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An examination of improvement paths taken by two previously underperforming schools to improve student outcomes


Effectiveness in education has become a national focus and reform efforts continue with the hope of increasing student achievement and more effectively meet the needs of all students. This need to focus on the achievement of all students has been driven by the sanctions school face if they do not make gains for all identified subgroups. This study investigated two schools restructured under NCLB sanctions. The primary concern was the pathways developed by each school that contributed to the distribution of leadership and the development of the characteristics of a high reliability organization. In addition, the role of data driven decision making as a part of that move to high reliability was explored. Both schools received additional state funding from the Quality Education Investment Act (QEIA). A comparative case study methodology was used with data drawn from three sources, a survey, assessing distributed leadership practices and high reliability organizational characteristics, interviews, and document analysis. The purpose of the data collection was to determine the perception of leadership distribution and the role of data driven decision-making in increasing student achievement. Teachers and administrators at both schools participated in the survey and members of the leadership team were interviewed individually. The data analysis revealed that both schools achieved considerable gains in student achievement during the process of restructuring, and they varied considerably in their pattern of distributing leadership practices. In one school, leadership practices, especially data analysis and improvement strategizing, were widely distributed to teacher leaders and whole grade level teams. The other school's pattern of distributed leadership practice remained primarily in the hands of key administrators and two coaches. The study showed there are advantages and drawbacks to each approach. While a pattern of widely distributing leadership practice served to increase accountability and led to a more collaborative culture, by the third year practices faltered when key teacher leader positions shifted within grade levels or they left the school entirely. The findings indicate that maintaining the effectiveness of the distribution of leadership practice may require more careful consideration of hiring practices and placement of teachers on grade level teams. The more concentrated approach to distributed leadership practice had the benefit of increasing the consistency of implementation of reform initiatives, which led to gradual but consistent gains over a three-year period. This more limited distribution of leadership practices, however, provided few opportunities or structures for teachers to own the change effort. The data revealed a lower sense of teacher efficacy and feelings of responsibility for the change effort. This lack of collective responsibility, which is critical in the development of high reliability organizations, may have long-term consequences of reform sustainability. Examination of data at both a school and team level seemed to be a critical component of student improvement at both schools. Assisting teachers in both data analysis and use to change classroom practice was undertaken in both patterns of leadership distribution. This formative use of the data can result in dramatic effects in student outcomes as evidenced by one of the fifth grade teams using their data to design a program that enabled 98% of students to become proficient or advanced in math. Educational leaders must be cognizant of the multiple components involved developing high reliability and in the distribution of leadership to turn around schools. This study showed that enhancing collective responsibility and engaging in building the capacity of a staff to use data were critical leadership practices in the improvement process regardless of the pattern of leadership distribution. Multiple factors must be considered when deciding which leadership structures and practices if distributed will enable the school to move forward and sustain the progress

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