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District Leadership That Works: Striking the Right Balance

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Bridge the great divide between distanced administrative duties and daily classroom impact. This book introduces a top-down power mechanism called defined autonomy, a concept that focuses on district-defined, nonnegotiable, common goals and a system of accountability supported by assessment tools. Defined autonomy creates an effective balance of centralized direction and individualized empowerment that allows building-level staff the stylistic freedom to respond quickly and effectively to student failure.

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9 Chapters

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1 Does District Leadership Matter?

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In his state of education address in 1987, Secretary of Education William Bennett attached the nickname “the blob” to administrators and the administrative system in public schools. The blob, he argued, is made up of people in the education system who work outside of classrooms, soaking up resources and resisting reform without contributing to student achievement (Walker, 1987). According to Bennett, the term blob is an acronym for “bloated educational bureaucracy.” Those who are science fiction aficionados might also make a connection to the 1958 sci-fi movie The Blob starring Steve McQueen and the 1988 remake starring Kevin Dillon. For those who are not, the blob was an amorphous mass from outer space that assimilated all living tissue in its path. Those organisms unlucky enough to be assimilated by the blob ceased to exist as independent entities. Rather, they existed only as a source of nutrients for the blob. Whether or not Bennett intended the allusion to the other-worldly blob, the moniker was not a complimentary one for school administrators and the administrative system.

 

2 Putting Our Findings in Perspective

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The findings reported in chapter 1 imply new hope for and a new view of district leadership—one that assumes district leadership can be a critical component of effective schooling. Under this new view, district leaders should adopt a proactive stance that ensures certain uniform behaviors occur in every school in every classroom. This stands in contrast to what we believe is the current perspective that district leadership should allow schools to operate as independent entities and allow the teachers within those units to operate as independent contractors. This perspective has been driven by the theory that districts and schools are by definition loosely coupled systems.

In a series of articles, Karl Weick (1976, 1982) set the stage for what is arguably the reigning view of districts and schools as administrative units. Drawing on general organizational theory (such as Glassman, 1973), he made the distinction between tightly coupled and loosely coupled organizations. He noted that tightly coupled organizations have four defining characteristics:

 

3 Setting and Monitoring Nonnegotiable Goals for Achievement

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In this chapter, we address the findings from our study involving setting nonnegotiable goals for achievement and monitoring nonnegotiable goals for achievement. In the next chapter, we address our findings regarding setting nonnegotiable goals for instruction and monitoring such goals. In effect, we have separated and recombined the following two leadership actions from our study.

1. Establishing nonnegotiable goals for achievement and instruction

2. Monitoring the nonnegotiable goals for achievement and instruction

We do this for ease of discussion. Setting and monitoring goals for achievement involve coordinated activities, as do setting and monitoring goals for instruction.

To a great extent, our findings regarding nonnegotiable goals for achievement (this chapter) and nonnegotiable goals for instruction (the next chapter) are defining features of effective district leadership in that they should be the centerpiece of a comprehensive district reform effort. Figure 3.1 (page 24) represents our perceptions of the relationship between nonnegotiable goals for achievement and instruction and the other findings from our study.

 

4 Setting and Monitoring Nonnegotiable Goals for Instruction

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Setting and monitoring nonnegotiable goals for instruction at the district level might not be as obvious a need as is setting and monitoring nonnegotiable goals for achievement (see chapter 3). However, recall the findings reported in chapter 2 from the OECD study of the highest-performing school systems in the world. All ten systems focused on ensuring effective teachers in every classroom. It was their singular method of enhancing student achievement.

A singular focus on instruction is quite consistent with the NCLB mandate of 2002. Specifically, in the 2002 report Meeting the Highly Qualified Teachers Challenge (U.S. Department of Education), then Secretary of Education Rod Paige noted,

Just a few months ago, President George W. Bush and the United States Congress issued a compelling challenge to our nation: to ensure that in this great land, no child is left behind. . . . As part of the No Child Left Behind Act, Congress issued another challenge to ensure that, by the end of the 2005-2006 school year, every classroom in America has a teacher who is “highly qualified.” After all, only with a talented teacher in every classroom will our students have the opportunity to excel. Will our nation meet the “highly qualified teachers” challenge? As this report explains, this challenge will be met only if our state policies on teacher preparation and certification change dramatically. (p. iii)

 

5 Collaborative Goal Setting, Board Alignment, and Allocation of Resources

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This chapter addresses three related findings from our study: (1) collaborative goal setting, (2) board alignment with nonnegotiable goals for achievement and instruction, and (3) allocation of resources to support nonnegotiable goals. While setting and monitoring nonnegotiable goals for achievement and instruction are certainly the centerpiece of the type of changes necessary for districts to approach high-reliability status, the three factors addressed in this chapter are necessary conditions for these goals to be met. Collaborative goal setting is the vehicle used to establish nonnegotiable goals for achievement and instruction; board alignment is necessary to sustain long-term attention to these goals; and resources must be allocated to fund activities such as professional development, scheduling changes, and the like. Recall that in chapter 3, we represented the relationship between collaborative goal setting, board alignment, allocation of resources, and nonnegotiable goals for achievement and instruction as depicted in figure 5.1 (page 72).

