Research Findings to Support Effective Educational Policymaking: Evidence and Action Steps for State, District and Local Policymakers

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Research Findings to Support Effective Educational Policymaking: Evidence and Action Steps for State, District and Local Policymakers

"Districts cannot necessarily make weak leaders succeed, but we have seen too many districts create conditions in which even good principals are likely to fail."18

Districts have enormous power to support principals in driving instructional improvement in their schools. Yet historically, federal and state policies have barely recognized district central offices as catalysts for school renewal, nor have districts consistently made instructional improvement their top priority.

In order to help school leaders turn around the weakest performing schools, districts can:

  • Refocus central office staff more on supporting principals as instructional leaders and less on administrative management issues.
    • Learning improvement depends on establishing a persistent, supportive and firm central office presence in the school, focused primarily on learning.
    • Some large urban districts are therefore working to fundamentally change the practices and priorities of central office staff so that they are more focused on the instructional needs of schools and their leaders.
    • Steps such as arranging schools in networks, and designating central office administrators with the sole task of helping each principal succeed as an instructional leader, have increased responsiveness to particular school needs.19
  • Direct more resources to high-needs, hard-to-staff schools and give principals more authority and flexibility to meet district goals.
    To accomplish this, districts should:
    • Invest most heavily in struggling schools where concerns about staff knowledge, skills or commitment are greatest;
    • Provide principals with more authority over staffing decisions in their schools.20
    • Empower both district leaders and principals to change staff assignments in schools and classrooms in order to maximize the match between the learning needs of students and the skills of teachers;
    • Increase allocation of instructional time through schedule changes or additions to the normal school day for underserved or underperforming students.21
    • Enable principals to devote more time to improving instruction.22
  • Create incentives and conditions to enable schools with the most needs to attract high-quality principals and teachers.
    • The inability of many disadvantaged districts and schools to attract highly qualified leadership candidates is not, at its heart, a candidate shortage problem.
    • It is, rather, a problem rooted in poor working conditions and incentives: high-needs districts have difficulty recruiting principals primarily because few well-qualified candidates are willing to accept the pay and working conditions that compare poorly to other districts.23
  • Reduce principal turnover.
    • Research finds rapid turnover of principals in schools: a new one every three or four years on average. This changeover in leadership has a distinctly damaging effect on school culture and a measurable negative impact on student achievement.24
    • Districts need to examine whether their policies and practices – such as required principal rotation among schools – are contributing to high turnover.
  • Provide timely, relevant data – and training in its use – to enable principals to accurately diagnose and address learning needs.
    • Very few principals are adept at gathering or using evidence about what would need to change in their schools to improve instruction.25
    • Districts need to provide principals real-time, useful data – and train them in effective data use – to perform key diagnostic functions: identifying weaknesses in teaching or learning; crafting appropriate strategies to address them; and making decisions about resource allocations.
    • Districts including Atlanta, New York City, Portland and Eugene, OR are investing in new data systems, in data literacy for school staff, and in generating new forms of data (for example, regular surveys of principals concerning the relevance of the district’s professional development).26
  • Use principal assessments to focus more attention on improving instruction.
    • Performance assessments typically used in urban districts reveal little about a leader’s impact on instruction.27
    • Too often, assessment is seen as a single high-stakes event – a form to be completed or an interview conducted – rather than as part of an ongoing professional development process. And few districts use assessment to gather data to track how well principals are doing and pinpoint shortcomings that could be remedied.28
    • For the first time, a rigorous principal assessment system, VAL-ED, identifies and assesses key leadership behaviors29 most associated with improving instruction – and the ability to share authority. And it provides data to help districts tailor professional development to address school leaders’ weaknesses.


