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How Top Performers Build-and-Support
Lessons Learned from Successful Districts

by Bill Honig

When we examine assessments of educational outcomes, it is important to be aware of a potential trap articulated by social science statistical research. The fact that there are common measures in successful districts does not necessarily mean that a low-performing district will experience similar improvements if it adopts those measures. Each district, city, state, and nation has some special circumstances, and there may be prerequisites or unique tweaks required before the approaches will work in a new context. Moreover, the process of implementing new policy initiatives and maintaining a comprehensive, strategic view that interweaves various improvement proposals may be more important than the individual measures themselves. Yet there are some essential initiatives that every successful district has employed.

Components of Successful Strategies

Virtually every world-class district has adopted policies that actively engage teachers and administrators, build social capital, and develop collaboration and teamwork. These districts also put systems in place to ensure continuous improvement centered on building craft knowledge and becoming more proficient at delivering a demanding, broad-based liberal arts curriculum. They have a robust human resources development program with two aspects. First, the districts find and keep the best teachers by developing effective systems of recruiting, proper placement, inducting, granting tenure, and compensation. Second, they build the capacity of current staff through comprehensive professional development, create effective school site teams, and offer career advancement pathways that allow our best teachers a hybrid teaching and leadership role and the possibility of higher earnings. Successful districts also have implemented a pre-K or early education program and extensive extracurricular involvement of students. Researchers in both education and business recommend these methods as essential to success. In addition, while successful jurisdictions have carefully avoided the punitive approaches advocated by conventional reformers, most low-performing districts have succumbed to that agenda and thereby neglected the more effective, positive Build-and-Support approach.

A second major point is that just as teachers must become proficient in the many dimensions of teaching (as delineated in the companion article Provide High-Quality Instruction), districts must become adept in many aspects of leadership and support. Crucially, districts have to integrate improving teaching and learning a demanding curriculum into all their initiatives so that each effort pulls in a common direction. As important, they must shift from a superficial checklist-compliance approach to an approach that provides real support for schools and teachers.

Transforming the Central Office

University of Washington professor Meredith Honig (no relation) and her team at the Center for the Study of Teaching and Policy published a significant report on how districts can reorient their administration to a school support approach. Their recommendations are based on the most valid and reliable research and the experience of our top-performing districts. The document delineated five components of successful district improvement efforts:

The Five Dimensions of Central Office Transformation

Dimension 1: Learning-focused partnerships with school principals to deepen principals’ instructional leadership practice.

Dimension 2: Assistance to the central office–principal partnerships.

Dimension 3: Reorganizing and re-culturing of each central office unit, to support the central office–principal partnerships and teaching and learning improvement.

Dimension 4: Stewardship of the overall central office transformation process.

Dimension 5: Use of evidence throughout the central office to support continual improvement of work practices and relationships with schools.

Michael Fullan, professor emeritus of the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education at the University of Toronto, advises districts to address the entire school system using a small but powerful set of integrated initiatives. He cautions against an overly complex, by-the-book compliance orientation. Another helpful document on district effectiveness is the Common Core Leadership Planning Guide. It was developed in conjunction with some key policymakers, researchers, and educational and community leaders in California. The guide lists 10 areas that school districts should examine:

  • curriculum and instruction
  • instructional materials and resources (both print and electronic)
  • professional development
  • capacity building and leadership
  • student learning feedback and assessment
  • alignment of fiscal and human resources—the recruiting, induction, assisting, and providing career advancement for teachers and other staff
  • support programs that bolster implementation
  • communication with stakeholders (including parents and community)
  • transition to higher education and careers
  • technology support for instruction, data, and assessment

A very comprehensive inventory, indeed.

Improving System Performance

The documents I’ve cited reflect the strategies pursued by the most successful districts in this country and around the globe—districts that avoided the more negative Test-and-Punish methods in favor of a Build-and-Support strategy. These districts respect and encourage their teachers and pay them decently. They placed instruction and teaching at the center of their improvement efforts and turned schools into learning institutions. These districts have a long-term strategic plan for building the knowledge and capacity of the staff and continuous improvement. They create positive working conditions that allow on-site collaborative teams to thrive. These districts use the most effective instructional materials. They have reoriented management (especially principals and teacher leaders) and provided time, knowledge, and resources to assist these efforts.

