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.
Provide great tools, partnership and training, and then get out of their way.
When the Madison Metropolitan School District began an effort to overhaul teacher recruitment, screening and hiring, they had their work cut out for them. An internal assessment of the district’s human capital management practices by an advisory group determined that significant changes were needed to support the district’s goal of building a thriving workforce. When Cross & Joftus partnered with the district in 2013, our initial assessment confirmed and identified a number of issues that were working against the district’s goals:
- In a survey of principals, 96% overwhelmingly stated that they were not able to select from a diverse pool of teachers to meet the needs of their students.
- Two-thirds of principals felt that they did not have sufficient time to hire new staff before the start of the school year.
- Two-thirds of principals felt that central office pre-screening did not help select teachers with the skills needed to drive student achievement.
- Most external offers were made in August and September, costing the district great candidates who were hired by neighboring districts earlier in the year.
Over the last school year, C&J had the honor of supporting Madison as the district worked to rethink teacher recruiting, screening and selection. Now in its first hiring cycle under a newly created process, the district is already a full month ahead of schedule in hiring for the 2015-2016 school year. Principals report that they have the tools and support they need and that they are getting candidates that are better suited to meet the needs of their students. As one principal shared, “We’re now spending our time… finding and hiring the best candidate[s] instead of defending our decision not to hire less qualified candidates.” Teachers report that they are participating in a process that allows them to represent their best skills.
So how did Madison do it?
The district began by listening to principals and teachers. Principals and teachers raised critical issues with internal transfer and surplus processes that slowed down hiring. Madison gathered principals’ input on the surplus process and streamlined the internal transfer process, shifting from a seniority-based system to a more performance-based system. Principals and teachers now have the opportunity to interview before a final surplus decision is made.
Stakeholders then identified what skills mattered most for Madison teachers. For Madison principals and teachers, eight competencies were found to be critical for new hires, including the need for high expectations for every student, quality instructional practice and cultural competence. District leaders realized that it was important for teachers to be willing to address matters of race, language acquisition and unique student learning needs, and to value and welcome student home culture and language as assets for teaching and learning.
TEACH Madison was launched to attract a diverse pool of teachers to the district. The HR team also engaged diverse leaders and staff in schools to support recruitment and serve as points of contact for high-potential candidates.
HR completed Customer Needs Assessments with every school principal early in the hiring season. Principals were able to sit down with their HR Analysts to share their anticipated openings and staffing needs well before the hiring season began. This allowed HR to forecast trends in openings and adjust recruitment plans based on the needs of schools.
HR provided an initial screen and built a customized slate of candidates specifically tailored to the needs of each school. Initial feedback from principals has been overwhelmingly positive that candidates are a much better fit for their individual school needs.
We created a hiring toolkit and screening tools for principals to use to screen candidates using the specific Madison context, needs and competencies as the foundation for performance-based screening. These tools included:
- Interview question banks
- An observed lesson plan activity
- A data review and analysis activity
- A school walkthrough activity
Principals have the flexibility to use the tools in the way that works best for their unique context, engaging other teachers, community members and even students as part of the interview process. Tools have been designed to enable schools to apply their unique context within each activity, so the same interview will feel different in each school but maintains the integrity of a rigorous and competency-driven interview.
Technology has been updated to allow principals to access rich candidate information, including structured competency-based references and interview summaries from other principals so that principals don’t have to recreate interviews if another school has already interviewed and recommended a candidate.
By shifting the role of HR to be true thought partners, and by providing principals with best-practice screening tools, Madison was able to substantially improve principals’ abilities to fill teaching positions with the most qualified candidates that fit their students’ needs. In the process, the district eliminated time-intensive processes that did not support these goals and greatly reduced the time it takes to fill an open position.
Madison has made significant strides in this work, and we believe the district is well on its way to serving as a national model for school-based screening and selection. We look forward to following their continued progress in this great work and to watching Madison’s students flourish as they benefit from a strong cohort of incoming teachers next school year.
If we could redraw governance and management in service of children at the local level, what might it look like?
We know that a majority of school children today come from low-income families, and we know that many of these children, along with their families, require additional supports if they are to have the opportunity to reach the middle class. Yet, over time, we have continued to maintain governance and service-delivery systems that look like they did decades, if not a century, ago. In each community there is a school board and a superintendent tasked with governing the local education system. Local school governance has neither a connection with—nor the authority to deliver—the needed social services, nor should they. The job of the schools is big enough. In those same communities are agencies and programs whose mission is to work with young people and their families to provide these much-needed supports. Rarely, though, have these organizations had the opportunity to collaborate with the education system.
Fortunately, the tide may be turning. We are working with a growing number of organizations that are creating school district and non-profit partnerships to provide students with a broader array of services. Among these are Tulsa City Schools, which is adopting a district-wide community schools model; Communities in Schools, which brings community support into schools in many cities; and a growing number of cities that have created afterschool networks to improve access to services.
However, the most ambitious effort to date has been developed by Say Yes to Education, a NY-based non-profit, and piloted in Buffalo and Syracuse. Those communities now provide a shining example of the active collaboration and mutual accountability for delivering what is needed to give children the opportunity they require to be successful in school and in life via the creation of shared a governance system. Say Yes combines the promise of a scholarship incentive with structures and processes that ensure sustainability and offers expert facilitation to redefine ownership and local governance.
The leaders in both of these communities, including non-profit providers and philanthropic organizations, meet regularly to iron out problems and to share accountability. In Syracuse, the county worked with the schools to co-locate mental health clinics and to provide family support specialists to work in schools. In Buffalo, family support specialists, mobile health clinics, and mental health clinics are in place throughout the system.
While this approach takes hard work and a great deal of trust among community leaders, many more communities would benefit greatly by adopting this approach.
