Learning From Leadership: Investigating the Links to Improved Student Learning

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 Learning From Leadership: Investigating the Links to Improved Student Learning

Key Findings

  • State policy influences principals, but the extent of the influence depends on the degree to which local administrators see the state as supportive.
  • The reaction of district officials to state policies varies based on the political culture of the state and on local context and capacities.
  • District leaders view state policies as vehicles for achieving local goals.
  • Smaller districts are more likely to regard the SEA as a source of support; medium-sized and larger districts have other sources, often internal to the districts that are more important to them.


For state policy to affect student learning, it must first pass through the filter of school and district leadership: local values, beliefs, policies, and behaviors. State effects on student learning will always be indirect, therefore, and difficult to trace. Local processes might enhance those effects or blunt them. We have sought to identify and assess the importance of the relevant local processes. In Part Two we examined district leaders‘ choices and behaviors as they affect school leadership and student learning. Here we examine the influence of state policies on the leadership behaviors of principals and district staff members. We also explore how districts view the strategies used by state governments to initiate change at the local level. We focus primarily on small (2,500 students or less) and medium-sized (2,501-24,999 students) districts—settings that have been under-examined in investigations of the local effects of state policy.

To examine district-level responses to state policy makers and administrative agencies, we draw on perceptions of power, networking, and loose coupling. The examination shows, not surprisingly, that districts and schools vary considerably in their reactions to state standards and accountability requirements. The smaller districts we sampled tended to see themselves as instruments of state policy implementation and as capable of harnessing state policy to local priorities; several of the medium and larger district portrayed state policy more as a framework and context for the pursuit of local priorities for improvement; others, in particular larger districts with poor student-learning profiles, depicted themselves more as victims of state policies leading to unfair assessments of the quality of education provided by school and district personnel in their jurisdictions. Some differences among in district responses to state policy corresponded to the larger political cultures of their states.

At the outset we note that relatively little empirical research has been done on state-local relationships, particularly in respect to smaller districts. We therefore have framed our research in a set of exploratory questions:

  1. How do principals react to state policies, and what impact do their reactions have on their leadership behavior?
  2. How do non-urban districts interpret their relationship with state policy makers and agencies?
  3. Do differences among states help to account for differences in the way in which district administrators interpret state leadership for improvement and their own responsibilities?

Previous Research

Research on school districts, dormant for some time, is entering a new phase of activity, which has produced important investigations of the district's role in promoting educational improvement.280 Many recent studies have focused on the internal organization and decision-making processes in districts, illuminating the districts‘ complex struggles to create and sustain improvements in schools.281 Others examine ways in which district personnel work with schools, showing the link between decisions and potential student effects.282 Relatively few look at the district‘s role in interpreting state policy initiatives, in spite of early attention given to the role of the district as a (re)interpreter of state policy.283

Researchers generally have focused on medium- or large-sized districts that clearly constitute complex organizational settings. Rural school districts, with a few exceptions,284 have not been extensively studied, except in respect to school finance. Inattention to small, rural districts no doubt reflects the fact that most students in the United States attend schools in larger districts, although smaller districts the vast majority of districts across the country.. It is still the case, however, that many small districts, especially in rural states, are very disadvantaged in their capacity to implement state and federal policies.285

Conceptual Lenses for Explaining Relationships

Research to date provides various lenses through which observers have viewed and sought to explain relationships between state-level leadership and leadership in districts and schools. In this analysis we use three of these lenses.

Hierarchical power: States and systemic coherence. Many observers regard the state as a superordinate actor—constitutionally legitimated as such—and local governments as subordinate.286 State and federal programs assume this view, as do some foundations. In their superordinate role, states provide funding and monitor what the districts do with it.287 While states vary in the degree to which they provide a strong structure and financial foundations for local education, the states‘ legitimate authority in many areas of local practice is largely uncontested, and it has increased substantially in the last few decades.288 From this perspective, conflicts in state-local relations usually occur not because the states exceed their legitimate authority but because districts often lack capacity to respond.289 To overcome these difficulties, some observers contend, states should pursue comprehensive, systemic reform in order to attain policy coherence between the levels of government.290

Networks of power and influence. Constitutional allocations of authority are one thing; what local districts actually do may be another. Some observers emphasize the point that districts rarely respond to states simply because of the state‘s legitimate position of power. Instead, districts act within the policy system, vying with state actors at all stages of policy making to ensure that policy actions will be acceptable.291 And, after state policies have been enacted, they must still be implemented; in matters of implementation, too, local districts and state agencies use personal contacts to negotiate how both parties can best respond.292 Thus, even though states have legitimate authority, it is exercised through informal and formal networks that help to shape local responses to state policy. In some cases, state policy initiatives are not taken seriously by local agencies.293 Even under current state accountability requirements, some local educators do not view the state as a powerful force for changing basic practices.

Loose coupling. The notion that educational organizations are "loosely coupled" was introduced by Weick (1976) to explain why policies enacted in one part of the education system often have limited impact in other parts. Various studies in the 1970s and 80s described the limits of higher levels of authority in the governance structure for education, and the relatively weak impact of state policy on student outcomes.294 But loose coupling does not mean that no influence flows from superordinate entities.295 Even as schools are busy developing their own policies and initiatives, they pay attention to demands from "outside the system" when those demands are consistent with the directions in which their organizations are already moving.296

State policy culture and district size as moderators. District responses to state policy obviously do not take place in a vacuum. Instead, as noted in Section 3.1, the state government operates within a policy culture that affects how individuals and groups relate to one another when action is suggested or required. We rely on the traditional definition of political culture as enduring political attitudes and behaviors associated with groups that live in a defined geographical context.297 In addition, we have known for some time that district size (and poverty) make a difference in how districts cope with demands for reform.298

New Evidence


Evidence addressing the first of our three questions derives from the 2008 principal and teacher surveys and from interviews with district office administrators over the three site visits.

The principal survey contained questions about respondents‘ attitudes toward the effects of state policy on their school. We standardized four of these items (each measured on a six-point scale that reflected attitudes toward the effects of state policies) and added them to form an index of Positive State Policy Influence. These questions assessed attitudes about the state‘s influence on professional learning—e.g., The state gives schools the freedom and flexibility to do their work, and State standards stimulate additional professional learning in our school. The index achieved an alpha of .76. We analyzed the data in the context of seven additional measures related to principals‘ assessments of the districts‘ focus on accountability—through such items, e.g., as Our district has explicit targets beyond NCLB targets, and The district uses student achievement data to determine PD needs and resources. The district-accountability index achieved an alpha of .87. In addition, we used teachers‘ descriptions of principals‘ instructional leadership as the dependent variable in the analysis. (Descriptions of the instructional leadership variables have been presented in previous chapters.) In interpreting the responses, we also turned back to the data on state policy cultures (see Table 3.1.1), probing in depth for evidence of particular legislation that might have a direct connection to local leaders (for example, leadership development initiatives, or major changes in standards for administrator practice).

Evidence addressing research questions 2 and 3 derived from a detailed analysis of all interviews conducted with superintendents and associate superintendents during three site visits in seven small and medium-sized districts. The sampling of the districts was purposive, using a "grounded theory" premise that the task of developing explanations for complex phenomena is best advanced by sequential examinations of several different contexts.299 We therefore began by examining two small districts in two states that exhibited the most distinctive differences in state policy culture. We then added additional small districts from states that we knew, from our previous analysis (Section 3.1), to be somewhat different. When we turned to medium-sized districts, we deliberately selected those for which we had complete data and which were in states that were not part of our initial examination. In presenting qualitative data here, we have chosen to illustrate our findings with fuller cases from four representative districts, although our analysis is based on all of the more elaborated case studies.

To look for differences between these districts and the larger districts in our sample, we carried out a less detailed analysis of the larger districts, looking only at the superintendent interviews from the third site visit. We chose the third visit because it provided the best lens through which to examine the effects of state standards emerging after the passage of the No Child Left Behind Act, which required some of our states to change their standards and testing procedures.