Improvement initiatives in the US come none too soon. According to the article “Want to Close the Achievement Gap? Close the Teaching Gap,” on the whole, our teachers spend more time in the classroom than their counterparts in top-performing countries, significantly less time collaborating with other teachers on how best to improve instruction, and work in a much less supportive school atmosphere. See also Dana Goldstein’s recent book, The Teacher Wars: A History of America’s Embattled Profession, and the National Center for Education and the Economy’s 2016 publication Beyond PD: Teacher Professional Learning in High-Performing Systems. Conversely, staffs in the most successful countries and districts in Asia, Europe, and North America spend less time teaching and invest the difference in working with one another to improve instruction. Consequently, they get better results.

Revitalizing the Teaching Force

These top performers have also substantially upgraded the quality of and respect for the teaching force by attracting new teachers from the top tier of college students, training and paying them well, supporting them in their school careers, and offering career advancement for the best practitioners who remain in the classroom and help other teachers as mentors. As an example see Joel Knudson’s You’ll Never Be Better Than Your Teachers: The Garden Grove Approach to Human Capital Development. Mentoring improves the performance of both the mentor and the teacher being helped.

Building a cooperative and supportive atmosphere was found to be essential for attracting and retaining these high-quality professionals. Two major national efforts along these lines have been initiated: Deans for Impact and the Collaboration for Effective Educator Development, Accountability and Reform (CEEDAR). See also a report on the importance of a long-term strategy for revitalizing the teaching profession.

Another key objective for districts is determining the best way to select, train, and support principals to lead continuous improvement efforts at their schools. On-site leadership is critical in building the systems that connect teaching, curriculum, and instruction, continuously improving all three, and increasing the degree of engagement of teachers, students, parents, and the wider community—all of whom shape the school climate. For a perceptive two-part series on how best to train principals to lead such a capacity-building effort currently under way in four states, see Marc Tucker’s “Organizations in Which Teachers Can Do Their Best Work.” For a comprehensive report on principal training, see The School Principal as Leader: Guiding Schools to Better Teaching and Learning and 2015 standards for educational leaders.

BBS Companion Articles

How Top Performers Build-and-Support
Provide High-Quality Instruction

Reference Notes

Mehta, J. (2016, Jan 8). Why “Queen Bees” and “Wannabees” Is Not the Right Way to Think About Global Education. http://blogs.edweek.org/edweek/learning_deeply/2016/01/why_queen_bees_and_wannabes_is_not_the_right_way_to_think_about_global_education.html?utm_source=feedblitz&utm_medium=FeedBlitzRss&utm_campaign=learningdeeply

Components of Successful Strategies
Knudson, J. (2013, Sep). You’ll Never Be Better Than Your Teachers; The Garden Grove Approach to Human Capital Development. http://www.cacollaborative.org/publications

Kirp D. L. (2016, Feb 13). How New York Made Pre-K a Success. The New York Times. http://www.nytimes.com/2016/02/14/opinion/sunday/how-new-york-made-pre-k-a-success.html See also Farran, D. C. (2016, Feb 25). We Need More Evidence in Order to Create Effective Pre-K Programs. http://www.brookings.edu/research/reports/2016/02/25-need-more-evidence-create-effective-prek-programs-farran Some experts have raised questions about the research base supporting early education and whether there should be massive expansion of the program. For example, see Kirp D. L. (2015, Oct 3). Does Pre-K Make Any Difference? The New York Times. http://www.nytimes.com/2015/10/04/opinion/sunday/does-pre-k-make-any-difference.html and Frey, S. (2016, Feb 28). Groups Want Early Ed Block Grant Pulled From This Year’s State Budget. http://edsource.org/2016/groups-want-early-ed-block-grant-pulled-from-this-years-state-budget/95285?utm_source=Feb.+29+daily+digest+-+Erin&utm_campaign=Daily+email&utm_medium=email

Early Learning. http://www2.ed.gov/about/inits/ed/earlylearning/index.html

Kronholz, J. (2012, Winter). Academic Value of Non-Academics. http://educationnext.org/academic-value-of-non-academics/

Transforming the Central Office
Honig, M. I., Copland, M. A., Rainey, L., Lorton, J. A., & Newton, M. (2010, Apr). Central Office Transformation for District-wide Teaching and Learning Improvement: Executive Summary. Center for the Study of Teaching and Policy. University of Washington. http://www.wallacefoundation.org/knowledge-center/school-leadership/district-policy-and-practice/pages/central-office-transformation-district-wide-teaching-and-learning.aspx

