The Three Essentials: Improving Schools Requires District Vision, District and State Support, and Principal Leadership
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The Three Essentials: Improving Schools Requires District Vision, District and State Support, and Principal Leadership
American school districts’ actions can either lead schools to greater success or stifle progress in student learning. Yet, despite their central role in education, school districts are among the least understood components of the nation’s public education infrastructure.1 Often, the school board and district staff are considered no more than middlemen in the education enterprise, passing federal and state funds on to schools — where the “real work” of education takes place — and keeping track of school compliance with federal and state laws, regulations and policies.
To shed greater light on the crucial role of districts in improving student achievement, the Southern Regional Education Board (SREB) conducted 35 interviews with superintendents, school board chairs and selected central-office leaders from seven school districts in SREB states.* The purpose of these interviews was to investigate the role of the district office in providing principals with the working conditions they need in order to improve middle grades and high schools. The central question underlying all of the interviews was, “Can key district leaders effectively articulate the ways in which their district helps principals improve their schools?” The results of this study add to a growing body of research — and to SREB’s extensive work with middle grades and high schools — showing the difference districts can make in improving education.2 Just as some teachers succeed while others fail and some schools succeed while others fail, some districts consistently excel while others continue to underperform. Findings from this study suggest a strong relationship between specific district practices and student achievement results.
This study of district staff members’ perceptions of their support for principals complements a previous SREB study on principals’ perceptions of school district support. (See SREB’s
The District Leadership Challenge: Empowering Principals to Improve Teaching and Learning.) Qualitative research methods were used in both studies to develop a rich understanding of principals’ working conditions from interviews with key district staff and school board members. Highly supportive school districts are implementing many of the best practices encouraged by Wendy Togneri and Stephen Anderson in their groundbreaking 2003 study,
Beyond Islands of Excellence. SREB has adapted Togneri and Anderson’s recommendations as a framework for its investigation of district practices; those recommendations are consistent with SREB’s experience in supporting comprehensive school reform in the 1,200 schools that are a part of the SREB
High Schools That Work (HSTW) network and the 500 schools in the
Making Middle Grades Work (MMGW) network.
The result of SREB’s work is a set of seven strategies that supportive districts can use to help their middle grades and high school principals succeed in improving student achievement and the learning environment:
Strategy 1: Establish a clear focus and a strategic framework of core beliefs, effective practices and goals for improving student achievement. Highly supportive districts provide principals with a focused mission and vision of key beliefs and practices to guide school improvement. This can be a short mission statement, such as “Striving for excellence — no exceptions, no excuses.” Or, it can be a living framework collectively adopted and developed by the community over a period of time and continuously monitored and revised by an active school board.
Strategy 2: Organize and engage the school board and district office in support of each school. In highly supportive districts, the school board continuously focuses on improving student achievement, and central office personnel spend the majority of their time in the schools, working with principals and teachers to create cultures of success uniquely suited to the students’ needs and the faculty’s strengths. Principals are given the authority to make hiring and firing decisions for their schools and are expected to be (and supported as) instructional leaders.
Strategy 3: Provide instructional coherence and support. Highly supportive district leaders understand the challenging work principals must do and, in many cases, have been successful principals themselves. These leaders support the principals’ focus on instruction and model that priority by publicly focusing on curriculum and instruction in school board and superintendent’s meetings. They routinely engage school and teacher-leaders in developing and using tools such as walkthroughs, pacing guides and proven, research-based instructional practices — rather than micromanaging staff.
Strategy 4: Invest heavily in instruction-related professional learning for principals, teacher-leaders and district staff. Highly supportive districts give principals tools to be effective instructional leaders and continuous learners. The districts set aside time for collective learning and instruction-focused professional development and provide beginning principals with induction and mentoring to increase their chances of success as effective instructional leaders.
Strategy 5: Provide high-quality data that link student achievement to school and classroom practices, and assist schools to use data effectively. Highly supportive districts have adopted strategies to help principals disaggregate, analyze and interpret their student achievement data quickly to discern student deficits and identify weaknesses in school and classroom practices. They help schools use formative and benchmark assessments to ensure that the results of high-stakes tests do not come as a surprise to teachers or principals.
Strategy 6: Optimize the use of resources to improve student learning. Highly supportive districts provide principals with resources — human and financial — and the flexibility to use those resources to address unique school needs while remaining consistent with school and district improvement frameworks and strategic plans. Schools with greater needs receive greater resources and assistance in assessing which school and classroom practices are working and in eliminating ineffective practices. These schools also are supported with outside coaches and facilitators who are skilled in assisting the school and teacher-leaders to address how low-income and minority students are being taught and how instruction must change if achievement gaps are to be closed.
