The "Works" of Working Systemically

SEDL designed its Working Systemically approach to build on the strengths of existing school reform models while addressing their limitations. In most cases, school leaders are asked to commit to 3 to 5 years of work rather than a "quick fix" to school improvement. However, this does not mean that quick wins cannot be attained early in the process. Research indicates the importance of quick wins to build momentum and engender early support from a critical mass of individuals in an organization (Herman, et al., 2008). However, because this approach is designed to create changes in fundamental aspects of the organization, adequate time must be anticipated and allotted to make this a reality.

The Working Systemically approach helps districts and schools move from a patchwork and fragmented improvement effort to a more coherent way of operating. This approach focuses on three dimensions (shown in Figure 1) that must be considered in order to effect deep and lasting improvement.

cube with three sides, text to follow

Figure 1. Dimensions of the Working Systemically Approach

Levels of the System

A systems approach involves all levels of the educational enterprise (i.e., national, state, intermediate agencies, district, school, and classroom). These levels designate "the who" of the system. Improvement efforts designed to increase student achievement must be coordinated at each of these levels because each level plays a critical part in supporting and sustaining student achievement. Listed below are the six levels of the system that are integrated throughout the Working Systemically approach.

National Level
Agencies and policymakers at the national level focus attention on key educational issues and ensure equal access to education. At this level, policy is established for federal funding for education, as well as how those funds are distributed and monitored. Agencies at the national level also oversee data collection across the states and provide resources for dissemination of research.

State Level
States enact statewide policy and prescribe mandates, guidelines, incentives, and sanctions designed to support and ensure student achievement. State agencies and policymakers create standards that define what students are supposed to know and be able to do at designated grade levels, and they oversee assessments of student achievement and statewide accountability systems. Technical assistance for schools in need of improvement is also provided through statewide efforts.

Intermediate Agency Level
Intermediate agencies (e.g., education service centers, universities) are authorized to implement initiatives assigned by the legislature or education commissioner and to assist districts and schools in operating more efficiently and effectively. Core services provided by this level of the system include training to improve instruction and program implementation, as well as special assistance to low-performing campuses. Intermediate agencies also assist districts in complying with state laws and rules and with state or federal special education requirements. This level of the system provides training and assistance to teachers, administrators, members of district boards of trustees, and members of site-based decision-making committees.

District Level
Local policies that are a vital part of improving student achievement are developed at the district level. By determining how policy is implemented and how personnel and other resources are assigned, leaders reinforce the message that increasing student achievement is a district priority and help maintain the schools' and district's focus on improving student achievement.

School Level
At the school level, teachers and administrators come together to create structures and processes to support teaching and learning. This level has long been the focal point for most accountability systems aimed at improving student achievement. The culture established at the school level determines the extent to which collaboration and shared decision making among professional staff are the norm.

Classroom Level
It is at this level that teachers create the conditions in which students can acquire the knowledge and skills prescribed by standards and curriculum documents. Teachers implement instructional strategies and students and teachers interact directly with the content at the classroom level. Relationships established at this level are extremely critical to the overall culture of the school and can enhance or diminish the context in which students learn.

Components of the System

The components represent "the what" of the system. Eight components in the Working Systemically approach are the aspects of the education system on which schools, districts, and state departments typically focus their work. Processes that support each of the components need to be planned and coordinated with the common intention of meeting student achievement goals.

• Standards
Standards are defined in state documents and describe what students are expected to know and be able to do in broad terms at defined intervals of their educational experience. Districts and schools are expected to use standards to develop and refine their curriculum and to guide instruction. Whereas most districts and schools use state standards as the basis for their curriculum, high-performing schools and districts take time to examine the standards deeply and determine how to include them in a curriculum. States are increasingly aligning their state-level assessment tools to these standards, and since these accountability systems determine a school's performance rating, focusing on standards is a starting point for efforts designed to increase student achievement.

• Curriculum
Curriculum defines more precise district expectations of what students should know and be able to do and ideally provides a scope and sequence for learning, as well as appropriate instructional strategies and resources. A quality curriculum is aligned to state standards and provides a road map to ensure coherence across subject areas and grade levels, making it easier for schools and teachers to organize and deliver instruction.

• Instruction
Instruction is the "how" of teaching and describes the strategies used to deliver a curriculum. Strong teachers select evidence-based instructional strategies and adapt their instruction to address standards as well as the needs and interests of individual students. They refine their instruction by aligning lessons to the standards and curriculum and by continually analyzing the impact of their instruction on student achievement through examination of student work.

• Assessment
Assessment consists of formal and informal procedures that provide teachers, schools, districts, and states a means for measuring student progress toward meeting state standards and goals set by the district and school. A viable assessment system uses multiple sources of data to provide ongoing measures of the progress students are making towards meeting standards. It also provides information about the quality of instruction and the progress schools are making.

