Real World Example of Differentiated Support
Leadership Skills and Implementation

District-Level Leadership: Differentiated Support in Action

By Terry Wilhelm

In my last post about district leaders and differentiated support, I introduced the notion of providing varying levels of both support and accountability to schools within a single school district. Now let’s discuss a real-world example of this skill.

Differentiated support for schools under state sanctions

Differentiated support was a necessary feature for interventions with schools falling into state sanctions under California’s School Assistance and Intervention Teams (SAIT) program. It is also well-supported in the research of Mid-Continent Research for Education and Learning (McREL), described in the 2009 book, District Leadership That Works: Striking the Right Balance by Robert Marzano and Timothy Waters.

A common issue in low-performing schools — which usually serve large numbers of high-need students — is high staff turnover with a higher percentage of neophyte teachers. During the years that SAIT operated, this problem was exacerbated by shrinking enrollments in many districts with SAIT schools. The reduced enrollments resulted in annual layoffs of newer teachers to make space for reassignments of more senior teachers, a process known as “bumping.”

Principals lost collaborative teaching teams, gained resistance to change

Principals of SAIT schools I served often bemoaned the fact that the staff they had worked hard to build — where the majority of teachers were willing and increasingly-accomplished collaborative members of grade level or course-alike teams — faced decimation when bumping occurred. Regular teacher collaboration during the contract day, where student work and data were routinely examined to improve instruction and learning, was required for SAIT. Interestingly, this forced many SAIT schools into the lead in their own districts as schools operating as effective Professional Learning Communities.

This collaborative PLC culture enabled new teachers to assimilate critical skills in content, classroom management, assessment practices, and instruction. Coupled with their enthusiasm, energy, and openness, this made them highly valuable members of their teams and staffs. Their loss was felt keenly by their colleagues and principals when they were laid off. The more senior teachers who replaced them, if displaced from sites where they may have been teaching for many years, were often less open to collaboration and more resistant to working with peers, academic coaches and administrators to hone their practices.

Finding a solution to the SAIT bumping provision

One conversation I broached (unsuccessfully) several times with district leaders was the possibility of negotiating a Memorandum of Understanding (often called a side agreement) with the teachers’ union to waive or modify the bumping provision for SAIT schools. The California State Legislature has looked repeatedly at the issue of automatic layoffs for new teachers in order to keep more senior teachers regardless of performance, a feature of virtually every teacher contract in the state, but has never successfully enacted legislation to change it.

The new practice that was eventually accepted by several district HR departments was hiring priority for SAIT schools when openings occurred. This happened most often at the secondary level because of the need for specific credentialing for open positions. Implementing corrective actions for mathematics and English language arts was necessary for a school to exit sanctions, but it necessitated having skilled teachers who were willing to constantly examine and improve their practices in those departments.

SAIT principals given hiring priority

Mathematics teachers at that time were often hard to find. Implementing the practice of hiring priority, if, for example, three middle schools had openings for mathematics teachers, the SAIT school principal was given first priority for selecting and hiring the needed teacher(s). One principal jokingly referred to this as “playing my SAIT card.” Since supporting SAIT schools to exit state sanctions was a high priority for the school boards in these districts, this unusual practice sometimes became amenable to district leaders.

This practice did not require additional dollars to implement, but it did require multiple conversations with district leadership because it was a significant — if temporary — departure from past practice. It is a good example of differentiated support — as well as higher accountability, which SAIT provided — for schools with a need for improvement.

Additional resources

Digital Leadership: Changing Paradigms for Changing Times
District-Level Leadership: Three Roadblocks to Consistent Messaging
PD for Principals: Executing the Change Agent Leadership Responsibility
The power of Teacher Collaboration

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