Principal Assessments of State Policy

The principal survey reveals a surprisingly positive assessment of the effects of state policy (see Figure 11). For example, the mean for principals‘ ratings on the item State standards stimulate additional professional learning in our school was 4.39 on a six-point scale, with more than 60% of the respondents giving the item a rating that was somewhat to very positive. Although fewer principals gave the items State policies help us to accomplish our school’s learning objectives and The state communicates clearly with our district about educational priorities the highest rating of "strongly agree," both items suggest that most principals have positive views of the state‘s role in these areas. Only one of the four items, The state gives schools the flexibility and freedom to do their work, garnered a mean response suggesting that most respondents disagree.

Are these assessments, obtained in 2008, different from those we collected at the beginning of the project, when principals had less experience with the effects of state adaptations to NCLB? The answer is, not surprisingly, that they are different; in all cases, the rankings are lower in 2008. To give two examples: in 2005, principals rated the positive effects of state standards on professional learning with a mean of 4.82; in 2008, they rated the same item at 4.39. In the case of the item measuring state policies as a support for accomplishing our school‘s learning objectives, the mean rating was 4.51 in 2005, compared with 4.02 in 2008. We compared the means and standard deviations among the states on the standardized Positive State Policy Index for both years. The results (presented in Table 3.3.1 and 3.3.2) show significant differences between the states in both years. Overall, the states that were more positive in 2005 are also more positive in 2008 (Missouri, North Carolina, Nebraska), while two of those in which policies were viewed least favorably by principals (New Mexico and Indiana) show limited change relative to the entire population.



Figure 11: Principal Assessments of State Policy

While it is important not to over-interpret a table that is based on relatively few responses in each state (and a very low response rate in Texas in 2008), we see some volatility in the results. For example, Oregon‘s scores dropped from among the more positive to the more negative, while New Jersey‘s score also dropped from average to below average. It is notable that there were major changes to the tests in both states during our study.

Table 3.3.1
State Scores on the Positive State Policy Index, 2005 and 2008




Std. Deviation

Std. Error

Indiana 05





Indiana 08






Missouri 05





Missouri 08






North Carolina 05





North Carolina 08






Nebraska 05





Nebraska 08






New Jersey 05





New Jersey 08






New Mexico 05





New Mexico 08






New York 05





New York






Oregon 05





Oregon 08






Texas 05





Texas 08






Total 05





Total 08





Table 3.3.2
ANOVA: Positive State Policy Index, 2005



Sum of Squares


Mean Square



Between Groups






Within Groups









Table 3.3.3
ANOVA: Positive State Policy Index, 2008



Sum of Squares


Mean Square



Between Groups






Within Groups









The results are not, of course, directly comparable because the individuals in the 2005 and 2008 samples are different due to principal turnover and the need to replace some schools. Nevertheless, it is reasonable to conclude that significant differences in sample means reflect some collective decrease in the sense that the state is a supportive partner in educational reform, and some shifts within states may be related to changes in state policies. Ironically, this response has occurred concurrent with state efforts to create state systems of support for school improvement as required by NCLB.

We also addressed the question of whether more state initiatives to provide support and training for principals and other administrators might affect assessments of state policy. In order to accomplish this, the state policy interviews were examined, and an additional search of state websites was carried out to look for evidence that policy initiatives related to leadership development, support or changing conditions of employment were translated into persisting practices. The results of this analysis (see Table 3.2.1 in previous section)) indicate that Indiana, Missouri, North Carolina and Texas have, over at least 15 years, provided significant initiatives in continuing professional education and support for principals, either through centralized state principal academies or through regional service agencies. Nebraska, New Mexico, New Jersey, New York, and Oregon provide some state-initiated development, but it has been limited or not comprehensive.300 A cursory examination of the principal ratings and the state initiatives (Table 3.3.4) suggests that state leadership development initiatives (or lack thereof) do not necessarily translate into principal attitudes toward the state.

In addition to examining overall responses to these items, we looked at whether principals‘ assessments of state policy were associated with their own behavior. To do so we carried out two regression analyses. In the first we looked only at the association of the Positive State Policy Index and teachers‘ ratings of the principal‘s instructional leadership, controlling for two key school characteristics (building level, coded as elementary or secondary; and the percentage of students in poverty, or eligible for free and reduced-price lunch). We then added the variable measuring the district‘s focus on accountability in order to determine the relative importance of state and district policy priorities at the school level. The results of these regressions, presented in Table 3.3.4, reveal two key findings:

  • The first regression shows that principals‘ positive perceptions of state policy are significantly associated with teachers‘ ratings of principals‘ instructional leadership behavior. In other words, state policy is felt at the school level.
  • The second regression suggests that district policies moderate the state-house-toschool- house connection. This regression shows that the association between state policy and principals‘ instructional behavior is reduced to insignificant when the additional variable of the districts‘ own standards and accountability focus is introduced.


Overall, these findings support the case-based findings of Spillane and others which suggest that that the district‘s role in moderating state policy is important. They also suggest an interpretation that will be explored in more detail as we examine our case data—namely, that unless the district is able to build on state policy to augment the local agenda, the effects of state policies at the school level will be minimal. In addition, findings here suggest that the link between state policy and principals‘ instructional behavior is rather loose, owing to the moderating effects of district policies and practices.

District Assessments of and Reactions to State Policy: An Examination of Cases

While our analysis of principal survey data suggests a loose-linkage explanation for the relationship between state leadership and building-level leadership, it also indicates the need to explore the role of districts as moderators of state-leadership effects. We selected districts of varying size for analysis, but focus on the small and medium sized districts in this section. Small and medium-sized districts tend to have limited resources; they often must rely on partners in order to achieve their improvement goals. Larger districts often have curriculum, testing, and professional development offices that may exceed those available in state agencies. In addition, larger-sized districts are, according to most observers, powerful actors in the education policy system; they sometimes drive state action rather than simply responding to it. Smaller districts may have only a few schools with similar characteristics, and can therefore more easily apply state policy in uniform ways. Larger districts, in contrast, often contain schools with very disparate populations, and may therefore adopt non-uniform policies to stimulate standards and accountability. 301

Although our findings are based on the analysis of all of seven small and medium sized districts in our sample, we will illustrate the findings using examples from two smaller districts (with six or fewer schools) in Texas and Missouri, and two mediumsized districts in North Carolina and New Jersey.


In our interpretation, we also draw on analyses of additional small, medium, and large districts located in the same states. The states that we highlight in this section have different traditions in terms of educational and political cultures, as defined above: 302

  • Texas and North Carolina: Both exhibit"traditional" political cultures characterized by elite influence, strong state efforts to direct schools, and evolving accountability policies that have persisted over a long period of time. North Carolina was among the states with the most positive principal assessments of state policy; Texas was average in 2005, with unreliable data in 2008.
  • Missouri and New Jersey: Both states have highly "individualistic" political cultures characterized by many competing interest groups, lobbying, and modest state efforts to create coherence. Missouri is a relative late-comer to state testing, but it has a longer history of general state standards. New Jersey, although a bit earlier to establish state tests, has focused its quality initiatives on a small group of lowperforming ("Abbott") districts. Missouri‘s principal ratings were positive in 2005 and 2008, while New Jersey‘s ratings went from average (2005) to well below average (2008).

Case Studies: How State Policy Affects Small-District Leadership
(all district and persons’ names are pseudonyms)

Tortuga Shoals School District (Texas)

Situated on the south Texas coast, Tortuga Shoals is largely a Hispanic community with a mix of long-time residents and more recent immigrants. Major sources of employment are the service industry for hotels and restaurants (tourism is a burgeoning sector), and shrimping (on the downturn). Tortuga Shoals has clearly delineated higher- and lower- income residential areas, including some subsidizedhousing apartments. The school superintendent, Dr. Alba Cruz, was quite familiar with the district when she arrived in July 2003; she had served as a principal in the district before moving to a district-level position elsewhere. Additional district personnel included a new Assistant Superintendent, a business officer, federal/state program officers, and an Instructional Facilitator in the Curriculum and Instruction unit. Three of four principals were new to their positions (in their first or second years).

