Keeping an Eye Out for the System in Systemic Reform

The U.S. Department of Education has encouraged alignment across different grant programs, including Race to the Top and School Improvement Grants. The challenge for states will be to move very quickly to refine, or in some cases create, a coherent, aligned, and systemic theory of improvement that puts teaching and learning in the center and aligns with federal, district, and local stakeholder priorities. Equally important, these theories of improvement must be translated into operational plans and implemented at record speed to meet the ambitious goals that states have set for themselves.

Much of this work will be focused on high schools—transforming high schools into organizations that prepare all students for college and career. This transformation signals a dramatic departure from “business as usual” and there’s no tried-and-true roadmap for doing this and certainly not at the scale of a district- or state-wide initiative. And, the stakes are particularly high for high schools—high school achievement has not improved, achievement gaps grow over time and are the greatest in high school, behaviors problems and absenteeism peak in high school, and the costs of dropping out of high school for students and society are incredibly high.

Through case studies of five Broad-Prize winning districts, Heather Zavadsky[1] paints vivid pictures of “the system” in diverse settings, describing management principles affecting the instructional core and alignment of education components toward the goal of improving teaching and learning.  Rather than identifying specific programs or pedagogical techniques, Zavadsky[2] describes the systems that support teaching and learning and that have created the conditions for taking school improvement to scale in these districts.

As we watch states and districts develop and implement their plans for high school improvement, we will be searching for the “system” in their systemic reform initiatives and examining the coherence of their plans and their processes for rolling them out.


Note: This blog post was originally authored under the auspices of the National High School Center at the American Institutes for Research (AIR). The National High School Center’s blog, High School Matters, which ran until March 2013, provided an objective perspective on the latest research, issues, and events that affected high school improvement. The CCRS Center plans to continue relevant work originally developed under the National High School Center grant. National High School Center blog posts that pertain to CCRS Center issues are included on this website as a resource to our stakeholders.

[1] Zavadsky, H. (2009). Bringing School Reform to Scale. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education Press

[2] Zavadsky was project manager for the selection process from 2003-06 for the National Center for Educational Achievement (a partner of the National High School Center) and used NCEA’s Best Practice Framework to guide her analysis and description of implementation and scale up of school improvements. To see NCEA’s application of the Best Practice Framework for high schools, please see: Report on Key Practices and Policies of Consistently Higher Performing High Schools



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