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.