Strategy 7: Use open, credible processes to involve key school and community leaders in shaping a vision for improving schools. Highly supportive districts engage the whole community in setting a common vision for student learning. They seek principals’ and teacher-leaders’ ideas on major decisions about district policies, changes in curriculum and instructional improvements, use of professional development resources and the district’s budget. They encourage principals to use leadership teams to lead their schools and to engage the school community in setting a vision and creating a school improvement plan.
The seven strategies begin with the district setting a direction by articulating a vision for schools, specific goals consistent with that vision and a framework of best practices that principals can use to achieve that vision and meet key goals. The strategies give principals and their teachers the support, the capacity, the resources and the flexibility to meet their goals. A comprehensive strategic plan provides principals and their staff with direction and support so they can shape and implement a school improvement plan based on the unique context of their school and the academic, social and emotional needs of their students. Once the district has assisted each school leadership team in developing a school improvement plan — and has provided the resources, the high-quality professional development, and the technical assistance, coaching and feedback to the school principal and teachers —
the school leadership team should be held accountable for implementing the plan with fidelity and, eventually, for improved student performance.
The seven strategies outlined in this report create a framework for districts to provide principals with the direction they need and to build their capacity and their staff ’s to lead their schools more effectively.
As long as school district boards and office staff operate without a sound and comprehensive strategic plan, the flavor-of-the-month approach will prevail, and low-performing schools will not have the continuity of direction and support they need to become functional and successful schools. Supportive districts and their leaders know that without a thoughtful vision, effective principal leadership and teacher cooperation, little progress will be made to improve student outcomes.
The purpose of this study is to illuminate how districts support principals to improve student learning. Participating districts were selected from three SREB states. District selection criteria were designed to yield a sample that was representative of the 16-state SREB region, based on district size, demographics and student achievement. To protect the identity of districts and respondents, each district is assigned a fictitious name in this report.
SREB staff worked with superintendents’ offices to identify six leaders in each district for interviews. Desired respondents included:
- the superintendent.
- the school board chair or other board member.
- chief district officers for curriculum and instruction, professional development, assessment and accountability, and business operations.
SREB staff conducted all interviews by telephone, and the recorded interviews were transcribed. SREB research staff coded the interviews to identify common and recurring themes.+ The seven strategies served as a theoretical framework for coding the transcripts, with an initial set of approximately 50 codes identified for likely responses that were then expanded upon as the interviews and coding work progressed.3 Codes were added to the electronic transcripts, allowing staff to reference individual passages to verify context and meaning, while preserving the richness of the original source material and maintaining a close connection between findings and underlying data. Staff analyzed the frequency and distribution of responses and classified them as indicative of high or low support for principals. The criteria for “highly supportive” comments were identified through researching the existing literature on school reform, principals’ working conditions, and district office reform, and through the positive examples mentioned in multiple interviews of what effective districts do to support the work of principals. The quality of responses was considered from the perspective of a wide range of best practices previously identified in other research. A process of peer debriefings was used with SREB senior staff and consultants to validate many of the findings, especially those that seemed unexpected, contradictory or counterintuitive.4
An overall level of district support then was calculated by determining the average number of positive/supportive comments per respondent. These composite scores revealed three tiers of district support: highly supportive (more than 40 supportive comments per interview); moderately supportive (30 to 40 supportive comments per interview); and minimally supportive (fewer than 30 supportive comments per interview). (See Table 1.) The interviewees included 10 respondents from the two highly supportive districts, nine from the two moderately supportive districts and 16 from the three minimally supportive districts.
Classification of Districts by Level of Support Provided to Principals and Schools
in Last Decade
Sources: State Departments of Education and District Offices
* Source: National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) —
http://nces.ed.gov/, 2006. This is the most recent year for which data were available.
The more supportive districts in this study tended to be smaller and have fewer minority and economically disadvantaged students. An exception to this observation is Archer County, with its high percentage of minority students — but the county also has the lowest poverty rate of the districts in the study.
Districts’ support-level rankings are corroborated by their achievement data. (See Table 2.) The highly supportive districts had district graduation rates of at least 75 percent for each of the three most recent years, and at least 90 percent of their schools met AYP for each of the two most recent years. None of the other districts matched this high performance on either criterion (Carter County’s graduation rate was 75 percent in 2008, but it was lower in 2006 and 2007, and only 71 percent of its schools met AYP in 2008).
