Skip to content
ascd logo

Join
June 1, 2017
Vol. 74
No. 9

Staying Centered in a Compliance-Driven World

Principals need to make student learning the centerpiece of school reform efforts. How can district leaders help?

premium resources logo

Premium Resource

School CulturePolicy
Staying Centered in a Compliance-Driven World- thumbnail
Credit: adventtr
A centerpiece on a table serves as the focal point and helps set the tone for the dinner. Although the other objects on the table are important and necessary, the right centerpiece enhances the guests' experience, causing them to linger at the table longer.
When it comes to school improvement, the centerpiece should be student learning. In practice, however, student learning sometimes gets pushed to the side. A multitude of mandates and initiatives handed down from the state or the district blur, confuse, and distract. Putting compliance at the center of principals' work diverts their attention from student learning, setting the wrong tone and even causing some principals to get up and leave the table. That's why school district leaders who support principals must rearrange the table and treat compliance as a utensil, rather than the centerpiece of reform.

The Need for Focus

Of course, districts must comply with federal and state mandates, and schools should align their efforts with district initiatives. But districts and schools that have seen vastly improved student achievement rarely cite state or federal mandates as the key to their success. Instead, these districts attribute their success to setting high expectations, building communities of learners, and engaging in continuous improvement around focused plans (Blankstein, 2004). Research has found that to move an organization, whether a school or a business, it's crucial to concentrate on a narrow set of priorities (Collins, 2001; Goodwin, 2011). Large-scale improvement in student outcomes doesn't happen without a tight instructional focus sustained over time (Elmore, 2008). Building and maintaining this type of focus requires persistence, which can easily get derailed by forces outside the organization.
The following scenario gets played out in schools across the United States. A principal has worked diligently to keep the school focused on a few goals; he's feeling good about the collaborative process through which his staff decided on a skinny school-improvement plan emphasizing formative assessment. Then the new wave of requirements from the state hits. These include, but are not limited to, a new training program for all teachers on how to teach English language learners, a new science curriculum, and new intervention protocols, all of which must be started in the next school year. It's no wonder the principal and staff become disillusioned.
The need to comply with demands from higher up can sabotage real reform efforts. Far too often, the fear of being out of compliance is so great that districts and schools allow these mandated reforms to lead their work. One of the most important ways for central office leaders to support principals is to help them shift how they look at and manage mandates and compliance.

Shifting the Focal Point

If we really believe that the mission of schooling is student learning, we must invert the school reform process. When we lead with compliance, reform starts at the state level with a focus on upholding state law and creating equity across the system; then moves to the district level, where the focus is staying in compliance; then to the school level, where the focus is keeping the district happy and the central office out of the way; and then to the teacher level, where the focus is keeping my job. Student learning tends to be an afterthought.
A better approach is to lead with students at the center (What do they know? What can they do?). Reform then moves to the teacher, with a focus on responding to what we know about students' needs; next to the school level, with a focus on continuous learning and improvement to help teachers respond better; then to the district, with a focus on supporting school efforts, and finally to the state, with a focus on helping school districts learn from each other.
Leading with compliance doesn't work for a variety of reasons. The most important one is that the reform doesn't start with the context in which the work is performed. When we're improving complex systems, there's no rigid, prescribed recipe that we can follow step-by-step. Each district within a state and each school within a district is in its own place on the continuum of improvement.
The further reform efforts are removed from the work, the less they will influence student learning. That's why it's crucial to shift the focus, putting student learning at the center and thus starting closest to the work. For the district, supporting school leaders in working from this vantage point must be a priority.
The new federal Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) gives state departments of education more freedom to abandon across-the-board mandates. While these new flexibilities in the law play out state by state, district leaders can start making this important shift now by adopting the following strategies.

Think Like an Event Planner

As a first step in helping principals put student learning at the center, central office leaders should think like event planners. Event planners work alongside party hosts, supporting them in making the important decisions necessary for a successful event. The planners' in-depth experience allows them to provide direction on determining the party theme. They pay attention to the little details that make or break an event.
In the same way, central office leaders can take care of the details that can distract principals from their work. For example, one state created a new mandate that increased the number of minutes students must be engaged in physical activity during the school day. Schools were required to submit their schedules to ensure that they were meeting the requirement. The central office had access to the schools' schedules, so rather than call everyone together to discuss and lament the new requirement, the central office leader worked with individual school administrators to adjust their schedules where needed. Schools that were already meeting the mandate were notified of the requirement through the district's weekly message, but they did not have to attend any meetings or submit their schedules because the central office took care of this reporting.

Take Small Bites Out of Compliance

Central office leaders can guide principals in approaching compliance by taking small bites and showing progress, rather than trying to fulfill the entire mandate at once. In the scenario we described earlier, in which the principal had three competing mandates looming (a teacher training program, a new science curriculum, and new intervention protocols), he could address these issues by having a small group of staff begin to study each initiative. Taking time to study the new science standards is a step toward implementation, but doesn't require the staff to start using the standards before they understand them and have had time to study the relevant curriculum documents. Although this might not be exactly what the state department had in mind, it demonstrates progress and attention to the issue. The district central office can act as a liaison between the school and the state education department to ensure that the implementation steps taken are sufficient. In other words, school leaders may be wise to follow Michael Fullan and Lyle Kirtman's (2016) advice: when it comes to compliance, go for the C rather than the A.

