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ED’s Perspective: A Systems Approach

by Gail Connelly, NAESP Executive Director
Communicator
April 2011, Volume 34, Issue 8

As I listen to education’s most vocal critics tout standardized test scores as the most meaningful measure of school improvement, I’m reminded of Russian nesting dolls that fit together around a center figurine. I worry that we are too intent on uncovering a single solution and in doing so, we are casting aside the interconnected layers that form a vitally important framework for our efforts—all while assuming we can achieve the holistic results to which we’re all committed.

Learning is the outcome of complex, nuanced, and interdependent activities teachers and students experience in classrooms and schools, which are themselves complex, multifaceted enterprises. Affixing our so-called reform targets on the single measurement of test scores will no more improve a whole school or school system than painting a front porch will renovate a whole house.

We need a systems approach to school improvement, one that enables us to consider the whole picture—the classroom, the school, the school district, and its larger social and economic community, among other pieces of the puzzle.

Dan Domenech, executive director of the American Association of School Administrators (AASA), and I recently co-wrote a column on this topic for the April 6 issue of Education Week. Here’s a summary of a few of our points:

Organizational change guru Peter M. Senge, founder of the Center for Organizational Learning at MIT’s Sloan School of Management, defined a systems approach as “a framework for seeing interrelationships rather than things, for seeing patterns of change rather than static snapshots.”

Not every business theory and practice can—or should—be translated to education, but a systems approach to improvement, driven by high-performing interrelationships, is surely one that’s worth our closer examination, beginning with the superintendent-principal partnership, potentially one of the most powerful and influential in all of education.

Together, superintendents and principals form the core of an “uber team” concerned with instructional leadership, setting and nurturing a culture of learning, supporting teacher and staff development, allocating increasingly scarce resources effectively, and seeking parent or guardian engagement, among other intertwined factors that affect teaching and learning. Building and nurturing such a team is no simple matter, however.

There’s a growing body of research that provides important guideposts for strengthening district-level teams, including insight from university professor Mary Lynne Derrington, a former superintendent, and Cathie West, a current elementary school principal, who have this to say in the conclusion of their book, Leadership Teaming: The Superintendent-Principal Relationship.

“To team successfully, principals must understand the superintendent’s mission, the forces at play in the district environment, the dynamic role of the administrative team, and their part in the leadership mix. At the same time, superintendents must craft a team that is cohesive while incorporating the individual missions, varied talents, and unique perspectives of every principal. For both superintendents and principals, teamwork requires an understanding of how successful teams function, respect for the unique contributions of individual team members, and willingness to embrace the challenges associated with effective teaming.”

In other words, it’s hard work that requires, among other skills, a willingness to model desired behavior and attitudes. For these reasons and others related to sound association and financial management, the boards of directors of NAESP and AASA unanimously authorized the two organizations to “team up” and explore ways to consolidate some operations, resources, and functions. In addition, this emerging collaboration will help both organizations better understand how to further enhance the key relationships between superintendents and principals to achieve a true systems approach to school improvement.

Just as superintendents and principals form powerful teams in service to children yet maintain their unique individual leadership roles, NAESP and AASA can collaborate on some issues and create a formidable advocacy team yet sustain distinct missions, governance structures, and independence. Only time will tell how successful this hybrid structure might prove. Until then, we’re taking a systems approach.


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