Helping Texas Educators Work Systemically

The Texas Comprehensive Center works with education leaders to support two school districts in implementing systemic changes for school improvement.

Photo of teachers at a meeting. All children deserve to attend high-quality schools that provide a sound education. Although educators work hard to meet this goal, they are not always able to identify the problems schools are facing or implement the most effective solutions. One of the many ways that SEDL helps low-performing districts and schools is through its Texas Comprehensive Center (TXCC). The TXCC works closely with the Texas Education Agency and the state's 20 Education Service Centers (ESCs) to help them assist districts and schools in need of improvement.

Since 2007, the TXCC has been using SEDL's Working Systemically approach to guide school improvement efforts. This unique approach involves all levels of an education system—from the state to the classroom level. At each level, the approach helps educators build competencies for continuous improvement, such as collecting and analyzing data, as they address critical system components, like curriculum and instruction. By using this process, educators are able to work in a more coherent way, establish a culture of collaboration and trust, and focus on what will most improve student achievement.

A diagram of the phases of the Working Systemically approach shows a cycle of Scanning the SYstem, Analyzing the System, Planning Action, Taking Action, and Rssessing and Reflecting on Ourcomes. "Working Systemically is a comprehensive process that gives districts and schools the know-how and tools to translate the research about educational improvement into significant and sustainable gains in student learning," explains D'Ette Cowan, a project director with the TXCC.

In 2009, the TXCC began providing six ESCs with expanded support using the Working Systemically approach. This support has included extensive coaching and monitoring through monthly phone calls, site visits, and other technical assistance. One of the ESCs receiving expanded TXCC support is Region 20 in San Antonio. The Region 20 staff are committed to the Working Systemically approach and have seen some of the state's best results with it.

Change in a Large, Urban School District

Cynthia Stone, an administrative specialist with Region 20 until mid-2009, used Working Systemically to transform a low-performing district in south San Antonio. The large, urban district of mostly Hispanic students struggled with high poverty, borderline and inconsistent achievement, and fragmented improvement efforts.

By involving leaders at both district and campus levels, the Working Systemically process helped unify and focus improvement efforts. District and campus leaders now have targeted plans in place and are actively implementing them. "They are also more confident about analyzing data to identify strengths and challenges," says Stone. "And they are using the data to focus on how the system can better support schools and principals to solve problems." Most important, achievement scores have begun to rise. In fact, district leaders were so pleased with the progress that they hired Stone to direct and coordinate their systemic improvement efforts full-time.

Change in a Small, Rural School District

The TXCC has continued working at the Region 20 ESC with Sheila Collazo, component director of School Support Services. In Fall 2009, she began using Working Systemically with a small, rural district of four schools. Although meeting performance standards, the district previously had a low-performing high school and was experiencing changing demographics. District leaders sought to improve student achievement by focusing on 21st century skills and better integrating technology and differentiating instruction.

"The Working Systemically process enabled us to have in-depth discussions, reach consensus, and align our goals. Now the stage is set to move forward in a new direction."

Sheila Collazo, Component Director of School Support Services, Region 20 ESC

Early results are already visible. The district has formed a leadership team, analyzed student achievement data, identified a set of problems to address, and begun developing a focused and integrated improvement plan. Throughout the process, the Working Systemically approach has provided structure and tools to deepen dialogue and collaboration and align key components. For example, a comprehensive needs assessment indicated that English language learners and special education students were underperforming. "School goals for improving achievement in these groups did not align with the district's existing goals," says Collazo. "But instead of routing multiple documents and having endless meetings, the Working Systemically process enabled us to have in-depth discussions, reach consensus, and align our goals. Now the stage is set to move forward in a new direction."

TXCC staff have provided crucial support to help Collazo keep the process moving. "As problems and unique situations arise, we help the ESC staff address them," says Stacey Joyner, a program associate with the TXCC. "We know the must-dos for the approach to work and how to tailor it to the specific needs of each district and school. At the same time, we build the ESC staff's capacity to implement the approach in a variety of settings."

Change at the Regional Level

The Region 20 ESC has seen changes not only in the districts and schools it supports but also in the way it operates. Ed Vara, component director of Instructional Programs and Services, is one of several leaders who has promoted the Working Systemically approach within the center. "The approach has helped ESC leaders become focused on the bigger picture, which has broken down the walls that kept us from working together," says Vara. "For example, instead of making budget decisions separately, department heads meet and discuss the budget together, considering what is best for the entire system. This focused vision now guides our entire organization."

Photo of teachers at a meeting.

A Comprehensive Approach

SEDL works through two regional comprehensive centers to assist state and district educators with meeting the challenges of underachieving schools. The Southeast Comprehensive Center serves state and local educators in Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, and South Carolina. The Texas Comprehensive Center serves state and regional educators in Texas. Both comprehensive centers use the Working Systemically approach as a way to support school improvement. SEDL staff developed and refined this approach through intensive site work with 60 schools and districts across five states from 2000 to 2005.