Creating Sustainable Reform
School systems are notable for making change after change in their pursuit of educational excellence. When reforms fail, it is often because the school district has not established adequate systems that ensure sustainability. Typically, it takes at least four or five years for a change to become fully institutionalized and part of the system’s culture. School system leaders are wise to spend considerable time at the beginning of a reform initiative building an infrastructure that supports change over the long term.
During the past several years, school superintendents and educational leaders from around the country have convened at the Pearson Education Instructional Leadership Council to discuss solutions for some of the most pressing issues they confront, especially regarding teaching and learning. Several common change principles have emerged from these discussions that apply to school districts almost universally:
- Implementation of a comprehensive, districtwide school-change model;
- Adoption of districtwide, standards-based curricula (especially for K-8 reading and math);
- Attention to leadership, including placing the principal firmly in the instructional leadership role of the school along with shared leadership building at all levels;
- Data-driven decision making to inform both classroom instruction and professional development; and
- Professional development that is ongoing and collaborative for teachers and administrators.
Initiatives addressing these principles are being implemented at the K-8 level in five urban school systems: Los Angeles Local District 3; Newark, N.J.; Whittier City, Calif.; Charlotte-Mecklenburg, N.C.; and Lawrence, Mass. The superintendents of these districts are seeking sustained, systemwide change.
Los Angeles Local District 3
Since 1999 the Los Angeles Unified School District has implemented a multiyear, comprehensive district reading plan that supports teachers in their efforts to “teach reading relentlessly — every day, in every school, in every classroom, to every child.” More recently, the district applied a comprehensive mathematics plan.
Prior to assuming her current position as the district’s assistant superintendent for student integration services, Sharon Lamonta Curry was of one of eight local superintendents charged with carrying out the district reading plan. The superintendents first formulated a vision of district expectations, then established a structure to carry out that vision. The structure was based on five key elements:
- Coherent curricula throughout the district. A single standards- and research-based reading program focuses on ensuring all students are readers by the end of 3rd grade.
- Formative assessments. These are given every six to eight weeks to assess student learning and identify specific needs for professional development.
- Practice-based professional development. Each year, teachers must participate in five days of differentiated professional development that is linked to the instructional program. Administrators also are mandated to participate so they can help teachers implement the adopted curriculum with fidelity.
Shortened instruction days each week give teachers time to work together to plan instruction, review data, develop learning plans for students based on the data and reflect on their own practice. This method, known as lesson study, is the primary strategy used to deepen teacher content and pedagogical knowledge.
- Active and knowledgeable school leadership. If principals are to support and improve instruction, they need to know what improved instruction looks like. Administrators participate in monthly principal conferences facilitated by the local district superintendent and the entire instructional support team of directors, coordinators, specialists and coaches.
Content experts and coaches engage principals in processes to deepen their content knowledge, review assessment data and plan specific activities to improve teaching and learning. Principals are expected to lead professional development with the support of the coach at their school sites. Regular classroom observations are a key element of this process.
- Coherent technical assistance. The local district works collaboratively with the central office to plan, implement and continually evaluate the implementation of the intended curriculum. The central office provides funding for instructional materials and trained staff, including coach coordinators, literacy experts, advisors and coaches, to support professional development in the local districts.
The school district is seeing evidence of improvement. On the English language arts portion of the California standards exam, the average percent of students scoring proficient or advanced across grades 2-5 improved from 35 percent in 2003 to 39 percent in 2005. For math, the average percent improved from 43 percent to 51 percent.
The cornerstone of California’s accountability system is the Academic Performance Index, which assigns a score from 200 to 1,000 with 800 or higher being the target. District 3, one of the most diverse in the city, increased the percent of elementary schools scoring an API of 600 or greater from 45 percent in 1999 to 97 percent in 2005. While most subgroups are improving, the gap, though narrowing, still exists. To address this, District 3 is connecting culturally relevant content and responsive teaching strategies to all areas of the curriculum.
Reprinted with the permission of the American Association of School Administrators. © AASA
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