2008 District Performance*
Sources: State Departments of Education and District Offices
* State averages appear in parentheses
The seven strategies advocated by this study are applicable for all districts, large and small. Some of the specific best practices reported in this report, such as the organization of professional learning communities and the district instructional leadership team in Abel County, will be more easily implemented in smaller districts. In a district with 10 schools, the superintendent can personally lead a book study with all of the principals; in a district with more than 100 schools, that is not possible. The details of implementation have to be adapted to the district, but the principle is universal. Districts need to provide school leaders with quality professional learning experiences to improve principals’ and teachers’ competencies and to make them more effective in implementing proven instructional practices.
Profiles of the Seven Districts
Abel County: Abel County is a small, rural district in a state that passed a major education reform initiative in the early 1990s that provides substantial site-based leadership for its schools. For example, school principals in the state are interviewed and selected by the members of a school council. The state does not have a graduation test, removing a hurdle that substantially lowers graduation rates in many other states in the nation. Abel County outperforms state averages on the reading and math academic indices at the elementary, middle grades and high school levels. The county’s only high school is a member of the HSTW network, and its scores on the 2008 HSTW Assessment were at the 76th percentile in science and above the 80th percentile in both reading and math. The student population in the district is more than 90 percent white, and 46 percent of its students qualify for free and reduced-price lunches. The superintendent at the time of the interviews subsequently took a position as the superintendent of another district in the state, and the school board promoted another district leader interviewed for this study to become the superintendent.
Archer County: Archer County is a medium-sized, suburban district on the fringe of a major metropolitan area, with rapidly changing demographics, including a growing minority population. About 16 percent of students in the state do not pass one or more parts of the state comprehensive graduation exams, contributing to a statewide issue of low graduation rates (and correspondingly high dropout rates). It is therefore noteworthy that Archer County’s graduation rate exceeds the state average. The district’s student population is approximately 50 percent black, 35 percent white and 9 percent Hispanic. The superintendent has been recognized as an outstanding leader in the state.
Broad County: Broad County is a medium-sized district some distance from major urban areas, but containing a medium-sized town. It also faces issues relating to comprehensive exams lowering graduation rates. Fifty-five percent of the district’s students are white, 37 percent are black, and 6 percent are Hispanic, although the Hispanic population is growing. The district has a significant tourism industry and substantial wealth disparities among the students it serves. Forty-eight percent of students in the district qualify for free and reduced-price lunches. At the time of the SREB interviews, a charismatic superintendent was initiating major changes in the district, specifically focused on raising graduation rates. The school board has since dismissed the superintendent over an issue unrelated to school performance. This abrupt change in leadership is likely to result in changes to the district’s reform efforts.
Benson County: Benson County is a medium-sized district centered on a medium-sized town, outside the immediate vicinity of major population centers. It is located in a state that took an early lead in developing a statewide testing and accountability system. The state has moved aggressively to raise its math and reading proficiency standards, and due in part to this policy, only 39 percent of schools in the state met AYP in 2008. Leaders in Benson County examined student achievement data in depth about five years ago and were disappointed. Since then, community leaders have worked to strengthen the district’s focus on academics. One step included convincing a former school principal and district administrator to come out of retirement and chair the school board. The board and the superintendent have forged a strong working partnership, the community is actively involved, and while test scores still lag behind state averages, they have improved. The district’s student population is 67 percent white, 23 percent black and 9 percent Hispanic.
Carter County: Carter County is a very large suburban district on the fringe of a major metropolitan area. Several decades ago, the district was recognized as one of the best in the nation, but that perception has been replaced by a sense that the district is struggling. A change in demographics over those years resulted in a district that serves a more economically disadvantaged, higher minority population. There are some pockets of affluence and educational excellence in the district, and better-educated, more affluent parents have struggled to insulate their neighborhood schools from larger problems in the district, creating considerable tensions among the community, the district office and the school board. Recently, the district has replaced 20 or more principals a year in hopes of turning around chronically low-performing schools. Many of the high schools in the district are a part of the HSTW network, but the level of program implementation at about half of those sites is low. The district’s student population is 76 percent black, 10 percent white and 8 percent Hispanic, and 64 percent of students qualify for free and reduced-price lunches.
