For the past five years my organization, InnovateEd, has supported a network of 30 school districts from across California to develop cultures, build capacity, and create coherent systems. We use a framework for systemic improvement to guide efforts at the district, school, and classroom levels toward creating a coherent system of continuous improvement. My new book, Districts on the Move: Leading a Coherent System of Continuous Improvement, presents our findings from these five years of action research. Districts that are “on the move” have successfully navigated a coherent path of progress by focusing improvement efforts on building capacity to deepen student learning. We have found that there are four critical lessons and key takeaways for district and school leaders leading systemic improvement:
Over time, school districts create a strategic focus for equitable student growth by clearly defining capacity-building strategies that guide short cycles of improvement.
There is a long-standing belief that district goals cascade onto school sites whose primary objective is aligning student learning priorities to achieve annual growth targets. When year-end goals are set in the absence of a clear path of improvement, the result is a lack of confidence among school staff for attaining student growth targets. This recurring knowing-doing gap (Pfeiffer & Sutton, 2000) is a byproduct of not having the clarity needed to put into practice the instructional supports that will most impact student learning.
A more promising approach occurs when school sites collectively define the desired impact of teaching and learning at the student desk to prioritize school improvement efforts that gradually results in achieving district goals. The challenge of improving practices to realize such gains in student learning can only be resolved by actively participating in the process of learning what to do by co-leading improvement efforts. Five key questions provide guidance for developing collective expertise to improve practices that results in more equitable student learning outcomes:
- Which student success indicators will result in the equitable improvement of student learning?
- Which high-yield instructional practices will have the greatest impact on student learning?
- How will assessments for learning inform the timely adjustment of instructional supports?
- How can job-embedded professional learning be dedicated to developing collective expertise?
- What timeframes should guide our collective efforts through short-term, recurring improvement cycles focused on teaching and learning?
School districts cultivate systemic collaboration and co-learning by serving as lead learners that reinforce and strengthen leadership from the middle.
Achieving long-term student growth requires the collective leadership of district staff, principals, and teachers serving as lead learners. This promotes a shift from creating structures and processes for collaboration to developing leaders at every level that model co-learning and shape culture by navigating changes in practices that deepen student learning. Lead learners interact with teams by modeling co-learning and shaping a culture that successfully navigates changes in practice to improve student learning. The desired outcome is developing the collective capacity and expertise within the group to co-lead the improvement efforts of the group. This is true whether the group are students, teachers, principals, or district staff.
Systemic collaboration and co-learning are needed for a school district to create a coherent system of continuous improvement. When viewed as layers of shared leadership, it is the collaboration and co-learning among and between district leaders, principals and teachers that develops collective capacity and collaborative expertise across the school district. There will always be a linear connection linking district leaders, principals, school leadership teams, and teacher teams to student learning in classrooms. The middle group is the school leadership team that is best positioned for principals to inform district support of school sites and for teacher leaders to facilitate teacher team collaboration focused on improved student learning.
School districts create instructional coherence by fostering robust collaborative inquiry processes that develop precision of pedagogy.
Developing collective expertise to deepen student learning is the foundation for equitable improvement of student learning outcomes. Successfully engaging students in rigorous and complex tasks requires the integration of curricular resources with instructional strategies and assessments for learning in a way that supports the learning needs of all students. Creating this level of instructional coherence only occurs through the collaborative work of educators focused on improving pedagogy.
Creating precision of pedagogy stems from the interactions and co-learning amongst teachers as they seek to understand the evidence of their impact on the student learning process. It is the specificity and precision of pedagogy that provides the clarity needed to create instructional coherence. Robust collaborative inquiry processes amongst and between teachers, principals, and district staff ensures that instructional coherence will continue to evolve in depth and specificity as precision of practice from within and among schools is shared and cultivated to strengthen the instructional core. The power of collaborative inquiry is the focused effort of improving learning at the student desk which, in turn, develops precision of pedagogy for deepening student learning.
School districts come to know the impact on equitable student learning outcomes by continuously improving practices through disciplined inquiry.
One of the most challenging endeavors for schools and districts is establishing evidence-based cycles of inquiry for the continuous improvement of leadership, teaching, and learning. The crux of this challenge is the distinct separation of roles for teachers, principals, and district staff in leading improvement efforts. District staff tend to orchestrate resources and supports for school sites to improve teaching and learning. Principals focus their efforts on improving school-wide support systems for teaching and learning. Teachers work as teams within schools to improve instructional practices and student learning results. While all may be focused on improving teaching and learning, their collective leadership is not unified to create a coherent system of continuous improvement.
Evidence-based cycles of collaborative inquiry at every level of a school district always begins with defining the desired impact on the equitable improvement of student learning, and then proceeds with a relentless pursuit to know the impact on improving teaching and learning to discern which practices have realized the gains in student achievement. The essential question is how should evidence guide the continuous improvement of leadership, teaching, and student learning? Cycles of evidence-based inquiry should focus on determining which leadership and teaching practices will have the greatest impact on improved learning for all students. It is essential to remember that improvement of practices will always precede growth in student learning results.