How Districts Can Support Reform JOURNEYS

By Lenay Dunn / September 09, 2013

What is the role of the district in reform? Is it to lead change, or simply monitor change? Is it to serve as enforcer or cheerleader? Is it a combination of all of these roles? As I was reading about Nye’s superintendent, Dale Norton, electing to take a central part in Amargosa’s improvement, it made me think about the evolving role of the district in reform initiatives.

Traditionally, districts have held the “compliance role,” ensuring schools were completing required activities and holding them to their obligations. This top-down structure leaves little room for collaborative problem-solving between district staff and school staff to support effective change. As enforcers, district staff become seen as adversaries instead of partners in improvement. Yet, district staff have a unique opportunity to build the capacity of schools to implement and sustain effective reform.

Meredith Honig has researched and written extensively on the role of district staff and central offices. In a piece for the American Enterprise Institute, titled, From tinkering to transformation: Strengthening school district central office performance, Honig describes how a district can transform its role to better support improvement efforts. These transformed districts “operate as a support system for improving the quality of teaching and learning district wide,” (pg. 2). She and her colleagues studied several reform-minded, effective districts and found three key features:

  • Intensive partnerships between top level district staff and school leaders
  • A responsive menu of high quality, performance-focused services for schools
  • District leaders committed to continuous learning and building the capacity of district staff to better serve schools and support effective reforms

Intensive Partnerships

Honig and her colleagues describe an effective partnership as district staff providing support to build the capacity of principals to lead effective change. These intensive partnerships between school leaders (e.g. principals) and district leaders (e.g. superintendent’s cabinet and executive level staff) allow schools to enjoy a direct connection to a high-level district decision maker. This, Honig argues, allows school needs to be of central importance in district decisions. As district leaders become more familiar with school needs, they can better design supports or craft policies to address those needs. A key component of an effective partnership is having a clear two-way communication exchange. For my dissertation I studied the implementation of a district reform. The district exhibited two components related to Honig’s description of intensive partnerships: 1) a top-level district executive was primarily responsible for the direct support of principals and 2) district staff were providing services to schools around the reform. Yet, most of the relationships fell shy of this intensive partnership model. While district staff created relationships with school staff and provided them with information or resources related to reform, the communication between district and school staff was largely one-way (from the district to the schools). The partnership model that Honig describes would create collaborative conversations between district and school staff to identify and address school needs. As Nye leads Amargosa through this intensive turnaround process, it will be interesting to see how the principal and the superintendent partner together to create effective change.

Responsive, High Quality Services

In the effective districts Honig studied, district staff provided customized services in response to school needs. Undoubtedly, intensive partnerships between district and school leaders aided the district in identifying and responding to school needs. Some districts, Honig described, started with a blank page and asked what services their schools needed to be successful and focused on instructional improvement then designed their services around those needs. However, the needs of schools are ever-changing, so this “menu” of services should be revisited periodically to ensure it continues to meet the needs of school staff. This intense focus on identifying and providing services for school improvement can mean big changes at a district. Staff may be reassigned, departments may change their functions, or staff may have to learn new ways of doing their jobs. In fact, Honig described transformative district leaders who looked at all central office functions through the lens of improving school performance and eliminated the services that would not provide support towards that goal. That type of change can be difficult, but can be essential to support turnaround efforts. Once those changes are made, Honig describes the importance of using performance data to assess how well the services are meeting needs and supporting school improvement. Effective districts are transforming their role to become results-oriented, in-house service providers for their schools. This responsive service model reminded me of how Nye is increasing their focus on identifying what Amargosa needs and doing what it can to meet those needs. The district is ramping up its support to the school through personnel, resources, and services focused on improved student achievement.

Superintendent Leadership, Capacity Building, and Continuous Learning

District leaders have an enormous responsibility. They set the tone for the district and model expectations. Honig describes that in performance-focused districts, leaders provide a model of continuous learning. This approach includes strategies such as setting clear performance-based goals with staff, using data to see how well those goals have been met, and holding staff accountable for outcomes. Perhaps most importantly, these types of leaders intentionally build the capacity of district staff to engage in data-driven continuous improvement efforts.  In fact, Honig describes these performance-focused leaders as hands-on with district staff–a very different role than the typical focus on board members, parents, and community stakeholders. Superintendent Norton has clearly demonstrated a desire to be that very different leader. He is directly leading the effort to support Amargosa in its turnaround efforts. Though other district staff will also play a key role in supporting Amargosa, his direct relationship with the school demonstrates the value the district is placing on improving the school. With this type of district approach, it will be very interesting to see how it helps Amargosa achieve its turnaround goals. I know I will be very interested in watching the district role unfold, right along with the school’s turnaround journey!

If you are interested in reading more research on the district role, check out these resources.

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About the author

Lenay Dunn

Lenay Dunn is a Senior Research Associate at WestEd and a staff member of the Center on School Turnaround. She is on the Journeys content team and is a blog contributor.

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