District-Level Leadership: Three Roadblocks to Consistent Messaging
Across the United States, school districts strive for continued growth in student outcomes while transitioning to the Common Core State Standards (CCSS). The implementation of improved instructional methodologies for CCSS drives this challenging work, which is in alignment with the research findings of Robert Marzano and Timothy Waters about effective district leadership:
“To increase district reliability, the primary job of district-level leadership is to ensure high within-school quality and low between-school variability in the quality of instruction for every student.”
You can dig into this concept further by reading District Leadership That Works, by Marzano and Waters.
Conflicting messages from district-level departments
Consistent messaging to schools is crucial to ensure the success of large-scale initiatives. However, it is not unusual for confusion to arise when departments at the district level send ambiguous or conflicting messages to sites.
For example, the Educational Services department might notify principals about a series of important professional development sessions for specific teachers. Right after the principals provide this information to their staffs, another message — this time from the business office — directs them to halt all expenditures from their categorical budgets, which happen to be the only source most sites have for substitute teachers to cover classrooms for the training.
Or perhaps principals have just completed a time-consuming annual compilation of data on teacher assignments for the HR department, which must be submitted to meet the Highly Qualified Teacher (HQT) requirement for federal funding. Less than a week later, the Categorical Programs office of Educational Services sends out another form that requires almost identical information.
Given the time constraints on-site administrators, who are trying to spend as much time as possible in classrooms, several principals ask why the HR and Categorical Programs offices cannot simply share the information, only to be told that the new form must also be completed.
Three causes of inconsistent messaging at the district level
How can district-level leaders reduce this kind of confusion and duplication of effort so that principals can invest more time as instructional leaders at their sites? What is behind these kinds of disconnect?
1. Priorities: Who is serving whom?
Ambiguity about priorities may be one contributing factor. In addition to providing guidance and accountability, is the purpose of the district office to serve and support the school sites, or vice versa? While most district-level leaders, especially those at the executive cabinet level, say that district departments operate in order to serve the sites, numerous principals and school secretaries might argue that as it translates to daily reality, the reverse is true.
2. Poor communication between departments
Another factor is certainly time constraints on all district personnel. Everyone already has too many meetings, yet consistent messaging to sites can only occur via strong inter-department communication at the district level. How can this be improved?
Finally, what author Patrick Lencioni terms “Silos, Politics, and Turf Wars” are an unfortunate reality in most bureaucracies, including school districts. Superintendents have differing levels of awareness about this issue, especially when they juggle demands on their time between public relations, leading the members of the executive cabinet in the broad direction of the district, and working with their school boards.
Even those with a high awareness may be at a loss for solutions, especially when the problems may stem from personal differences between individual members of the executive cabinet.
Some conflicted messaging is minor, but it has a major cumulative effect on site administrators who already have too much on their plates. These thorny district-level problems are not unsolvable, and if schools are to continue to improve, they must be addressed.
- School Leaders: Tips for Improving Effective Communication
- The Five Dysfunctions of a Team: A Leadership Fable
- Leadership Development Resources
- "School District Leadership that Works: The Effect of Superintendent Leadership on Student Achievement," Mid-Continent Research for Education and Learning (McREL)
- Patrick Lencioni , "Silos, Politics and Turf Wars," The Table Group Inc.