System's Thinking

A Climate for Success

by Edgar B. Hatrick

These four words, “A Climate for Success,” have set the stage for a sustained effort of school improvement that has occurred for 17 years in Loudoun County Public Schools in northern Virginia. Located about 30 miles from Washington, D.C., Loudoun County is a school system of 57,000 students that has grown by more than 5 percent per year annually since 1991.

Loudoun teachers and administrators face serious challenges in managing the changes associated with providing a high-quality education to a diverse student body in one of the fastest growing school districts in America. With an increase in recent years of nearly 3,000 students per year, managing change is fundamental to bringing about adult behaviors that influence student achievement in a positive way. Our aim has been to help principals learn how to promote coherence in instruction across the district, from school to school and teacher to teacher.

We organize for instruction in clusters composed of a high school and its feeder middle and elementary schools. Cluster principals meet for planning and teachers meet to align curricula vertically through the grades. All principals meet once each month with the superintendent, senior staff and central-office support personnel. The leadership provided by our building principals is critical in leading and sustaining our change efforts.

Outside Counsel
Systemic change has been occurring in the physical structure of our schools by the sheer force of numbers, but the qualitative change necessary to propel our students into the 21st century has required sophisticated planning and real commitment. Our work with Mid-continent Research for Education and Learning has confirmed our belief that the principal’s leadership matters, regardless of the current instructional initiative, program or issue at hand. McREL has taught us that effective principals not only know what to do, but also when and why to do it.

Extensive McREL training has honed the skills of effective principals who understand which school changes are most likely to improve student achievement, what these changes imply for both staff and the community and how to tailor their leadership practices accordingly. Using McREL’s 21 Leadership Responsibilities helps the principals to frame their role in developing collaborative school cultures so necessary to the creation and implementation of dynamic school improvement plans — game plans for moving schools forward and creating continuous improvement in student achievement.

But before we were ready for McREL training, or even a systemic school improvement process, we determined that we had to turn those words, “A Climate for Success,” into a reality in which all believed. Those who would fashion, lead and implement systemic change had to know the system’s goal was success, not only for students but also for staff. We had to establish a climate that allowed for experimentation and even failure. When we set out we did not, and still do not, perceive that we were in crisis, and I suspect in that regard we are like most school systems in America.

In Jim Collins’ words, we were a good school system whose goodness could well be a barrier to achieving greatness. Self-satisfaction with above-average test scores was a difficult challenge. But the more we disaggregated the data we had about our students the more we realized that the needs of every student were not being met by our educational programs or by us. And, more importantly, we realized we did have the potential to change that situation. A strong, data-driven approach to focused instructional change has led to meaningful improvement for all students.

The heart of this change effort is in the school improvement plan teams that exist in every one of our 75 schools. Those teams are supported by research data and central-office personnel who help implement dreams. Great ideas on paper do not change instruction for children. Only implementation brings about change.

Since the improvement teams are composed of teachers, administrators, parents, community members and students, when they reach consensus, their work is powerful. Principals, as leaders of our faculties, work with grade-level team leaders and department chairs to develop the implementation plans that turn ideas into actions. Results are measured in traditional and non-traditional ways determined best in each school community. Data collected across the district is analyzed and teachers and principals are trained in using data to drive decision making.

Cultivating Seeds
Fundamental to this whole process is our commitment to success. We live in times when we have to guard against the tyranny of the test as a best measure. Test scores can inform decision making, but most often they are only snapshots in time of an ongoing process. Students deserve fair evaluation, and test scores alone simply don’t provide it. They also deserve strong arts programs and emphasis on critical thinking skills — in other words the education of the whole child.

Superintendents work hard to create climates for success in small and large school systems. The work is not easy, but we have excellent resources available within the AASA Center for System Leadership. The center partners with state affiliates to provide a network of resources to superintendents across America.

What we have learned in 17 years in Loudoun County is that it takes more than a great program, or even great leaders, to bring about meaningful systemic change. As every gardener knows, the most expensive seeds, even when watered and provided great nutrients, simply will not thrive in a garden that has not been prepared for them. Our garden is the climate we create for our students and staff — a climate for success.

Ed Hatrick is superintendent of Loudoun County Public Schools in Ashburn, Va. E-mail: