The District Office's Role in Supporting Student Achievement

David Moyer
Superintendent of Schools
Moline School District No. 40

Introduction

moyer-150px.jpg 
 David Moyer
Superintendents are often expected to create and implement planning documents for their districts. I am serving as superintendent in my second district, and in each instance, it was the first thing I was asked to do.

However, not all planning documents are created equal. While Boards and communities may be enamored with long-term strategic plans because that is what they are used to, the vast majority of these plans serve no purpose in advancing the moral imperative of raising the bar and closing the achievement gap for all students. If one agrees that the moral imperative is the purpose of public schools, than it makes no sense to spend hours upon hours of valuable time creating a traditional strategic plan.

This is not to say that a solid planning document is not important. It can, in fact, be a superintendent’s best friend if it serves to keep their Board focused on the real work of the district and helps to create a coherent system in which administrators and teachers throughout the district develop a shared mindset focused on improving student achievement.

A Better Way

Schmoker (2004) asserts that traditional “thick, elegant documents we were so proud of were fraught with hidden but crippling assumptions about the effectiveness of planning itself, the value of the workshops and staff development that populated our plans, and our ability to meaningfully monitor this huge number of initiatives.”

Reeves (2009) and Fullan (2010) echo this sentiment. Reeves states that “the size and prettiness of the plan is inversely related to the quality of action and the impact on student learning,” while Fullan cautions us to “beware of fat plans.”

All of them advocate for implementing professional learning communities as a far superior option for improving student achievement than reliance on traditional strategic planning methods.

Professional Learning Communities

DuFour’s Professional Learning Communities (PLCs) model is structured around three Big Ideas: Ensuring That Students Learn, A Culture of Collaboration, and A Focus on Results (DuFour, 2004). Four critical questions associated with Ensuring that Student Learn guide the collaborative process: 1) what knowledge and skills should every student acquire as a result of this unit of instruction? 2) How will we know when each student has acquired the essential knowledge and skills? 3) How will we respond when some students do not learn? and 4) How will we respond when some student have clearly achieved the intended outcomes? (DuFour, 2006).

The beauty of PLCs is that it is not an “initiative”. All of the educational buzzwords, school improvement strategies and best practices can be encompassed in these four questions to help teachers and administrators see the interrelatedness of professional development and research-supported improvement strategies.

1) What knowledge and skills should every student acquire as a result of this unit of instruction? 
 
Guaranteed and Viable Curriculum (Marzano), Curriculum Maps (Hayes-Jacobs), Understanding by Design (Wiggins &McTighe), Common Core State Standards (http://www.corestandards.org),
21st Century Skills (http://www.p21.org

 2) How will we know when each student has acquired the essential knowledge and skills?

 

Common formative and summative assessments (Stiggins, Reeves, Popham)
 3) How will we respond when some students do not learn?Through data analysis (Reeves, Schmoker) plan systematic interventions (RtI), Differentiation (Tomlinson)
 4) How will we respond when some student have clearly achieved the intended outcomes?Rigor (Daggett, Wagner)—is this not the point of CCSS?, Differentiation (again)
 
(Moyer, 2009, updated)

PLCs focus on changing culture, not structure. Embedded in PLCs and other leading research on organizational change and school improvement is the importance of moving to action quickly, establishing a small number of focused goals, achieving early wins to enhance momentum and motivation, and monitoring progress in a timely manner—all downfalls of traditional strategic planning. What is becoming evident is that school districts should feel free to continue to embark upon a traditional strategic planning process if they choose. They just shouldn’t expect it to have any impact whatsoever on student learning.

In traditional strategic planning, planners can routinely fall in love with the process itself. Five years out, many people couldn’t tell you the actual goals, much less the vision and mission that people took months to so carefully wordsmith and construct. In a knowledge-driven, rapidly changing, technology rich, global economy, five years is a long, long time. Imagine if you had adopted a strategic plan six months prior to the passage of No Child Left Behind or your state’s adoption of the Common Core State Standards. Annual plans, with a small number of measurable goals, based on the tenets of continuous improvement, and intertwined with the moral imperative of all students learning, stand a much better change to positively impact student achievement.

Examples from Two Districts

When I was hired in 2010 as the superintendent in Burlington, WI, a Board member indicated an interest in developing a long-range strategic plan. He was right in that Burlington needed a plan. The district had so many plates spinning that there was a total lack of coherence in the programming and resource allocation. It seemed to never have met a program it didn’t like. I called it “program as panacea.” What it didn’t need was a strategic plan, and so I quickly led a workshop for the Board at a long-range planning committee meeting focusing on the Schmoker article referenced above.

The plan was collaboratively developed among the administrative team with input from the outside and regular communication with the Board. Our team identified its “target” to be college and career ready graduates. It then determined that four elements had to be present in order to reach that target: Student Achievement, Supervision and Professional Development, Data Driven Decisions Regarding Programs and Resources, and Individual School Improvement Plans. The District called its plan the Roadmap for Instructional Excellence. The visual representation of the plan shows all four areas depicted as arrows, pointing in the same direction toward the target, linked for alignment and accountability, with an emphasis on continuous improvement. In this mental model resources are allocated to support the goals inherent in the individual school improvement plans.

The Roadmap was developed to ensure that it was meaningful to the classroom teacher and focused on improving student achievement. Therefore, the absolute key to the entire plan is what is depicted in the center of the diagram: Professional Learning Communities are the glue that holds it all together.

