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

In all the talk about the building principal’s key role in producing “turnaround” high schools, one critical factor often gets lost in the policy shuffle:

Districts matter.

The vision and actions of system leaders and school board members frequently determine whether principals can be effective in leading school improvement. Districts cannot necessarily make weak principals succeed, but we have seen too many districts create conditions in which even good principals are likely to fail.

And states matter, too.

At the point of intervention with struggling schools, whether states opt to bypass the central office or decide instead to include district leaders in their capacity-building efforts will — more often than not — determine whether their intervention efforts have much staying power.

The Three Essentials

These understandings about the three essentials of school improvement have emerged from close observations of the inner workings of seven school districts, as the Southern Regional Education Board’s (SREB) Learning-Centered Leadership Program sought to answer this essential question:

What are the conditions school districts can create that make it possible for principals to be more effective in leading school improvement?

This research is part of a comprehensive effort to pinpoint the key leadership factors that improve student achievement and increase the number of high school graduates who are ready for college and careers. In this study, SREB examined the role of the district office in providing principals with the working conditions they need to improve teacher effectiveness and student performance in the middle grades and high school.

This investigation included 35 interviews with superintendents, school board chairs and selected central-office leaders from seven diverse school systems in three SREB states. The research design was shaped in part by earlier SREB studies that analyzed principals’ perceptions of the support they receive from higher up in the school governance structure.

The findings in this report include two overarching conclusions:

First: Three essential elements must be in place for struggling high schools to improve in substantive ways:

  • State capacity-building
  • District vision
  • Principal leadership

Second: These elements are rarely all present and working in sync.

As a result, despite federal mandates, state interventions and system expenditures of millions of dollars earmarked for reform, many school districts serving high-needs students have a substantial percentage of schools not meeting Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) goals under the federal No Child Left Behind Act.

What Is Missing

Plainly put, the problem is this: Districts and states are failing to create the conditions that make it possible for principals to lead school improvement effectively.

What happens instead? In some districts, administrators attempt to exert complete control over every phase of instruction and school operations. They try to own all the problems and enforce all solutions from the top down. In other districts, administrators turn all the problems over to the principal, offering little or no sense of direction or support — just a demand for results.

Five of the seven districts studied fell into one of these two categories. In the two highly supportive districts, however, district and school board leaders exhibited a clear vision of what constitutes a good school and have created a framework in which the principal has autonomy to work with faculty on an improvement agenda with collaborative support from the district.

Few principals have the capacity to rise above a school district’s lack of vision and clear purpose. If district leaders cannot see beyond “test-prep” — if they expend most of the system’s time, attention and energy on getting kids to pass low-level tests and meet minimum standards — then even the most capable principals will likely find themselves trapped in caretaker roles, presiding over schools and faculties that lack the direction, the goals and the belief in themselves necessary to create a powerful learning experience for all their students.

The State’s Essential Job

While districts must create the right vision and support system for school improvement, they cannot be expected to act alone in this effort. State departments of education must build capacity, helping local districts develop a coherent vision for the future of their schools, as well as the knowledge and skills to support principals and teachers as they create their own vision and goals at the school level — and then hold themselves accountable for results.

States need to take a hard look at how they fix broken schools. Under federal pressure to overhaul struggling schools through aggressive intervention, state education leaders tend to assume a “triage” outlook, concentrating their capacity-building efforts on saving the individual school and not addressing the chronic problems of the host system. This is a bit like performing a heart bypass and ignoring the systemic causes of the clogged arteries. The patient will improve for a time, but the underlying illness remains.

In the intervention setting, it is the state educator’s job to create the leadership capacity necessary to reach and sustain higher levels of performance wherever that capacity is lacking. In most districts where schools continually struggle, improved capacity is needed both at the school level and among central office administrators, school board members and key community leaders.

