The District’s Role in School Improvement


September 27, 2017


Increasing student achievement in low-performing schools often depends on district leadership—but the district’s role in school improvement isn’t set in stone.

Through Success Now!, Education Northwest’s collaborative and research-based approach to school improvement, we have found that it’s beneficial for all involved parties to reflect on who should decide what needs to be done (i.e., the priorities) and how it will get done (i.e., the actions to take).

To support reflection on what works best for every district’s culture and context, we created a free downloadable tool that describes four adaptable decision-making models regarding the district’s role in school improvement:

  1. District sets priorities and controls actions
  2. District sets priorities, and school controls actions
  3. School sets priorities and controls actions
  4. School sets priorities, and district controls actions

Based on conversations about these models, here are three takeaways for district leaders:

Communicate your thinking and make sure there is shared understanding. Explicitly defining how decision-making will be shared is well worth the effort. Not only does it clarify roles and responsibilities, it gives all sides an opportunity to articulate their needs.

For example, the superintendent of a small district in Washington state told his principals their improvement efforts needed to focus on reading and that the schools should decide the corresponding goals and how to achieve them.

In addition, the superintendent required the schools to collect data, regularly report on progress and consult one another throughout the year. He also asked school leaders to demonstrate how their individual efforts contributed to a stronger K–12 experience for students.

Clearly conveying these expectations helped avoid misunderstandings and surprises at the end of the year, which was good for everybody.

Align resources, processes and responsibilities to your approach and decisions. Each decision-making model requires a different template for school improvement. For example, when districts set priorities for schools, sharing the data driving those decisions encourages school buy-in. And when districts delegate decisions to schools, they may need to provide support for school-level strategic planning and data-driven decision-making. Some things always remain constant, however, such as the importance of early agreement about required resources (e.g., professional development) and frequent communication about progress.

In addition, using data to align your approach and decisions can lead districts and schools to rethink their roles. This happened at a large district in Idaho, where we conducted a data review and classroom observations to determine the root causes of districtwide literacy challenges.

We found that deficiencies stemmed from a gap in foundational reading instruction at the elementary level. This prompted the district and school teams to refocus their improvement efforts, concentrating on systematic instruction in reading across elementary schools and leaving the secondary schools out for now. The district also realized it was operating under the second decision-making model, but the data indicated the first model was necessary for improvement.

Build relationships to maximize your approach. Determining a path is essential, but the quality of interactions between districts and schools is often what makes or breaks any school improvement effort.

To strengthen their relationship, schools and districts must take risks and learn together. This requires trust, which may need to be developed.

For example, in a large Washington district, five school leadership teams partnered with district staff members on a complex curriculum-restructuring effort. But before diving into the work, everyone reflected on challenges that had sunk earlier reform efforts and brainstormed ways they could have worked together more effectively.

After this reflection process, all the stakeholders decided they needed to have a more collaborative approach, and they agreed to work harder at sharing leadership, responsibilities and accountability.

In the end, who makes the decisions matters less than having everyone read from the same playbook. Additionally, working with a clear model in mind allows both the district and schools to take collective responsibility—which is a true formula for success.

Download our free tool designed to help district and school leadership teams chart their course for school improvement decision-making.