Chew on Process Feedback

Process feedback is important because it provides context for reform efforts and helps leaders determine whether to continue or retreat. When principals are aware of the effectiveness of their school improvement efforts and the importance of aligning this work, they're less likely to let compliance demands take over.
One strategy to support principals in collecting and analyzing process feedback so they can make effective decisions is the data consult process (Mausbach & Morrison, 2016). This process is designed to help the school principal synthesize multiple data points to construct meaning. During the consult process, central office leaders meet individually with the principal to review the data and provide support and insight. This process isn't about compiling a collection of graphs into a slick presentation; it's about having a meaningful conversation around the data and its implications, determining which data points are the most crucial for that specific school in that moment in time, and helping the principal think about what strategies worked and which processes and procedures were successful in reaching results.

Provide Layers of Support

The research is clear that school leadership affects student outcomes (Robinson, 2011). Principals make a profound difference in the trajectory of their schools, so it's paramount to put effective supports in place to help them do their job. Of course, one size doesn't fit all for principals any more than it does for teachers or students, so the district should differentiate by providing layers of support in the form of large-group, small-group, and one-on-one opportunities to learn.
One midsize urban district used large-group learning opportunities to help principals learn about a new curriculum that would increase the use of student-centered mathematics. Monthly professional development meetings gave school leaders an opportunity to share information about the new program with their colleagues. A second major layer of large-group support was a weekly communication to principals that provided the nuts and bolts of such topics as using manipulatives and adjusting the pace of instruction to follow the curriculum map. The weekly message also included a "thought for the week," a brief story or metaphor that promoted reflection on relevant mathematical teaching and student learning.
The district also provided small-group support through cluster visits, which took no longer than one hour and consisted of a group of principals observing best practice in a selected classroom. Each group of principals identified an area within the instructional model that could deepen their learning. For example, a cluster of elementary school principals might choose to visit classrooms that demonstrated either mini-lessons, conferencing, or investigations during a math workshop. Principals followed a protocol for the observation and debriefing, focusing on their own learning rather than on teacher performance.
Third, one-on-one coaching visits occurred regularly for principals. The frequency of the visits depended on the principal's level of competency. Topics ranged from guidance on staff supervision to implementation issues surrounding the school's improvement plan.

Feed Learning

Sometimes compliance claims the spotlight because leaders rush to implement a new program without first learning about it. Whenever the district adopts a new program, schools will vary in their need for that program and their readiness to implement it. It's important to encourage school leaders to be continuous learners and conscious, informed consumers of any initiative—especially those that are mandated from the outside.
For example, suppose the district has asked all schools to implement a schoolwide discipline program, such as Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS). Some schools might jump right into implementing this program without digging deeper into the causes of student behavior, thus promoting a checklist mentality about the new discipline initiative. In contrast, principals who keep learning will focus less on checking off the steps in the process and more on understanding the program's aim of moving discipline from punishment to an opportunity to learn. In the data consult process, a district leader and principal can work together to identify the discipline problems of the principal's school, which might lead to a discussion of the purposes of implementing PBIS in that school. This helps the principal understand the nature of the work, rather than just how to comply with the PBIS initiative (Fullan & Quinn, 2015).

The Support Principals Need

Those who work in schools know that we need to make student learning the centerpiece of our education table, but compliance mandates and initiatives often threaten to become the focal point instead. Central office leaders need to help principals implement new initiatives without making compliance the centerpiece. They can provide this help by smoothing the implementation process and providing a range of supports to help school principals approach compliance in a deliberate, thoughtful, well-informed way. When that happens, everyone is more likely to reap the benefits of the feast.
References

Blankstein, A. M. (2004). Failure is not an option: Six principles that guide student achievement in high-performing schools. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin and Hope Foundation.

Collins, J. (2001). Good to great. New York: Harper Business.

Elmore, R. F. (2008). Leadership as the practice of improvement. In Pont, B., Nusche, D., & Hopkins, D. (Eds.), Improving school leadership, volume 2: Case studies on system leadership, 2nd ed. (pp. 21–25). Paris: Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development.

Fullan, M., & Kirtman, L. (2016). Key competencies for whole-system change. Bloomington, IN: Solution Tree.

Fullan, M., & Quinn, J. (2015). Coherence: The right drivers in action for schools, districts, and systems. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.

Goodwin, B. (2011). Simply better: Doing what matters most to change the odds for student success. Alexandria, VA: ASCD/Aurora, CO: McREL.

Mausbach, A. T., & Morrison, K. (2016). School leadership through the seasons: A guide to staying focused and getting results all year. New York: Routledge.

Robinson, V. M. J. (2011). Student-centered leadership. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Author bio coming soon

Learn More

ASCD is a community dedicated to educators' professional growth and well-being.

Let us help you put your vision into action.
Related Articles
View all
undefined
School Culture
If We Want Sustainable Schools, We’ve Got to Build Teacher Agency
Paul Emerich France
in 4 days

undefined
Prioritizing Connection
Michelle Hope
in 4 days

undefined
Surveys Say: Teachers Need Stronger Systemic Support
Naomi Thiers
in 4 days

undefined
Is It Burnout—or a Question of Ethics?
Tara Laskowski
in 4 days

undefined
A Survey on Educator Bandwidth
Educational Leadership Staff
in 4 days
Related Articles
If We Want Sustainable Schools, We’ve Got to Build Teacher Agency
Paul Emerich France
in 4 days

Prioritizing Connection
Michelle Hope
in 4 days

Surveys Say: Teachers Need Stronger Systemic Support
Naomi Thiers
in 4 days

Is It Burnout—or a Question of Ethics?
Tara Laskowski
in 4 days

A Survey on Educator Bandwidth
Educational Leadership Staff
in 4 days
From our issue
Product cover image 117055b.jpg
Gearing Up for Change
Go To Publication