• Resources
Resources include the financial assets available to a system for providing the books, supplies, equipment, and materials that support instruction; the time available for instruction, professional collaboration, and staff development; and personnel to carry out the district and school improvement plans. Decisions about resource allocation must be aligned with any improvement efforts if they are to be truly systemic.

• Professional Staff
Professional staff takes into consideration the recruitment and retention of high-
quality personnel across the system. Decisions about the selection, development,
and deployment of personnel should reflect the needs, focus areas, and priorities
of the system.

• Policy and Governance
Policy and governance describe the rules and procedures—conceived at the national, state, and local levels—that are to be followed and how decisions are made to implement those rules and procedures.

• Family and Community
Family and community involvement in the educational process can either facilitate or impede the work of a system dedicated to improving the way it operates. It is important to build positive connections among teachers, parents, schools, and the community to utilize fully the many resources available to schools that can directly support student learning.

Competencies for Working Systemically

School improvement approaches commonly focus on one or more of the components of the system described above. However, they rarely provide adequate attention to strengthening the following core competencies that serve to sustain systemic improvement. The explanation of each competency provided below will help the change facilitator as he/she guides district and school leaders through the phases of Working Systemically, which will be introduced later. Maintaining a focus on these competencies is an extremely critical aspect of building system capacity to sustain improvement over time.

• Creating coherence
Creating coherence involves taking separate parts of a system and fitting them together to form a harmonious whole (Corallo & McDonald, 2002; Newmann, Smith, Allensworth & Bryk, 2001). Low-performing districts and schools typically respond to accountability systems and state and federal mandates in a piecemeal fashion. When a new need emerges, a new "fix" (often a new program) is found. This approach creates a fragmented system with little or no coherence among the "fixes."

With many different disconnected and incoherent reform efforts going on at once, people may work hard but become discouraged when they do not achieve desired results. Additionally, teachers and administrators often lack clarity about what the state standards require students to know and be able to do. In such cases, teachers draw almost exclusively from their textbooks and personal preferences for what should be taught and assessed. Teachers are sometimes unaware of research-based instructional strategies that actively engage students in learning. Administrators may have limited knowledge of what they should be looking for in classroom visits, how professional development should be designed, and where they should allocate their limited resources.

SEDL's systemic approach ensures a shared understanding of the extent to which curriculum, instruction, and assessment are aligned to state standards within the local system. It involves district and school leaders actively supporting a coordinated effort in this respect and avoiding competing priorities on a daily basis. Through both actions and words, effective leaders continually reinforce the premise that developing successful students who can meet challenging standards is the system's top priority. Engaging stakeholders at the classroom, school, and district levels in collaborative and purposeful work to improve teaching and learning is essential for creating a coherent instructional focus.

The following questions should guide the work to build this competency:

  1. Does the system have a curriculum that is aligned to state standards?
  2. Does the system ensure that the selection of programs and use of resources are aligned to the curriculum and student needs?
  3. Does the system have a curriculum scope and sequence that identifies what students should know and be able to do at each grade level?
  4. Does the system create clear expectations that teachers use a curriculum aligned to state standards to guide their instruction?
  5. Does the system ensure that content expertise is available and utilized appropriately so that research-based strategies are used in the classroom?

• Collecting, interpreting, and using data
Collecting, interpreting, and using data is essential to making sound decisions about improving schools and districts. Identifying trends and patterns in data from multiple sources helps leaders discover underlying factors contributing to core issues and problems that need to be addressed. A deeper understanding of the nature and root causes of student achievement challenges in the system enable leaders to make decisions that will lead to long-term solutions.

Many districts and schools typically examine data only in the form of student test results. They seldom explore further to discover underlying causes of low student achievement. As a result, they often act on hunches or beliefs that may or may not accurately represent what actually exists. This competency entails collecting data from multiple sources, arranging the data in a format that helps individuals interpret and draw conclusions, and using information from the data to take appropriate action.

SEDL's approach calls for building the capacity of the district and school staff to collect, interpret, and use data effectively. Trends and patterns in student learning data become apparent in longitudinal arrays of data. The achievement levels of various demographic groups of students within the school and district are disaggregated to identify where strengths and weaknesses exist. Perceptual data, collected through surveys and interviews with teachers, administrators, and others, are studied to uncover underlying attitudes and beliefs that influence action. School process data are used to determine, for example, how well district and school teams are functioning and whether professional development is impacting attitudes, beliefs, and actions. This information serves an important role in improvement planning.

The following questions should guide the work to build this competency:

  1. Does the system have a process for collecting and disaggregating student learning data and organizing them in an understandable and useful format?
  2. Does the system use multiple types of data (student achievement, demographic, perceptual, and school process) to attain a better understanding of problems and to formulate plans?
  3. Does the system have processes for turning data into action that provides timely interventions for students who are not mastering the standards?

Ensuring continuous professional learning
Systems that ensure continuous professional learning create job-embedded opportunities for all staff to develop their knowledge and skills. Key elements of effective professional development programs that are critical for sustaining improvement include

–relevance to district and school goals, needs, skill levels, and learning preferences of participants;
– a process that is long term and integrated into daily practice; and
– feedback to teachers about their progress in using the knowledge and skills learned (Mid-continent Research for Education and Learning, 2003).

