SEDL's Working Systemically Approach:
A Process Grounded in Research

In December 2000, the U.S. Department of Education awarded SEDL a 5-year contract to test a systemic approach designed to improve student achievement in reading or mathematics in low-performing districts and schools. Under that contract, SEDL staff worked in 23 districts and 49 schools across its five-state region—Arkansas, Louisiana, New Mexico, Oklahoma, and Texas—to implement and refine the approach. Each of the sites included the school district office and at least one school. Some of the sites were rural, some suburban, some urban. All were low performing.

The SEDL team drew upon more than 3 decades of school reform research and theory in designing its Working Systemically approach. The studies by Edmonds (1979) and others (Bossert, 1985; Hallinger & Murphy, 1986; Jenlink, Reigeluth, Carr, & Nelson, 1998; Teddlie & Stringfield, 1993; and Stringfield, 1995) had described rather consistently the correlates, or characteristics, of effective schools. What had yet to be explored was how to create such schools, particularly those that serve large populations of high-need students.

SEDL staff investigated a number of existing reform models that used a rational planning process to identify the gaps between effective and low-performing schools (Blum & Landis, 1998; Edmonds, 1979; Lezotte & Jacoby, 1992). However, it soon became apparent that many of the plans developed in such models addressed one particular gap, or problem, that manifested itself at one level of the system—most often at the building or classroom level. A common strategy in this type of approach is to identify a problem and find a program to fix it, then identify another problem and turn to another program to fix that one. These efforts typically result in pockets of success with some students, but they are less successful in reaching the majority of students.

Because the root cause of an identified gap is not always explored, schools typically focus on tackling the more apparent "symptoms" of their problem. Without identifying the underlying cause of the problem—often a fundamental malfunction in the local system—this problem never gets "fixed" and continues to have a negative impact on schools and classrooms. This approach is like seeing the water rise in a sinking boat (symptom of a problem) and bailing the water out (quick fix) rather than trying to fix the leak (the real problem). Addressing problems separately with solutions that are not aligned in a coordinated way with other efforts in the system creates complications and rarely results in the sustained improvement that system leaders are seeking. As schools nationwide face higher expectations and increased accountability with serious sanctions for low levels of student achievement, district and school leaders need to take stock and find the right leverage points that will bring about significant and sustainable change.

The SEDL team noted that as school reform research progressed, two different approaches gained popularity: the first focused on the school's curriculum and instruction program, the second on the organization of the school itself (see Cicchinelli, 1999; McDonnell, 1989; and Sashkin & Egermeier, 1993, for reviews). The team soon came to realize that the interaction between these factors could not be ignored. Questions also began to be raised about the role of the school district in the improvement process. These studies revealed a need to take a more systemic approach to improvement—to consider the interrelated roles of individuals at the district, school, and classroom level—to increase student achievement. Murphy & Meyers (2008) and Thornton, Peltier, & Perreault (2004) have also stressed the importance of a systemic solution in school reform.

The Working Systemically approach is a multidimensional process for school improvement focused on key components of the system that must be in place to support student achievement. Furthermore, leaders in the system must actively use a core set of competencies as they address components of the system. In order to ensure that the improvement is sustained for the long term, the Working Systemically approach targets multiple levels of the system. By simultaneously addressing the components and competencies at all levels, this approach results in systemwide improvement that increases student achievement.

While testing the approach, SEDL staff collected and analyzed data to design, evaluate, and refine specific steps for systemic improvement (Huie, Buttram, Deviney, Murphy, & Ramos, 2004). Student achievement data were collected from partner districts and schools throughout the project. The team used a quasi-experimental design to measure student achievement gains and matched each school in the study to a composite school that represented an aggregate of similar schools in that state. When viewed across all sites, the achievement gains were mixed, but there were encouraging results. Analyses between measures of systemic work and student outcomes across sites showed a statistically significant relationship between increased capacity to work systemically and student achievement in 2003 and 2004. Results also indicated that activities related to improved alignment of curriculum, instruction, and assessment were most closely related to
student achievement.

Three key findings emerged from the work:

  • In order to increase the probability of successfully improving student achievement, the district needs first to concentrate its efforts on aligning curriculum, instruction, and assessment to state standards.
  • Districts and schools should stop trying to address every problem with a unique solution and focus their improvement plans on activities that are small enough to be manageable but large enough to make a difference in student achievement.
  • Leaders at all levels of the system (including teacher leaders) need to support the selected focus so that the resources of time, personnel, and energy are targeted on that focal point.

In short, sites that focused their attention on alignment and approached their improvement work systemically were more likely to show gains in student achievement.

The effort required to implement the Working Systemically approach should not be underestimated. Adopting new and more effective research-based practices often requires changing long-established habits and patterns. To be successful, leaders must maintain a long-term commitment to implementing the approach, and staff members at all levels need to develop an understanding and ownership of the process. To support these changes, the Working Systemically approach provides strategies to encourage and nurture a culture that promotes collaboration, continuous learning, and professional respect.

SEDL's systemic approach entails directly addressing the issues (at all levels of the system) that have most impact upon student achievement and increasing the competencies of everyone (at all levels of the system) involved in the improvement work. This is necessary to avoid an haphazard approach to increasing student achievement. In essence, schools must make some fundamental changes in how they operate.

Next Page: The "Works" of Working Systemically