Note that this does not relieve schools of their accountability to educate all children to their highest potential. It does mean that partnerships are driven by a shared commitment to ensure that the academic, social emotional, and health needs of students are met so that all students are post-secondary ready. It also becomes essential that actions like the election of school board members, mayors, and other local officials, as well as the selection of school superintendents, take on new meaning and that communities need to consider the election of all public officials in a new light.
In this day and age in which fiscal austerity is ever more important, a community that mobilizes in this fashion should see economies emerge as public investments are coordinated and focused and as children become the beneficiaries of this focus.
In the coming years, Say Yes to Education will be selecting new communities in which this shared governance model will be initiated. Tracking and documenting this expansion will give us many insights into the efficacy of this approach so that other communities will learn from what Say Yes pioneers.
There is a terrific case study on the Say Yes to Education strategy commissioned by Grantmakers for Education. It can be accessed here.
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.
In January, the Southern Education Foundation reported that a majority of the nation’s public school students come from low-income families – 51% is the national average with many states experiencing higher rates. The implications of educating a majority-poverty population are complex and are increasingly felt by teachers, principals, and district and community leaders across the country. We know that low-income children have less access to early childhood and enrichment opportunities than their middle- and upper-class peers. And for a growing pool of too many, food security, emotional and physical health, housing, and other essentials are lacking.
Districts with student poverty rates soaring above the national average are turning to a community school model to try and address these challenges. Last summer, New York City superintendent Bill de Blasio announced a grant program to launch community schools in the city’s high-need areas, falling in line behind other urban districts including Oakland, Baltimore, and Cincinnati.
Community schools are not new – the Coalition for Community Schools has been promoting and studying them for decades. The goal of a community school is to leverage district and partner resources to integrate academics, health and social services, youth and community development, and community engagement, resulting in thriving students, families, and communities.
This approach may seem tangential to many of today’s reform priorities – we know that great teaching and school leadership account for a sizable share of the student success puzzle. And much of our work is understandably focused there. But as schools serve more and more students from low-income families, non-academic factors can’t be ignored – and teachers, schools, and districts need help addressing them. Integrating student and family supports in schools is becoming less of a nice-to-do and more of a prerequisite to learning.
For the past five months, Cross & Joftus has worked with Tulsa Public Schools to examine their decades-old approach to community schools and suggest ways to strengthen it. We’ve found there, as we expect we might find in other places, that the community schools strategy has been implemented as a distinct initiative, parallel to but on the periphery of the district’s core instructional improvement work aimed at creating successful teachers, leaders, and students.
The district and its community and philanthropic partners want to change that, making sure that the services and supports students receive are tightly connected to individual student needs and the core work of schools and the district. What that looks like exactly is to be determined – with support from C&J, a group of community stakeholders are developing a strategic plan for accomplishing that goal. But for NYC and others interested in a full-service school model, Tulsa will be a place to watch.
Learn more about C&J’s School, District, and State System Improvement practice.
Earlier this month, the Wyoming legislature convened for its semi-annual session. Of the many important issues discussed, the most controversial may well have been whether to place the question of eliminating the elected chief state school officer on the 2016 general election ballot.
The discussion was informed by a study commissioned by the Wyoming legislature and conducted by Cross & Joftus. For this study, almost 1500 Wyomingites responded to an online survey and extensive interviews were conducted with 31 stakeholders groups. The study found that most Wyomingites are weary of the periods of stagnating tension between the elected schools chief, Governor, and State Board and want to see change. When the views of the elected Superintendent and appointed Board have aligned, the system has worked well. But when they have not, leadership has gotten bogged down and school districts have received conflicting messages about the state’s priorities.
Wyoming is a fascinating state. It boasts the smallest population in the nation but spends more (on a cost-adjusted basis) on education than any state, nearly twice the average of its immediate neighbor states. Despite this investment, Wyoming does not meet many of its student achievement goals. Low-income students perform quite well, but Wyoming has few concentrations of poverty and rural poverty can be far different than in urban areas. Non-poverty students do not do nearly as well, placing Wyoming in the mid-30s when compared to other states and about even with Slovenia if an international scale is used.
Across the study’s survey and interviews, a strong majority expressed dissatisfaction – even frustration – with the lack of a unified strategy for improving education at the state level. Time, energy, and attention seem to have been focused on the political leadership controversies in recent years, at the expense of a coherent vision and aligned services and supports to districts, schools, and children.
Our study concluded that Wyoming’s state-level education governance structure contains a structural flaw. The State Board is charged with establishing policies and standards, but when the elected State Superintendent determines that these are in conflict with his or her campaign commitments, there is no defined process for reaching a resolution. The result is often a stalemate in which the policies are either not implemented or done slowly or incompletely. Similarly, when the State Superintendent has made a campaign commitment to change certain policies or standards, that person lacks the authority to do so. The result can be four years of leadership stagnation – a serious problem when educational improvement is so vital to the future economic and social well-being of states.
Education is the largest single item in almost every state’s budget, yet elected chiefs are rarely at the table and can feel they have their own agendas to pursue. The state board and/or the governor can hold an appointed chief accountable on an on-going basis for effective collaboration, providing increased opportunity to ensure that districts are given clear guidance and support and that the state’s educational system continually improves. However, securing sufficient legislative and public support to change a state’s constitution is a difficult hurdle.
While we will not know for a few months what will emerge, it is significant that the public wants to see adjustments to the state governance structure. If the state does move away from an elected schools chief, they would be following in the footsteps of many other states. Today, 13 state chiefs are elected, down from 33 in the late 1940s and discussions around the issue of an elected versus an appointed chief are also likely to occur in Indiana and North Carolina. Will Wyoming be next to better align state education leadership? Stay tuned!
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.
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.
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.