A New North Star
The data is in: the district is the unit of sustainable change, not the individual school. But district improvement plans need a very different approach from what we have seen if improvements are to take and stick. Why talk about this now with the pandemic still filling up our minds?…because it’s time to look ahead to decide where to invest our energy as it revives.
We need a new North Star for district improvement plans. Are the big picture vision statements in strategic plans useful? Often not…but they could be if they were able to serve as a consistent North Star, year after year, for the direction of actionable plans. I’d like to translate that criterion into a clear and compelling picture.
The North Star was the focal point ancient mariners used to chart their journeys. Without it, they could never have navigated their Odysseys of discovery. Aiming at the North Star was practical. The start of every course calculation and the reset of every correction began with re-aiming at the North Star. Changing priorities and new conditions constantly complicated a voyage, but there was always the North Star there when the clouds cleared to anchor new directions.
Vision statements usually don’t do that. They name (and often string together) idealistic and, in fact, wonderful long-term goals. “Students Loving Learning…”Developing 21st Century Skills”…”Capable, Responsible Citizens”. They are, however, too abstract to give indications of what to do. Let’s come up with a vision statement that can guide the creation of an animated, goal-directed school district that has the capacity to accomplish any goal it sets.
Our education reform movements haven’t been much better. With no constant North Star, these movements constantly change headings. Look at the changing foci of the last 30 years (each admittedly important):
- a focus on internal processes like teacher evaluation or induction of new hires
- a focus on structures like new curriculums, small schools, site based decision-making
- a focus on instructional philosophies like active learning, child centered learning
- a focus on twenty-first century skills like social-emotional learning (SEL), high-level thinking, problem solving, habits of mind, collaborative skills
- a focus on project-based learning, meaning and student agency, deep learning.
Every one of these aims, properly understood, springs from valid ideas and positive values about what is good for children. But their multiplicity explains why there is so much variance from year to year in what sweeps into view as a reform movement and then casts a spell over school district strategic plans… and also individual School Improvement Plans (SIPs). What happened to the goals of the last strategic plan we were supposed to follow?
The other force for variation in strategic plans and School Improvement Plans is local problems to be solved. Fair enough, but local problems (a sudden budget cut; an urgent bullying issue; an influx of English as second-language children) don’t give long-term direction to improve teaching and learning capacity in the deep way that is needed. And nothing accounts for student achievement so much as the overall knowledge and skill of the individual teacher. That dwarfs everything else. So what kind of vision statement could keep a constant North Star on that? New methods, better programs, and inspiring student-centered approaches to curricula will always fall short if we don’t first seek more wide-spread High-Expertise teaching. That is required to make all other methods and programs work.
Tragically for our children, our teacher workforce has been denied access to many of the skills of High Expertise Teaching and a workplace environment for constant learning about skillful teaching. (See the case for this great gap here)
So I propose this:
Make each and every school an engine for continuous improvement of High-Expertise Teaching for Equity
Lest this deep need for high-expertise teaching be obscure, our field is packed with literature that documents our students’ inferior performance in comparison to other developed countries and our own low domestic literacy rates. To this add the clear inequity of education we offer poor families and children of color. The variance in quality across our teaching corps is clearly documented. (e.g., John Goodlad 35 years ago, Robert Pianta more currently). Our personnel pipeline permits and perpetuates this variance.
I offer the statement in bold above as a vision statement that can serve as a North Star for every year’s school improvement plan. I will show that it conjures concrete enough images of what to do to improve the experience of children and their learning. It comes with deep anchors in the research base on improvement of instruction, with deep roots in the literature of healthy organizational culture, and it is directly tied to the lived experiences of students in school.
Leadership gurus often put creating a “shared vision” at the top of their pyramid of what successful leaders do. It is the first module of the NISL curriculum, the closest we have come so far to having a widely adopted program on school leadership. “Vision” is at the top of the list for the Professional Standards for Educational Leaders (PSEL 2015).
Neither of these sources pretends to prescribe what that common vision should be. They understand appropriately that collective action to accomplish anything important comes when one can successfully mobilize everyone to work for the same outcome in common if they can picture it and be inspired by it.
Programs come and go, but a North Star vision could gain not only traction but also sustainability across a whole district if programs from the outside can’t. Does it not matter then what the vision is, as long as it is held in common? I think it does matter.
Why is this vision above the answer? How does it synthesize key learnings over the past 70 years about sustainable improvement of teaching and learning for all students in a society full of inequality and the toxicity of racism? How does it provide images of new skills and practices under its four concepts, and how can it guide planning to get them in place?
