Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Key Elements Associated with District-wide Improvement

What follows is a summary of my recently completed dissertation investigating factors 
affecting district-wide improvement in student learning.

            Expectations to improve student learning throughout the nation continue exert pressure at all levels of public education. National and state accountability measures have set benchmarks for student outcomes that impact both school and district levels. Alternatives to traditional public education such as home schooling, charter schools and online learning continue to gain favor partly due to the perception that the schools and districts are not capable of delivering the type of programs that will result in stronger students results as measured by national and international indicators.
            While a focus on school improvement dominates the research, an emphasis on the district brings issues of equity to the forefront and underscores the importance of providing strong instructional programs to all students throughout the district. Research has identified the fundamental influence the district plays in school reform initiatives and its participation influences the outcomes of school-by-school reforms as noted by McLaughlin and Talbert (2003). 
            Research has also considered factors associated with district-wide improvement such as superintendent leadership, external resources such as foundations and national commissions, and school board relationships. This study utilized the lens of factors that cut across such elements. Relying on a review of the extant research, three district-reform factors appeared relevant to district improvement: a clear district instructional vision, the commitment and capacity to enact the vision, and the use of a multi-level data system as a means of providing feedback on progress towards the vision. The work of Supovitz (2006), Elmore & Burney (1997), and Spillane &Thompson (1997) served as primary resources for this investigation.
            Seeking to identify differences in the presence and impact of the key district-reform factors in two California unified school districts, this study included one district which had been improving significantly better than state growth compared with one that had grown less than the state average over a five school-year period. Along with considering differences in the perceived presence of the three factors, the study sought to identify differences in perceived impact on site leadership capacity and teacher self-efficacy and job satisfaction.

            The study’s methodology can be described as an exploratory comparative case study. An exploratory factor analysis involving results from an online survey yielded a set of empirically-based factors consisting of district- based initiative and actions, site-based instructional decision making and, site leadership associated with the survey. These factors provided an alternate perspective used to organize data and an additional lens to consider the impact of the three research-based factors. Total population and two within-group samples were compared between districts.

            Findings were based on the online survey of staffs and semi-structured interviews. Differences surfaced in perceptions and actions of district-wide staff associated with district vision, commitment and capacity building, data use, and site leadership variables. No differences were found in the presence of teacher self-efficacy and job satisfaction between the two districts.  A summary of the perceived facilitators and impediments to district reform is shown below.

Click here for the summary table.
            While limited in their generalizability, the results appear to point out the influence of a district instructional vision on district commitment, professional development, and site leadership.