"…high-quality, well-managed and structured (out-of-school time) opportunities can help youth develop critical academic, social and emotional attributes and skills, especially if offered consistently and persistently over time."30

Schools and their leaders and teachers can’t do the whole job alone. Research finds that expanding learning time after school and during summers can be “an effective way to support student learning,” particularly for students most at risk of failure and most susceptible to summer learning loss.31

  • Cities and school districts can work together to extend and reinforce learning beyond the school day and year by:
    • Securing the commitment of top city and school leaders to improve the quality of after-school and summer opportunities;
    • Mobilizing and effectively coordinating other enrichment resources in communities, including libraries, arts and cultural institutions and parks;
    • Promoting coordination between and among school systems and youth-serving organizations to increase access and participation in learning and enrichment opportunities outside the school day; and
    • Investing in citywide data systems to monitor attendance and program quality and better inform cities’ planning, budgeting and decisionmaking.32
  • Identify underserved neighborhoods and conduct market research to learn parents’ and children’s needs and preferences in planning after-school program offerings.
    • New York City used neighborhood-by-neighborhood mapping to correlate the distribution of city-funded after-school programs with population data on high-needs children.33 As a result, the city identified more than 500 schools in underserved neighborhoods and opened them up, free of charge, to new city-funded after-school programs.
    • National surveys have found stark differences in how poor and better-off families perceive the availability of programs, as well as what they want from them. Poor families are far more dissatisfied with the availability and quality of programs and much likelier than more well-off families to want academically oriented after-school and summer programs for their children.34
    • A number of cities have conducted their own market research to identify what parents and children want in out-of-school learning. Such research in Washington, D.C., for example, revealed strong demand for arts and cultural programs and homework help, but also widespread anxiety about safety.
  • Match scarce resources to results and target funding toward high-quality services that combine strong attendance, program effectiveness and good management.
    • To support high-quality after-school programming, a number of big cities – New York City, Chicago, Denver, Louisville, San Francisco, Boston, Providence and Washington, D.C., for example – have created Management Information Systems that can, for the first time, provide both citywide and program attendance data.35 This helps ensure that public funds are supporting the programs that are doing the best job in serving kids – who vote with their feet if the programs are not good.
  • Improve access to and participation in high-quality programs among the hardest-to-reach children, especially teens.
    • Despite well-documented benefits of after-school programs for older youth, participation wanes with age. A number of cities are working to improve program access and lift participation among this hard-to-reach group.
    • Effective steps to boost youth participation include: providing youth with leadership opportunities within programs; developing closer ties between schools and after-school programs so that schools help get the word out to students about quality programs they might want to attend; and collecting data to identify where underserved youth live and locate programs in their neighborhoods for them to attend.36
    • AfterSchool Matters in Chicago, a nationally renowned program, has achieved exceptionally high rates of participation by offering teens high-quality paid apprenticeships after school.37
  • Improve summer learning programs and expand opportunities to fill unmet demand and prevent summer learning loss.
    • A large-scale national survey indicates that demand among U.S. families for programs outpaces supply: only about a quarter of American schoolchildren currently participate in summer learning programs. However, the parents of more than half of all nonparticipating children – an estimated 24 million – say they would likely enroll them, given the opportunity. And unmet demand is greatest among low-income and minority families.38
    • Summer learning loss is well documented, along with its consequences in worsening the achievement gap. The problem tends to be more severe among lower-income families for whom engaging non-school activities are less available.39
    • Research has identified a handful of programs that have reduced summer learning loss in reading achievement or math.40 But those programs have not yet been successfully brought to scale.

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18 Southern Regional Education Board, The Three Essentials: Improving Schools Requires District Vision, District and State Support, and Principal Leadership, 2010, i

19 See Meredith I. Honig, Michael A. Copland, et al., Central Office Transformation for District-wide Teaching and Learning Improvement, Center for the Study of Teaching & Policy, University of Washington, 2009. Also, Plecki, et al., op. cit.; and Southern Regional Education Board, The Three Essentials: Improving Schools Requires District Vision, District and State Support, and Principal Leadership, 2010, 11-44.