The superintendent‘s top priority has been to improve student learning as assessed by local indicators (course failure and high-school graduation rates) and by results from state testing. Additional priorities included developing vocational programs aligned with local employment opportunities, and addressing social issues related to student retention, such as teen pregnancy and low aspirations for post-secondary education.

Perceptions of policy hierarchy. Dr. Cruz emphasized that more authentic compliance with state and local policies was essential to achieving local improvement priorities. This view was not universally shared among school personnel, who pointed to a track record of good results on the old state test and rankings, where Tortuga Shoals was always in the top 10 percent of the districts in the region.303 To legitimate these directions for improvement, the superintendent commissioned a curriculum audit by outside consultants, with the expectation that results from this audit would provide direction and legitimacy to a new plan for improving teaching and learning in the district.

In the past, the district had taken a decentralized approach to policy implementation. Program units at the district level managed their policy portfolios relatively independently, and responsibility for implementation was delegated to schools. The orientation to state policy was characterized by district compliance with bureaucratic requirements and trust in school personnel to ensure positive results. As student test results began to slip under the new state requirements and more stringent NCLB criteria, the percentage of students not meeting minimum standards increased (but performance also slipped at other schools in the region: Tortuga Shoals schools remained relatively high performing). The new superintendent began to challenge the local culture of formal compliance and decentralization. Dr. Cruz and her assistant saw a need for a more authentic and coherent approach to state policy expectations for curriculum and teaching:

    My philosophy is, you teach the text. With a state curriculum, you teach it with the intent of how it was supposed to be taught, which is the depth and complexity of each objective, and everything else is going to fall into place. And what I‘m saying is: "No. You teach the [curriculum] the way you‘re supposed to, and [tests] will be taken care of."

The district capacity for reform was affected by state funding policies, which redistribute tax revenues from high property-tax districts like Tortuga Shoals (with its strong tourist industry) to low-wealth districts. While local officials decried the loss of revenue, the district received significant supplementary funding because of the high poverty levels among its student population. State funding cuts resulted, however, in the loss of one of two Instructional Facilitator positions. The district, by necessity, had to rely on principals‘ instructional leadership and on expertise from the regional education center or independent consultants to support school- and district-wide improvement initiatives.

Networks. District and school personnel reported little direct contact with the Texas state education department, but relied on the state-supported regional education service center (RESC) as a key source of information about state policies and as a provider of professional development services. The RESC‘s professional development offerings focused largely on state initiatives (such as improving Gifted and Talented programs and classroom technology use) that were not always linked to local priorities. Education service center staff also provided technical support for analysis of performance data.

    [Leaders in the state education department] are not influential. They give you a menu, and say, here, this is what you need to do. The region is very different. We have a great regional service center. Always looking for ways to improve the region, all schools in the region….They have great staff development…. The majority of the time they‘re trying to do what‘s good for kids and for the school districts.

Dr. Cruz and the Assistant Superintendent valued and participated regularly in district- administrator meetings organized by the education service center, and she reported that these were important to her:

    Even at the superintendent level, when I have my superintendency meetings at the region, they‘re very helpful. I mean, they literally come with data where they‘ve already analyzed a lot of the data within our school district. They‘re better equipped…. They have more personnel to be able to do a lot of the studies for us. So that‘s real helpful.

Neither Dr. Cruz nor the Assistant Superintendent identified other organized networks of professional influence and support, but they talked about communication with close colleagues from neighboring districts and about attending annual meetings of state professional associations. The district was not involved in university partnerships focused on local improvement efforts.

The year prior to Dr. Cruz‘s appointment, the district entered into a multi-year contract with a commercial mathematics program developer, but it terminated the contract for materials and professional development after several years, at the point of renewal, because of the cost, concerns among the elementary schools regarding the program‘s effectiveness, and the program‘s weak program fit with a state mathematics textbook adoption. School principals independently continued to use external consultants related to their own priorities for improvement. An elementary principal, for example, arranged for in-service training inputs on reading strategies for her teachers, while the junior high principal recruited external in-service expertise to support her vision for more constructivist forms of pedagogy.

The superintendent was also responsive to input from local community groups, such as the Tortuga Shoals Education Foundation. The Foundation was created by stakeholders associated with the tourism industry; it was a key source motivating the superintendent‘s interest in expanding high school vocational programs.

Dr. Cruz and her district colleagues did not portray themselves as influential participants in the state policy-making process. Rather, they emphasized their responsibility for ensuring effective implementation of state and federal policy, in contrast to the laissez-faire approach to implementation during the prior administration.

Loose coupling. "Loosely coupled" certainly describes the district prior to Dr. Cruz‘s arrival. A district-improvement plan existed on paper, but it was not an operative document guiding district improvement efforts. While there were programmatic initiatives underway (the elementary mathematics program, a federally-sponsored program intended to motivate high school students to pursue post-secondary studies, and a government-funded after- school program to provide positive alternatives for teen social behavior), there was no overall consensus on needs, goals, and a strategy for improvement. The district‘s initial response to the new state curriculum and tests, and to the decline in student test-score results, was mainly to call for principals to organize school-based curriculum-writing projects, which were carried out with little district guidance or input.

During her first year as superintendent, Dr. Cruz identified directions for improvement in student learning. She was disturbed and puzzled by the fact that students‘ course-failure rates (which principals were required to report every six weeks) were unacceptably high (e.g., 29% at the high school level) despite the history of formally satisfactory student results on state tests and school accountability ratings:

    There were too many students failing, and I didn‘t know whether it was because of apathy on their part, or because . . . the previous levels were not teaching the prerequisites that needed to be taught for the following grade level. So that‘s what sparked the whole thing up, thinking, wait a minute, we do great things individually, but yet, why do we have the failure rate that we have? There‘s got to be a reason for that. So I felt that a good, thorough investigation would give me some answers.

The discrepancy between local and state assessments of student learning fueled Dr. Cruz‘s growing belief that the state test-score results were an inadequate indicator of the quality of student learning. She strongly suspected that teachers were not challenging students to the cognitive level of the new curriculum, and that too much effort was being devoted to test preparation. Dr. Cruz took the position that a major obstacle to further improvement in student performance was a weakness in vertical curriculum coordination and coherence, in K-12 schools across the district:

    We have four great principals, and I think that‘s a real big asset to this school district. They‘re all instructionally focused, and they‘re hard workers, they‘re dedicated. However, I was not convinced that we were implementing curriculum pre-K to 12. Each school is doing great things within their school, but I didn‘t see that continuity from pre-K all the way through the 12th grade.

Dr. Cruz and her assistant realized that without additional evidence, district and school personnel would be unlikely to support these views. Accordingly, she asked the school board to fund a curriculum audit lead by well-regarded external experts in this process.

Dr. Cruz also took steps in her first year to begin to break down the organizational culture of autonomous schools and autonomous units, noting: "When I walked into this district again, it was very fragmented. So since day one I have been working on building a culture of togetherness." Her emphasis on teamwork across schools and organizational units was a key element of her strategic agenda to develop greater consensus and coordination focused on directions for improvement and alignment with state and local goals.

Summary. Dr. Cruz‘s approach to change and improvement in student performance across the district embraced state policy expectations for curriculum, teaching, and learning. Dr. Cruz believed the path to improvement in student learning would require strengthening compliance with new state-level expectations, better vertical alignment of curriculum across the schools, and more effective collaboration within the district. She did not, however, go beyond the state standards or collect additional data. She focused on leveraging understanding and compliance with state initiatives and on using the state‘s priorities to stimulate change at the school level. Both Cruz and others on her team were actively collecting and looking at state and local performance indicators, but they lacked the capacity to gather or use information that would to help them interpret those indicators, which limited their ability to explain performance problems (other than by reference to curriculum alignment).

