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

Chapter 2: Promoting System-Wide Learning

Effective inclusive schools require shared leadership practices leading to system-wide learning. Shared leadership practices help a school district improve educator performance and learning outcomes for all students. System-wide learning involves:

  • observing the effectiveness of improvement strategies;
  • using data to drive decision-making; and
  • engaging in systematic and collaborative inquiry.

System-wide learning supports districts’ ongoing efforts to improve instructional outcomes for all learners. The practices included in this domain empower everyone, at every level of the system, to take responsibility for the whole system.

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Superintendent Englehart describes his district’s use of an Ohio-specific process to promote system-wide learning and improve instructional decision-making. Although unique to Ohio, the steps in the Ohio process resemble what is typical among action research processes, in general (4:02).

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Amanda McNinch, Director of Special Services in the Struthers City (OH) schools, explains how her district’s  team structures facilitate communication and collaborative instructional practices among general education teachers, special education teachers, and other educators. Team structures better support all students, including students with disabilities, by giving voice to multiple perspectives (1:12).

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System-wide learning is very different from compliance-based improvement. It is more inventive and more focused on local needs and inclusive education goals than a standardized, one-size-fits-all model. It takes into account the experiences and outcomes that the district values for its students, their families, and the community. Superintendent Englehart explains (1:13). 

Note that, in Ohio, leadership teams operate statewide in each school and district. The DLT is the district leadership team, the BLT is the building leadership team, and TBTs are teacher-based teams. The latter are typically grade-level or subject-matter focused, but they can be reconfigured as needed. 

The Four Leadership Practices of System-Wide Learning

System-wide learning is based on the use of four leadership practices that are strongly supported by research:

  • using focused improvement strategies;
  • using data wisely;
  • relying on evidence-based instructional practices; and
  • engaging in systematic and collaborative inquiry.

The four practices work together and interact with each other: What happens with respect to one practice affects the others (see Figure 1). See McNulty and Besser (2014) for a compatible view of systemic leadership.

Figure 1. System-Wide Learning

Figure 1 is titled "System-Wide Learning." In the center of the illustration is a diamond-shaped text box labeled "System-Wide Learning." At each of the four points of the diamond is a double-headed arrow. Each arrow points to a circle and, from the circle, back toward the diamond-shaped text box. Inside the four circles are the leadership practices that work together and interact with each other in system-wide learning. The top circle is labeled with the practice "Focused Strategies," the left-hand circle is labeled "Using Data Wisely," the bottom circle is labeled "Evidence-Based Practices," and the right-hand circle is labeled "Collaborative Inquiry."

Using focused improvement strategies across the system means developing, implementing, and monitoring a small number of district-wide improvement strategies—three or four at most. Limiting the number of strategies is critical. Many districts suffer from running too many improvement initiatives at once. Actual improvement requires that district efforts have a unified focus. And the implementation and monitoring of the strategies must ensure that everyone is on board.

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Bethany Carlson, former Principal of Struthers Elementary School in the Struthers City Schools, talks about selecting improvement strategies and monitoring their effect (2:06).

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Pete Pirone, Superintendent of the Struthers City Schools, explains the structures for monitoring improvement strategies in the district (1:28).

A number of researchers, including Michael Fullan, have studied the effects of scale on improvement initiatives. They have found that improvement in larger systems takes longer and is more complex. Larger, more bureaucratic systems often favor specialization over flexibility. This feature of larger systems makes it easier to implement certain strategies, such as those requiring a higher level of content expertise among teachers (e.g., elementary math specialization, instructional coach, gifted education teacher, teacher of the deaf-blind). However,  this feature makes it more difficult to implement other strategies, such as those that require greater functional integration and collaboration across assigned roles (e.g., between a general education teacher and special education teacher). In small districts, of course, there are often fewer resources for improvement efforts, and traditional ways of doing things can be slow to give way to new approaches. Nonetheless, larger systems prove harder to change on average.

