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Keys to Success That Anyone Can Learn From

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The foundations of success have been laid out for everyone, but you have to implement them yourself!

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Keys to Success That Anyone Can Learn From

  1. 1. 36 American School Board Journal I www.asbj.com I May 2010 hy do some school reform efforts work when others don’t? As researchers from the University of Southern California’s Center on Educational Governance, we want to find the answer to that question. So when we had the chance to watch four urban districts work through the early stages of reform, we jumped at it. In 2006, we helped the Weingart Foundation develop the Urban School Districts Reform Initiative (USDRI) and select four districts for grants ranging from $750,000 to more than $1 million. The three-year grants targeted specif- ic projects at small-to-medium urban districts in Southern California: Desert Sands Unified, Inglewood Unified, Lennox Elementary, and Pomona Unified, each of which had a school reform plan under way. Once grants were awarded, we formed a collaborative learning community with the foundation and the four dis- tricts, and observed each district work through early obsta- cles. Each reform varied in content and approach, yet each project followed a broadly similar strategy. We identified six features of early success, key ingredi- ents for any district’s reform recipe. They are: suitability, superintendent leadership, reform champions, retaining focus, advancing through stages, and communication. Positioning for success As each district’s leaders defined their project’s size and scope, we noticed that their strategic positioning always included three key ingredients: suitability, superintendent leadership, and reform champions. Suitability addresses the reform’s potential success and how various constituents greet the reform. Your projects must suit your district. Ask yourself: Does the project’s con- tent align and integrate with your mission, your strategic plan, your context? At the same time, is the reform ambi- tious enough to improve district operations and, ultimately, student performance? Our four districts chose projects that addressed funda- mental and high-priority issues, using different ways to fit Colin Anderson Andrew Thomas and Priscilla Wohlstetter W Copyright 2010 National School Boards Association. All rights reserved. This article may be printed out and photocopied for individual or noncommercial educational use (50 copy limit), but may not be electronically re-created, stored, or distributed; or otherwise modified, reproduced, transmitted, republished, displayed or distributed. By granting this limited license, NSBA does not waive any of the rights or remedies otherwise available at law or in equity. By granting permission to use of our materials, NSBA does not intend to endorse any company or its products and services.
  2. 2. American School Board Journal I www.asbj.com I May 2010 37 the project to the district’s mission and local context. Desert Sands’ USDRI funds helped to accelerate a technol- ogy initiative—increased computer usage in classrooms— that had been in the district’s strategic plan since 1993. Lennox Elementary built an after-school program in which English language learners created school newspapers and learned to strengthen writing, interviewing, listening, and researching skills. The other two districts started projects from scratch, aligning them with existing district programs and priorities. Inglewood’s then-superintendent, who has a math back- ground, knew that building instructional leadership capacity at the principal level would improve secondary math instruc- tion. The project was new, but its methods conformed to an ongoing districtwide push to reorganize schools around pro- fessional learning communities and expand the use of data- driven instructional decision- making. Pomona’s superintendent, who previously had served as the district’s chief academic officer for five years, had watched principal evaluation and accountability languish for years. She used the funds to create a new evaluation sys- tem that dovetailed with the district’s mission and vision, and addressed a “weak link” in overall district governance. For added effectiveness and coherence, an outside contrac- tor’s coaching program for principals needed to mesh with any principal evaluation tool. Leadership from the top The second key ingredient in strategic positioning is super- intendent leadership. In all four projects, superintendents played relatively hands-on roles without micromanaging, which produced results. They struck this “high accountability, high support” balance by personally overseeing the overall development of related curricular and instructional strategies. And, just as importantly, they secured, controlled, and used student achievement and related data. Inglewood’s superintendent hired two consultants to lead professional development and recruited a high school principal with a mathematics background to work at the district headquarters. The superintendent remained involved through daily updates and campus visits, but oth- ers carried out the bulk of the work. Meticulous about data and benchmarking, Pomona’s superintendent kept a notebook of test scores, evaluations, and memos from each school and brought it on site visits. Access to detailed student data helped her scrutinize the principals’ instructional decisions. With teacher and admin- istrator evaluations in hand, she could hold staff account- able for their schoolwide goals. This level of personal involvement and attention to results shows how much the superintendent values the reform, which helps the work of others with more direct responsibility for implementation. Finding reform champions In observing the four districts, we noticed a third key ingre- dient for early reform success: reform champions whose colleagues told us they were “the glue that keeps the whole program together.” Each districtwide reform had staff members who func- tioned as the project’s day-to-day leaders. Effective reform champions must have sufficient decision-making authority and access to adequate resources. As Pomona’s reform expanded to more schools, its champions appealed to the superintendent for additional staff to go on site visits. At Lennox, the reform champion had access to the district’s sec- ond-in-command, who helped “remove the roadblocks” that otherwise would have prevented the program from being implemented. Champions also must have skills, competence, and expe- rience in the reform’s content area. The champion for the Lennox after-school program was a bilingual English-lan- guage development intervention specialist for the district and a National Board-certified former teacher who had taught several elementary grades at different schools, had served on one school’s leadership team, and had been a lead teacher. Pomona chose two district administrators who were former principals with complementary experience. Desert Sands’ champion had been the IT director for 14 years and was seen as “very passionate and very visionary ... and he gets the nuts-and-bolts people behind him.” At Inglewood, unique among the four districts, the super- intendent served as the reform champion. During the pro- ject’s second year, when the school board did not renew the superintendent’s contract, the director of secondary instruction (a former math teacher) subsequently stepped in to play the role of reform champion. Strategic implementation Preplanning helps you launch your reform, but it’s just the first step. Early success depends also on strategic imple- mentation