District Policy Environments & the Quality of Teaching
Milbrey McLaughlin, Stanford University
Joan Talbert, Stanford University
This project examined the district policy context as a critical setting and opportunity for the improvement of teaching. In two sets of districts, the study explored how district actors interpret and mediate policies from outside district boundaries and how, at the same time, they construct a consequential local policy context for teaching through routines (e.g., personnel policy and practices) and through innovative ventures (e.g., collaborating with non-formal education actors outside the district).
The project included two components and samples. One component focused on districts within the four Core Study states (CA, NY, NC, and WA), and afforded a comparative look at districts within diverse state and regional policy contexts. OERI and the Spencer Foundation, which underwrote the comparative survey, jointly sponsored this component. Another component was limited to California and 118 districts in the six-county Bay Area region and afforded an intensive look at how districts mediate conditions in a common state and regional context. It built upon and extended these researchers' work on the Bay Area School Reform Collaborative (BASRC), including regional surveys of district administrators and principals and intensive case studies of diverse districts reputed to be strong policy contexts for teaching excellence. These components complemented one another and provided different opportunities for breadth and depth of analysis.
Main Research Questions
- How (if at all) are priorities for teaching and learning established at the district level? What are they? Who participates in defining them? What is their authority? Are these priorities connected by a strategic vision regarding their joint relationship to teachers' work and careers?
- How do core district functions (hiring, professional development, evaluation, communication, accountability, etc.) support these priorities or not, both in conception and in practice? Do district policies, taken together, focus or diffuse espoused priorities for teaching excellence? Are various district policies consistent with one another as supports for teaching excellence?
- How does the district mediate and manage its surrounding policy environment? How does the district interpret and implement state and federal policies and programs? How does it interact with parents, the community, and the private sector around issues related to teachers and teaching? To what extent has the district built coalitions with the unions, the business community, higher education, and others in support of a teaching excellence agenda?
Case study research, survey research, document analysis
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Building Instructional Quality and Coherence in San Diego City Schools: System Struggle, Professional Change
Policy Brief 9, September 2003.
Building Instructional Quality: "Inside-Out" and "Outside-In" Perspectives on San Diego's School Reform
A Research Report by Linda Darling-Hammond, Amy M. Hightower, Jennifer L. Husbands, Jeannette R. LaFors, Viki M. Young, and Carl Christopher, September 2003.Description:
This research report looks at the aggressive set of policies San Diego City School District used to improve instruction. It reveals how San Diego consolidated and redirected resources, redesigned the district office as well as work in schools, and mediated and leveraged state policy to further its reform agenda. The report also documents the difficulties of managing the politics and implementation of a coherent approach to change in a large district with an established culture of decentralization located in a state with a piecemeal, sometimes conflicting, menu of reforms.Abstract:PDFAbstractOriginal StudyOriginal StudyOriginal Study
During the 1990s, a new policy hypothesis—that focusing on the quality of teaching would provide a high-leverage means for improving student achievement—began to gain currency. This study of San Diego, California's highly focused reform initiative to improve the quality of teaching examines an effort to act on this hypothesis. Based on interview, observation, survey, and record data collected at the state, district, and school levels over a five-year time period, the study offers a look at how one large, urban district developed an aggressive set of policies to improve instruction. The research examines how the district consolidated and redirected resources, redesigned the district office as well as work in schools, and mediated and leveraged state policy to further its reform agenda. Among key reform strategies were:
- An overhaul of recruitment, hiring, placement, and evaluation to recruit and retain high-quality teachers and principals in the district, while weeding out weak staff members;
- A massive investment in intensive professional development, including institutes, workshops and on-site coaching in every school, focused initially on developing teachers' and principals' expertise in literacy instruction, and later branching out into mathematics, science, and other subjects;
- A redesign of administration, replacing area superintendents with Instructional Leaders working closely with principals on improving the quality of teaching in each building and charging principals with focused evaluation and support of instruction;
- A major reallocation of resources to downsize the central office, consolidate fragmented programs and pots of money, and focus resources on classroom work;
- A much more centralized approach to providing curriculum and teaching guidance based on research on learning and teaching, including the development of special courses and district-wide strategies for literacy development as well as aspects of mathematics and science instruction;
- An effort to develop a culture and shared expertise to enable professional accountability and to redefine the state's accountability processes to support instruction without punishing students.
The study documents substantial gains in student achievement and transformations of teaching practices, especially in San Diego's elementary and middle schools, over a five year period, in association with these policies. Schools and students that benefited most from the changes were often those that were previously lowest-achieving. However, schools that were most bureaucratically organized with the fewest opportunities for collaboration among faculty had more difficulty using new resources to transform instruction. The study also documents the difficulties of managing the politics and implementation of a coherent approach to change in a large district with an established culture of decentralization located in a state with a piecemeal, sometimes conflicting, menu of reforms. Looking at the process of school change from both the 'outside in' and the 'inside out,' the study details how the district and individual schools initiated, coped with, and transformed the many competing policies in the school environment. Finally, we document the district's more difficult process of seeking to improve high schools and its new round of reforms, just launched as the research was ending, to rethink the organization and design of the urban high school as a means of transforming the quality of teaching and learning within.
