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.
A Research Report by Milbrey McLaughlin and Joan Talbert, September 2003.
<p>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.</p> <p>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.</p> <p>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.</p>