Ensuring continuous professional learning needs to be ongoing, related to teacher and student needs, and embedded in the day-to-day work of planning and delivering instruction (Sparks & Hirsh, 1997). Successful school systems use multiple forms of data to identify needs of the staff for training and development. In these systems, principals participate directly in staff development sessions and take part in planning, conducting, implementing, and evaluating the effort. Schools that place an importance on professional learning provide adequate time for staff development and follow-up. In these schools, teachers are provided the support and materials that they need as they implement new instructional strategies.

The Working Systemically approach emphasizes professional learning that includes job-embedded opportunities for all staff to develop the knowledge and skills that are most effective for helping students meet challenging standards. The approach increases teachers' content expertise and promotes professional conversations about what to teach, how best to teach it, and how to adjust instruction to enable all students to meet the standards. This approach keeps the alignment of curriculum, instruction, and assessment to standards at the forefront of the improvement work.
The following questions should guide the work to build this competency:

  1. Does the system ensure that professional learning opportunities are data driven?
  2. Does the system ensure that professional development on research-based strategies is provided?
  3. Does the system provide adequate time for professional learning that is job embedded and promotes collaboration and active participation?
  4. Does the system set clear expectations for improving professional practice at all levels of the local system?
  5. Does the system monitor the implementation of new strategies and practices?

• Building relationships
Building relationships within the system does not happen serendipitously. District and school leaders must be deliberate in creating structures and processes that promote collaboration and collegiality. Ideally, teachers from different grade levels, subject areas, schools, and/or school districts collaborate regularly with one another to share their knowledge, ideas, and strategies. Additionally, school, district, family, and community leaders work together on a common vision for improving schools.

Research demonstrates the importance of building professional relationships based
on mutual respect and trust in the improvement process (Bryk & Schneider, 2002).
Within a context that supports change and inquiry, individuals throughout the system create a common vision and sense of community as they undertake challenges. Professional conversations about issues related to student achievement, in an environment in which individuals feel free to ask questions and actively listen to others, promote strong and productive relationships in districts and schools. The fundamental purpose of such interactions is to promote a shared understanding of and commitment to improvement efforts.

Low-performing districts and schools often need guidance in creating structures for collaboration and professional conversations. Lack of attention to relationship building prevents the district staff from knowing what teachers need in order to implement changes in instructional practices. Additionally, teachers frequently receive mixed messages about expectations and have limited information about what is being taught or what instructional strategies are being used by other teachers in their own department or grade level.

District and campus leadership teams provide structures for professional conversations and problem solving around issues central to student learning. This consistent focus on student learning, as well as structures for professional conversation, increases understanding of the needs of individuals at different levels of the system and provides mutual support so that everyone can accomplish the improvement work more effectively.

The following questions should guide the work to build this competency:

  1. Are there multiple structures (including time) for individuals at different levels of the local system to have professional conversations?
  2. Does the system encourage positive interactions among staff members?
  3. Do the leaders encourage positive interactions among schools—both vertically
    and horizontally?
  4. Does the system encourage positive interactions between the district and the schools?
  5. Does the system encourage positive interactions between the district and
    the community?

Responding to changing conditions
Educational systems today must adapt to myriad demographic, societal, economic, and political changes. Demands and expectations from national legislation, state accountability systems, parents, and other stakeholders exert pressure on districts and schools to change. Districts and schools are better equipped to face changing demographics and political pressures when individuals in the organizations are prepared to try new approaches and the organization promotes an atmosphere of continuous learning for adults as well as students.

The ability to respond effectively to changing conditions requires identifying and proactively addressing emerging or evolving issues that impact student achievement. Typical changes that districts and schools confront include leadership transitions, resource allocation, availability of high-quality teachers, shifting demographics, state and local politics, and state and national policy. Districts and schools are better equipped to confront these and other pressures when individuals in the organizations are aware of appropriate evidence-based solutions and the organization promotes an atmosphere of continuous learning for adults as well as students.

The Working Systemically approach helps districts and schools shift from a reactive to a proactive stance and helps them make connections between changing conditions and their existing improvement efforts. Detailing steps in improvement plans that anticipate staff responses and needed resources to respond to the changing condition is a useful strategy. It is also important to provide opportunities for teams to analyze changing conditions extensively and explore research-based strategies to make decisions about how best to address the conditions.

The following questions should guide the work to build this competency:

  1. Are there processes for anticipating and recognizing changing conditions that affect multiple levels of the local system?
  2. Does the system promote and support innovations that help teachers and leaders adapt to changing conditions?
  3. Does the system keep the focus on teaching and learning when conditions or circumstances change?
  4. Does the system seek current and relevant "best practice" and research to address changing conditions?

Next Page: The Working Systemically Approach in Action