The research ends with evidence of substantial transformation in the culture, organization, instruction, and outcomes of San Diego's schools but also with the changing of many members of the leadership team. The future will reveal whether the reforms with be sustained in the long run and whether San Diego's bet on professional learning—enforced from the top down as a key lever for change—will ultimately strengthen the teaching and learning capacities of local schools from the inside out.
Connecting Districts to the Policy Dialogue: A Review of Literature on the Relationship of Districts with States, Schools, and Communities
A Working Paper by Julie A. Marsh, September 2000.Description:
This Working Paper reviews literature about the key roles that districts play in supporting improvements in teaching and learning, including the district role in implementing state policies and enacting school-level change and what the key factors are that enable districts to effectively support improvements. It also considers how community involvement and collaboration contribute to districts' improvement efforts. The paper suggests directions for future research to advance the state of knowledge on school districts.Abstract:PDFAbstractOriginal Study
The current wave of education reform pays little attention to school districts. State and federal policies have increasingly identified schools as the most important units of change-rendering local districts virtual non-actors in the process of educational improvement (Elmore, 1993, 1997a; Elmore and Burney, 1999; Fullan, forthcoming; Massell and Goertz, 1999; Spillane, 1996). The focus on state-level education standards, curriculum frameworks, assessment, and accountability systems, along with state and federal efforts to serve specific populations through categorical programs, restructure schools, increase site-based decision-making, and introduce greater parental choice exemplify this trend in education policy. To some reformers, school districts are the problem. Critics claim that they have no empirically significant role to play, are inconsistent with sound policy, and are inefficient bureaucratic institutions (Chubb and Moe, 1990; Elmore, 1993, citing Finn, 1991). To other observers, school districts have become overly politicized and unresponsive to public, teacher, and student needs (Hill, 1999). Other policymakers simply view districts as relatively insignificant go-betweens through which policies and funding must pass to reach the more important school-level actors. Finally, some reformers have invented new organizational forms and networks (e.g., New American Schools Development Corporation) that bypass districts in order to directly target resources and support to schools.
Despite this trend in policy, an increasing number of studies in the past decade or so have documented the key roles that districts play in supporting improvements in teaching and learning-building a strong case that school districts matter (Spillane, 1996). The following paper examines this emerging body of literature and attempts to answer the following questions:
- What roles do school districts play in efforts to improve teaching and learning? How do they affect the implementation of state policies and the enactment of school-level changes?
- What are the key factors that enable districts to effectively support improvements in teaching and learning?
- How does community involvement or collaboration contribute to districts' improvement efforts?
In conclusion, this paper will examine several unanswered questions and suggest directions for future research to advance the state of knowledge on school districts.
Reforming Districts: How Districts Support School Reform
A Research Report by Milbrey McLaughlin and Joan Talbert, September 2003.Description:
By detailing the experiences of three reforming California districts, this research report offers new evidence of district effects on school reform progress and improved student outcomes. The case studies offer instructive exception to conventional wisdom-or myths-about district reform. Among the refuted myths: teachers and principals resist a strong district role; turnover derails efforts to establish and sustain a consistent reform agenda; and local politics will defeat any serious reform agenda.Abstract:PDFAbstractOriginal StudyOriginal Study
School districts have participated in multiple rounds of education reform activity in the past few decades, yet few have made headway on system-wide school improvement. This paper addresses the questions of whether districts matter for school reform progress and what successful "reforming" districts do to achieve system change and to navigate the pitfalls associated with system change efforts. Using multi-level survey data and four-year case studies of three reforming California districts, the paper offers new evidence of district effects on school reform progress and improved student outcomes and develops a picture of a reforming district.
The reforming districts featured in this analysis offer instructive exception to conventional wisdom—or myths—about district reform. One myth predicts that teachers and principals will resist a strong district role. Yet, our research provides evidence that a weak central office in fact limits schools' reform progress, while a strong district role is effective and welcomed when it uses a strategic conception of responsibilities and leadership between system levels. A second myth about district reform holds that turnover or personnel "churn" will derail efforts to establish and sustain a consistent reform agenda. While this statement is true in many instances, in two districts studied, turnover in top leadership positions did not trigger significant change in district priorities or norms because planning processes and inclusive communication strategies over time had embedded them in district culture. A third myth asserts that local politics will defeat a serious reform agenda; yet, leaders in each reforming district articulated unambiguous goals and priorities and, with strong board support developed over many years, were able to navigate local political waters and protect a strong district role.
Each of the reforming districts studied was a self-conscious "learning organization," investing in system-wide learning—in the central office, in schools, in cross-school teacher networks, and in units such as the business office that typically are excluded from professional development focused on instruction. This research suggests that taking the district system as the "unit of change" is essential to advancing equitable and sustainable reform.