Middle Region School District (Missouri)

Middle Region is a small suburban district located in a major metropolitan area. Over the last 15 years the demographic character and academic rigor of the district has changed. What had been a largely white and affluent population became predominantly non-white, with more than half of the students in the district receiving free and reducedprice lunches. Along with changing demographics of the student population, academic performance within the district gradually worsened. Contributing factors, as explained by district staff, were teachers working in isolation and low expectations for the newer students. The school board had growing concerns about the need for change throughout the district.

A new superintendent, Dr. Ken Leslie, was hired in 2001. His task was to turn the district around. Dr. Leslie‘s first priority was to change the prevailing culture of low expectations among educators in the district; his second was to improve student achievement through increased rigor, alignment of state standards to classroom practices, and implementation of mathematics standards higher than those set by the state. The district‘s strategy for achieving these priorities involved replacing principals, creating a more rigorous curriculum aligned with state standards, and providing external support to schools to assess progress. The underlying assumption of Middle Region District is that local accountability and standards are critical to ensure academic gains among students, meeting or exceeding state standards.

Perceptions of policy hierarchy. The relationship between Middle Region District and the state changed dramatically in recent years. Prior to Superintendent Leslie‘s arrival, state authority was held in low regard by Middle Region educators. They ignored state standards and curriculum or implemented them poorly. They apparently thought it more important to ensure that students would feel validated and supported than that they would perform well academically, and this view effectively displaced high expectations for achievement in many classrooms. With the current superintendent, this changed.

The district is now more attuned to state policies and guidelines, and it implements them appropriately, according to teachers and administrators. The superintendent explains that the turnaround began with a sense of urgency:

    We looked at all the data, particularly at the high school, and we looked at it at the middle and elementary schools as well. My challenge to the staff was that we don‘t have time to make any major mid-course adjustments.

    We‘ve got to come up with a game plan and we‘ve got to be willing to stick with that game plan through the year. Otherwise, we are not going to make a sufficient.. . difference to make sure that we are fully accredited…. So we were aggressive. Our plan generally was that we didn‘t want any band-aids. We wanted to make sure that anything that we worked on would be foundation building as well as show gains the first year we did it.

Superintendent Leslie focuses clearly on being in step with state directives. The district actively seeks and expands upon state direction for curriculum, standards, and assessment planning to establish a baseline for professional practice and student achievement. It also actively seeks support from the state.

In this small district, the superintendent‘s vision determines how others see the state, because there are few layers between him and the teachers. The district office frames local goals for student achievement in terms of student performance relative to national as well as to state curriculum and learning standards. District goals for elementary students emphasize grade-level readiness; in the middle and high school grades, goals emphasize increasing rigor in mathematics. Overall, goals and initiatives are targeted to student learning gaps by income level and race, challenges unique to grade levels, and transitions into higher grades. The district utilizes data-driven decision making to determine priorities for curriculum and standards alignment.

The district went beyond the state‘s requirements. It achieved policy coherence by aligning state standards with district initiatives. State standards were recently revised in Missouri to establish grade-level expectations. Effectively, the district reformed its curriculum and assessment program to reflect policy changes of this sort, while keeping to the goal of setting standards that are higher. As Dr. Leslie noted:

    Yeah, I‘m satisfied that [state] assessment is stringent. I worried out loud a little bit that when they re-did the performance [measurement] that we were moving the standard down a little bit, because I would rather have a standard that is tough and just a little bit out of reach without great effort than to make it easier for me to get there as a superintendent. I know I‘m kind of a renegade among my colleagues, but they put up with me, I guess.

The new emphasis on increased rigor in mathematics was so strong that the district shifted toward pre-algebra instruction in the elementary grades to better prepare students for eighth-grade algebra.

Achieving transparency in district goals has been accompanied by efforts to increase capacity for district reform. Through the leadership of the superintendent, the district replaced most principals in the district, with the intention of establishing a new culture of leadership focused on academic rigor and students‘ capacity to learn. The superintendent explains that students need principals who have high expectations and track records of having turned schools around, and that they need teachers who will emphasize learning, not merely trying to make students feel better.

Networks. Because Dr. Leslie formerly held an influential role with the state, his expanded set of relationships includes people in the state department of education, district superintendents, and other educators. Given his former role and reputation, he is able to influence state forums and continues to engage in policy discussions with state actors. He is vocal about his concerns regarding limitations of state policy, and he pushes for the inclusion of academic principles that support the vision and goals of Middle Region District. The superintendent also communicates with other district superintendents for fresh ideas for growth. However, his background appears to be the most important source of his influence on district priorities, because it enables him to maintain close ties with and access to state department staff.

Although external networks are an important factor in the district, the superintendent places a greater emphasis on internal district networks. One important network is the one he maintains with school principals; he sees principals as leaders of a school culture that supports district goals and state policies. He has, therefore, established bi-weekly principal meetings, and requires principals to attend school board meetings:

    Administrators are required to come to board meetings so that they can understand the interactions and they can feel and see what the board members are thinking, doing and saying. That is something that I learned in my years at the state. The more you get a sense of where the board is coming from … the easier it is . . . to make the kind of adjustments [that we need]…. When we‘ve got a lot of people in the room, looking, watching, there is a greater understanding…. Then they kind of have a feel for why I‘m saying we have to adjust here.

The emphasis on network interactions within and outside the district is not based on a goal of state policy coherence. Rather, it is based on the superintendent‘s thorough understanding of the strengths and weaknesses of state curriculum standards, and his efforts to move Middle Region District forward in improving its local priorities through a collaborative and cohesive approach, thus moving the district ahead of others in the area.

Loose coupling. The previous superintendent‘s administration emphasized loose coupling with state policy initiatives, which were viewed as marginally relevant to the district‘s changing demographic profile. The current superintendent helped to develop a common agenda for moving the district forward, including increasing expectations for student success, academic rigor, reporting, professional development, and alignment to state and national standards and assessment programs. To address his concerns about weak attention to academic learning in the early grades, the district revamped the curriculum and developed new report cards linked to state standards that addressed ambiguity in reporting student progress. This change has decreased the former practice of giving passing grades to students who did not earn the grade, and has contributed to an increase in proficiency attainment.

The district has also established more rigorous expectations for teachers and principals regarding their pedagogy and the expectations they hold for students, and developed (with external consultation) has developed a tool to help teachers align curriculum with the new grade-level expectations as well as state and national standards, assessments, suggested teaching strategies, and resources. The superintendent explained the importance of these changes:

    We have got good teachers that are cutting edge and are energetic and you don‘t worry about them too much. We have good teachers who need to make some adjustments in their strategies and we try to work on those…. We try to provide opportunities for them to learn. I think leadership has to be strong, it has to be focused and it has to be driven by vision, but the people who make it happen are the teachers in the classroom. So a good deal of energy and resources need to be focused on helping teachers, good teachers, become better.

Summary. In this case (as in Tortuga Shoals), the coupling of district and state initiatives largely depended on district leadership. Both Cruz and Leslie identified the need to change local culture and to achieve more effective alignment with state standards for classroom practice. However, Leslie, located in an individualistic state-policy context, felt free to establish local standards that exceeded state standards, while Cruz, in a more traditional "top down" state, still operated with a compliance orientation. Most notably, the commitment and actions of Superintendent Leslie to align district efforts to state curriculum standards determined how state policies were "felt" within schools. His efforts encouraged the district and schools to examine local data rather than relying only on what the state provided. As the district coupled its efforts more closely with state and national standards, student learning improved and school board support for the district increased.