Using data wisely as a system depends on all the parts of the system learning to use data well. District leadership must set expectations for data use and ensure that everyone in the system knows how to collect, analyze, and interpret data, including data for students with significant disabilities. These understandings are essential for effective data-based decision-making. It takes a lot of learning across the system for everyone to use data judiciously to inform and guide positive change, not to diminish, constrain, or punish.

Educators need to recognize that using data well (and wisely) involves much more than just looking at test scores that purport to show student learning. There are many sources of data, including interviews, observations, surveys, testing, and focus groups. Data can be gathered from teachers, leadership teams, parents, students, or community members, or from a combination of groups. Efforts to collect, analyze, and present data must be carefully planned and carried out.

There are three principles that apply to using data wisely:

  1. Data must be of good quality, characterized by accuracy, precision, validity, reliability, and consistency.
  2. Data must be used well to support decision-making that relates to enhancing all students’ learning.  Using data poorly—for example using data primarily for compliance purposes—can undermine organizational capacity, systemic learning, and educational improvement.
  3. Using data wisely builds capacity by supporting system-wide learning, illuminating what truly has an impact, and improving the quality of decision-making across the whole system.

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Former principal Bethany Carlson describes some types of data considered by teacher teams in her district to impact all students (1:31).

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Bethany Carlson also explains how data on student learning and teacher performance are collected and used to inform instructional conversations among members of leadership teams in the district (2:00).

The use of evidence-based instructional practices is a critical part of system-wide learning. Decisions about the instructional practices to adopt should be informed by evidence, such as published studies, research syntheses, and meta-analyses. Research findings can help educators choose instructional practices that have been shown to be effective in general (e.g., formative assessment, Universal Design for Learning, peer support arrangements). Decisions regarding the use of evidence-based practices also benefit from local efforts to test how well a particular evidence-based practice can be implemented in a particular district, school, or classroom. 

To build system-wide capacity, district leaders can expand data-focused conversations about inclusive and evidence-based instructional practices. These leaders must ensure coherence across the system by calibrating instructional practices to the district’s system-wide improvement strategies. For example, if effective use of formative assessment is a district-wide strategy, then coherence would be achieved by implementing classroom grading practices that match the strategy.

Once evidence-based practices are adopted, it’s essential to monitor student progress as well as district, school, and teacher team implementation of instructional practices. Data about implementation levels (and fidelity) are extremely important because they help leadership teams determine why student performance is, or is not, improving. Many student performance measures also help educators make decisions about instruction: formative and progress-monitoring assessments, short-cycle assessments, and benchmark assessments. When teams determine that agreed-upon practices aren’t working optimally, they need to make mid-course corrections in the use of those practices.

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Superintendent Englehart describes the system-wide use of data in the Painesville City Local School District (OH) (3:47).

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Stephen Barr, Assistant Commissioner of the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, explains how data systems in Missouri’s school districts measure impact, support instructional conversations, and equip district leadership teams to make adjustments in instruction throughout the school year (2:40).

Focused strategies, effective data use, and concern for evidence all coalesce in the final practice supporting system-wide learning:  systematic and collaborative inquiry. For a whole system to use collaborative inquiry effectively, the effort has to be systematic, regular, thorough, deep, and wide in scope. Educators frame questions—sometimes difficult questions—and the answers they arrive at through their examination of data lead to critical decisions. These decisions have the potential to make the system inclusive of and effective for all students.

Inquiry depends on an organizational culture in which everyone is asking good questions and developing good answers. The process requires openness, forthrightness, trust, and tolerance for ambiguity, in a culture that supports, and is supported by, collaborative inquiry.

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Assistant Commissioner Barr describes the establishment of an interconnected system and collaborative culture to support system-wide inquiry and improvement (1:22).

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Superintendent Englehart reflects on the time and commitment needed to establish system-wide learning, and credits Ohio’s school improvement structures with facilitating development of a collaborative culture in which the conversation of inquiry flourishes (1:38).