California Department of Education
Taking Center Stage – Act II

Provide curriculum and instructional leadership

School professionals often feel bombarded by national, state, county, and district reform documents and mandates. Superintendents and board members can minimize confusion and overload by ensuring that the focus stays on results: Which instructional strategies help middle grades students learn to master the state-adopted content standards?

A Delicate Balance: District Policies and Classroom Practice (PDF; Outside Source) showed the negative impact of districtwide reforms that did not focus on instruction. The districts in the study “largely failed to communicate and translate their ‘big ideas’ into improved instruction because their tools and mandates were not informed by school level expertise and were not accompanied by the kind of support and capacity-building necessary to change instruction.”1

Based on the study findings, the authors made the following recommendations for district leaders who are working toward instructional improvement:

  1. Superintendents need to have a vision of good instruction.
  2. Central office leaders should evaluate policies and mandates based on how they help principals and teachers improve instruction and student learning.
  3. Districts should be responsible for providing a plan, a realistic timeline, and sufficient resources to build staff capacity when new instructional policies are adopted.
  4. Student academic needs should drive the district’s policy agenda.
  5. Professional development should be school-based and embedded in teachers’ daily work.
  6. If teachers and principals are to focus on instruction, central office demands need to be drastically reduced.2

A book from WestEd called Central Office Inquiry: Assessing Organization, Roles, and Functions to Support School Improvement (2006) (Outside Source) offers practical advice to help district staff develop a plan for continuous school improvement. WestEd researchers found that leaders in successful districts (1) align their efforts to a shared theory about how to achieve school improvement; (2) engage in frequent, open communication and establish a common vocabulary with each other and their schools; and (3) maintain focus in the face of external demands and distractions.

In the Spotlight

Snowline Joint Unified School District
The district exited "program improvement" status based on 2006 data. The district had not met adequate yearly progress targets for special education students. According to the district’s assistant superintendent, the teacher-led Focus on Standards initiative made the difference. The districtwide initiative has five components: (1) common standards, (2) pacing, (3) common assessments, (4) structured teacher planning time (STPT), and (5) instructional changes and interventions based on STPT.

The district provides extensive and ongoing professional development to support the initiative. At a minimum, grade-span teachers spend 90-120 minutes during biweekly professional development sessions. Teacher leaders guide discussions about instructional changes based on data from the district’s benchmark assessments.

In addition to subject-specific meetings, special education and English learner coaches lead meetings for special education and EL teachers during separate STPT meetings. Because of the sessions, the district reports increased trust between teachers and decreased isolation.

Prior to each teacher planning time session, coaches meet with district staff by grade span for subject-specific training. During this time, coaches analyze data for the upcoming STPT session and become familiar with the data. The district supports the schools by preparing the data for each coaching session and STPT session.

The STPT Summary Form provides space for coaches to record major data-based conclusions, immediate instructional changes, and requests for additional support. The district uses the forms to monitor progress. Principals meet with the district for several half-days per year to discuss issues recorded on the Summary Forms.3

Keep a focus on accountability

School Site Leadership

1 A Delicate Balance: District Policies and Classroom Practice (PDF; Outside Source). Chicago: Cross City Campaign for Urban School Reform, 2005, 4.
2 Ibid., 10.
3 Support for School Improvement e-Newsletter (Outside Source). A joint project of the Council of Chief State School Officers and the Center on Innovation and Improvement, March 2007.

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