CONCEPT 1 – Each and every school
This means the whole district is the target, allowing no variance from school to school in quality of certain things that matter. This does NOT mean that every school looks the same, has the same themes, same décor, same traditions with no room for individual creativity, different implementation, or idiosyncratic approaches. But it does say that there are certain practices common to all the schools, and there is coherence and consistency in curriculum (Leithwood et al 2004, Grissom et al 2021). There can be autonomy for some of the “how’s”. But implementation autonomy for, say, how to do scaffolding of complex text for low readers happens within a framework of coherence (i.e., “We are ALL learning ways to scaffold complex text for low readers.") We can’t do “Every school” by proceeding one school at a time and trying to hire “turn-around” principals. That doesn’t work for enduring improvement. Excellent leaders who lead a school to dramatic improvement leave and the improvements fade. The district has to be the progenitor and the growth engine for such principals through its central office structures and processes for hiring, supervision and development of principals and the district-wide infrastructure for academic improvement (curriculum coherence and interim assessments). Thus the focus on principals is pre-eminent.
CONCEPT 2 – Reliable engine of continuous improvement
"Job number one for a great principal is teacher learning." (Steve Tozer, Founder of UIC Urban Education Leadership Academy). That means developing a particular culture among the grown-ups – a culture of openness and non-defensive examination of practice in relation to student results, a culture of constant learning and deep collaboration. All principals learn behaviors that lead to that, and they assist each other in developing that culture. We’re all in this together. The “We” ethos amongst the principals goes back to the district leadership knowing how to promote collaboration rather than competition between schools. Visit a superintendent’s cabinet meeting to see if the characteristics of a learning organization are visible there.
CONCEPT 3 – High-Expertise Teaching
That means anything a person does that influences the probability of student learning. Anything. Recognition and pursuit of constant learning about this huge and complex knowledge base beyond what policy makers recognize is the starting point. Elsewhere I have written at length about the nature of professional knowledge and the size and range of our knowledge base on teaching (Saphier et al 2018) and the absence of so much of it from the opportunities to learn we provide our teacher workforce (“Inconvenient Truth” op. cit).
CONCEPT 4 –Teaching for Equity
Building leadership for equity calls for a complex skill set. And where a leader should start making forward movement depends largely on the readiness of the staff to examine their individual beliefs, their practices, and their urgency to dismantle racism. Teaching for equity and dismantling racism means changing the policies and thus the “less than” messages sent to students of color. Looking at the best programs for anti-racist leadership around the country, one can find exemplars of program elements on the following topics in different places:
Personal adult journeys to cultural proficiency
- curiosity and the 5 stages of cultural proficiency (Nuri-Robins et el)
- culturally proficient behavior in everyday life
- designing culturally proficient lessons
Personal journeys through learning about
- racial identity
- daily negative experience of people of color
- history of white supremacy and racism
- institutional racism (e.g., Tatum 2017, Wilkerson 2020, Alexander 2020, Kendi 2019)
Institutional journeys through
- data gathering and audits to identify and dismantle racist procedures, policies, and tacit judgements in everyday practice (La Salle and Johnson 2019)
Drawing on resources such as these, districts can ensure each of their buildings support their leaders in orchestrating these profound learning pathways.
The North Star Vision
This North Star vision calls for far more than increasing attention to or money for professional development. A central problem in American education is the lack of professional conditions for educators’ work (Johnson 2019 ) and most particularly a personnel pipeline that can equip our teacher and leader workforce with the knowledge and skills to handle the complexity of the work. I don’t claim that to be the only problem, but without addressing it no other reform movement has a prayer.
We have a nation-wide system that denies our teacher workforce access to and accountability for high-expertise practice through no fault of their own. The prime place to show we can provide these professional conditions and the access to continuous learning is the school district. A district will benefit greatly if aided by a partnership with a higher ed institution that has enlightened views and also a philanthropic funder that has similar commitments. But the center of enduring improvement has to be the district. The workplace is the prime site where structures and culture allow practice to improve if, in fact, it does improve. And the way the school-as-workplace functions in this way depends on what the district understands and how its leaders act to make it so.
The North Star I have been searching for would have to comprise a common vision of uncommon power. It would radiate magnetic waves to change the picture we see of alternating growth spurts and decay, of initial excitement and then dissolution of focus. It would have to do several vital things at once that are usually missing from school improvement efforts:
- Be sustainable – this depends on more than insightful leadership, though it certainly requires that. It depends on the North Star vision being compelling, clear, and realistic enough to enlist and inspire successive generations of educators
- Live in champions who would make it their business to carry its banner to new leaders and new school boards
- Allow a district to prioritize initiatives and suspend some that are peripheral to the North Star.
