BEYOND ISLANDS OF EXCELLENCE:
What Districts Can Do to Improve Instruction and Achievement in All Schools
Author: Wendy Togneri, Learning First AllianceFindings Lessons Learned Recommendations
Moving Beyond Islands of Excellence
Heroic principals who turn around low-performing schools, innovative charter schools that break established molds, inspiring teachers who motivate students to excel—those are the familiar prescriptions for improving student achievement in high-poverty schools. While such efforts may mean brighter educational futures for the children involved, they produce isolated islands of excellence.
Our nation has a moral imperative to close the achievement gap between low-income students and their more advantaged peers. The No Child Left Behind Act makes this a legal requirement as well. Yet improving learning opportunities for all children will require more than individual talents or school-by-school efforts. It will demand systemwide approaches that touch every child in every school in every district across the nation.
The Learning First Alliance calls for policymakers, practitioners, and the public to accept the challenge of improving student achievement across entire school systems. We believe that substantial gains will result only if we recognize that, to increase student achievement, we must improve instruction and commit the political will and resources necessary to develop districtwide solutions. As a permanent partnership of organizations representing parents, teachers, principals, administrators, local and state boards of education, and colleges of education, the Learning First Alliance recognizes that such improvements will require both individual and collective action. Without efforts to create success across school systems, far too many students will continue to languish. We find that unacceptable.
Moving beyond islands of excellent schools to systems of success will require that all those involved in education better understand what they must do to help students succeed. State leaders need greater knowledge about where to target resources and how to set policies to support entire school systems. District-level educators—board members, superintendents, union leaders, principals, and teachers—need guidance about policies and practices that will improve instruction. And community members and parents need good ideas about how most effectively to support high-quality teaching and learning.
To address the need for better information, the Alliance studied five high-poverty districts making strides in improving student achievement. Recognizing that effective instruction is crucial to improving achievement, we were interested in learning more about how such districts promoted good instruction across their systems. More specifically, we sought to address the following questions:
To explore these questions, we studied five school districts: the Aldine Independent School District (Texas); the Chula Vista Elementary School District (California); the Kent County Public Schools (Maryland); the Minneapolis Public Schools (Minnesota); and the Providence Public Schools (Rhode Island). We selected the districts based on their ability to exhibit at least three years of improvement in student achievement in mathematics and/or reading across multiple grades and across all races and ethnicities.
A Look at Principal Findings
Learning First Alliance leaders and researchers spent several days in each district and conducted more than 200 individual interviews, 15 school visits, and 60 focus groups. We found that districts implemented a strikingly similar set of strategies to improve instruction. Seven factors emerged as essential to improvement:
FINDING 1: Districts had the courage to acknowledge poor performance and the will to seek solutions.
The emergence of public reporting of testing results drove many districts to look at student achievement data in new ways, and they did not like what they saw: low achievement, particularly for poor and minority children. In each district, some combination of leaders—school board members, superintendents, and/or community members—acknowledged poor performance, accepted responsibility, and began seeking solutions.
That courage to acknowledge negative information was critical to building the will to change. Leaders noted that in the past they had assumed that their systems were effective and that all participants were doing the best they could. Today, the willingness of leaders to question practices in the public arena has spurred stakeholders at all levels to support and implement new strategies to improve teaching and learning.
Building Political Will
Leaders in the districts spurred reform by:
FINDING 2: Districts put in place a systemwide approach to improving instruction.
To improve student achievement, leaders realized they would need to fundamentally change instructional practice. Teachers would need to be more effective in helping every child succeed, and principals, central office staff, and board members would need to become more effective at supporting teachers in their classrooms. Before reforms began, the districts had neither clear, well-understood goals nor effective measures of progress. Supports to improve instruction were haphazard. Boards did not make instruction and achievement central to their work. Principals were more likely to focus on administrative duties than on helping teachers to improve their instruction and student outcomes. None of the districts had systemwide curricula to guide instruction. Without a common base from which to work, teachers and principals often received little guidance about instruction. Today, much has changed. The districts have adopted systemwide approaches to improving teaching and learning. While not all components are fully designed and implemented, districts are making progress. The most common components of these new systems are:
Although the creation of an infrastructure for instructional improvement might suggest that the districts imposed top-down reforms at the expense of school-level flexibility, that does not appear to have been the case. Over time, district leaders determined that to improve instruction, schools needed to have the flexibility to hire teachers, to use funds, and to structure their staffs and time as they saw fit. In the coming pages, we will highlight several elements of the systemwide strategy that were the most pervasive and well-developed across all districts.
FINDING 3: Districts instilled visions that focused on student learning and guided instructional improvement.
