District-Level Leadership: Consistent Messaging and Differentiated Support
Consistent messaging combined with differentiated support may sound like an oxymoron, but please read on. While all students in a classroom are expected to achieve high levels of proficiency on the grade-level standards or Common Core State Standards — our consistent expectation and message — there are inevitably some students who need additional support.
For these students, we do not hesitate to provide before and after school tutoring, intersession support, in-school interventions, increased scaffolding in lesson planning, pre-teaching, and re-teaching loops in the classroom. In fact, we see these actions as essential.
Each school in a district has different needs
Just like students, individual schools also have different needs. Each school culture is unique, as are the needs of its students and families. Every school has a teaching staff and principal or administrative team with specific sets of strengths and weaknesses. Facilities and site resources between schools within a single district can differ dramatically. In spite of this, there can be reluctance on the part of district leadership to differentiate support — and accountability — for different schools, perhaps because it seems unfair.
For about four years I was responsible for a program called School Assistance and Intervention Teams (SAIT), a system of state sanctions in California. What set SAIT apart from many other state programs was that it carried real consequences — state takeover of school sites — for continued non-improvement, and specific district-level responsibilities for schools that came under state monitoring with a SAIT.
Understandably, district leaders did not welcome directives from an outside entity, even though they could choose their SAIT provider from an approved state list. This was a watershed experience for me, demanding that my teams and I exercise delicate diplomacy while maintaining the integrity and expectations of the process. One of the most striking difficulties was to help district leaders understand and accept the need to provide differentiated support to SAIT schools.
Teaching district leaders to provide differentiated support to schools
Typically, SAIT schools already received extra financial support through federal Title I funding, so the requirement to match SAIT funding with additional district dollars was anathema to many district leaders. Additionally, the Essential Program Components (EPCs), which described specifically what the school needed to put in place for curriculum, instruction, teacher collaboration, and other important areas, often required a departure from current district practice.
In my experience, some of the major differences between SAIT schools (and Title I schools in general) and schools serving more advantaged students included:
- Larger numbers of high-need students — academically and socio-emotionally
- Larger numbers of high-need families, with more family dysfunction as a direct and indirect result of poverty
- Higher turnover of teachers, and many more neophyte teachers
- Older facilities, often with long-term maintenance issues
- Site administrators overwhelmed with operational issues, thus with less time and energy to provide instructional leadership, but with no additional support, since assistant principals were assigned strictly on the basis of school enrollment
Although most of the SAIT schools already received additional funding through Title I, due to the many restrictions on Title I expenditures, and the lack of coherence of many Title I programs, the impact of that funding on the above factors was not enough to bring about sufficient overall improvement. Additional district dollars were always needed to implement the corrective actions demanded by SAIT under the EPCs.The SAIT program ended as California and the rest of the country hit the Great Recession, but there are many valuable lessons that can be learned from it.
These kinds of actions can have a positive impact in any district that has underperforming schools — if district leaders are willing to re-examine both the allocation of resources and the willingness to allow departures from current and past procedural practices, based on site needs.