Case Studies: How State Policy Affects Leadership in Medium-Sized Districts
(all district and person’s names are pseudonyms)

Danhill Regional School District (New Jersey)

Danhill is located in a quiet corner of New Jersey. Like much of the state, it is undergoing rapid development. Until recently it was known as a farming community, with some workers employed in the tourism industry. It has since become an attractive area for retirees, in part because it is proximate to larger cities. Although the district is medium-sized in student population, it is quite spread out, and its schools have by and large retained their small-town identity.

Danhill‘s economy is increasingly dependent on "outsiders." The superintendent estimates that about 50% of Danhill‘s young families today are newcomers. Because the district covers a relatively large area, there is considerable diversity among the schools. Some elementary schools, for example, are affluent and almost exclusively white, while others have higher levels of poverty and minority enrollment.

Overall, Danhill students perform well on state assessments, but several of the schools have not met AYP targets for several years running. Nevertheless, the district has a strong reputation within the state, and it continues to attract support from local residents—in part because it has worked to maintain the viability of small, decentralized schools that are responsive the communities they serve. Contributing to the small-town feel of the schools is a pattern of stability among professional educators and administrators. Most of them grew up in Danhill; almost all educators working in the district office have been in the district for 25 years or more.

Perceptions of policy hierarchy. In Danhill, administrators clearly accept the state‘s role in setting curriculum standards and accountability. At the same time, a sense that the state is an adversary runs through district conversations about policy and change. As one associate superintendent put it, "So much of what we see on a daily basis is so punitive. I don‘t think that is going to change…. I think that the nature of government is just what we have in New Jersey." This educator and others see the state as a remote entity in which the realities of student learning are not understood:

    I don‘t think that some of the people that make the rules and regulations really truly understand what‘s going on. You know the whole No Child Left Behind workbook that they provided, and then the end number that has caused so many of our schools to be considered failing schools when indeed they‘re not, that‘s one example...

This associate superintendent noted, however, that the issue is not with No Child Left Behind per se, but with New Jersey‘s interpretation of the law. Danhill has a number of small elementary schools (under 400 students) in which a few seriously underperforming students (who might be, for example, special-needs and second-language learners and from poor families) could make a big difference. All top administrators expressed concern about New Jersey‘s policies on subgroup achievement scores. As one administrator noted about an affected school:

    Truthfully I don‘t know what more they can do. We‘ve added technology, we‘ve added professional development. More parental involvement. The teachers are involved in the process. When you have a handful of students who are in subgroups who do not pass the test you are immediately considered a failing school. I think they‘ve done everything they possibly can to improve their instruction to help children do the best they can.

Another concern had to do with constantly changing expectations related to student testing, coupled with relatively weak communication. Administrators and teachers were concerned, for example, because they did not know when the state‘s high school proficiency test would begin testing for content taught in Algebra II, and what would happen to students who didn‘t pass the test. As an associate superintendent noted, "They are moving … and they are not giving us enough answers. Maybe in their own wisdom they know what they are doing, but … we haven‘t been able to get an answer."

On the other hand, the district has very good relations with the regional office of the state department, which district officials regard as very responsive and helpful.

District administrators distinguish between state policy and implementation, on the one hand, and, on the other, the overall policy goals of accountability, which they see as a stimulus to innovation and improvement:

    I think sometimes the restrictions are a bit misguided...but …it‘s caused us to realign and rethink how we provide remediation. … We‘ve gone away from even thinking of it as remediation and think of it as extra help and preparation. We‘ve devised ways to use some of our money for ... in-class support models...meeting the needs of those students who we identify and recognize as kids that need more. It‘s caused us to obviously communicate more with parents….

Many of the curricular innovations being implemented in the district were chosen specifically because they appear to work well for children who may need extra help and stimulation.

The issue of greatest concern to the district, however, is not communication or the general goal of accountability; it is the state‘s funding equalization policies. District educators believe these policies have left them in difficult circumstances:

    If you are not an urban district in the State of New Jersey, you are not going to be getting a lot of money. Those urban districts are taking 80% of the [state allocation for] district funding. There is eight billion dollars spent in New Jersey public education—80% of [the] eight billion dollars goes to 29 school districts.

Networks. Danhill sees itself as a willing partner with other districts (the administrator with responsibility for technology talked about the networking that goes on with others in similar positions), with regional institutions of higher education, and with the Educational Testing Service, located in Princeton, New Jersey. Students are encouraged to take courses at a local community college. More importantly, although Danhill is a mid-sized district, it has significant capacities that many smaller districts lack. Thus, when Danhill administrators think about networks, they are more likely to consider how they provide assistance and resources to others than about their role as a recipient of assistance:

    ... one of the advantages of being big is that companies pay attention and give us an opportunity [to do workshops using their materials]. And what we‘ve done, even with partner districts, is actually we invite our peripheral districts in…. In other words, we include them as if they are another one of our elementary schools.

In contrast, internal networking is very important. The superintendents meet with all of the district‘s administrators at least once every two weeks, and they have many informal meetings on-site as well. Internal networking, including informal meetings with subcommittees of the school board, is what keeps new ideas circulating and under discussion before any decision is taken. As one administrator noted, the strategy is to create consensus through discussion: "It‘s really kind of a top down, but the top isn‘t one person; the top is . . . an approach by a group of administrators." In addition, the superintendent focuses on networking within the communities served, making sure that he has an eye on what might create support for innovation and new policies:

    I am really a firm believer in reaching out into the community. The parent input and the community input is so necessary…. I want the brutal truth from them. You need to hear the good and the bad as well as what are we doing right and what are we doing wrong? How can we help? … We‘ve had a lot of interesting conversations with the business sector of the community. We‘ve connected the business sector with education.

In general, administrators in the district appeared to be disconnected from state policy making and initiatives. One administrator noted, for example, that the New Jersey teachers‘ association has a great deal of influence over policy, and that the administrators‘ association has somewhat less. No one, however, talked about working through associations or other groups to change the aspects of state policy that seemed most onerous.

Loose coupling. The district‘s response to financial and accountability pressures, and weak support from the state, has been to become more entrepreneurial. In the past few years, the district has had to cut several administrative positions and re-organized job responsibilities. On the whole, those who are retained in the district office feel that it is working reasonably well, noting that "[The superintendent] is very good at reorganization and sometimes that means doing more with less people… fortunately the structure is very good…."

Perhaps more distinctive is the development of new revenue streams to compensate for the state‘s emphasis on finance equalization for poor districts. A few years ago, the superintendent noted that the district was paying a great deal of money to rent the building in which the district office was located. He suggested buying it, and turning the unused space into services for the community:

    Everything that we do is geared from a business model. . . . , so we‘re doing unique things with the [building] in terms of trying to generate revenue… We now generate $40,000 a month revenue and probably two to three cents to the tax payer every year because of its worth and we now have our offices and don‘t pay rent so the give back there is bigger than that. So that was a business plan.

The services provided by the district include a cafeteria that is open to the public, a copy and publications center, technology support, and space rental.

In its approach to innovation, the district focuses on supporting continual improvement rather than visible reforms—reforms that the state promotes or those that are popular in professional circles. In addition to the plan for generating revenue, the district increased its capacity for promoting innovation and professional development among teachers, while reducing administrative costs, by implementing a supervisor position at the building level. Because supervisors are classified as administrators, they can serve as instructional coaches and evaluators.

In all cases, the district prided itself on going beyond what state policy requires. One example is teacher induction, which involved professional development services tailored to individuals (based on initial assessments), in addition to the state‘s mandate for a mentor. The idea for the program came from a visit that a Danhill administrator made to a district in New York. Local efforts to create a more rigorous high school curriculum were stimulated by internal analysis and by resources acquired from a National Science Foundation project that involved two universities. Administrators have made it clear that their efforts predated the state‘s efforts to increase graduation requirements.

