Systemic School Reform :: A Guiding Hand


A systemic approach to school reform demands leaders with vision, who understand how every step of their efforts fits together to support teachers and benefit students.

Systemic School Reform : A Guiding Hand ONE DAY AS I was teaching fifth grade near Richmond,VA, my principal, Ms. Murphy, walked into the classroom. Iwas using a laser disk on invertebrates and had asked the studentsa question about amoebas and paramecia. The studentsloved the visual complement to the lesson and were literallyon the edge of their seats, raising their hands, begging toanswer the question—even Jay, who was a really quiet, sometimessad little guy. I was pleased that the principal was seeingmy students on task and engaged. The lesson followed thescience standards, and every student was paying attention.

Ms. Murphy began to walk around the room, and I assumed she was interested in the lesson. The students continued to wait to see who would get to answer. Ms. Murphy walked over to Jay—who had his hand up—and took off his baseball cap, reminding him that we don’t wear hats in school. The moment was over, Jay’s burst of confidence was tamped out, and I quickly realized that Ms. Murphy did not get it.

Although this example may seem trite, it exemplifies what a school engaged in systemic reform is not—the leaders at this school concentrated on minor changes and details without looking at how the pieces fit together to improve learning for all. In a school bent on systemic reform, teachers, students, and leaders rally around what is needed to improve student learning, understand the pervasiveness of their efforts, and support educators however possible.

In recent years, many schools that demonstrate improvement in student learning have used technology as integral to their transformation, including high-quality resources and curricula that address various learning styles and standards; instructional management systems that allow teachers to personalize instruction and connect students to the right resources; and effective professional development that helps teachers use technology to change how they teach core subject areas.

As we are upon the reauthorization of the No Child Left Behind Act, we have, as a community, reviewed what worked best with the current Enhancing Education Through Technology program, Title II-D of NCLB. Studies of the data and proven results validate what we already know—a systemic approach to using technology to support teaching and learning makes a quantifiable difference in student achievement, discipline, and engagement.

  • In Utah, Missouri, and Maine, the eMINTS (Enhancing Missouri’s Instructional Networked Teaching Strategies) program provides schools and teachers with educational technology tools, curricula, and more than 200 hours of professional development to augment how teachers teach and students learn. In one school, the performance of students in an eMINTS classroom was regularly more than 10 percent higher than that of students in the control classroom.
  • Through Michigan’s Freedom to Learn initiative, eighth-grade math scores in one middle school increased from 31 percent student proficiency in 2004, the year the plan was initiated, to 63 percent in 2005, and science achievement rose from 68 percent proficiency in 2003 to 80 percent in 2004.
  • In Texas, changes to teaching and learning instituted by the Technology Immersion Pilot, implemented in middle schools, helped cut discipline referrals in half. In one school, sixth-grade standardized math scores increased by 5 percent, seventh-grade by 42 percent, and eighth-grade by 24 percent.
  • In Iowa, after connecting teachers with sustainable professional development and technology-based curriculum interventions, student scores went up 14 points in eighth-grade math, 16 points in fourth-grade math, and 13 points in fourthgrade reading over scores in control groups.

In each case, the same components were key to the positive outcomes: leadership, professional development, utilization of data, quality resources, and communication. One step affects the next, and each makes extensive use of technology. School leaders provide vision, knowledge, and support to teachers, parents, and students. Educators participate in ongoing professional development that connects them with others in similar grade levels or subject areas, and use data to determine and then address the needs of the students. Teachers and students have access to highquality resources and tools and receive technical assistance. Communication among all stakeholders is emphasized and encouraged.

While it is obvious that having technology tools and using data—and receiving training on how to do both—are imperative to improving student achievement, underlying all systemic reform is a set of leaders establishing a clear vision and investment in the people who will lead the reform. In talks with school officials who have led improvement efforts, trust in and ownership by the teachers emerge as key elements. McKinley Technology High School in Washington, DC, strives to provide a liberal arts education with a digital-age approach, with technology functioning as a key component of day-to-day instruction. Despite the apparent hindrance of the demographic statistics of the low-income student population, the school’s leaders have created a culture where teachers and students expect excellence. In the past four years, McKinley has experienced tremendous shifts in student achievement in core content areas, as well as graduation rates. Many more students, nearly 90 percent, are receiving some post-secondary or college education.

“Effective leadership invites participants to improve effectiveness by changing practices rather than complying with current expectations,” McKinley Principal Dan Gohl says. “Technology supports the teachers and students as a vehicle to produce evidence of learning, to broaden curriculum through virtual spaces, and to improve the speed and quality of interactive communication.” By using technology as a key driver in school improvement projects, McKinley has empowered teachers and students to achieve measurable gains.

Brenda Winkler, superintendent of Kutztown Area School District in Pennsylvania, tackled reform too, to address the dramatic shift away from industry as the primary driver in the community’s economy. She credits the buy-in of the school leaders and teachers as key to the success of the reform efforts. Those efforts included resources and tools for teachers, extensive professional development (eight days in the first year), and laptops for each student in the high school. Winkler says that the district’s teachers identified many challenges and possibilities that “the braintrust of the administration had not thought of,” and she emphasizes the importance of giving teachers academic freedom. She says giving teachers “time, resources, and training” creates a sense of ownership and the motivation to implement new instructional approaches and address student needs.

Although the district originally planned a more gradual implementation, teachers were knocking at Winkler’s door, asking to participate in the professional development sooner and encouraging the district to distribute the laptops to students six months ahead of schedule.

Forward-thinking leaders such as Gohl and Winkler practice what is preached by researchers like Michael Fullan, who in The Jossey-Bass Reader on Educational Leadership (John Wiley & Sons, 2000) argues for understanding the need for innovative strategies, the importance of the learning community, and the reasons for why change is needed. And they understand the importance of teacher ownership that makes the whole process work.

When a leader has a vision and instills ownership, teachers respond with enthusiasm, imagination, and dedication. Genuine leaders see beyond school dress codes and technical barriers that may cause bumps in the road and look toward the future. Provided with tools and resources and professional development, teachers can embrace change and learn how to engage different learning styles and individualize instruction. Students deserve—and crave—high-quality, technology-driven education that maximizes their potential and prepares them for the competitive workforce.

-Mary Ann Wolf is the executive director of SETDA

This article originally appeared in the 07/01/2007 issue of THE Journal.