Systems Improvement for All Students, Including Students with Significant Cognitive Disabilities

Systems Improvement for All Students, Including Students with Significant Cognitive Disabilities

For years, school systems across the country have been engaged in the work of improving instructional outcomes and inclusive environments for all students, including those with significant cognitive disabilities. Some districts have made progress. Yet, overall, improvement efforts have not produced sufficient gains (e.g., Blacker, 2013), and inclusion for students with significant cognitive disabilities still seems to be the exception rather than the norm (e.g., Hoppey & McCleskey, 2014). What can school districts learn from the few districts that have made notable gains?

Moving Your Numbers , a research project sponsored by the National Center for Educational Outcomes, found commonalities in what leadership looks like in districts where all students are performing well. See Bryk and associates (2015) and Grissom and associates (2021) for related perspectives on district and school improvement, respectively.

According to Stephen Barr, Missouri’s Assistant Commissioner in the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, “Moving Your Numbers… gave us a clear indication of common elements of school districts that succeeded in spite of what the standard expectations might be.”

The leadership framework based on this research points to four domains of effective practice that are similar to Fullan and Quinn (2016):

  • promoting system-wide learning;
  • prioritizing the improvement of teaching and learning;
  • building capacity through support and accountability; and
  • sustaining an open and collaborative culture.

This Video Journal focuses on these four leadership domains. The specific practices included in these domains promote improvement in the quality and equity of schooling inputs and outcomes (Fullan, 2016, 2018). They rely on systems thinking (Senge, 1990).

Six educational leaders from three states talk about their experience and engagement across these four domains. In order of their appearance, these colleagues are:

  • Josh Englehart, Superintendent of the Painesville City Local School District (OH);
  • Amanda McNinch, Director of Special Services in the Struthers City Schools (OH);
  • Bethany Carlson, former principal of Struthers Elementary School (OH); 
  • Pete Pirone, Superintendent of the Struthers City Schools (OH);
  • Stephen Barr, Assistant Commissioner of the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education; and
  • Michael McCormick, Superintendent of Val Verde Unified Schools (CA)A.

In the last decades of the 20th century, educators and researchers seeking to improve public schooling took a new approach: considering the educational system as a whole. This systemic view calls for organizational learning, collaborative decision-making, and purposeful collective action. It is not about finding the one best solution. Instead, it focuses on local responsiveness, accountability to one another, and mindful leadership (e.g., Bryk et al., 2015; Elmore, 2017; Fixsen et al., 2015; Jackson et al., 2018).

Systems Thinking: A New Approach to Educational Leadership

The systemic approach does away with the sole reliance on top-down management of the past, in which district administrators decided on programs and changes that were then supposed to be implemented by teachers with little understanding of the practices or the ideas behind them. In the systemic approach, by contrast, school personnel join with district leaders in thinking about the challenges and deciding how best to respond to them (Hargreaves et al., 2007; Leithwood & Seashore-Lewis, 2011; Spillane & Thompson, 1998).

This approach is often known as “shared leadership” (e.g., Fullan, 2010, 2011). With shared leadership, teachers more fully understand and embrace the reforms they implement. When district leadership guides and supports reforms that have been explored, selected, and clarified together with those who will implement them, the best of both worlds is attained. This approach ensures that the commitment to inclusive schools belongs to everyone, not just those in positions of authority.

Video from the Web version of this publication:

JoshVideo1 retag:

Josh Englehart, Superintendent of the Painesville City Local School District in Ohio, describes how a top-down and ground-up approach is achieved in his district (2:01).

The District is the Catalyst for Improvement

Supported by effective leadership—leadership combining top-down and ground-up approaches—improvement work has the greatest impact when it is carried out at the district (or LEA) level. As part of the communities they serve, school districts are in the best position to understand the needs and concerns of students, families, and educators in building responsive and inclusive systems. Moreover, districts have the autonomy to address stakeholders’ needs and the ability to support initiatives across multiple schools. Without district sponsorship, individual schools can sometimes improve, but their improvement tends to be short-lived. Regional service providers and state education agencies (SEAs) provide critical support, but they are too far removed from local communities to fully understand needs or to choose strategies that resonate with community values and practices.


University of Cincinnati, Systems Development & Improvement Center

All rights reserved. Any or all portions of this document may be reproduced without prior permission, provided the source is cited as:

  • University of Cincinnati, Systems Development & Improvement Center. (2021). Systems Improvement for All Students, Including Students with Significant Cognitive Disabilities. Retrieved from TIES Center, University of Minnesota website:

TIES Center is supported through a Cooperative Agreement (#H326Y170004) with the Research to Practice Division, Office of Special Education Programs, U.S. Department of Education. The Center is affiliated with the National Center on Educational Outcomes (NCEO) at the Institute on Community Integration (ICI), College of Education and Human Development, University of Minnesota. The contents of this report were developed under the Cooperative Agreement from the U.S. Department of Education, but do not necessarily represent the policy or opinions of the U.S. Department of Education or Offices within it. Readers should not assume endorsement by the federal government. Project Officer: Susan Weigert

The National Center on Educational Outcomes leads the TIES Center partnership. There are six additional collaborating partners: Arizona Department of Education, CAST, University of Cincinnati, University of Kentucky, University of North Carolina – Charlotte, and University of North Carolina – Greensboro.

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