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.