Carlton County: Carlton County is a medium-sized urban district serving a small city. The district graduation rate is less than 60 percent, and only 63 percent of schools met AYP in 2008. Six high schools in Carlton County are HSTW sites, all six of which are below the median for scores on the HSTW Assessment math and science tests, and five of which are below the median for scores on the reading test. The district’s student population is 73 percent black, 22 percent white, and five percent other, with 72 percent of students qualifying for free and reduced-price lunches. The district leadership has failed to create a vision and framework of guiding principles and to provide the support necessary to improve its schools.
Carlisle County: Carlisle County is a medium-sized rural district with a high level of poverty. According to federal data, approximately 36 percent of students in the district live in poverty — a much higher percentage than in any other district in the study. The district is unusual for the region and the state in that it has a high percentage of Native American students. Carlisle County is a high-implementation HSTW district. On average, the HSTW schools in Carlisle County showed large gains on the HSTW Assessment reading test between 2006 and 2008. On state end-of-course tests, the district modestly outperforms the state in achievement for economically disadvantaged students, but achievement data for students who are not economically disadvantaged are much lower than the norm for the state.
Extending Previous SREB Research
This report builds on and extends the work of SREB in
The District Leadership Challenge. The reports were developed in parallel, with the 35 district interviews for this report conducted simultaneously with the writing of
The District Leadership Challenge, which was based on the analysis of 22 principal interviews. Both reports use the framework of seven strategies to determine support being provided to principals and support needed. This study of district staffs’ perceptions allowed SREB to explore and further develop issues that arose in the interviews with the 22 principals for
The District Leadership Challenge.
Two issues that overlapped with and validated information from SREB’s earlier discussions with principals were
the importance of district staff visiting schools and the importance of school principals being able to select their own staffs. The District Leadership Challenge study found that principals in the most-improved schools were more likely than principals in least-improved schools to report that district staff frequently visited them. The principals of the most-improved schools also were more likely to report that district leaders’ visits were purposeful and focused on improving instruction. When talking with district leaders for this study, SREB found that 70 percent of the district leaders in the highly supportive districts said that district staff spent a lot of time in schools, compared with only 44 percent of respondents from moderately or minimally supportive districts.
Likewise, in discussions with principals for
The District Leadership Challenge, SREB found that while most principals had control over hiring decisions for teachers, many principals had no control over selection of literacy, numeracy or graduation coaches for their schools. District leaders in this study identified several counter-productive district hiring practices that undermine the work of principals. While 80 percent of the respondents in highly supportive districts mentioned a strong district commitment to letting principals hire the staff they need to help their schools succeed, fewer than half in the less-supportive districts spoke of the importance of supporting principals in making their own decisions on personnel issues.
These two reports offer different perspectives on a similar set of questions about how districts can best support the work of principals. They illustrate the adage that “where you stand depends on where you sit.” Some of the district staff interviewed for this study believe that they are working hard and believe that they are effective.
However, SREB interviews show that these district leaders’ counterparts in highly supportive districts are more proactive and more school- and instructionoriented. Also, many principals have limited knowledge of how highly supportive district offices operate and how they can help schools. The principal of a least-improved school who reported getting “anything and everything I ask for” did not appear to be asking for much — many principals accept what they get and are unable to imagine how their district office might better support them and their school improvement efforts.
Some principals have lost confidence in their district’s ability to help improve schools, and they want the district simply to get out of the way. The positive examples of district support in both
The District Leadership Challenge and this study show that enlightened district support is crucial to implementation of proven school and classroom practices and in obtaining improved student achievement and that
improving schools without effective district support is nearly impossible.
Interviews with district office staff revealed that some districts have more capacity to support principals than others.
Districts with the most capacity developed their support for principals deliberately and over time. They spent years learning, reading, reflecting, planning and meeting. They faced brutal facts. They listened to their community, especially when the community had unpleasant things to say. They brought in outside consultants to help facilitate their learning or strategic planning, but they owned their own problems and created solutions collaboratively with teachers, parents and community leaders.
The superintendents in the highly supportive districts challenged their central office staff to continuously develop and improve their knowledge and skills as instructional leaders. They led by example, continuously learning and improving their own abilities. This study represents important lessons from districts that have implemented seven key strategies in support of their principals and schools.
* Due to the small sample size for this study, appropriate caution should be used in drawing wider conclusions from the results of the study.
+ Coding is a common technique in qualitative research, during which researchers tag similar selections of text in field notes or transcripts with a common code, most often a brief descriptive phrase, allowing for common responses to be clustered and considered together.
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