A school’s level of success in raising achievement and eliminating gaps is influenced greatly by district action (or inaction) in providing systemic support. An MSU K-12 Outreach specialist, reflecting on his work in the field, said it best: “Schools were most successful when the district bought into the [school improvement] work and involved all their schools in the data dialogue process, even the ones who weren’t designated a low-performing school. This approach gave the work consistency across the district, and provided schools common ways to work with data and identify struggling students.”

Part of the MSU Office of K-12 Outreach work at the district level involves using a tool developed by Education Resource Strategies (ERS), an MSU project partner. This tool, called the Resource Check, enables districts to assess if their limited resources are aligned with their academic goals. This systemic approach has been most successful when districts used the information drawn from this exercise to realign their resources to the strategies known to make significant differences in teaching and learning. In one district, “the use of ERS protocols and routine shed light on a number of challenges in the school and district, and the leadership team was willing to acknowledge the need for improvement after embracing the data presented.”

Just as the district can facilitate positive change in a school, it can also inhibit or block it entirely. In schools with large achievement gaps, if the district refused to recognize these gaps and its responsibility to address them, it was unlikely that the school would receive the support it needed to close those gaps. In low-performing schools, district systems and a lack of resources are the most common culprits to providing school-level support. One example of a district barrier is when school staffing decisions are made at the district level. According to an MSU K-12 outreach specialist, “The importance of being able to select staff cannot be overstated; it makes a crucial difference to the school culture, especially at the beginning of the turnaround journey.” Another district barrier involves the stability of staffing at the school and district levels.

The articles in this category will explore topics around district systems change in relation to student learning.

collaborative school improvementBook Author: Trent Kaufman,  Emily Grimm, and Allison Miller

Data-based decision making is standard practice in districts and schools across the globe. Often, school-level personnel find data-based inquiry to be challenging for a variety of reasons, many of which are beyond their control. Collaborative School Improvement is an examination of three districts' efforts to reform and support teaching and learning in their schools through an increased emphasis on building capacity at the school level to employ data-based inquiry into instructional reform strategies. The authors identify eight practices that districts can use in connecting with schools toward improving instructional performance.

The bottom line is ALL of us are committed to the success of ALL students, and ALL of us are willing to do things differently to achieve this.” (Comment from a Superintendent at the 2013 Focus Schools Summer Institutes.)

When a district leader makes this statement, it represents a marker in school improvement. It also reflects multiple levels of leadership from superintendent to principal to teacher levels and more. It implies a collaborative commitment across all general and special education staff, signaling a readiness to function systemically and holistically. It implies a willingness to take risks and step away from the old way of working. And it signals that all central office roles and functions are ready to support the improvement efforts. In short, it has the potential to create foundations for a culture of high expectations, shared leadership and real improvement in learning for each and every student.

Tackling the challenge of achievement gaps is daunting. And then throw in the variables of differing sets of terms, requirements and regulations that drive both the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). This challenge plays out at the district level where students with Individual Education Programs (IEPs) are for the most part, taught and supported by both general and special educators. Both sets of educators bring various attributes to the table: training, expertise, instructional tools and data sets, mindsets and experience, among others. In the midst of this sits the individual student, with attributes that must be understood and built upon to assure his/her learning.

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