Systems Thinking

Systemic Improvement To Raise Achievement

by Mary Jo Kramer

Strategy, coherence, culture and capacity are key concepts of systems thinking. Yet unless they are embedded in reform practices that improve learning, they will become, in Yogi Berra's words, "Deja vu all over again."

Two principles provide a framework for raising achievement by applying systems thinking to districtwide reform:


  • Raising achievement requires a coherent, strategic focus on improving the quality of teaching and learning in classrooms, and



  • Transforming school and district cultures by developing the instructional capacity of teachers and administrators is essential to accomplish this goal.


    Strategy and Coherence
    Superintendents face the challenge of raising the achievement of all students, regardless of their socioeconomic status. The starting point is identifying the most pressing student learning needs to set goals that exceed the district's current performance. Using data to determine priorities is the cornerstone of an effective strategy to raise achievement.

    In crafting a strategy, the most important question superintendents can ask is, "What initiatives will be most likely to raise achievement by improving teaching and learning within a reasonable timeframe?" Superintendents who think strategically adjust and evaluate their strategy by applying the ultimate measure of success, as expressed by Harvard Professor of Education Richard Elmore: "If it doesnÕt happen in the classroom, it doesnÕt happen." District initiatives raise achievement when daily instruction produces high quality student work.

    This standard is difficult to meet for three reasons:


  • Well-meaning educators often pursue structural reforms that have a minimal or indirect effect on teaching and learning. Grade or schedule reconfigurations, for example, will not raise achievement unless the quality of instruction improves. While restructuring may be necessary, it can become an end unto itself.



  • Less is more. Districts usually have more initiatives than can be implemented effectively, leaving staff with a sense of initiative fatigue. Being strategic requires unpacking the layers of initiatives to concentrate on those most likely to raise achievement.



  • Unless a strategy is coherent, disconnected initiatives vie for attention. No one is in a better position than a superintendent to align district functions and operations with the goal of raising achievement. Coherence is essential among the functions that most directly effect teaching and learning: curriculum, instruction, in-service, personnel, supervision and assessment. Aligning other operations and practices is equally important.


    Culture and Capacity
    Superintendents who sustain a coherent improvement strategy understand the political and organizational dynamics that shape a district's culture as well as the beliefs that drive behavior and school practices. Reform-minded superintendents inevitably face a two-fold cultural challenge:


  • Creating a sense of urgency among either school boards, staff or constituents, and



  • Transforming the district and its school cultures into ones where professionals embrace the goal of enabling every child to achieve.


    Superintendents who meet this challenge pursue an improvement strategy that builds a consensus for change by engaging staff and public alike.

    Professional development is vital to sustaining a culture of improvement. We tend to underestimate the in-service teachers need, particularly when new programs or methods are introduced. Without sufficient attention to developing their knowledge and skills, widespread variability of practice inevitably occurs. Initiatives become homogenized when professionals lack a common understanding of purpose and approach.

    Adults need time and opportunity to learn, most effectively in the context of instructional practice within schools through job-embedded in-service, such as lesson studies, student work reviews and walk-through observations.

    Developing the instructional leadership capacity of principals is equally critical to creating a culture of improvement that results in achievement gains.

    Instructional leadership requires an understanding of school and teaching practices that raise achievement. School leaders need to recognize that the effectiveness of a lesson, however interesting or organized, depends on whether the students are engaged in learning that integrates higher-order thinking skills with challenging, meaningful content. Instructional leaders provide supervision and in-service to promote this definition of learning in every classroom, and they align curriculum, assessment and other school practices to raise expectations for all students.

    Superintendent Stewardship
    Systems thinking, when focused on raising achievement, provides a framework for district improvement through a coherent strategy that results in high quality teaching and learning, develops the instructional capacity of professionals and creates a culture of improvement in every school. These principles for effective systemic reform are grounded in the belief that all children can achieve at higher, if not exceptional, levels.

    Superintendents are stewards of human potential. In Maya Angelou's words, "The educator is a lifesaver. ... It's an amazing power. It's an honorable calling."

    Mary Jo Kramer, a superintendent for 20 years, is now an associate professor in Southern Connecticut State University's Department of Educational Leadership and a national consultant for AASA's Center for System Leadership. Address: 501 Crescent St., New Haven, CT 06505. E-mail: