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

Strategies of Highly Supportive Districts

  • Promote school leaders’ confidence in their ability to succeed and in their belief that improved school practices are important to their students’ future.
  • Share a common vision of high expectations for all groups of students and have a strategic planning framework that enables school leaders and faculty to customize a set of strategic goals and actions for their school.
  • Hold district leaders and staff accountable for working collaboratively with principals, their school leadership teams and faculties to implement a strategic plan and to hold principals accountable for creating excellent leadership teams.

Set High Expectations

More respondents in the highly and moderately supportive districts said their districts stress high expectations of students than in minimally supportive districts. (See Table 3.) While approximately 80 percent of respondents from highly and moderately supportive districts offered comments indicative of high expectations, less than half of respondents from minimally supportive districts offered such statements.

Table 3
Comments Indicating High Expectations

District Level
of Support

Percentage of
Respondents Indicating
High Expectations*

Total Number
of Comments

Average Comments
per Respondent













* Note for this and all similar tables in this report: There were 10 total interview respondents in the group of highly supportive districts, nine respondents in the group of moderately supportive districts and 16 respondents in the group of minimally supportive districts.

The district with the strongest emphasis on high expectations, Abel County, has a succinct and powerful mission statement: “Striving for excellence — no exceptions, no excuses.” Mission statements in education have become ubiquitous, but this district has succeeded in turning the mission statement into a district culture. All four respondents from Abel County made clear references to setting high expectations, with an average of 4.25 references per interview. The other districts in the study averaged fewer than two references to high expectations, and only four of 31 other respondents referenced high expectations as many as three times in their interviews. Abel County has embraced high expectations and recognized that gaps in achievement often are the result of lower classroom expectations for some students. The superintendent of Abel County said this about high expectations:

    “It’s just the belief in this district that all kids are going to learn. And you hear a lot of people saying that, but we really believe it. ... I think it’s just a matter of being very diligent about dealing with kids in the most effective way and recognizing the fact that we’re their opportunity for success. ... Our administrators have really, really worked hard to get that done. Our teachers have worked hard to get that done. It’s just an attitude of, ‘We’re their hope, and we’re there for them, and we have to do whatever it takes to be sure they stay in school.’ ”

In contrast, seven of the minimally supportive districts’ 13 comments representing high expectations were provided by a single respondent. Clearly, that one respondent believed in the importance of setting high expectations, but one person — no matter how passionate or skillful — cannot set the tone for an entire district.

Examples of statements that indicate districts have high expectations include observations that districts can set goals for themselves beyond No Child Left Behind or state requirements:

  • “There’s also nothing preventing us from going above and beyond.”
  • “Even though [the goal for] No Child Left Behind is 100 percent for reading and math by 2013–2014, we’re actually aspiring to go toward 100 percent in all subject areas.”

Other interviewees evidenced higher expectations through district increases in participation in and performance on Advanced Placement (AP) tests. Over the last four years, one of the districts has more than tripled the number of AP tests its students take and now has more students scoring at least a 3 and qualifying for college credit.

Minimally supportive districts tend to set low expectations by focusing most of their time and energy on strategies for helping students meet minimum AYP requirements, rather than teaching an accelerated curriculum using engaging instructional strategies to prepare more students for success in college, advanced training or a good job. ACT Inc. recently provided an example of the gap between the skills most high school students have and the skills they should be gaining to be ready for college. It reported that only 23 percent of the nation’s high school graduating class of 2009 is prepared for college in all four areas covered by the ACT.5

In a climate of minimum expectations, student achievement fails to improve and often declines. An over-emphasis on test preparation to meet minimum standards often results in only small achievement gains, but ultimately disengages students. Less supportive districts often are so focused on meeting minimum standards that they fail to articulate a vision of higher expectations and to provide strategic support for school leadership teams using a more balanced approach to improve the achievement and motivation of all students.

Highly supportive districts more often realize that the minimal standards represented by AYP requirements are not sufficient to prepare students for college or advanced training. Accordingly, they set high expectations that challenge students to acquire the knowledge and develop the skills they will need, SREB interviews showed. Supportive districts more often have a strategic vision of accelerated learning for all groups of students aimed at meeting higher-than-required standards, because too many students fail to graduate from high school and to prepare for college and career training.

Setting and maintaining high expectations sometimes means making tough decisions to remove employees who are not able or willing to perform at necessary levels because they lack expertise or beliefs that all groups of students can achieve at higher levels and meet college- and careerreadiness standards. The superintendent in one of the highly supportive districts said that some school leaders had to be removed early in his tenure because they lacked the commitment and skill set needed to create a high-performing learning culture. He said that a sign the district had developed higher expectations for students and adults came when the teachers in a school approached their principal about an incompetent teacher and insisted that something be done. The superintendent in the other highly supportive district identified in this study emphasized his commitment to giving his principals the autonomy, flexibility and support necessary to lead their own schools. He indicates by word and action that he is doing everything he can to set them up for success, and to hold them accountable for good results.

The superintendent in Broad County told a story about an underperforming high school science department and his having to replace the entire department. Getting a commitment from school principals and teacher-leaders to teach all groups of students sometimes requires more than resources — it requires a willingness to make difficult decisions. At the same time, a necessary precondition for meaningful accountability is a district emphasis on building capacity and providing support to principals and their school leadership teams.


Getting a commitment from school principals and teacher-leaders to teach all groups of students beyond minimum expectations sometimes requires more than resources — it also requires a willingness to make difficult decisions.

Focus on Student Achievement

The challenge of focusing intently on student achievement is deceptively difficult for school district leaders, interviews showed. Day-to-day distractions of running a district or school can whittle away at the central focus on improving schools. As one assistant superintendent of a high-performing district observed: “… it’s all a matter of personal choice of what you focus on, anyhow. You can let menial tasks … dominate much of your life, as much of your time as you want.”

Thus, the first job of the district should be helping principals focus their attention on improving student achievement and learning. A focus on motivating and engaging students in learning and achievement can become an individual mandate that all educators follow — from the superintendent to the classroom teacher.6 The focus on students’ intellectual and academic growth can become a matter of teachers’ self-regulation rather than a response to external pressure as the district establishes benchmarks to ensure that students are on track to graduate from high school prepared for college and careers.

Expect Hard Work

The superintendent in Abel County acknowledged that raising student achievement takes a great deal of work — with no shortcuts or magic solutions: “We have worked hard here … and I’m talking about the administrators and the teachers and our board.” Another respondent in the district observed that when the test scores — which are usually good —come in, “there’s about 10 minutes of celebrating and then we get on to the next year.” The district recognizes that the challenge of educating all students to higher levels is continuous.

Engage in Strategic Planning

High expectations and a focus on student achievement are critical supports to expect from district leadership, but they are not enough by themselves. Simply raising the bar every year does not constitute a strategic plan for improvement. Districts that have demonstrated success can point to a strategic planning process that supports principals in their work. As one superintendent said, “I don’t think we can sit back and leave it up to the schools.”

The Archer County superintendent said that when he arrived, his district had failed to meet AYP in recent years because of low performance by English-language learners and special education students. Even when the problem had been clearly defined, the district had developed no strategic plan to address those shortcomings.

Under the superintendent’s leadership, the district contracted with an external consulting group to develop a comprehensive strategic plan. The development of the plan involved all stakeholders and began with an examination of underlying beliefs and goals, followed by the development of strategies to meet those goals. The process identified nine strategies for the district to implement, each of which was further broken out into a number of concrete actions.

District Improvement Strategies Identified by Archer County

Strategy I:

We will design and create learning opportunities that will allow each student to reach his/her highest level of achievement.

Strategy II:

We will expose all students to experiences and opportunities that will enable them to pursue limitless aspirations.

Strategy III:

We will provide support systems for all students that enable them to achieve their highest potential.

Strategy IV:

We will provide safe and orderly learning environments in order to enhance the potential of each student.

Strategy V:

We will have safe and well-maintained facilities necessary to maximize teaching and learning.

Strategy VI:

We will fully unify all stakeholders toward student success.

Strategy VII:

We will embrace uniqueness and diversity in our community.

Strategy VIII:

We will acquire necessary resources to accomplish our mission and objectives.

Strategy IX:

We will provide the highest quality instructional, support, and administrative staff that will embrace, facilitate, and celebrate our mission and objectives.



Two of the most important outcomes of Archer County’s process were the creation of a student services department in the district and a safety-net program. A new cabinet-level position was created to address cohesively the districts’ gaps in advisement, counseling and student services. The safety-net program was developed to provide principals with resources to turn their schools around. (For more details, see the discussion of Strategy 6 later in the report.)

Archer County’s strategic planning process provides a model for principals to emulate as they develop a strategic plan at the school level to address critical problems. The process used to create the district’s strategic plan ensured that the plan would guide improvements in the district. The plan:

  • was created in response to a clear need.
  • was prepared with substantial community and school-based leaders’ involvement.
  • became the basis of school strategic planning.
  • became the basis for expectations of and the evaluation of principals.
  • resulted in significant changes in the central office organization.
  • resulted in significant changes in resource allocation.
  • continues to be monitored and evaluated quarterly and, if necessary, revised by the school board.

Unfortunately, many strategic plans fail to achieve the success of the Archer plan because they either become too rigid, restricting principals’ ability to make changes, or exist only on paper and fail to guide any changes. A respondent from Archer who had worked in the district for 11 years said that earlier in his tenure, the strategic plans “went into a three-ring binder” and went unused; but more recently they had become “something everybody lives and works daily — and that’s how we’ve achieved the success we’ve achieved.”

Cultivate Effective School Boards

School boards usually are the elected leaders of education in each district. Members of school boards are not necessarily education experts, but the public has placed its confidence in board members and expects them to provide effective leadership. The school board must be involved in developing a strategic framework for school improvement, and the board must be focused on and supportive of implementation. The following extended comments from a board member of a highly supportive district provide a snapshot of a well-functioning school board:

    “I think the best support we can provide as a board is to set clear goals and expectations for this system. If we don’t have clear goals and expectations for this system, then I think that negatively impacts the principal. …
    “We cannot be a divided board. We may disagree; but when we go out into the community, we need to be of the same accord and sing the same song, because if people look at our board as a divided board, then that will negatively impact the principals.
    “We agree to disagree and we agree to support the majority. We may disagree with the majority, but once that disagreement is voted on, it’s over. ... I think that’s been part of our success.”

The board member in the preceding example described a culture that deliberately takes politics out of education. Taken alone, the above comments could give an impression that minority viewpoints are squashed or pushed to the side. However, when considered with comments from the interviews with district leaders, they suggest the board has devoted time and effort to achieve a common vision based upon consensus, and the leaders in the district refuse to let smaller groups with strong opinions hijack that common vision.

This school board records all of its meetings for review to make sure that more of its meeting time is spent on student achievement and academics and less on real-estate and personnel issues. This selfaccountability on the part of the board sends an unambiguous message to the superintendent, the principals and classroom teachers about the districts’ priorities and values.

The unified culture and vision of this successful district — one with much demographic diversity — starkly contrasts to the responses from leaders in some of the minimally supportive districts, where central-office staff and school board members’ answers differed so greatly that they could have been describing different school systems.

Board members in the minimally supportive districts were less focused on student achievement, did not have confidence in central office personnel, and did not trust that they were being given all details of student and system performance. The school boards in these districts find themselves refereeing disputes, rather than focusing on effective school and classroom practices. Board members in minimally supportive districts seem more focused on solving problems brought to their attention, rather than developing a strategic framework, mission, goals and effective practices that hold district and school leadership responsible for owning and solving the problems.7 The following comments illustrate this lack of focus on district improvement:

  • “I hear no conversation of any kind, at any board meeting, on any agenda items that are directed at a better job of meeting the future.”
  • “There is a shared vision, but I think different people see different pieces of the vision, as opposed to everybody seeing the whole vision ... and that is arguably what creates tension ... within the staff.”

These comments reflect disengagement from the task of creating a strategic framework that the board, the district and schools can use to solve problems. Interviews showed that principals are better supported when their school boards and superintendents share a common framework, guiding principles, mission, goals and values that enable them to work together to help more students from all groups achieve at higher levels.

All of the interviews reinforced research on best school board practices that stress the superintendents’ role in setting direction and creating a healthy climate for the district.8 Because the school board members are elected or appointed and may not have experience in education, the superintendent must bear the responsibility for providing the board with thoughtful, research-based recommendations for improving school curriculum and instruction, enabling the board to make good policy decisions. Furthermore, with instructional expertise and a single voice, a superintendent can communicate a unified vision for the district more easily than even the most team-oriented school board. 9 While the board can and should be involved in defining the district’s vision and setting policy, it is the superintendent who executes the plan. As one board member said, “I need to give [the superintendent] resources and support to get him where he needs to go. But he’s the one responsible to get there, not the board. I don’t want to take that from him.”

In the highly supportive districts, board members were quick to give credit for positive movement to their district superintendents. Where school boards were functioning well, the superintendent often had provided training or other support for board members to help them with their work. Furthermore, the praise flowed both ways. In the highly and moderately supportive districts, eight of 17 central-office respondents (47 percent) said their systems received strong support from their school boards. In the minimally supportive districts, only one of 13 central-office respondents (8 percent) described strong support from the school boards.


The 2008 HSTW Assessment survey data for this district showed counter-intuitive results for high expectations: in 2008, only 23 percent of students reported evidence of what they considered to be high expectations. This is despite the fact that collectively they scored at the 85th percentile in reading, 84th percentile in math and 76th percentile in science on the 2008 HSTW Assessment. It is possible that high expectations have become normalized for students in the district.

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