 

6 Defined Autonomy in a High-Reliability District

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Ultimately, the combined findings from our study boil down to a simple generalization—districts should seek to become high-reliability organizations regarding student achievement and effective instruction. While simple in its directness, this generalization when implemented changes the nature of leadership at the district level (obviously) and at the school level (not so obviously). That is, a high-reliability district alters how principals approach leadership in their schools. In our book School Leadership That Works (Marzano et al., 2005), we reported on the findings from our analysis of sixty-nine studies on principal leadership. We found that principal leadership at the school level has a correlation of .25 with student achievement.

It is useful to contrast our findings regarding leadership at the school level with our findings regarding leadership at the district level. Recall from chapter 1 that the correlation between district leadership and student achievement at the district level is .24, whereas the correlation between school leadership and student achievement at the school level is .25. Given how close in value these correlations are, one might get the impression that leadership at the district level and leadership at the school level are the same. Strong leadership at the school affects student achievement the same way as strong leadership at the district. This would be a misimpression. In fact, leadership at the two levels can be at cross-purposes in terms of a district seeking high-reliability status. This was demonstrated by Snijders and Bosker (1999). To illustrate, consider figure 6.1 (page 88).

 

7 The Perils and Promises of Second-Order Change

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The previous chapters have described concrete initiatives districts must engage in to move toward the status of a high-reliability organization. This chapter addresses the types of changes these initiatives require in a district. Specifically, we believe that the initiatives discussed in this book constitute second-order change for the vast majority of districts in the United States.

In the book School Leadership That Works (Marzano et al., 2005), we addressed the contrast between first-order change and second-order change. In different terminology, others have discussed this same distinction (Argyris & Schön, 1974, 1978; Heifetz, 1994). Table 7.1 outlines some critical differences or distinctions regarding first-order change and second-order change.

Table 7.1 Characteristics of First-Order Change and Second-Order Change

First-Order Change

Second-Order Change

• Is perceived as an extension of the past

 

Epilogue

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In his best-selling book Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, University of California–Los Angeles anthropologist Jared Diamond (2005) reports his conclusion from a study of societies that failed, after surviving for long periods of time, in close proximity to societies that prospered. Among the societies he studied were the Anasazi Indians of the southwestern United States, Easter Island in the Pacific Rim, and the Norse Villages in Greenland. After surviving for centuries, each of these societies failed. They failed not because they were conquered by dominant competing societies or because they succumbed to new and unknown diseases. These societies failed because their members, particularly their leaders, perpetuated practices that led to their own demise. Typically, these were practices grounded in unexamined and deeply held beliefs. Quoting one of Diamond’s seminal conclusions, “perhaps a crux of success or failure as a society is to know which core values to hold on to, and which ones to discard and replace with new values, when times change” (p. 433). Diamond arrives at this conclusion after examining numerous artifacts of these societies and recognizing the many opportunities leaders in them had to introduce new, adaptive, and more productive practices. Unfortunately, the fates of these societies were sealed by leaders who were unwilling to thoughtfully examine both beliefs and practices and consider more adaptive and effective alternatives. In each of these societies, beliefs distorted vision to the degree that leaders ignored evidence that could have “saved” their societies.

 

Appendix

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Adams, J. P. (1987). Superintendents and effective schools. Dissertation Abstracts International, 48(09), 2199A. (UMI No. 8727818)

Alexander, G. (1976). School district effects on academic achievement. American Sociological Review, 41, 144–151.

Allen, R. W. (1996). A comparison of school effectiveness and school achievement for schools in Arkansas. Dissertation Abstracts International, 57(07), 2749A. (UMI No. 9700324)

Bell, L. A. (1996). School-based management and student achievement. Dissertation Abstract International, 57(09), 3755A. (UMI No. 9701364)

Bidwell, K. (1975). School district organization and student achievement. American Sociological Review, 40, 55–70.

Brock, J. H. (1986). A study of the relationship of pupil achievement test scores in reading and mathematics to pupil expenditures and selected district socioeconomic variables. Dissertation Abstracts International, 48(04), 831A. (UMI No. 8715918)

 



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