Summary. Danhill emphasizes adapting external resources (curriculum, software, etc.) to local needs, and creating local support for district-improvement actions. For the most part, this approach has been successful. Administrators and teachers have paid little attention to the state‘s mandates, with the exception of meeting testing requirements. While district officials complain that New Jersey‘s interpretation of the No Child Left Behind Act makes little sense in the small schools in their district—unfairly penalizing schools with a few students who are struggling—they have not done much by way of response. Instead, they hew to the course that has been their consistent strategy for more than a decade: to develop support and increase the flow of revenue within the district, and to make gradual changes that can be adapted to the various constituencies served by the schools. While the state is a player in Danhill‘s arena, it is a relatively unimportant influence compared to the influence of local goals and efforts.

North White Pine County (North Carolina)

North White Pine County School System has 36 schools and approximately 23,000 students. The district experiences high student and teacher mobility because it is located near a military base. District-level leadership, on the other hand, has been stable compared to other districts in the state. Superintendent Samuelson served for 16 years in the district, and the superintendent before him served for 19 years. The district staff has therefore been able to work through issues and challenges in a systematic way, especially with the board of education and county commissioners. During the last year of our study, Samuelson, and three other district level leaders, retired, and a new superintendent, Sheila Wauters, took over. The transition was smooth because all of the new district-level administrators were brought up through the ranks in the North White Pine County system and were well known and liked. One large challenge for the district has been meeting the Highly Qualified Teacher rule. Due to state teacher shortages, high rates of family mobility, and a growing community, North White Pine regularly hires between 300 and 350 new teachers every year.

Perceptions of policy hierarchy. At the district level, policies and initiatives have always been piloted by schools on a focused and invitational basis before they have been adopted system-wide. The motto has been to start new initiatives and reforms slowly before fast-tracking them into the system. Superintendent Samuelson said: "Rather than racing in and then you have to back up and race out again, we have tried to fine-tune and refine what we are working on so that as someone sees the value of that and buys into it, it is already a product that fits us and fits our needs."

Because the district has preferred to take things slowly, it has had problems with state-mandated policies that must be implemented all at once. District officials described the state as largely driven by the preferences of the governor. For example, during Superintendent Samuelson‘s tenure, the governor made early pre-school education a top priority and mandated that all districts either create their own early pre-school programs or align themselves with community agencies providing those services in the state. The governor formed a political partnership with community agencies like Head Start, but offered no additional resources.

The reaction of the district was mixed. The superintendent said, "Certainly we all understand the value of kids coming to school ready to learn and having skill sets that they can do that. But that has been forced on us without any additional facilities, without additional teachers." In addition to the pre-school initiative, the governor mandated a program called "More at Four" and instituted a rule that class sizes be reduced. However, neither the governor nor the state provided any additional space or dollars for hiring new teachers. Superintendent Samuelson pointed to the consequence of within-state competition for the scarce resource of teachers, for funds, and for additional space.

District administrators note that their legislative delegates at the state level listen to them, but that the governor is able to create other alliances that support his priorities. For example, all of the school districts wanted to maintain local control and site-based decision making on several issues, (control over the school calendar) but the governor and legislature responded to the tourist industry‘s preference for starting the school year after Labor Day. In another example, Superintendent Samuelson fought with limited success against state timelines for meeting NCLB teacher-qualification requirements.

Superintendent Wauters reported that while the district retained control over aspects of school operations, the state has mandated many new programs and curricular initiatives. For example, the 2006 "21st Century Skills" initiative sought to ensure that students would be globally competitive, that teachers would be up-to-date technologically, and that school and district leadership would foster instructional innovations. Although district administrators supported this initiative, they pointed out that the state had not provided an appropriate level of resources or guidance to implement it. The superintendent told her staff, "If this is the direction that the state is going to pursue, then ...we are supposed to align ourselves with what the state has put out. So I think we need to have this conversation, which we did."

Superintendent Wauters said that even though the state has been influential, people at the State Department and the Department of Public Instruction were "floundering" because they were unable to help districts to move forward with the new focus. In response, Wauters used the "opportunity" provided by the state framework to stretch her staff, asking teachers to consider questions like: "When the state comes out and says we are going to prepare students to be globally competitive, what does that mean? What does that mean to you in the classroom and what does that mean to our school system in terms of what we need to be doing?" She partnered with community members and engaged with university and community college partners in the process. She said, "We‘ve pulled all those people in and said, 'Look, this is what the state is telling us. We know we don‘t do it in isolation. How do we do it together?'"

The assistant superintendent reported that the district tries to connect with the state department of education, but because of cuts at the state level, capacity has been an issue. She stated:

    We don‘t get as much from the state DPI as we would like, but the ones who are there are as close as the phone, so I don‘t want to put anybody down. I know that people in the Division of Personnel and Licensure know us personally, we call them, they are there or they retrieve the call from wherever they are and give us a call. We just wish they had more numbers.

Networks. Networking with community groups and partnering with other county personnel has been a necessity in North White Pine County because the County has been classified as a "low-wealth" district, because the central office has been understaffed, and because there have been teacher shortages. However, the stability of district-level leadership has helped the district make vital connections with community groups and other county staff. Superintendent Samuelson often worked with the county manager, even though most of their discussions had to be by telephone because of travel and budget restrictions. During Samuelson‘s tenure, the district networked and partnered often with local universities, and community college faculty members and staff, to provide teacher training. For example, the district partnered with mathematics and science professors to create a program to improve teachers‘ mathematics knowledge and skills. Getting new teachers up to speed on the state‘s accountability policies has been an on-going challenge. The district does most of its own professional development; it has tried to provide mentors to all teachers, and to provide pre-service and in-service teacher training, but it has had to scramble to partner with the local university and community colleges to make sure that teaching assistants got certified.

Superintendent Wauters has networked even more than the previous superintendent. For example, she became involved with the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools and served as the state specialist in the area of district accreditation. North White Pine County was the first district in the state to go through the accreditation process. Wauters also has served on various state-level boards and on university and community college boards and committees, and has been engaged with the economic development group in the community.

Loose coupling. Even though the district struggles with high mobility rates, its students have performed well academically. The district‘s scores are higher than regional and state averages. Several district schools attained 90% or higher proficiency rates on state tests; all were above 80%. Still, the district has faced a challenge in efforts to meet federal conditions for continued academic growth especially because the district has close to 2,800 students who have been classified as Exceptional Children (EC).

Both the former and current superintendent see their district as active participants in state-wide conversations about educational policy. Rather than detaching from or merely arguing against state accountability policies, Superintendent Wauters met with state leaders to talk about the importance of having state assessments and accountability measures aligned with the new state focus. She reported that many local districts have banded together to lobby at the state level to align these systems, and are developing grassroots approaches to fostering more conversation. She explained:

    So we‘ve started having that conversation with the state. So now they are in the process of looking at 27 recommendations from the superintendents and schools about things that they need to begin. Those are just the beginning steps to what they need to do to adapt the accountability model in the State of North Carolina...So we‘ve shared that voice. What we‘ve done locally is go out. I have gone out and talked with school leaders, teachers, community, and I have said that multiple-choice testing, what you all need to understand is that is only one form of assessment. It is the one form of assessment that the state and federal government currently tell us we must use.

Because of these efforts, the state has begun to align its 21st Century Skills focus with assessment and accountability measures. The state has also been in the process of implementing a similarly aligned teacher-evaluation instrument.

Summary. North White Pine County district has experienced problems meeting some NCLB mandates because a high percentage of its students and teachers come from military families, who are highly mobile. This is the district‘s major problem, about which, it reports, the state does little to help. Because of that, the district partners with local community colleges and universities as well as other community groups to meet state and federal requirements. North White Pines County staff members report that they spend a great deal of time working with their schools and their communities to make sense out of and shape various mandates to fit their local settings. The district has tried to hold to its own philosophy by piloting new initiatives and refining them before implementing them system-wide. Like the other medium-sized district in our sample (Danhill), North White Pine County tried to influence local public opinion about state policy, although the superintendents (past and current) played a more active role as actors in the state policy context.

