From Dougal's Desk - Making System Redesign Happen

December 11, 2017 • Volume #3: On Leadership

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A little more than two years ago, Pennsylvania’s Secretary of Education, Pedro Rivera, asked NISL to help support his statewide Poverty and Student Achievement Initiative. Secretary Rivera wanted to drive school reform in the state through an intense focus on both excellence and equity with particular attention paid to students in poverty. We quickly found common ground in our joint desire to address the pervasive ways in which the traditional education system perpetuates the cycles of poverty in America. In short, we both saw the need for a systemic solution.

NISL has long been working alongside the Pennsylvania Department of Education (PDE) supporting the development of school leaders across the state and has made great strides in having school administrators re-envision their roles as system designers and key drivers of equity. Evaluations had demonstrated that our work together was positively impacting instruction and student learning across entire schools by engaging a single leader in the school building. At the same time, NCEE’s research on top-performing systems across the globe was pointing towards system elements that were beyond the principal’s control—at the equivalent of the district level—as the drivers of dramatically improved student performance at scale. The logical next step for NISL was to engage district superintendents. Secretary Rivera was thinking the same thing. He wanted the superintendents throughout the Commonwealth to think big, focus on students and follow the evidence. He had no interest in the latest education fads or silver bullet solutions. It was music to our ears because we had been having our own internal discussions focused on finding a few state partners who were courageous enough to tackle the systems problem we face in education across our country.

So in May 2016, NISL partnered with PDE to begin working directly with more than 90 superintendents across the Commonwealth, and we are now more than halfway through the inaugural Pennsylvania Secretary of Education’s Superintendent’s Academy, a two-year program of intense study and implementation. A second cohort of 60 superintendents kicked off just last month. The focus has been on providing these superintendents with the support they need to be the architects of district systems that are designed to create equitable access to opportunities for learning—including equitable access to excellent educators—for all students. It is important to note that this group of almost 100 superintendents is not only receiving support from NISL and PDE, they are also supporting each other in unprecedented ways across the far reaches of the state.

I will likely make numerous references to this work in Pennsylvania in future installments since I think much of the work being done by these superintendents is ground-breaking, however for now I want to focus on one relatively small, digestible sub-system of the larger design to give you a sense of what we, at NISL, mean by “system design.” I use the phrase “relatively small” cautiously because while teacher recruitment and preparation is but one piece of a much larger system, it is by no means small.

As part of the Superintendent’s Academy in Pennsylvania, each superintendent is required to implement an Action Learning Project focused on at least one of the three major sub-systems that drive student performance in the top-performing jurisdictions across the world. Those sub-systems are (i) highly-aligned instructional systems built within a qualification system; (ii) high-quality teachers and teaching; and (iii) high-performance management and organization. The Action Learning Projects the Pennsylvania superintendents are engaged in give them an opportunity to apply the conceptual knowledge they have been building, both individually and collectively, over the last year and a half. And these Action Learning Projects are far from individual projects, as the following example will illustrate.

As part of their studies, the superintendents had learned how top-performing systems closely coordinate and align teacher preparation with the schools that will employ them. Inspired by the potential to systemically improve the quality of instruction in their schools, two superintendents in the Academy decided to do a joint Action Learning Project focused on the quality of the preparation of new teachers coming into their schools. This might strike you as an odd area of focus for superintendents since new teachers are trained largely in the post-secondary system and not in the K-12 system. These two superintendents’ districts are geographically close together and source many of their new teachers each year from the same local university, so they felt they had some leverage with which to approach the university. Ultimately, they recruited three additional superintendents, who were not a part of the Academy, to partner with them. But armed with strength in numbers, they did not then go storming into the university president’s office demanding change. Instead, they brought the university a great opportunity. The opportunity is to give that university’s education school students a more robust student-teacher experience than they could get anywhere else. The university’s students would have significantly longer student-teaching experiences that would include mentorship from highly-qualified teachers in each school in which they were placed. Additionally, these school districts invited the professors from the university to spend more time in their K-12 schools, working side-by-side with the student teachers and the highly-qualified teacher mentors to conduct research and strengthen their own courses back at the university.

The university has understandably seen just how valuable this could be for them in attracting students to their school of education. And if there was any doubt, I can report that the initial orientation meeting for the program this fall was attended by more than 80 education school students, 50% of whom signed up on the spot for this opportunity to build their capacity and make them more effective future teachers. This opportunity was enticing for these students despite the fact that the criteria for entering the program were highly rigorous, including a GPA requirement, interviews and evidence of the aspiring teacher’s desire to work with young people. Indeed, the opportunity was so inviting to these students precisely because it was designed to be competitive. The evidence shows time and time again that students want to be held to clearly defined high standards and that they will rise to those expectations. This is precisely what those aspiring teachers want. They want to join a true profession, one with high standards for entry, and to work in an environment designed to give them all the necessary support to be highly effective in their jobs from mentors who are highly effective themselves.

I was lucky enough to be part of a group of about 30 people, 25 of whom are current superintendents in Pennsylvania, who visited this university and met with their dean of education and the faculty as well as the five superintendents in their partner districts to hear them describe how all of this work came about. They described how eye-opening the conversations were at the beginning for both sides – how little they actually knew about each other’s institutions, their needs, their incentives and their structures. This was not an exercise in finger pointing. Instead, it was a collective acknowledgement that both sides needed to take joint responsibility for improving the quality of the preparation of tomorrow’s teachers and that both sides had an integral role to play in that improvement. It would take looking differently at (a) recruitment into this new program, (b) the preparation experience, and (c) the quality of the mentoring those students would receive by all sides to create the type of mutually reinforcing incentives and supports necessary to create a truly systemic approach to redefining what it would mean to be a teacher in these districts and what it would mean to be a student at the education school in that university.

By the time our visit had concluded, there were 25 superintendents clamoring for help in how they could establish a similar partnership with the schools of education in their own region of the state.  As the Academy progresses, there could be 100 or even 500 superintendents in Pennsylvania who do the same. But this joint Action Learning Project is not just about establishing a new university partnership; it is about taking the first step towards redesigning their districts with structures, supports and incentives specifically designed to create the best and most equitable student outcomes in the world. Provided with models of successful systems and opportunities to evaluate their local context, superintendents can develop a vision and the strategies to do just that. Now that is how you start to turn conceptual understanding into reality.