one resource designed to help school leaders and teachers create an environment in which teachers can design learning experiences around deeper learning competencies is The Planning Guide. The Guide is grounded in the theory that the first step toward this goal is to develop a school-wide culture that promotes students’ learning and collective responsibility for the school.
Collective responsibility doesn’t happen by accident; a culture of collective responsibility must be purposefully established for students and teachers alike. For students, this can mean developing community through advisories, peer-to-peer mentorships, group work, and community-wide events. For teachers, collective responsibility is established through opportunities to function as professionals with a high level of autonomy, to share in the leadership of the school, to direct and design their own professional development, and to work together collaboratively.
Districts’ role in Redesigning Schools for the 21st Century
While creating a culture that lays the foundation for school redesign seems to fall on school leaders and teachers, districts also have a role to play. SJUSD has modeled this well. The district set a vision for 21st century schools grounded in the six deeper learning competencies and incentivized schools to reorient towards those competencies. Through philanthropic and district funds, the district ran a funding competition for schools to establish a proof of concept to transform teaching in 2015 and created a clear path for broader implementation in the 2016-17 school year. The district provided each funded team with an experienced advisor to push the school’s thinking, provided access to networks and expertise, and provided project management and change management coaching.
SJUSD is a shining example of how a district can tap into the passion of school leaders and teachers and provide support without the use of top-down mandates. The district showed that school transformation is truly an iterative process that can be catalyzed and accelerated when there is district-wide support for a culture of innovation and when school leaders are committed to establishing a strong school culture focused on learning and collective responsibility.
This article was distributed to the Leaders Leading Leaders Network in July 2015.
Is the current focus of many districts’ reform efforts on principals as instructional leaders detrimental to the improvement of schools? Instructional leadership is a critical component of any effective school leader, but the all-encompassing focus on the principal as the all-knowing, all-doing instructional leader will not lead schools and districts to the Promised Land. Rather, a balance is needed that recognizes principals as leaders of teams of teachers and coaches that are collectively responsible for student success and that acknowledges the many other tasks that a principal must perform for a school to be successful. This balance is a main topic of the “Leaders Leading Leaders” (or 3L) Network comprising about 45 principal supervisors from 15 districts in the Midwest. The Network—funded by the Sherwood Foundation, managed by Cross & Joftus, and developed along with leaders from Omaha Public Schools—held its very first meeting in Omaha on July 15-16.
The singular focus on the principal as instructional expert is expressed in many districts through new teacher evaluation systems. These time-intensive systems expect the principal to possess technical instructional expertise and apply it to individual teacher/principal interactions through the evaluation process. Initially, proponents of new evaluation systems promised that this technical focus on instruction would lead to improved practice and increased student learning. This promise was built on the assumption that the principal is “the” instructional expert in the school and that instructional changes emanate from the principal’s expertise, one teacher at time. This assumption ignores the instructional capacity of the teaching staff, which, as instructional practitioners, have a wealth of instructional knowledge, expertise, and ideas. A number of districts have recognized this, including Cross & Joftus clients Hillsborough County and Denver, and have begun working intentionally to build distributed instructional leadership models that leverage the instructional capacity of teachers.
Michael Fullan, in his book, The Principal: Three Keys to Maximizing Impact, makes the case to “reposition the role of the principal as overall instructional leader … directing their energies to developing the group … while learning alongside them about what works and what doesn’t.”
Fullan’s ideas remind me of my first year as principal. I quickly realized that my staff had considerably more instructional knowledge than I, and the key to my success as a building leader was going to be in figuring out how to capitalize on that knowledge and expertise. Our school saw great gains in teacher practice and student achievement, certainly not due to me being the instructional expert. Instead, I positioned myself as a learner along with the staff and poured my energy into creating teacher teams responsible for student learning. I often wonder if I were a newly minted principal today, would I focus my time and energy on building effective teacher learning teams or would I succumb to the expectations of being “the” instructional expert.
It’s not that instructional leadership is unimportant, but defining instructional leadership beyond the technical expertise residing in, and wielded by, the principal is critical to school improvement. We need to broaden the definition to embrace the collective instructional expertise of the teaching staff and then charge the principal, as the instructional leader, with setting up the structures and expectations to unleash this expertise, leading to improved practice and improved student learning.
At what point does an effort to scale an effective education practice turn into a mandate?
This question, I believe, strikes at the heart of education reform and suggests the cause of disappointing results for promising federal initiatives such as Race to the Top and School Improvement Grants.
The driving force behind every education reform initiative, from the national level to the local level, is ultimately to improve outcomes for students. It is a goal passionately shared by educators, administrators, and policymakers alike as they seek to identify effective education practices and implement them broadly. Yet, time and again, I have seen local efforts to bring effective practice to scale falter when an initiative is mandated rather than developed with the involvement of educators. In places as diverse as rural Kansas and Washington, DC, I have witnessed waning interest in promising education reform practices once a practice became a district, state, or federal requirement.
For example, in one urban district with which I work, principals were required for the first time this year to conduct regular, non-evaluative classroom observations and either provide “coaching notes” to the teacher or meet with the teacher to discuss what they saw and how instruction could be improved. At that time, these observations were not performed for the purpose of evaluating the teacher, and some principals in the district had already been successfully conducting observations and coaching teachers to improve instructional practice in years past.
A needs assessment of the district, conducted by my organization, determined that teachers’ use of effective instructional practices was sporadic at best and was likely contributing to unacceptably low student achievement. In an effort to improve instruction, the district began requiring principals—with training and the support of their supervisors (a newly created position)—to use a common observation template and process, observe at least 20 classrooms per month, and participate in a quarterly meeting in which results were reviewed and discussed.
The shift from sporadically used practice to required process certainly increased implementation, but it created another problem: According to a review that I recently conducted, principals and teachers alike view the district-mandated classroom observations merely as a compliance exercise and not as an opportunity to improve instructional practice. And while the observation and follow-up coaching processes certainly have room for improvement, I believe that the main reason for educators’ dissatisfaction is that the observations and coaching—unquestionably a great idea when done well—are now viewed as something they must do rather than as a practice that will improve teachers’ performance and ultimately increase student achievement.
Agency has been lost as boxes must be checked: Educators’ motivation has shifted from the internal (how can we improve instructional practice) to external (how do I meet the requirement that the district has imposed upon me).
None of this should come as a surprise anyone. Beginning in the late 1980s and early 1990s with the great tide of education implementation research, Milbrey McLaughlin and others found that “policymakers can’t mandate what matters.” Much more recently (February 2015), David Berliner and Gene Glass noted that “school reforms that work in some places don’t work in others” and concluded that it is “no wonder we can’t find a silver bullet for school programs.”
So what’s the answer? First, we cannot mandate behaviors and expect that they are going to be followed in the way we intend or with the outcomes we desire. Second, general guidelines or principles—especially when emanating from the federal and even state levels—are much preferred to specific policies or rules. For the federal and state levels, setting goals, disseminating information, providing high-quality support, and requiring protection of civil rights and improvement of student learning are helpful; requiring fidelity to a set of specific practices (even if they were found to be effective in other schools or districts) is not.
I firmly believe that the vast majority of educators and administrators are trying hard to improve outcomes for students, even when motivated by complying with policies from “above.” But I also believe that these same educators and administrators will move mountains when they are motivated by their understanding of practices that work and have the ability to shape those practices in a way that makes sense for them. It’s a tough balance to strike, but it’s the only one that matters.