Summary of Findings from the District Leadership Cases

In Table 3.3.6 at the conclusion of this section we present findings from the four districts, using the framework that we set out earlier. In summarizing our findings, we draw on these four districts and on our analysis of other districts not described here in detail.

Debates in the press surrounding the standards and accountability movement often emphasize the prescriptive nature of emerging state and federal legislation. By implication, there is a sense that local districts, as well as principals and teachers, are put in a straightjacket as they struggle to comply with policies that do not always make sense in their local context. Our analysis casts light on this issue by examining the responses of district staff members in four small and medium-sized districts. Size matters here, we assumed, because smaller districts, given their limited resources, may be less able to move resources around to meet new requirements. State policy environments are also important, because states have varied widely in how quickly and it what ways they have reacted to public demands for increased standards.

Hierarchical power: Do states have a systemic effect? Overall, our evidence suggests that state standards and accountability policies, including state-level interpretations of NCLB requirements, have a modest impact on local behavior and planning for the improvement of teaching and learning. This does not mean that schools or districts generally ignore state policies; it means that, rather than serving as fixed templates, state policies and requirements are incorporated into what the district administrators want to do. Some districts complain about a lack of resources and support for implementation, but in general they agree with the intent of state policies.

While districts vary there is variation in how they react to state standards and accountability requirements, they rarely describe their situation in ways that would suggest they feel besieged or victimized by the standards movement, even when they disagree with specific policies. Three of the four districts we analyzed in detail have high poverty/high minority populations, yet they all welcomed the standards movement as helping them to define and achieve important (local) education goals. They described their relationship with their states in terms that must be categorized as accepting. They acknowledged the legitimacy of state policy (even if they dislike the notion of federal mandates and bemoan inadequate state funding), and generally find that they are able to use policy to enlarge their own influence over the improvement of education in their settings.

None of the districts described state agencies as a significant source of support, although three states (Texas, Missouri, and New Jersey) have well-funded regional service agencies whose role is to support professional development and to enhance the capacity of district offices. Loose coupling was evident in the actions all four districts took to develop their agendas for improvement, to which state standards and accountability agendas could be linked. Two districts (Tortuga Shoals and North White Pine County) described the state‘s role as defining what they were trying to do, but even in those cases district leaders saw themselves as going beyond superficial compliance. None, however, reported significant professional guidance or support from state education departments or regional service units for the implementation of programs targeted to locally defined needs and goals, even within the scope of state priorities and initiatives.

There is little evidence to support the assumption that state policies bypass the district and have a direct impact on the behavior of principals. Although principals‘ assessments of positive state influences predict their instructional leadership behavior, state effects are overwhelmed by principals‘ perceptions of the role of local standards and policies.

Networks of local leadership influence. Senior district staff members in small and medium-sized districts have limited political networks, with the exception of one individual in our sample who formerly held a key state position. However, both he and the superintendent in North White Pine County saw themselves as influencing state policy making, either on their own or through professional associations. The professional networks established by most of the superintendents in our sample are largely localized within the district and with other districts located nearby, and they are typically more focused on coping with state policy mandates than on shaping those policies to begin with. There is some evidence that superintendents participate in lobbying or making efforts to influence state policy, but only as participants in coalitions. Overall, superintendents and other district officials seem to play modest roles in the states‘ policy activity. State superintendents‘ associations were rarely mentioned as important sources of influence by superintendents, just as they were rarely seen to be present in the circles of influence described by state policy makers.

Loose coupling. Senior district staff view their work as loosely coupled with the state. Districts‘ sense of engagement with policy making and SEAs varies by state policy culture.

  • Districts located in more traditional political culture304 states saw themselves as working toward authentic compliance with state policies. Authentic compliance implies accepting the requirements of state mandates and expectations, but tailoring policy to local circumstances. Data from Tortuga Shoals and North White Pine provide empirical evidence for this conclusion. In both the traditional states, mandates and limited state support for implementation were assumed, but states provided the framework within which local policy was worked out. District leaders leveraged state policy to frame, focus, and mobilize local improvement efforts.
  • Districts located in states with individualistic political cultures (Danhill and Middle Region) saw state policies as less central to their improvement agendas, and they viewed their local work as loosely coupled with state policy making. They also did not seem to be concerned about sanctions. Like the traditional states, they did not see themselves as reliant on state help; they believed that it was up to the district to design and implement effective school-improvement policies. They all expressed a sense of being responsible for designing and implementing their own policy initiatives (while complying with the details of state policy).
  • While we have not presented the relevant case data here, two smaller districts located in states with a clear or moderate moralistic political culture (Oregon and Nebraska) saw themselves as collaborative partners with the state. In both cases, district administrators believed there were people in the state agency who could assist them in finding resources—or perhaps even provide resources, directly or through the state‘s regional service agencies. They also described ways in which they participated in opportunities created by the state to shape state improvement policies.

Based on our previous analysis of interviews with state-level policy actors and stakeholders, we conclude that district actors share many of the same assumptions about how educational policy and improvement gets done here, and that they adapt their own responses to the state‘s traditional ways of developing and implementing policy. While we would not go so far as to say that state policy culture determines how smaller districts respond, our data suggest that how districts respond to increasingly uniform standards and assessment policies will be significantly affected by the state‘s political culture. We hypothesize that in traditional states, small and medium-sized districts are more likely to see themselves as compliant actors; in individualistic states, they are likely to view themselves as free to interpret standards in their own ways; and in moralistic states they are likely to see states as partners in improvement.

But what about larger districts? Our analysis here has focused on the smaller districts in our sample. We did analyze data from larger districts, although less deeply. As expected, we found that the larger districts in our sample, irrespective of the state in which they are located, see themselves as responsible for their own future and view the development of their internal resources as the key for improvement efforts. However, there are clear differences among the larger districts:

  • Three "semi-urban" districts in our sample were large, but located outside a major urban area. Rather than being in a "eclining" urban core, they served expanding, increasingly diverse populations. They typically saw themselves as disengaged from state policy because they believed that they were far ahead in their locally developed improvement plans. Compliance was a given, but the need to comply did not drive or shape these districts‘ priorities. In this regard, they were more like Danhill and Middle Region, but with far greater resources, both financially and in the district offices.
  • Four inner-city districts, on the other hand, were "resisters" who blamed the state for unfair policies that worked to the disadvantage of schools and students they served. In one case, the district had sued the state in an effort to stop enforcement of some components of the standards and accountability procedures.

Some of these differences warrant more thorough investigation and analysis. At this point we emphasize that it is important to look closely at district responses to the standards and accountability movement, and to avoid equating public statements by national and state spokespeople with the more pragmatic responses of district administrators whose primary objective is to develop local policies to improve the lives and achievement of their students.

Implications for Policy and Practice

Six implications for policy and practice emerged from this section of our study.

  1. State policy makers need to engage more strategically in determining how they can provide support for the development and implementation of locally-defined priorities for improvement of teaching and learning within the framework of state standards and accountability policies and the practical realities of local community contexts.
  2. State policy makers and education agencies should find ways to disseminate the creative initiatives that local districts develop to comply with and exceed state policy expectations and expand on those expectations in light of local needs and priorities.
  3. State policy makers and education agencies need to be more responsive to legitimate district concerns about unforeseen inequities arising from the implementation of well-intended government policies.
  4. District authorities, particularly superintendents, should consider how best to develop quality performance benchmarks in addition to the minimum standards mandated by the states. Additional standards should be based on nationally normed tests, as well as those established by the state.
  5. District authorities should develop more consistent networks to engage with state policy development and adaptation. These networks should be consistent with the variable needs and priorities of districts with different capacities and demographic profiles.
  6. District leaders are able to effectively define and pursue local goals and priorities when they shape local understanding of state policies, and then incorporate this understanding into local education priorities, policies and services.

