Sharpening the Reform Vision

Mar 13th, 2011

Sharpening the Reform Vision

By: Alan Daly | 11:03 AM | Categories: School & District Reform

The Board of Education for the San Diego Unified School District (SDUSD) recently adopted Vision 2020 for Student Success, a long-range plan for improving performance and student outcomes.  One element of this plan is Support and Guidance from District Leadership, which describes the work of the district office as, “A central administration that facilitates the work of principals, teachers, and school communities… (Vision 2020 pg. 3).”  The plan proposes to enact the vision though the Community-Based School Reform Model, which gives schools and school clusters the flexibility to establish their own instructional strategies.  The district office will provide support and guidance, and maintain accountability.  This plan positions the central office, as both coach and cop, but for now lacks critical detail.  As SDUSD and other districts continue to sharpen their reform focus and envision new roles for the central office, careful examination and significant retooling may need to take place.
Until recently much of the work on school reform focused on the school site as the unit of attention/intervention.  Within the last decade or so, though, due in no small part to No Child Left Behind, a growing body of work both acknowledges and formally examines the role the district office can play in supporting site level reforms.  This work emphasizes the importance of a system-wide approach to improvement with district and sites, reorienting organizational structures and processes to align with reform goals across the organization.  Creating greater alignment and coherence around reform policy is more likely when district offices and school sites develop explicit, shared theories of action, provide opportunities for mutual ‘sense-making’ around instructional strategies, and commit to clear consistent communication. 
Redefining the role of the central office requires more than merely reworking the organizational chart or engaging in ‘restructuring’.  It will require a fundamental shift in the role of the central office towards direct support for learning and teaching.   This is no easy task, especially for urban systems where often compliance and mandates rule.  Schools in these districts are often passively disconnected, or worse, actively avoiding the district office, which may be viewed as more hindrance than help.  If the district office has a key role to play in reform what kinds of changes need to take place?
First off, a clear, shared theory of action around learning must be established that guides the work, and provides the lens through which decisions and resources are allocated.  In addition, while many district offices and schools are ‘data rich’ they are often ‘information poor’.  Building the data literacy capacity of both the district office and sites as producers and consumers of data will be critical.  Establishing processes for how evidence is examined, leveraged, and diffused across a system in support of reform efforts is a lynchpin in this work. Given that schools and clusters will potentially be engaging in different context-specific efforts, and principals have differing capacities in terms of leading instructional reform, the district will need to target differentiated support to build the capacity of sites to do the work.  Building capacity is often viewed as uni-directional, from district to site, but the capacity question is in fact much more complicated.  It requires careful assessment, potential redistribution, and access to expertise both within and outside the district office, as well as in supporting individual schools. Ultimately, as this work will require significant change in practices, the real question is who or what group at the central office will be taking responsibility for supporting principals in developing these practices that support outstanding instructional leadership?
The type of change proposed by SDUSD may be yet another in a long series of reforms unless careful attention is paid to the role of the district office.  School reform does not result solely from formal technical plans, blueprints and compliance monitoring.  Moving beyond regulatory relationships to more interdependent collaborative learning partnerships between the district office and sites is essential.  The presence or lack of these relationships may well moderate, influence, and even determine the direction, speed, and depth of the reform effort.  Ensuring that SDUSD’s improvement vision is really 2020 demands that the district look at the problem through the right glasses.  Lenses that myopically focus solely on the school as the unit of change miss the importance of the larger frame and the potential role of the district office in transforming a system.


So I enjoyed reading Alan’s post, and it’s made me think a bit about our collective understanding approach to supporting both school sites and districts. For context, I work with School Innovations & Advocacy; we work with over 600 school districts in California (our clients) and more directly with over 4,000 school sites.

Alan’s post asks us to consider our collective understanding of school improvement. I am not familiar with the San Diego reform model and certainly do not challenge Alan’s understanding of it. In fact, in reading his post, I was concerned to read about the different instructional strategies encouraged site by site.

Still, I do want to offer some insights we’ve gained by our work with districts and sites as well as the work I’ve done in and out of state government in fashioning the current approach to program improvement districts.

Our work with school sites and districts reveals that very focused and limited agendas based at the school site can lead to improvement. It is our experience that when we are working with sites on improvement (our work focuses on improving student instructional time and attendance), we locate our work with the practitioners who must execute the improvement plans: teachers and principals. We find that establishing a site-based culture; improving communications; developing measurement tools and analysis; and focusing improvement on very specific and narrow strategies are key to success.

While there are some terrific stories emerging from the state’s experience with District Assistance and Intervention Teams, the overwhelming stories have not revealed success. The notion that improvement strategies fixed at the district office can be transformative is still not apparent.

I recognize that school districts remain important in establishing a broader culture, distributing and sharing resources, and as a local accountability structure. With that said, it is our experience that focusing on sites is the most direct route to improvement.

Alan Daly’s post raises – again – the question of the role of school districts in improving teaching and learning. Do school districts matter? At Pivot Learning Partners, we first asked this question a decade ago, and the answer came back a resounding yes. Here’s what we did: we looked at test score data for schools across the state, controlling for issues like poverty and language status and all the other important variables we could think of. Here’s what we found then, and what we keep finding every time we repeat the analysis: those schools that are “beating the odds” – producing higher-than-expected gains in student learning – are not randomly distributed across the state. There are some exceptions, but these kinds of schools are found, over and over again, to be clustered in particular school districts: places like Long Beach and Garden Grove, but also lesser-known districts like Rowland Unified in Southern California or Elk Grove in Sacramento or Oak Grove in San Jose. Clusters like these argue persuasively for a “district effect” on student achievement.
Why , then, does the question keep coming up about whether districts matter? I think there are two reasons. One is that the story of the crusading, independent, heroic principal who succeeds in spite of the interference of inept bureaucrats from downtown appeals to something in the American psyche. We love David and Goliath stories, and this is one version. And it is not wrong: such principals do exist. But they are the exception, not the rule. The more important reason why the question “do districts matter” persists is that school districts, and especially large urban districts, have been forced by a welter of state and federal regulations into playing the inept bureaucrat role. People keep asking “do districts matter?” because, while districts CAN make a positive difference, many do not.
Some would argue that the solution to this situation is to dismantle both the compliance rules and the district as well. We at Pivot Learning Partners would argue that this cure has the potential to be as bad as the disease. California badly needs an equitable system of schools in the state – a system that can guarantee a good school in every neighborhood, a good teacher in every classroom. Whose job is it to create this system? State policymakers can lay the foundation for it: a solid set of standards and assessments, an adequate flow of resources that follow the children that need them, a system for training teachers….. these are the conditions that state policymakers can and should create. But whose job is it to translate that into the guarantee of a good school in every community? This is not a task that can be assigned to principals – they are responsible for their school. Granted, school districts have not always either embraced this equity role or carried it out effectively. But this is emphatically a local responsibility and it must reside with the district. There is no one else to do it.
So the bottom line is that districts not only can matter – if we are to create the school system that California needs, they must. Kudos to San Diego for taking this on.