and three more ingredients: retaining focus, advancing in stages, and maintaining communication. Successful reforms tend to have clear, concrete objec- tives; as the reform progresses, its participants retain a tan- gible sense of what they are trying to achieve. Successful reforms also stay focused. The four districts did so in two ways. They aligned the reform projects with the district’s mission, the local con- text, and related district programs. They also broadcast their successes. Principals wanted to know the standards on which their performance would be evaluated, the superintendent want- ed unambiguous understanding and acceptance of those same standards, and others wanted to understand how the Copyright 2010 National School Boards Association. All rights reserved. This article may be printed out and photocopied for individual or noncommercial educational use (50 copy limit), but may not be electronically re-created, stored, or distributed; or otherwise modified, reproduced, transmitted, republished, displayed or distributed. By granting this limited license, NSBA does not waive any of the rights or remedies otherwise available at law or in equity. By granting permission to use of our materials, NSBA does not intend to endorse any company or its products and services.
  3. 3. 38 American School Board Journal I www.asbj.com I May 2010 standards affected their work. Only clearly articulated and unambiguously interpreted objectives would result in the ultimate goal: higher-performing principals running schools with greater student achievement. Desert Sands’ superintendent retired shortly after the ini- tiative’s launch, but the reform was so entwined with the dis- trict’s strategic plan that the project didn’t falter. The new superintendent attributed the smooth transition to the fact that her team was “pre-organized [with] time frames, next steps.” Likewise, when Inglewood started its second year without a superintendent, it benefited from a “solid plan” that enabled teachers and administrators to “hit the ground running.” Positive public feedback helped promote the reforms’ visibility, while negative feedback was addressed privately. The Desert Sands superintendent appreciated the impor- tance of good news: She said the project leader “does a good job of keeping the goals in front of his staff and then helping teachers and principals at the school sites celebrate the small victories as implementation goes along.” For Lennox’s pilot after-school program, the project head personally recruited teachers; moving forward, she leveraged positive publicity to increase teacher participa- tion. District administrators widely distributed the after- school program’s student newspaper and published positive student outcomes in district and community newsletters. In the second year, recruiting teachers and students became much less difficult. Advancing in stages Equally important is advancing the reform in stages. All four districts began their projects on a manageable scale and then ramped them up to include more participants. This allowed them to respond to feedback and adapt to changing conditions while remaining true to the goals of the reform. Some feedback came from formal evaluations keyed to established benchmarks. Other feedback was less formal, resulting from classroom observations or conversations with participants at the school sites. But in all cases, imple- mentation was “context-sensitive” and rolled out in stages. Desert Sands’ technology integration project began with about “600-plus teachers in elementary schools from grades K-5.” The second year, the emphasis was on middle schools. The plan also began with the most motivated and interested teachers, expanding as interest grew among the faculty. In this way, officials could develop training materials and processes as they went along and tailor training to the spe- cific needs of their teachers. Lennox began its after-school project with a yearlong pilot at one elementary school before expanding to others. According to the project lead, this step-by-step rollout schedule allowed the others “to not just automatically do what the pilot does, but modify it in ways that are going to be important to allow it to be as successful as possible as we go to the other sites.” Inglewood wanted its secondary math instruction reform to grow in a “viral” fashion. Rather than seeking to change the behavior of all teachers at all schools, project leaders focused on training “cadres” who would become change agents at their respective schools. Teachers and assistant principals attended monthly Saturday meetings on using data to improve mathematics achievement. The idea was that teachers would return to their schools and share their new knowledge. Communication is critical The last key ingredient is maintaining communication among all levels of the school system. Information should flow from the school board, district offices, and reform leaders down to every participant and school site, and back up again to the board level. Multiple communication channels increase information flow, and all four districts relied on multiple forms. One superintendent maintained an open-door policy; another required that associate superintendents write a “Friday let- ter” to update her on each week’s progress. Smaller school districts have relatively flat organization- al structures, which facilitate communication. The superin- tendents in the four districts often interacted directly with principals and teachers. Central office administrators also were part of the communication process, building trusting relationships along the way. Lateral, or teacher-to-teacher, communication also is important. When an Inglewood eighth-grade teacher, who was the only algebra teacher at her K-8 school, took the ini- tiative to call a meeting of all the district’s eighth-grade alge- bra teachers, the reform champion called it “a great strategy.” “That’s what we’re trying to develop,” the champion said. “This process changes the culture of your school and that’s what we’re getting all of the teachers to understand.” With the perspective gained from years in this project, we advise districts pursuing major reform projects to plan bold- ly, but lead sensitively. Choose a reform that fits your dis- trict’s capacities and context, designate a reform champion, and ensure that the superintendent is ready to lead with a bal- ance of hands-on involvement and background support. Once positioned for success, execute the project with the right level of focus, involvement, speed, and flow of information and communication across all groups. Including the six key ingredients will help ensure your reform’s success. I Andrew Thomas is an adjunct professor and a postdoctoral research associate at the Center on Educational Governance at the University of Southern California’s Rossier School of Education. Priscilla Wohlstetter, the Diane and MacDonald Becket Professor of Educational Policy at the school, is director of the Center on Educational Governance and the principal inves- tigator of the Urban School Districts Reform Initiative. Copyright 2010 National School Boards Association. All rights reserved. This article may be printed out and photocopied for individual or noncommercial educational use (50 copy limit), but may not be electronically re-created, stored, or distributed; or otherwise modified, reproduced, transmitted, republished, displayed or distributed. By granting this limited license, NSBA does not waive any of the rights or remedies otherwise available at law or in equity. By granting permission to use of our materials, NSBA does not intend to endorse any company or its products and services.

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