As long as a school district remains dysfunctional, “fixed” schools will not stay fixed for long. States must focus on building the district’s ability to articulate a strategic plan and vision that includes system goals, a framework of best practices, supportive policies and a smart alignment of resources. Most important of all, states must prepare district leaders with the knowledge and skills to build a similar capacity among their principals and teachers.

The District’s Essential Job

The district — including the school board, the superintendent, key staff and influential stakeholders in the community — must have the capacity to develop and articulate both a vision and a set of practices that send a clear message of what schools are to be about. This is a message not only for educators, but for the community at large. This message creates public understanding of what the school system is trying to do to prepare more middle grades students for challenging high school work and to graduate more students from high school prepared for the next step.

The authenticity of this message is affirmed through the district’s development of a strategic plan that manifests the vision — and then by district actions that establish the conditions necessary for principals and teacher leaders to create a different kind of school. These conditions include aligning all policies and resources to the plan; creating a collaborative and supportive working relationship with each school; expecting and supporting the principal to become the school’s instructional leader; and communicating the vision and strategic plan to the public in a highly visible way that provides the context for principals to make decisions supported by parents and the larger community.

The School’s Essential Job

The principal and teacher leaders within each school must engage the faculty and develop a vision of what the school must do if it is to graduate more students who are prepared for life and work in the 21st century. If state and district leaders have done their jobs, if the vision and desired outcomes are clear and the necessary supports are in place, then the principal and teachers can begin to design and implement solutions tailored to the unique needs of their own students and communities. Two decades of SREB research supports effective practices that include relevant, rigorous, hands-on learning activities and programs to ensure that every student is connected with a goal and an adult who will serve as his or her mentor and champion.

Under these conditions, principals can be given a broader range of autonomy to make decisions within the boundaries of a strategic framework and to have control over the schedule and placement of faculty within the school. With the vision, framework and supports in place, the principal can be held accountable for working with staff to develop an improvement plan within the boundaries that the district has established, while the district provides support for professional development that can be customized to each school. Ownership of problems shifts from the district to the building level, with the district staff supporting the school in creating and implementing the interventions at the school level. The empowered principal becomes directly responsible for engaging the faculty in creating a comprehensive school improvement plan, for fidelity in implementing that plan and, ultimately, for improving results.

Taking Actions on the Three Essentials

The findings that emerged from this study, other research and SREB’s extensive experience in working with districts to improve the effectiveness of middle grades and high schools support actions that district and state leaders must take if they want to not only “turn around” schools but also keep them moving aggressively ahead on the road of continuous improvement.

