The Social Side of District Change

The Social Side of District Change

Relationships can play a key role in reform efforts.

District leaders are facing challenging conditions across the country, including increased accountability, reduced budgets and limited community support, while also trying to bring about educational improvements at all levels of the system. Yet reform is difficult work and yields limited success in most settings, particularly in large urban districts with the most challenging circumstances and many low-performing schools. Our recent work suggests that educational change may in fact require a shift in attention from the school site as the unit of reform to exploring the interactions among and between district office and site leaders in enacting change efforts (Daly & Finnigan, 2010, 2011; Finnigan & Daly, 2010). Moreover, our work suggests that while work-related knowledge and expertise are critical to the development, implementation and sustainability of districtwide improvement actions, perhaps just as critical, and less attended to, are the relationships between and among district and site leaders.

Understanding improvement as a relational act is built on the assumption that changes in organizations are often socially constructed and enacted (Daly, 2010). Therefore, attempts to modify formal structures in support of greater collaboration, shared leadership and decision-making require changes in existing social relationships. It is the organizational interdependence of action reflecting a network of social relationships that may ultimately moderate, influence and even determine the direction, speed and depth of a planned change. Capturing that point, Mohrman et al. (2003) offer that because change processes emerge and are maintained through interpersonal relationships, “lasting change does not result from plans, blueprints, and events. Rather, change occurs through the interaction of participants (p. 321).”

Evidence from educational organizations that have improved suggests that individuals within those systems are more trusting and work in collaborative cultures (Daly & Finnigan, in press). Furthermore, explicit and shared theories of action, mutual “sense making,” clear consistent communication, and strong relationships regarding improvement efforts between central office administrators and site leaders result in greater systemic coherence and goal attainment. The balance of this work suggests the need for a more interconnected systems approach, as educators need to “think systemically about schools and their development and see educational organizations in terms of their interdependent parts” (Smylie, et al., 2003, p. 155).

While there is growing recognition of the importance of improving the relationships between central offices and sites, systematic analyses of the underlying social network structures prior to implementing change strategies are rare. The purpose of this research overview is to provide a glimpse into our recent research and, more specifically, how district leaders used this research in their reform efforts.

Social Network Analysis

A social network consists of a set of individuals who are connected to one another through a series of relationships. Communication, knowledge, innovation and any number of “relational resources” can flow through the social ties between individuals. A social network analysis can reveal the underlying network structures that are important in understanding supports and constraints to the exchange of these resources. While social network analysis has been well established in other disciplines, it has been used less in education, particularly in examining the importance of the relationships between and among district and site leaders.

Context and Data Sources

Our longitudinal social network analysis is of La Confianza School District, which serves approximately 33,000 students, 88 percent of who are students of color. The same percentage of students receives free and reduced-price lunches. La Confianza is an important case, as it typifies many of the urban districts across the country that serve primarily students of color from low socio-economic communities, that have a pattern of underperformance, and that are engaged in districtwide improvement efforts to move off of state and federal sanctions. We collected social network data from central office and school leaders using an online survey over two years to examine the pattern of relationships and how those relationships changed over time.

Research Findings

Figure 1 is a social network map from the first year of data collection (2010) indicating the exchange of “expertise” between central office and site administrators. This data indicates that there was a dense amount of information sharing between the central office administrators (red nodes) and limited expertise exchange between site administrators (blue nodes) as demonstrated by the lines connecting the nodes. Also, to the left of the map are multiple nodes that represent district and site leaders who are not connected to the larger network and as such are isolated, meaning that no one seeks them for expertise, nor do they seek anyone. Nodes are sized by indegree, meaning larger nodes reflect more incoming social ties around expertise related to research evidence. In other words, larger nodes are individuals who are sought out for expertise in this district.

As the map suggests, the central office leaders play an important role in the exchange of expertise related to research evidence, given both the ties to the central office and the number of larger central office (red) nodes. A dense core of connections by one main group (central office) surrounded by less connected actors from another group (site principals) represents what is termed a “core/periphery” model. This type of network structure is very effective at transferring routine, noncomplex information like schedules or policy changes. However, the core/periphery structure is less effective at diffusing complex information and innovative practices that may be necessary to meet the needs of reform.

Figure 2 represents the same network one year later with individuals matched across years. The core is still very much in place, but the previously peripheral site administrators are more densely connected to one another and the core. This increase in ties was related to districtwide discussions of these maps and the resulting creation of additional opportunities for leaders to discuss specific reform strategies. In addition, there was also a changing orientation of central office leaders toward identifying ways in which they could better support school leaders. This realization was validated upon seeing our data in which previous interactional patterns and cultural norms (e.g., unidirectional resource exchanges initiated by the central office) were not seen as supportive by school leaders. In response, central office staff began shifting their work to ask school leaders directly what types of assistance and coaching they required. Although the district could have put in place an intervention without a network map to guide the work, the visualization provided insight as to the gulf that had developed over time between the central office and schools. In addition, the network analysis indicated the lack of connectedness among principals, which was surprising given the principals had regularly scheduled meetings. The analysis also provided the opportunity for both central office and school leaders to engage in dialogue about these findings and to develop shared solutions and new norms for interacting.

Where Information Breaks Down

Overall, our social network analysis in La Confianza School District helps pinpoint where specifically in the district the information exchanges break down. For instance, in looking closer at the data, we found that the exchange of expertise related to research evidence was especially low among principals of underperforming schools. Moreover, when these leaders did reach out to other principals, they tended to connect only to leaders of other low-performing schools, in spite of the fact that accountability policies were aimed in part to open up such schools to outside assistance, including accessing better-performing schools. We also found that social ties between the central office and school leaders were typically unidirectional—expertise moved from the central office to schools—thereby inhibiting the mutual exchange of information and, especially, the local expertise residing within the schools themselves, which is arguably essential to schoolwide and districtwide improvement. These findings also underscored the idea that investments in relationship building and partnership between central office and school leaders in the mutual exchange of expertise were in fact critical. Leveraging the exchange of knowledge and expertise between and among district and site leaders working together resulted in a significant increase in the density of connections from year 1 to year 2.

This research contributes to our knowledge about the importance of the social side of change. Moreover, the work illustrates the importance of the connection between the central office and schools by demonstrating how social networks have the potential to support and shape district reform. In so doing, networks are important for the exchange of resources and can be influenced by intentional strategies that build upon the linkages (or lack thereof) between and among district and site leaders.

Alan J. Daly is an associate professor of education at the University of California, San Diego. In addition to 15 years of public education experience as a teacher, psychologist, and administrator, Alan has also been the program director for the Center for Educational Leadership and Effective Schools at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Kara S. Finnigan is an associate professor at the Warner School of Education of the University of Rochester. She has written extensively on the topics of low-performing schools and high-stakes accountability, principal leadership, teacher motivation and charter schools.