Systems Thinking

A Systemic Evolution Toward Better Outcomes

by Tom Trigg

When success is defined as each child attaining excellence, not just proficiency, which entity will have the greater chance of success: A school system or a system of schools? It’s not a trick question.

The 21,000-student Blue Valley School District in Kansas made a commitment to systemic evolution from a system of schools to a school system. The evolution began with the decision to adopt a strategic plan that could be accomplished only with systemwide buy-in and systemic change. Many of the principles from Good to Great by Jim Collins drove the strategic planning process, and those principles became embedded in the school district’s culture during the evolution.

For any district, the balance between building-level autonomy and district centralization is precarious at best. Building principals need to know they have authority to make decisions that are best for the students in their schools. District administrators need to ensure a proper level of support while aligning all decisions with school district goals.

Adding Coherence
The initial step in districtwide improvement was adopting a strategic plan. The district set measurable targets for each goal in the plan. Next, individual schools developed school improvement plans that aligned with district strategic goals. The district required that the professional learning community model be used for developing and carrying out the building-level school improvement plans. The district also established a common template to be used to format the plans. Now aligned with the school district plan, schools began using the district-developed initiatives to enhance their school improvement efforts.

This systemic approach to school improvement using the PLC model increased both clarity and coherence throughout the district. The schools began to focus on the three big ideas of a PLC: Focus on learning, collaboration and student results. The ongoing development of a common vocabulary shared by the district office with our 31 schools created a common focus on personalized student learning.

The PLC process connected the district’s focused strategic plan to each school, each team and each teacher throughout the district. To support learning, common district initiatives such as curriculum mapping, assessment for learning and certain interventions also were implemented on a systemic basis. The district then created an opportunity for professional development for all content areas in both core subject areas and elective courses.

Arts Application
While district goals and initiatives emphasized the core curriculum, the systemic process proved highly valuable in the arts. Too often, elective teachers feel separated from the school improvement process. The implementation of a systemwide collaborative model provides time for horizontal teams or grade-level teachers to meet on an ongoing basis. For example, elementary art and music teachers now come together multiple times during the year to collaborate. One activity is the identification of standards in art and music education.

As with all content areas, this thorough understanding of the content standards is a critical foundation for high levels of student performance. Working as collaborative teams, art and music teachers deconstruct those standards to clarify students’ essential learning.

Collaboration also involves analysis of prior student performance, which exposes areas of student strength and weakness. This assessment data then is used by the faculty to identify common learning targets throughout the district. District curriculum leaders for both art and music use the data to plan ongoing training.

The process provides unique opportunities for elective teachers to share specific strategies (such as curriculum mapping and assessment for learning) aligned with the district school improvement initiatives. The interplay among the district-level process, building-level needs and subject area expertise allows all curriculum areas to advance the school improvement process.

A Disciplined Culture
The impact of Blue Valley’s systemic approach is apparent. Student achievement results are at an all-time high. Since implementing our strategic plan and systemic school improvement process in 2004, state assessment results in both reading and math have increased dramatically. The percentage of students at standard or above on the Kansas State Assessment were 12 percent in reading and 15.6 percent in math to levels of 94.9 percent and 93.5 percent, respectively, in 2006-2007.

Moreover, the variance of reading and math assessment scores among the 31 Blue Valley schools decreased in a short two-year span. In 2004-05, when the systemic model was initiated, the variance of students scoring in the standard category or higher in reading was 32.7 percent, compared to only 12.9 percent two years later. In math, the variance dropped from 31 percent to just 13.3 percent.

Systemic thinking about school improvement can harness the talent and energy of the individual schools with the discipline and direction of the district. As Collins notes in Good to Great, it’s not easy to build a culture of discipline, but the results can be impressive. Building-level goals align with district goals. Staff development aligns with both. Teacher conversations shift from teaching to learning. Collaboration becomes the norm, not the exception.

By moving from a system of individual schools to a unified school system, the best parts of each school and of the overall school district are concentrated in the strategic plan and in personalizing that plan for each student.

Tom Trigg is superintendent of the Blue Valley Schools in Overland Park, Kan. E-mail: Dennis King and Jim Payne also contributed to this column.