Table 3.3.6
How District Leadership Varies in Response to State and Federal Policies

State Political Culture

Tortuga Shoals
TX: Traditional

Middle Region District
MO: Individualistic

North White Pine County
NC: Traditional

Danhill Regional District
NJ: Individualistic

Perceptions of state policy leadership


1. Legitimacy of state authority

Legitimacy of state authority
is uncontested.
Superintendent and other
district leaders emphasize
their duty to comply.

State legitimacy is present;
however district is a vocal
actor in policy development.

State legitimacy is present;
district complies with
standards, testing and other

State legitimacy is present;
district must comply with
testing programs; little
interest in other state policy,
which is minimal.

2. State support for districts

District contact with state
support is primarily through
regional service center,
which transmits information
about state/federal policies,
and provides PD related to
state policy/program

Not addressed by district
staff (note: MO has no
formal regional service
center system).

Very limited state support.
State provides no resources or
direction even though it
mandates policies. Little
contact except for the
personnel and licensure
department, which is
understaffed. (Note: NC has
no formal regional service
center system.)

District contact with state
support is primarily through
regional service center,
which transmits information
about state/federal policies,
and provides PD related to
state policy/program
initiatives. State government
(in state capital) viewed as
distant/ unsupportive.

3. Coherence of state policies

District administrators
accept the coherence of
state/federal policies. New
supt. believes that local
policies and practices need
to be better aligned with the
intent of state curriculum
and accountability policies,
and emphasizes the need for
vertical coherence.

District superintendent
actualizes policy coherence.
Two gaps in coherence that
the superintendent is
addressing with state and
district staff: 8th grade
algebra and EOC exam,
ensuring change at district
level to align curriculum
with state exams.

State policies driven by
initiatives from the governor
and legislature. District is
working with the state to align
assessment and accountability
policies with new priorities.
Local districts have to work
with staff and community
members to make sense of the
policies because of limited
direction from state.

State policies viewed as
remote and out of touch with
local conditions and needs,
in part due to the priority
placed on 29 low-income
districts (Abbott districts).

4. District capacity for reform

District was high performing
relative to others in region,
but scores are declining.
New supt. commissions
system review to shake up
complacency. Turnover in
central office positions
affects district capacity to
respond to state initiatives,
which is affected by state
funding policies.

Superintendent led changes
in staff, educator
philosophy, and practices to
increase capacity for reform.

District is classified as "low-wealth."
Its capacity for
reform is limited by high
teacher turnover. However,
district builds internal
capacity by partnering with
external community groups
and colleges. The district
"grows" its own leaders so
local policy stability is high,
and the district is high

District built internal
capacity through leadership
development and mentoring
over time. High
performing/high capacity and
collaborative leadership
Retirements/ retrenchments
may undermine capacity in
the future.

Resources for district leadership


5. Personal contacts/ connections

Current superintendent
connected to senior
administrators from prior
position in a larger district,
and through the regional
education center to network
of supts. One elementary
school principal takes
advantage of personal
network with private reading
consultant to support
reading initiatives.

Superintendent maintains
many influential
connections to the state due
to his former role in the
State Department of
Education. Not only is he
connected to state actors, he
maintains his influence as a
state actor.

Administrators say it is easy
to contact people at DPI, but
contacts are limited to
personnel issues. Supt. has
many professional networks,
but limited to local county

Superintendent is focused on
local networking. Lots of
regional connections with
other districts; sees district as
a source of support to
smaller districts.

6. Agency partners/ networks

Limited: Schools make use
of PD offered through
education service center; a
multi-year support
relationship with developer
of math program ended due
to dissatisfaction.
Superintendent relies on a
regional consultant to do a
"curriculum audit" to give
direction and legitimacy to
new system-wide
improvement plan.

Superintendent partners with
other superintendents for
support. However, he
identifies his most important
networks as internal to the
district, emphasizing the
role of principals.

Moderate: Local universities
and colleges; Southern
Association of Colleges and
Schools; Community
Economic Growth
Development group.

Moderate: Local universities
and colleges work on reform;
some business support. Most
emphasis is on networking
within the district.

7. District as a policy actor

District believes that its role
is to implement state policy.
Weaker test performance is
attributable to failure to
align curriculum and
instruction to changes in
state curriculum and
assessment. The intent is to
achieve more authentic
compliance with state policy

The superintendent
advocates for change in state
standards and testing on
behalf of his district. Most
recently, the district is
pushing the state to allow 8th
graders to take the end of
course (EOC) Algebra exam
with 9th graders.

District views itself as state
policy actor, and lobbies the
state (through legislative
representatives) whenever an
issue is relevant.
Administrators note the
district voice is not as
powerful as others.

District does not view itself
as a state policy actor,
Superintendent sees himself
as a maverick who operates
outside of the usual ways of
doing business in the state;
district regards itself as a
leader rather than a follower.

8. Pre-existing strategic direction

System previously loosely
coupled to state policy with
little internal coordination.
Current supts. emphasize
coherence within district and
between district and state,
and improved teamwork
across organizational units.
Pre-existing and ongoing
local concerns and
directions include teen
pregnancy, Voc. Ed., and
high school completion.

The district emphasizes
increasing expectations for
academic rigor, student
achievement, reporting
processes, professional
development, and alignment
of curriculum to meet or
more importantly, exceed
state standards. The focus of
district staff is district
transformation and move to
the "front of the pack" in
student achievement in the

The district prides itself on
strong district leadership.
However, recent district
direction and goals come from
the state and related NCLB
policies. Recent state-wide
mandates have interfered with
the strategic preferences for
promoting experimentation at
the school level before doing
system-wide change.

Strategic directions are set by
the perception of variability
among the schools and
constituencies, and by the
need to be inventive to
finance quality schools.
Quality is based largely on
recruiting/retaining high
quality staff.

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280. Togneri & Anderson (2003); Iatarola & Fruchter (2004); and Marsh (2002).

281. Anderson & Rodway (2009); Coburn & Talbert (2006); Firestone & Martinez (2007); and Honig (2003).

282. Stein & Coburn (2007).

283. Spillane, Reiser, & Reimer (2002); Spillane (1998); and Youngs (2001).

284. Howey (1996); Keedy & Allen (1998).

285. Jimerson (2005).

286. Edwards (1933); Haskew (1970); Lutz (1986).

287. Timar (1994); Wong (1991).

288. Fuhrman (1987); Lutz (1986).

289. Bali (2003).

290. Fuhrman (1994).

291. Fuhrman & Elmore (1990); Marshall et al. (1986); Mazzoni (1993).

292. Firestone & Nagle (1995) and Spillane (1998).

293. Ginsberg & Wimpelberg (1987).

294. Marshall (1988).

295. Gamoran & Dreeben (1986); Swanson & Stevenson (2002).

296. Honig & Hatch (2004b).

297. Elazar (1970); Lieske (1993).

298. Hannaway & Kimball (1998).

299. Glaser & Strauss (1967).

300. This study did not investigate the state effects of Wallace Foundation funding of leadership projects. New Mexico, New Jersey, and Oregon all received State Action for Educational Leadership grants from the Wallace Foundation, and evidence of SAELP activity could be found on state websites. Limited evidence of persistent state-wide activity and no legislative activity were found. In New York, which also received Wallace Foundation grants, the New York City leadership academy is still functioning, and there is a recent state-wide initiative to improve pre-service preparation for school leaders.

301. Elmore & Burney (1998).

302. Evidence to support these categorizations has been presented elsewhere; see Louis et al. (2005, 2008).

303. The state adopted a more rigorous curriculum and testing program in 2001.

304. For definitions of state political cultures, see pp. 217-218 in this report.