Alignment was a critical concept in Burlington because the complete lack of consistency in the instructional program across the district. In Moline, IL, where I currently serve as superintendent, we worked with Dr. Fullan to build the capacity of principals to supervise instruction and improve achievement around its Operational Plan and embraced his concept of “Alignment vs. Mindset” (DuFour and Fullan, 2013). Mindset reinforces the PLC concept of culture vs. structure. The distinction in terms is that alignment is about structure, whereas mindset is about developing a coherent system in which a shared mindset results in sustainable change.

The previous superintendent retired one year prior to my arrival in Moline in 2012. Immediately, I was expected to develop an updated strategic plan to build on the work of the previous plan (2006-2011). Due to my predecessor’s retirement, it was determined not to begin work on a new plan until I was hired. This illustrates an important flaw in previous practices—did all work stop for a year in the district? Certainly teachers taught, principals “principaled”, and students hopefully learned oodles, but should true improvement begin and stop in fits and starts or should it be ongoing? The answer seems obvious to me.

Moline celebrated the accomplishments of the previous plan and imported what was successful and pertinent. However, we redefined the process. The previous plan took nearly two years to develop and implement. Rather than spending months on a vision statement and other preliminary “process” work, the administration convinced the Board to agree to stipulate to the Moral Imperative as the overarching goal of the district. As a Cabinet, we agreed that three components would be necessary to guide our work: Student Achievement, Capacity Building, and Sustainability. The visual in Moline to represent what we call our Operational Plan, is a triangle with a student achievement circle on top, the other two components at the bottom with lines with arrows on each end connecting the circles to again demonstrate the interrelatedness of the concepts.

In conjunction with community input, the administration established three objectives with corresponding action plans: Improve Student Achievement, Provide Quality Facilities for 21st Century Learning, and Ensure Long-Term Financial Stability of the District. One nuance we incorporated to ensure coherence was to show how each objective directly linked to the three components. This streamlined process allowed for timely implementation, ultimately benefitting students within months, rather than years.

Like Burlington, Moline’s plan is designed first and foremost to support improving student achievement and be meaningful at the classroom level. Therefore, PLCs are paramount to ultimate success of the plan. In Moline, PLCs are considered the organizing framework for all improvement efforts. The student achievement component includes indicators and processes. In addition to PLCs, the processes are Guaranteed and Viable Curriculum, Balanced Assessment, Rigor, and Best Instructional Practices. All school improvement plans, capacity building efforts, and resource allocation decisions are to be consistent with the moral imperative as defined in component one and operationalized through the PLC Big Ideas and critical questions.

Change Leadership

Realizing the moral imperative is hard work and significant change will undoubtedly accompany any efforts to do so. However, whether or not a district chooses that specific concept to operationalize its work, the reality is that we live in a rapidly changing world, and success requires the ability to navigate change effectively.

Fullan is noted for his work on change leadership, and one concept in particular is important to the planning process. A district should focus its work on policies that truly drive improvement. These are identified as capacity building, social capital (group quality), instruction, and ”systemness” (DuFour and Fullan, 2013). Too often plans are rife with a focus on non-drivers, which, in and of themselves are not bad and often necessary, yet do not drive whole systems change. These non-drivers are accountability, human capital (individual quality), technology, and fragmented strategies (as in my Burlington example of “program as panacea”). It is criminal that American policy makers insist on funneling billions of dollars into flawed approaches, but you do not have to fall victim to that thinking at the local level.

Summary

Marzano and Waters (2009) indicate that site-based management does not positively impact student achievement but rather defined autonomy in which “the superintendent expects building principals and all other administrators in the district to lead within the boundaries defined by the district goals.” Developing these “non-negotiables” is reflected in the PLC concept of loose-tight leadership (DuFour and Fullan, 2013).

Once these goals are established and action plans are developed, the district office plays a critical role in supporting principals in their work of realizing the moral imperative. The district office must reinforce with its actions that improving student achievement is the core mission of any public school and build capacity and allocate resources accordingly. Without coherence the system is condemned to isolated pockets of individual excellence and random acts of improvement with no resultant impact on student achievement.

Be sure to plan accordingly.

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References

Burlington Area School District Operational Plan (2013),
http://www.basd.k12.wi.us/Roadmap.cfm, retrieved November 14, 2013.

DuFour (2004). What Is a ‘Professional Learning Community’? Educational
Leadership 61(8), pp. 6-11.

DuFour, et. al. (2006). Learning by Doing: A Handbook for Professional Learning
Communities at Work
. Bloomington, IN: Solution Tree Press.

DuFour and Fullan (2013). Cultures Built to Last: Systematic PLCs at Work.
Bloomington, IN: Solution Tree Press.

Fullan (2010). Motion Leadership: The Skinny on Becoming Change Savvy.
Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin, p. 24.

Marzano and Waters (2009). District Leadership That Works: Striking the Right
Balance
. Bloomington, IN: Solution Tree Press, p. 21

Moline School District No. 40. (2013). http://www.molineschools.org/op_plan.html,
retrieved November 14, 2013.

Moyer (2009). Making Sense of Data Analysis within a Professional Learning
Community
, NIU-SEA News 1(2).

Reeves (2009). Leading Change in Your School. Alexandria, VA: Association of
Supervision and Curriculum Development, p. 81.

Schmoker (2004). Tipping Point: From Feckless Reform to Substantive
Instructional Improvement
, Phi Delta Kappan 85(6), pp. 424-432.

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David Moyer
Superintendent of Schools
Moline School District No. 40
1619 11th Avenue, Moline IL 61265
309-743-8101 Ph.
309-757-3476 Fax
dmoyer@molineschools.org