Actions by Districts and Schools

  1. Work with a cross-section of community and school leaders to create a strategic vision for graduating students who are prepared for a range of postsecondary options. The district must define the purpose of high schools and the core values for achieving their goals. The cross-section of the community creating this vision must include the perspectives of less-educated and less-affluent residents, whose children make up a growing proportion of students.
  2. Focus on policies and support services that will enhance each school’s ability to achieve its own strategic vision and plan within the context of the district’s vision. Districts must develop collaborative structures for working with school principals and school leadership teams to create school environments that improve student engagement and learning. This will require a shift in the role of district staff and a corresponding shift in accountability systems to base performance evaluations, rewards and incentives for district staff on their effectiveness in helping schools.
  3. Develop tools and processes that principals and teachers can use to ensure that instruction for all groups of students is aligned with college- and career-readiness standards. Districts must define for principals and teachers a level of instruction that engages students in intellectually challenging, authentic and relevant assignments that foster student motivation. Districts cannot rely on the scope and sequence found in pacing guides to replace creative planning by teachers.
  4. Invest in high-quality professional development for the district staff, school principals and teachers. Effective districts invest in the learning not only of students, but also of teachers, principals, district staff, superintendents and school board members. Low-performing schools are not likely to turn around unless educators who work in the schools have extensive opportunities to learn and implement more effective practices to engage students in learning challenging materials. Because many students enrolled in low-performing schools have trouble reading, these schools must initially make literacy the centerpiece of professional development.
  5. Lead schools to analyze a variety of data — beyond test scores — and discover the root causes behind student failure or dropping out. To fully understand the causes of low achievement and low motivation, schools need more information about how students perceive their school experiences, the beliefs school faculty hold about students and about the purpose of the high school, and the ways in which at-risk students receive (or do not receive) extra help. Once schools understand why students are failing, districts need to assist schools in defining how to address the problems using proven practices.
  6. Give school principals real authority in the areas of staff selection, school scheduling, instructional programs, and use of and redirection of new and existing resources. Principals and teacher-leaders of low-performing schools need flexible resources and the ability to redirect current resources to adopt a comprehensive school improvement design — aligned with the districts’ strategic vision — that can help them improve the school’s climate, organization and practices.
  7. Consider working with an external school improvement provider to develop a strategic vision that can move the district forward. Too many consistently low-performing districts try to solve their problems by bringing in new superintendents every two to four years and firing principals of schools that do not make AYP. An outside facilitator can help a district break that cycle by working with district leaders and the school board to identify community goals and create structures that enable school and district leaders to meet performance goals and serve students better.
  8. Develop a succession plan for school principals. Districts can help themselves and their schools by investing in professional development to prepare future school leaders. The first step in succession planning is to identify (early in their careers) talented teachers who have the potential to become principals. The district should develop a collaborative approach with a university or approved outside entity to provide potential leaders with learning experiences designed to prepare them to lead and improve the district’s most challenged schools, including authentic internship experiences in the district.
  9. Engage parents and the larger community in ongoing dialogue about the changes needed to prepare more students for success in high school, college, careers and citizenship. Districts must work continually with parents and community leaders to ask and answer a variety of questions related to the common vision for school improvement. These questions should guide the community in realizing a vision for schools that require students to think, solve problems and produce high-quality work; help students see a connection between their studies and their future; and require educators to respect students and ensure that students succeed.

Actions by State Reform Leaders

Many school districts lack the authority, the reach and resources to change on their own. States can take the following actions to help districts better support principals and, in some cases, must be the agents of change.

  1. Broaden accountability indicators beyond minimum academic standards to include increasing annually the percentages of students who graduate prepared for college, advanced training or careers.
  2. Develop a system of incentives for the recognition and reward of schools that show significant improvement in meeting new accountability indicators such as increasing the percentage of students leaving grade eight ready for high school, reducing the failure rates in grades nine and 10, and increasing the percentages of students who are on track at the end of grade nine and 10 to meet college- and careerreadiness standards by the end of high school.
  3. Pursue policies that recognize a broader definition of academic rigor by: joining a collegepreparatory academic core with quality career/technical studies; approving and funding career/technical programs only if they have embedded academic content and intellectually demanding assignments; providing alternatives through which students can demonstrate preparedness for further study, advanced training or employment, including completion of special projects; and creating incentives for high schools to join with other entities to provide relevant and intellectually challenging learning experiences for students.
  4. Offer a vision of best practices — based on research and a wide range of evidence — that will improve low-performing high schools if implemented properly. These include making discipline-focused literacy and literacy training the centerpiece for all classrooms and providing 15 to 20 days of professional development for all faculty over the course of three years, targeting specific school and classroom practices and tailored to particular problems confronting the school.
  5. Ensure that principals have autonomy to select their faculty, discretion to allocate resources for the improvement of their school, and authority to select professional development that is aligned with their school improvement plans.
  6. Ensure that every district has a comprehensive vision, strategic plan and system to help principals lead their schools and to hold schools accountable for achieving results. Assist every district in working with its community to shape a bold vision for improving schools. States can provide external facilitators and consultants to work with districts in developing their district plan and involving the community and others in that process. States also can assist districts in performing resource audits and offer ideas for redirecting resources to better support a school improvement framework.

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