20 Seashore Louis, et al., 164

21 Plecki, et al.

22 One new approach being tested in more than 325 schools in 10 states is to add a school position called the SAM, or School Administration Manager, to relieve principals of many non-instructional tasks. For early results from that project, see Brenda J. Turnbull, et al., Evaluation of the School Administration Manager Project, Policy Studies Associates, Inc., 2009; and a follow-up report, Achievement Trends in Schools with School Administration Managers (SAMs), 2010.

23 The Wallace Foundation, Beyond the Pipeline: Getting the Principals We Need, Where They are Needed Most, 2003, 5

24 Seashore Louis, et al., 166

25 Seashore Louis, et al., 179

26 Plecki, et al., 51-59

27 See Andrew Porter, Joseph Murphy, et al., Vanderbilt Assessment of Leadership in Education: Technical Manual 1.0, 2008; also, The Wallace Foundation, Assessing the Effectiveness of School Leaders: New Directions and New Processes, 2009.

28Assessing the Effectiveness of School Leaders: New Directions and New Processes, The Wallace Foundation, 2009, 4

29 See Andrew Porter, Ellen Goldring, Joseph Murphy, et al., A Framework for the Assessment of Learning-Centered Leadership, Vanderbilt University, 2006. The report identifies six core topics that principals need to address school improvement: high standards for student performance; rigorous curriculum; quality instruction; culture of learning and professional behavior; connections to external communities; and systemic performance accountability. In pursuing each of those, the research also identified six key leadership behaviors that principals need to exhibit and be assessed on: planning, implementing, supporting, advocating, communicating and monitoring.

30 Susan J. Bodilly, et al., Hours of Opportunity, Volume 1: Lessons from Five Cities on Building Systems to Improve After-School, Summer School, and Other Out-of-School-Time Programs, RAND Education, 2010, 1

31 Erika A. Patall, Harris Cooper, Ashley Batts Allen, “Extending the School Day or School Year: A Systemic Review of Research (1985-2009), Review of Educational Research, 2010, Vol. 80, No. 3, 401, 426

32 Bodilly, et al., 14-15. Also see Revitalizing Arts Education through Community-Wide Coordination, RAND, 2008; Increasing Arts Demand through Better Arts Learning, The Wallace Foundation, 2009; A Place to Grow and Learn, The Wallace Foundation, 2008.

33 Susan J. Bodilly, et al., Hours of Opportunity, Volume 3: Profiles of Five Cities Improving After-School Programs through a Systems Approach, RAND Education, 2010, 30

34 Public Agenda, All Work and No Play? Listening to What Kids and Parents Really Want from Out-of-School Time, 2004, 11-12

35 For a detailed examination of how these eight cities have been developing, operating and using management information systems to improve and evaluate out-of-school learning programs and make funding decisions, see Bodilly, et al., Hours of Opportunity, Volume 2: The Power of Data to Improve After-School Programs Citywide, RAND Education, 2010.

36 See Sarah N. Deschenes, Amy Arbreton, et al., Engaging Older Youth: Program and City-Level Strategies to Support Sustained Participation in Out-of-School Time, Harvard Family Research Project, Public/Private Ventures, 2010.

37Report ’08: A Performance Assessment, The Wallace Foundation, 16

38 See America After 3PM: Special Report on Summer: Missed Opportunities, Unmet Demand, After School Alliance, 2010.

39 Ron Fairchild, et al., It’s Time for Summer: An Analysis of Recent Policy and Funding Opportunities, National Summer Learning Association, Johns Hopkins University, June 2009, 3

40 Mary Terzian, et al., Effective and Promising Summer Learning Programs and Approaches for Economically-Disadvantaged Children and Youth: A White Paper for The Wallace Foundation, Child Trends, 23. The successful programs cited in this research included: Louisiana Summer Youth Opportunities Unlimited; Building Educated Leaders for Life (BELL); and Read to Achieve. The Louisiana program and BELL reduced summer learning loss in both reading and math.