- Acknowledge and include the good work the district has already accomplished, continue it, and put it in perspective with next steps
- Plan a map for continuous improvement
- Make annual plans most appropriate for current circumstances
- Deliberately aim to collapse the achievement gap
An Action Plan to Get Started
What would happen if a whole school district committed itself to this vision to Make each and every school a reliable engine for constant learning about High-Expertise Teaching for Equity.
Well, first of all, the leaders would orchestrate a process to come up with district-wide common images and language for describing what high expertise teaching is. That would lead to a surprising map of how big and how complex that knowledge base is. It need not take that long because the good news is that such a task force would find agreement in the field about the elements, though different priorities are held by different gurus (Bellon and Bellon, Marzano, Hattie). Such a working group would find that ALL the elements were certainly important and worth putting in the map, but some were clearly more important than others. That map would enable teachers to make choices for their own goal setting, help schools make choices for their own priorities, and enable debates that lead to certain instructional practices that every teacher should learn because they were so important (e.g., culturally proficient teaching or active reading and writing in every classroom). Another choice might be formative assessment as Dylan Wiliam defines it, or perhaps how to lead robust discussions where students talk more than teachers, and at a high level of thinking.)
Simultaneously top leaders would focus on principals -- put resources into developing principals (Grissom 2021) who could recognize good teaching, who were committed to dismantling racist structures and practices, and who knew how to mobilize teachers to work together openly, use data with deep collaboration, be non-defensive and constantly learn what was next for them about high expertise teaching and most needed by their students. In other words, school leaders would be culture builders for a “learning organization.” That would show up in the choice of supervisors for principals and the framing where they themselves need to become proficient to properly develop their principals. There would be a special emphasis on helping them build strong Adult Professional Culture (see APC Chapter here.)
The actions of district leaders would aim at reducing variance and ensuring continuity in every school around certain important items – principal leadership capacity, opportunities and access to constant teacher learning about high-expertise teaching, time and structures for deep collaboration, support systems for students, and a relentless focus on equity. How would the district be organized to integrate these priorities into the operation of HR, Curriculum, even transportation, food service? Eventually all arenas of school life would be included.
For sure central office personnel would also have to look at themselves – their interaction patterns as well as their organization. If we want schools to have adult cultures of trust and constant learning, it has to be modeled from the top. Central office leaders would be looking internally at modeling how people act in a learning organization, for example, how they run cabinet meetings, supervise principals, do problem solving, develop or choose curricula.
A colleague once said to me: “Jon, you’re a great synthesizer.” I think she meant it as a compliment, but I wasn’t pleased. I thought of myself as an original thinker and started ticking off in my head all the original things I believed I had created. Thankfully, I recovered from that ego attack and have been able to abandon that arrogant and wasteful pursuit. I now embrace being a synthesizer, but with a new quest.
I say: put this vision on the wall, in the header of agendas, in the opening-of-the-year speeches and the end-of-year summaries. Make it the North Star of every journey, and cancel the trips that you can’t connect to this destination. Avoid abstractions that are too far in the clouds to indicate action, worthy though they may sound. Adopt this North Star: Make each and every school a reliable engine for constant learning about High-Expertise Teaching for Equity. That is a vision that can be defined clearly enough to create images of action steps, and it can enable all the other worthwhile goals as subsidiary projects, projects achieved because of an encompassing vision we can translate into concrete images.
(1) “Rapid improvement can be bolstered or stalled by the system within which a school operates…To the extent that this broader system …is recast to actively support dramatic school improvement, it will allow us to progress beyond the current state of having islands of excellence…”. “The Four Domains for Rapid School Improvement.” The Center for School Turnaround at WestEd. San Francisco, CA: 2017.
(2) …despite the well-earned Kudos to Gerard Bracey for documenting authentic national gains and factors that contaminate comparisons to other countries using PISA scores.
(3) This is not to exclude teacher preparation institutions from the considerations of this paper. It is to say realistically that professional learning is a career-long endeavor, and teacher preparation, while vital, is far too short to be expected to carry the ball all the way. Institutes of higher education can be contributing partners to school districts, but the districts or collaboratives of small districts, must be the hosts and home of continuous teacher learning.
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Grissom, Jason A., Anna J. Egalite, and Constance A. Lindsay. 2021. “How Principals Affect Students and Schools: A Systematic Synthesis of Two Decades of Research.” New York: The Wallace Foundation. Available at http://www.wallacefoundation.org/principalsynthesis.
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