Content is king

Every school and district express their values through the content that students learn; leaders shape that content through policies, contracts, and regulations.


Change efforts in school systems are often organized around structural changes. Schools implement block schedules so students can spend more time going deeper into subject areas; middle schools organize themselves into houses so teachers and students can develop closer relationships; districts buy laptop carts so students can get a more engaging and personalized experience.

To succeed, the promise of these changes must be grounded in clear expectations for what students need to know and be able to do, and what adults need to know and be able to do in service of students. Standards, curriculum, units of study, professional learning and assessments all matter and must form the foundation of any effort to transform schools. But achieving changes in standards and outcomes requires understanding how they are affected by policies, employee contracts, and regulations. To create coherence within a system, we must spend as much time on those elements for adults as we do for children.

Policies, employee contracts, and regulations create coherence for a system and therefore for the adults within a system, just as standards and assessments create coherence for students.

Superintendents and other leaders must learn how they can harness policies, contracts, and regulations to support the goals they are working toward.

k1612_3column2_starr_fig1Detracking in Stamford

When I was superintendent of schools in Stamford, Conn., a very diverse system (40% Hispanic, 22% black, 8% Asian, 30% white, 40% free and reduced-price lunch, 15% English learners), I was faced with institutional segregation of students within desegregated schools. The rigid tracking system had existed for 40 years, ever since the community voluntarily desegregated the schools in the late 1960s. Expectations and achievement for white and Asian students was high; for black, Hispanic, and poor students, both were low. When I visited middle and high schools, I knew immediately which classes were remedial (filled with black and brown children) and which were honors (almost all white and Asian). Faced with the moral and practical imperative to dismantle this system — and all of the politics that comes with that — I had to figure out how to organize our efforts so the focus wasn’t on who sits next to whom (structural) but, rather, on what we were expecting children to achieve and how we were going to get there (instructional).

Since this was 2005, No Child Left Behind loomed large and created an opportunity for me to be explicit with leaders, teachers, staff, parents, community members, and politicians about the realities of student achievement. Since we had little consistent curriculum (a PDK curriculum audit found 153 approaches to reading among 12 elementary schools), assessment, or professional learning, I had the opportunity to organize our efforts around what we expected students to know and be able to do.

By engaging teachers in leading the work, establishing PLCs for every teacher (Thessin & Starr, 2011), revamping curriculum, providing deep professional learning and establishing new metrics for success, we were able to dismantle the tracking system and improve student achievement. I also had worked with the board of education to create a curriculum policy that clearly stated that all students should receive instruction aligned to the highest standards. That policy provided the parameters for our work, as did the explicit statement about dismantling tracking that was in our state-approved district improvement plan. Hence, when some tried to push back on our efforts, my reply was that the board and state were holding me accountable, and I had to act accordingly.

Using ESSA

Education leaders have a new tool in their toolbox if they want to enhance the content their students are learning. That tool is the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA).  Because ESSA will enable school leaders to design new approaches to accountability, that should be able to devise new ways of teaching and learning since what gets measured gets taught. To take full advantage of this pendulum swing, school leaders must have a deep understanding of how to align various aspects of a system into a coherent whole that supports all students.

For example, if a district wants to implement project-based learning (PBL), how do you ensure that teachers have knowledge and skills to do so, or even the desire? When I was superintendent in Montgomery County, Md., we turned one of our 25 high schools into a full PBL school. The teachers’ association agreed to ask teachers to reapply for their positions in order to teach in the “new” Wheaton High School. One of the school’s veteran teachers, who was considered effective, said she just wasn’t interested in making the shift and sought an opportunity at another school in the district. If we hadn’t had that agreement with the association, the veteran teacher’s decision could have been more difficult. In that case, the teacher contract was part of the content of the system that binds adult actions in accordance with the district needs and vision.

Much more important, though, we created structures to support our vision of PBL throughout the school. Through an advisory council of business leaders, community members and educators, increased funding for professional development, the designation of teacher leaders to lead the work, and expectations of central office to partner with the school in development of the work (among other things), we created a model for other high schools to follow. It wasn’t enough for me to simply say that I wanted it to happen; we had to align various aspects of the system to create the actual products and processes that would increase teacher capacity for PBL so they could provide the experience to students.

As districts — as well as states — now have the opportunity under ESSA to design accountability systems that consider measures beyond state standardized test scores, system leaders must understand the need for coherence.

Final thoughts

The content that students learn represents a school system’s values, expectations, beliefs, and vision for what students should know and be able to do. Too many recent reform efforts have been grounded in the belief that outcomes are the entry point for change. While outcomes are certainly the ultimate indication of success, a focus on content is necessary for leaders to understand whether the system is designed to produce the desired results they want.


Thessin, R. & Starr, J.P. (2011, March). Supporting the growth of effective professional learning communities districtwide. Phi Delta Kappan, 92 (6), 48-54.


Citation: Starr, J. (2016). Content is king. Phi Delta Kappan 98 (4), 72-73.

JOSHUA P. STARR (@JoshuaPStarr) is chief executive officer of PDK International, Arlington, Va. 

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