Fullan, M. (2015, Jul). California’s Golden Opportunity. LCAP’s Theory of Action: Problems and Corrections. The Stuart Foundation. http://www.michaelfullan.ca/california-release-a-golden-opportunity/

Consortium for the Implementation of the Common Core State Standards. (2013, Oct). Leadership Planning Guide California: Common Core State Standards and Assessments Implementation. California County Superintendents Educational Service Association. http://www.scoe.net/castandards/Pages/default.aspx

Improving System Performance
Darling-Hammond, L. (2014-2015, Winter). Want to Close the Achievement Gap? Close the Teaching Gap. American Educator. http://www.aft.org/ae/winter2014-2015/darling-hammond.

Goldstein, D. (2015). The Teacher Wars: A History of America’s Embattled Profession. New York: Anchor. See also Goldstein, D. (2015, Spring). Quieting the Teacher Wars. What History Reveals About an Embattled Profession. American Educator. http://www.aft.org/ae/spring2015/goldstein

Jensen, B., Sonnemann, J., Roberts-Hull, K., & Hunter, A. (2016). Beyond PD: Teacher Professional Learning in High-Performing Systems. http://www.ncee.org/beyondpd/

Revitalizing the Teaching Force
Knudson, J. (2013, Sep). You’ll Never Be Better Than Your Teachers; The Garden Grove Approach to Human Capital Development. California Collaborative on District Reform. http://www.cacollaborative.org/publications

Kirby, A. (2016, Mar 7). Teacher Mentorship Improves Performance on Both Sides. https://www.cabinetreport.com/human-resources/teacher-mentorship-improves-performance-on-both-sides

Deans for Impact. http://deansforimpact.org/ See also Deans for Impact. From Chaos to Coherence: A Policy Agenda for Accessing and Using Outcomes Data in Educator Preparation. http://www.deansforimpact.org/policy_brief.html

Collaboration for Effective Educator Development, Accountability and Reform (CEEDAR). http://www.ceedar.org/

Richardson, J. (2015, Nov 9). Looking Abroad for Answers at Home. http://www.learningfirst.org/looking-abroad-answers-home

Hull, S. J. (2015, Oct 14). Principals Matter—and They Need the Right Start. http://www.learningfirst.org/principals-matter-and-they-need-right-start?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+LFA+%28Public+School+Insights%3A+What+is+WORKING+in+our+Public+Schools%29

Tucker, M. (2015, Aug 13). Organizations in Which Teachers Can Do Their Best Work: Part I. http://blogs.edweek.org/edweek/top_performers/2015/08/organizations_in_which_teachers_can_do_their_best_work_part_i.html See also Tucker, M. (2015, Aug 20) Organizations in Which Teachers Can Do Their Best Work: Part II. http://blogs.edweek.org/edweek/top_performers/2015/08/organizations_in_which_teachers_can_do_their_best_work_part_ii.html

The Wallace Foundation (2013). The School Principal as Leader: Guiding Schools to Better Teaching and Learning. http://www.wallacefoundation.org/knowledge-center/Pages/The-School-Principal-as-Leader-Guiding-Schools-to-Better-Teaching-and-Learning.aspx

Superville, D. R. (2015, Oct 23). New Professional Standards for School Leaders Are Approved. http://blogs.edweek.org/edweek/District_Dossier/2015/10/new_professional_standards_for.html?r=608789257

2 thoughts on “How Top Performers Build-and-Support: Lessons Learned from Successful Districts

  1. Wayne Sailor

    I believe our work over the past 5 years in 5 states is now producing some hard dada to back up your key features in BBS. The one thing I don’t see in your conceptual framework is reference to the importance and relative impact of integrating all educational supports into a single coherent system for all kids, what we call de-siloization. Our work in California in support of the SUMS initiative is placing stress on this component and on the importance of helping to build a strong and positive culture of learning in each school with MTSS/UDL as the drivers.

    Reply
    1. BillHonig Post author

      Wayne, thanks for the comment. You are absolutely right that both at the school and district level the continuous improvement efforts must integrate all efforts and improvement programs into a systematic whole with consistent and coherent policies and strategies. This has been done in projects such as yours, in schools with effective Response to Intervention programs (teach it right the first time, have the teacher help students who take longer to learn, and only then use separate integration programs), and effective leadership of teacher leaders and site-administrators to build teams and improve teacher craft knowledge so that all students master a broad liberal arts program. Bill

      Reply

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