School improvement teams should focus on what really matters.
Every year, school leaders all over the country engage in the ritual known as school improvement planning. Every state and locality has adopted review and approval processes that fit their own local contexts, but certain foundational elements remain consistent in school districts everywhere: In the fall, a central office team distributes guidance documents to principals, requesting information about how they plan to address low achievement (as measured by state standardized tests). Each principal then convenes an improvement team to review their school data, develop goals and objectives, enter them into the district template, and submit their plan for review. Eventually, the central office approves it, maybe with modest revisions. By the time the whole process is done, it might be halfway through the school year, budgets and staff will have already been allocated for the current school year, and the plan does little to make this year different from previous ones. Rinse and repeat.
In theory, the process promotes more equitable student outcomes because the data analysis will enable school improvement teams to develop goals and objectives that will reduce achievement gaps. Supposedly, given new goals, teachers and staff will do new and different things — or perhaps do the same things better, with more fidelity — and the targeted group of students will perform better. Fingers crossed.
I’m not convinced that this process is relevant anymore, if it ever was. Districts that are truly intent on promoting equity can’t keep going through these motions, requiring schools to complete an empty, compliance-driven process. Rather, they must come up with concrete ways to address things that actually matter to student achievement, such as budgeting decisions, hiring practices, curriculum development, professional learning, discipline reform, and community engagement.
The question is, how can school system leaders leverage the federal requirement for school improvement planning to support a more ambitious, equitable, and coherent districtwide strategy?
I’d advise them to focus on three core drivers of school change: values and culture, resource allocation, and curriculum and instruction.
Values and culture
Recognizing the long history of separate and unequal education in the nation’s public schools, it is incumbent upon equity-minded system leaders to state, explicitly, that they value all students, from all backgrounds. It’s not enough, however, just to make a public commitment to this principle. Leaders must also check to make sure that school improvement plans and actions are consistent with it, whether those plans have to do with disciplinary practices, teacher assignments, gifted and talented programming, family engagement programs, or anything else.
For example, a school improvement team may make it a goal to increase family engagement, knowing that families are crucial to student success. But some parents — those who work two jobs, or who rely on public transportation, or who speak little English — have a difficult time coming to school to participate in engagement efforts. So a statement that values family engagement needs to be backed up by strategies and actions that operationalize that value in an equitable way. What kinds of translation services will the school need to provide? Will staff need to arrange for transportation on back-to-school night? Will they need to visit some families at home? And what resources will the district office have to provide for the school to take these steps?
Further, if district leaders are fully committed to promoting equity, they need to ensure that this core value informs not just specific plans and initiatives but the everyday culture of the local schools. A strong sense of collective concern and respect should be manifest in how students are spoken to as they walk through the halls, how parents are treated when they visit the school, and how teachers and staff work with each other.
In addition to articulating a core commitment to equity — and holding school improvement teams accountable to it — system leaders can help schools strengthen their cultural norms. Most important, the central office can take the lead in assessing school climate and in coaching principals and teacher leaders on ways to improve it. Of course, many central offices are themselves dysfunctional workplaces, so the central office must be prepared to assess and improve its own organizational culture, too.
If school system leaders are fully committed to promoting equity, it’s inevitable that — because equity means those who need more, get more — they will encounter resistance. Thus, they have to be prepared to make tough decisions about decision making itself, especially decisions about the allocation of resources. Should they look the other way when principals decide to assign the most accomplished teachers to the most privileged students? Should they sit on their hands when teachers decide to exclude students of color from honors classes? K-12 educators often champion the ideal of local autonomy, arguing that educational decisions should be made by the people who work most closely with students. And, as a general rule, that makes sense. But not every principal is able to exercise that freedom to good effect, and not every teacher has all children’s interests at heart.
Say, for instance, that a local principal, under pressure from a group of well-connected parents, isn’t willing to reassign certain reading teachers to work with struggling students. In this case, the system leader may need to declare that the district’s policy is to ensure equitable access to the most effective teachers, period, and that individual principals simply don’t have the authority to reserve those teachers for the most privileged children.
There’s no easy answer as to when system leaders should defer to local educators and when they should override them. However, there’s no way around it: Equity-based improvement planning often means deciding to shift scarce resources toward those schools and students who need them the most, which in turn invites anger and resistance from those who feel they’ve lost out. Whatever decision they make, system leaders have an obligation to show the community and schools why these decisions are being made and how equity is being served.
Curriculum and instruction
If a district truly values equity, then it must ensure not only that schools provide equitable access to the best teachers and the most challenging coursework, but also that they provide culturally relevant curriculum, materials, and pedagogy that resonate with all students. For school improvement teams, this means taking a close and honest look at what their colleagues are teaching, and how. At a school that has seen an influx of immigrant students, for example, have teachers found ways to incorporate those students’ home countries into the curriculum, and do they give students opportunities to share information about their cultural heritage with their peers? If not, then the improvement plan should give priority to professional learning in this area.
Unfortunately, central offices often make this work difficult for schools by issuing too many and often conflicting mandates about how and what to teach. I’ve seen this play out in efforts to improve literacy instruction, for example. Local teachers may come up with a plan to incorporate their students’ interests and cultural identities into reading and writing assignments. However, the district’s literacy department has already mandated the use of a program that doesn’t leave room for such instruction. On top of that, the director of English learner services and the Title I office may have their own preferred supplemental programs. Altogether, a school might get five different messages from the district about how to support struggling readers, and none of them squares with the improvement team’s own ideas.
In short, if system leaders are going to demand that local improvement teams find ways to make curriculum and instruction more equitable, then at the very least, they will also have to make sure that the district’s own efforts are aligned so that teachers aren’t forced to navigate multiple, perhaps contradictory programs. And if the entire district office is committed to a new evidence-based approach that will address the needs of struggling readers, it better make sure it has a professional learning strategy that actually supports teachers learning how to deliver the new content. At the same time, though, district leaders should be careful not to exert too much control over professional learning at the school level. Centralized professional learning rarely works. Teachers need opportunities to work with their colleagues on the ground.
From the top
Especially since the passage of the Every Student Succeeds Act, school system central offices have come under pressure to change in dramatic ways. No longer do they simply administer funds, ensure compliance with policy, and attend to the smooth administration of district operations. Increasingly, they are charged with improving teaching and learning at the school level, which requires a robust school improvement planning process that actually results in concrete plans for school improvement, not just the filing of required paperwork. To make sure this happens, and to make sure that those plans serve the interests of all students, system leaders must be explicit about the district’s core commitment to equity, insist on a culture of mutual concern and respect throughout the system, be willing to intervene when local principals and teachers betray those values, and require improvement teams not just to identify low-performing students but to focus on the quality and character of the classroom instruction those students will receive.
Citation: Starr, J.P. (2019, Oct. 28). Planning for equity. Phi Delta Kappan, 101 (3), 60-61.