Acknowledging poor student performance provided district leaders with the ammunition to push for change. The districts began by developing visions to guide them down this path. The visions, while differing across the districts, shared four common elements:
What distinguished these districts was not the existence of a vision. What was notable, however, was the extent to which and the ways in which the districts used their visions to guide instructional improvement. Visions were clearly outlined in strategic plans, board meeting agendas, school improvement plans, and newsletters. Furthermore, superintendents made it clear that the vision was to drive programmatic decisions and the allocation of human and financial resources. Most districts succeeded in embedding the vision into the actions of stakeholders, particularly at the administrative level. An Aldine board member explained the use of its vision, noting:
“Everything we do is based on what's best for the children,period. Whether you are dealing with an administrative issue or a student issue, we ask, ‘What’s best for the children?’”
FINDING 4: Districts made decisions based on data, not instinct.
Leaders determined that in order to improve instruction, they would need to put in place systems to assess district strengths and weaknesses. As a result, the districts did three things:
The districts determined that to assess progress and plan instruction they needed to expand beyond standardized state testing data. Thus, they gathered an array of measures, including formative academic assessments, attendance rates, suspension rates, satisfaction ratings, and school climate surveys. Minneapolis provided the most sophisticated example of such an accountability system in our study. The district used more than 15 indicators to assess school progress. In addition to a wide array of testing measures, the Minneapolis system, Measuring Up, included such indicators as attendance rates, suspension rates, and student and staff perceptions of school safety. Schools were ranked according to their aggregate progress on all indicators. Minneapolis leaders asserted that the Measuring Up system provided them with a more accurate picture of school success than did the state ranking, which relied on a single test score.
The study districts understood that simply having good data and a multimeasure accountability system was not sufficient. To change practice, stakeholders needed to use data to make decisions about teaching and learning.
To facilitate such efforts, the districts employed a number of strategies:
Principals, board members, teachers, and central office staff in all districts exhibited significant use of data to guide decisionmaking. The statement of a Providence administrator was reflective of stakeholders throughout the districts: “Our decisions are made based on data, qualitative and quantitative. We look at student achievement and other data on an ongoing basis.…We use data all the time.”
FINDING 5: Districts adopted new approaches to professional development.
The districts made remarkable shifts in their approaches to professional development. To varying degrees, all districts moved beyond the traditional one-time workshop approach and put in place coherent, district-organized strategies to improve instruction. The strategies included the following:
These supports resulted in new approaches to professional development. For example, districts altered the structure of district-level professional development days. Today, districts carefully design their professional development days over the course of a year to focus on the most important needs that emerge from the data. Furthermore, most districts have shifted a majority of training days away from district control and back to their schools as a way to increase in-school professional development.
A Kent County administrator noted: “Professional development must be comprehensive, not just the feel-goodflavor of the month. We have pushed to get away from something different every day. We look to address issues in depth.”
Changes in practice also emerged at the school level. In many schools, teachers and principals felt empowered to tackle challenges together and felt a professional responsibility to seek and share ways to improve instruction. Furthermore, each district produced examples of schools that had created staffing and scheduling structures so that teachers could work together effectively to address instructional challenges. School-level stakeholders also exhibited significant use of data to guide instructional decisionmaking. While challenges remain, the districts have made significant shifts in their approach to professional development. As a Kent County teacher explained, “We are beginning to work smarter. We are doing individual assessments and are identifying students’ needs and tailoring instruction.”
New Strategies for Improving Instruction:
Professional Development Characteristics before and after Instructional Reform
FINDING 6: Districts redefined leadership roles.
District leaders determined that no single stakeholder could tackle instructional improvement alone. The expansion of instructional leadership did not occur overnight. But during the course of the reforms, the districts extended the leadership from traditional positions— the superintendent and principal—to include other actors: assistant principals, teacher leaders, central office staff, union leaders, and school board members. In addition, in most districts external actors — representatives from state offices, universities, and communities — worked in a coordinated manner with district staff. In these districts, leadership was not simply shared; most stakeholder groups sought to take on the elements of reform that they were best positioned to lead.
The expansion of leadership required significant collaboration among stakeholders. Simply getting along was not the goal; leaders determined that amity held little value if it did not create positive change for children. Led by the efforts of their boards and superintendents, the most collaborative districts in the study worked on working together. Cross-role leadership structures facilitated communication, and districts deliberately sought tools to improve collaboration.
FINDING 7: Districts committed to sustaining reform over the long haul.
