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It will come as no surprise to most educators that improving underperforming schools is complex work, yet state and federal policymakers are only beginning to recognize this reality. As a result of the limited success under recent accountability policies, some scholars, including the two of us, have shifted our attention to the broader system in which schools reside. Rather than considering what each school is doing wrong or how it might do it better – as many of the prior policies did- we consider ways that central office staff and school site staff could build capacity to engage in a more dynamic and meaningful process of improvement because of the interdependence between these critical groups in educational change. In this blog we demonstrate how putting pressure on the parts of the system without ensuring this greater system alignment is futile.
To make this point stronger imagine you have been given a bicycle to reach a destination. Now picture getting on the bicycle and beginning to pedal but not getting anywhere. You look down and see that the frame looks fine, the tires are in place, so you pedal again but still nothing happens. As you look more closely you realize that there is no chain on the bicycle – without a chain of course the bicycle cannot move. In spite of years of accountability policies that have resulted in a multitude of reforms on the ground, these efforts have resulted in inconsistent performance and have not led to significant improvement. In essence, to leverage authentic and sustainable improvement to address complex challenges in our school systems, all of the parts must be aligned and yet we do little at the policy or practice level to ensure this is happening in a meaningful way. Our state and federal policy systems require a change in underlying assumptions (e.g., around the need for additional pressure to motivate educators) and leverage points (e.g., the school or teacher as the policy target) if they are to shift from maladaptive patterns, such as short term strategies or manipulation of test scores, to productive, sustainable large-scale efforts that reduce the current inequities in educational opportunity and outcomes.
In our recent edited book, Thinking and Acting Systemically: Improving School Districts Under Pressure, our objective is to share and discuss empirical, theoretical, and methodological innovations that are focused on the examination of persistently struggling districts. Indeed, system-wide approaches to improvement under pressure have received inadequate coverage in policy-related discussions about low-academic performance, which is a missed opportunity to improve educational opportunities and outcomes for youth in our public education system at scale.
The book is divided into four sections: Section 1 is particularly useful for those who are beginning to think about new accountability systems under the Every Student Succeeds Act and ways that we can better identify challenges facing underperforming schools and provide the necessary supports and staffing to address them in a more equitable way districtwide; Section 2 explores the development of partnerships that involve co-learning between central office and school teachers and leaders through case studies of districts, including one in which teachers examined data on instruction and student learning to improve the quality of teaching, and another that involved a partnership between middle school science teachers and leaders working together to design and test classroom assessment resources; Section 3 focuses on the implementation of policy at the local level, including the Los Angeles Unified School District Public Choice Initiative and the rollout of the Common Core State Standards in New York City. This section includes Alan and my study of how the social interactions underlying district improvement efforts are disrupted when a high percentage of actors leave or enter the system, creating a type of social network churn (for a post on this topic on the Shanker Blog, click here); and Section 4 challenges policymakers and educational leaders to consider that it is the time for policies to support capacity building and leadership development so that we have a more dynamic and generative model of learning and improvement in which knowledge is co-constructed and co-implemented within districts as well as across districts and their partners.
Perhaps even more important than the focus on change strategies is the empirical evidence provided in this volume indicating that pressure should not be the preferred lever in educational policy until capacity is built within education systems. As Smylie points out in his commentary,
This is a good moment to note that underperforming and underresourced school districts serving large proportions of low-income and racially isolated students are the districts likely to be subject to the most extreme combinations of environmental stressors, to have the least human and organizational capacity and sources of support, and to be on the receiving end of the greatest pressure from reform policy.
The contributors to this book point to the need not just for capacity building in these low-performing systems but also for relationship building, to form connections with knowledge communities outside the systems. (For a primer on the research supporting the importance of the social side of education reform, click here.)
Many people complain about the bureaucracy of school districts, but one thing becomes clear in this book: that school districts are important coordinating mechanisms needed for system-wide change. Districts are changing in form and function, and our understanding of them must evolve as well. But the social, political, and cultural contexts in which the work gets done are equally important. Narrow conceptions of improvement and purpose frequently narrow the discourse about reform ideas. The studies contained in this book provide powerful insight into various organizational structures that facilitate school reform, ways that school districts respond to multiple contextual and political demands, how capacity for improvement is developed and sustained, and what gets in the way of reform efforts.
As some chapters in this volume show, fragmentation and disconnected efforts across a district negatively impact reform efforts and, ultimately, outcomes. System-wide approaches require attention not just to all of the actors in a system but also to the interconnectedness of the actors. Current reforms in education, which focus heavily on improving the technical core of the work, are important but will not be effective unless attention is also given to how trust, innovative climate, and system-wide learning come together. Without these relational alignments, improvement is unlikely in district systems.
For far too long, the most underserved youth have not realized the promise of the U.S. education system, and dedicated individuals within systems have been blamed for systemic shortcomings. State and federal policy implemented from a systems and relational perspective could redirect our efforts toward supporting school systems as learning organizations. This can be accomplished by connecting the knowledge that resides inside and outside of systems and by orienting leaders toward deep and lasting change grounded in interdependent relationships, so that they can work in unison to move forward just like the parts of the bicycle.
To reach or follow Kara Finnigan:
You can learn more about Alan’s work here:
Kara Finnigan, Ph.D. is associate professor of education policy at the University of Rochester’s (UR) Warner School of Education. She has conducted research and evaluations of K-12 educational policies and programs at the local, state, and federal level for more than 20 years through her work at the UR and prominent research organizations, including SRI International and the George Lucas Educational Foundation. She has written extensively on the topics of low-performing schools and high-stakes accountability, district reform, principal leadership, and school choice. Finnigan’s research blends perspectives in education, sociology, and political science; employs both qualitative and quantitative methods, including social network analysis; and focuses on urban school districts. Her current research, supported by the WT Grant Foundation and Spencer Foundation, focuses on the role of social networks in the acquisition, use, and diffusion of research evidence at the school and district level. Another line of her research funded by the Ford Foundation focuses on school desegregation policies. Finally, her research focuses on linkages between education, housing, health, and other policies to bring about regional equity. Finnigan began her work in education as a substitute teacher in Anchorage, Alaska.
Alan J. Daly, Ph.D. is Chair and Professor of the Department of Education Studies at the University of California, San Diego. He is also the founding Executive Editor of the new Sage Journal, Educational Neuroscience. Alan’s research and teaching are influenced by 16 years of public school experience in a variety of instructional and leadership roles. His research focuses on the role of leadership, educational policy, and organization structures and the relationship between those elements on the educational attainment of traditionally marginalized student populations. Alan draws on his theoretical and methodological expertise in social network theory and analysis in his work, and has multiple publications, and a book on the topic entitled, Social Network Theory and Educational Change. He has a second co-authored book entitled, Using Research Evidence in Schools, and another entitled, Thinking and Acting Systemically: Improving School Districts Under Pressure.