These districts showed that making a difference takes time. They established strategies for improvement and stayed with their plans for years. One indicator of that commitment was the remarkably high level of stability among top-level leadership. In three of the five districts, the superintendents who sparked change served their districts for at least eight years. And most districts had a core number of board members who served for 10 or more years. In Chula Vista, for example, three of the five board members who hired Libby Gil as superintendent in 1993 remained on the board almost consecutively for eight years of her nine-year tenure. Similar consistency was evident in Aldine and Kent County. Such continuity of leadership allowed superintendents and boards to understand each other’s work and to grow together in their approaches to change.The districts also paid attention to leadership succession and thus to the stability of new practices—particularly at the central office level. In four of the five districts, the superintendents left their positions during the course of the study and, in each case, were replaced by their deputies. The original superintendents had served to shake up district practice. After their departure, the school boards sought to sustain the reforms through continued stability in leadership.
Challenges to Systemwide Instructional Improvement
Although the districts in the study have made significant strides toward their goals, they still face considerable challenges. We outline three key challenges below.
Old system structures do not easily support new approaches to professional development. Our interviews suggested that the study districts expected more out of their teachers and principals than they ever had before. District leaders expected school staff to take on multiple roles: to analyze data and to diagnose student needs, to determine the efficacy of their own practices, to align their instruction to standards, to research new practices, and to collaborate frequently with colleagues. Yet district leaders had not created the full complement of supports needed for teachers to meet these new expectations.
We saw clear attempts on the part of many teachers and principals to live up to these expectations. Yet the challenges were enormous. While many schools increased the amount of collaborative time available, carving out an hour or two a week for reflection, only a limited number significantly overhauled the school day. As a result, in many schools, the staffing structures and time allocations provided insufficient opportunity for daily collaboration. Teachers, while desiring to meet new expectations, felt overwhelmed by the additional demands.
High schools struggle to improve achievement. Improved student achievement was primarily confined to elementary schools in the study districts. This is perhaps not surprising, as the districts focused heavily, and in most cases deliberately, on instructional improvement in the elementary grades (and to some degree the middle grades) almost to the exclusion of the high schools. As districts began to experience increases in achievement in the elementary grades, they turned greater attention to high schools. However, improvement at the middle and high school levels remains a challenge.
Finding funding to support new approaches to instructional improvement remains difficult. To engage in strategies to improve instruction, the districts relied significantly on external state, federal, and private grants. Providence, for example, received multi-million-dollar grants from private foundations to help train principals and teacher leaders. In Chula Vista, a three-year grant from the state allowed the district to hire a math instructional specialist to train teachers in math content and pedagogy. While external resources provided districts with a powerful boost to their professional development efforts, these resources were a double-edged sword. On the one hand, without such resources the districts would have been unable to provide many of the professional growth opportunities that currently drive their reform efforts. On the other hand, the heavy reliance on such funds presented constraints. Obtaining such resources created a significant drain on human labor in some of the districts. And reliance on short-term grants to fuel instructional reform often created difficulties in sustaining new efforts.
Ten Lessons Learned
At a time when districts nationwide face enormous pressure to raise achievement for all students, particularly those who have traditionally lagged behind their peers, educators and policymakers are eager for ideas. The work of the five districts in this study offers 10 important lessons for those seeking to improve instruction and student achievement.
Although some may seem commonsensical, these lessons are important because they are not being applied systemically in our nation. As these districts illustrate, when these lessons are applied, improvement in high-poverty school systems is possible. These districts earned their good results. While the districts have not figured out all the answers, they show that when districts support schools and plan carefully and collaboratively, they can translate their visions into improvement—for their communities, their leaders, their teachers, their parents, and, most important, their students. For the Learning First Alliance, these lessons are not academic. They lead to an action agenda for the future. On the basis of these lessons, the Learning First Alliance has adopted a set of recommendations directed to all those involved in improving our nation’s public schools.
1. Mobilize political will to improve instruction across the district; engage everyone for the long haul.
2.Implement a systemwide approach to improving instruction that specifies the outcomes to be expected, the content to be taught, the data to inform the work, and the supports to be provided.
3. Make professional development relevant and useful.
4. Redefine school and district leadership roles.
5. Explore ways to restructure the traditional school day and year.
Provide adequate time and supports for teachers and principals to carry out the new vision for their work and instructional improvement.
6. Attend to funding.
Make funding for new approaches to professional development central to district budgets, and call for dependable state and federal funding for this essential work.
Recommendations for Individual Stakeholders
The recommendations have important implications for everyone with a stake in improving instruction and achievement. Doing the hard work of districtwide improvement requires all stakeholders to step forward and lead where they are best positioned to lead. As a beginning step, the Alliance urges stakeholders to consider the following:
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