‘Be courageous’: Education is ripe for change, and it starts with innovation

The pandemic has given us a "once-in-a-generation opportunity" to drive organizational reform. District leaders must lean in and learn from those who are changing the culture of K12.

As the saying goes, change is inevitable, but growth is optional. K12 education is hungering for transformation. While we are seeing district leaders at the forefront of innovation, students and educators deserve more. Now is the time to lean in and learn from others.

Over the past several months, UVA’s Partnership for Leaders in Education (PLE) has been working on a comprehensive report highlighting some of the most successful and replicable practices that K12 district leaders have embarked on since the start of the pandemic. By studying and interviewing nearly 50 education leaders from districts of all sizes, the researchers argue that school systems and dynamic leaders must embrace change in order to succeed and create equitable educational environments.

“Transformation in education is happening, which is almost a counter-narrative to what we hear,” says Amy Dujon, director of the District Administration Leadership Institute and co-author of a new report, “Exploring New Frontiers For K-12 Systems Transformation.” Through this research, she hopes to encourage more districts to seize this opportunity that the pandemic has given us and “be courageous.”

The intent of this research is to highlight real innovation efforts and leadership that are taking place in districts across the country to inspire and drive further transformation. While there have always been substantial inequities in education, Dujon and her co-author William Robinson, executive director of UVA’s PLE, say the pandemic exacerbated these issues to a level no one could have predicted.

For example, Black and Hispanic students were already half as likely to be proficient in reading and math compared to their white peers, according to the report. During the pandemic, they fell another four months behind in their achievement levels.

“That’s just for academics,” Robinson says. “That doesn’t even speak to the growing mental health crisis, as well as the disproportionate number of students who graduate high school without a plan or hope for what they’re going to do next. We’ve got to be more serious about not just the academic outcomes, but the life outcomes that we’re cultivating in our students.”

The pandemic has given us a “once-in-a-generation opportunity” to come together and question whether or not our current educational systems are what’s best for students and teachers, he adds.

Speaking to the inequities that impact the teacher workforce, Robinson says there’s a growing need to remodel current educational systems and policies in order to ensure the needs of educators are met; for instance, when it comes to teacher pay. While this has been a point of controversy for quite some time, the past few years have revealed that educators are expected to do much more than they signed up for with little to no additional compensation.

“We have staffing models that have not responded to the shifts in the workforce needs and demands,” he explains. “We’re still creating all teacher positions with the same exact pay structures and expectations versus creating a dynamic workforce that is flexible and responsive to different skill sets and pays in a differentiated manner and leverages talent from outside of the brick and mortar schoolhouse to compliment what teachers are doing.”

Throughout their report, they highlight the work of some of the most innovative district leaders across the country who are driving organizational change in a positive direction. Broken into four inspiring chapters, innovative secondary models, far-reaching academic acceleration, creative staffing, and equitable resource reallocation, each section offers valuable insight into some of the most groundbreaking decision-makers in K12 education.

Leaders in action

Innovative Secondary Models

When Dr. Margaret Crespo took the role as superintendent of Laramie County School District-1 in Wyoming, she asked those in her district what they desired for their students’ future. As a result, three prominent themes emerged that would shape a new strategic plan: student readiness, community engagement and healthy environments. Unlike previous initiatives, this one is “living” and adaptable.”

The district created pathways for post-secondary readiness by increasing participation in dual enrollment courses. However, they found that student participation in free college-level classes wasn’t meeting previous expectations. According to her students, they were not enrolling in part because the schedule interfered with their high school courses. By running targeted campaigns around enrollment, the district now anticipates more than tripling participation in free college classes since its inception.

Far-Reaching Academic Acceleration

Henry County Schools in Georgia has been “laser-focused” on ensuring learning gaps are revealed and addressed as quickly as possible, according to the report. Through the leadership of Superintendent Dr. Mary Elizabeth Davis, the district has seen significant boosts in the availability of high-quality curriculum and instructional resources.

Prior to her and her team’s arrival, the district saw steep declines in academic progress and confidence from the community. In response, Davis committed to an aligned system of teaching and learning with an increased focus on articulating what to teach, how students are doing, and how to address learning gaps. Through this initiative and other resources, the district has steadily outpaced other metropolitan Atlanta districts in several areas, such as literacy, algebra and graduation.

Creative Staffing

Ensuring students have access to a diverse teacher workforce has become one of the most important aspects necessary for successful student learning outcomes in recent years. National data show that Black teachers only contribute to nearly 7% of the nation’s public school teachers, the report notes.

In South Carolina, Dr. Baron Davis, superintendent of Richland School District Two, took this issue into his own hands by becoming the first district in the state to develop and unanimously approve an equity school board policy. Launched in 2019, the “Premier 100 Initiative” aims to strategically recruit and retain 100 minority male teachers by 2024 with the hopes of providing all students with at least one minority male teacher during their K12 experience.

Equitable Resource Allocation

Enriching student experiences has become one of the most-targeted areas for Dr. LaTonya Goffney, superintendent of Aldine Independent School District. When she took the helm in 2018, she and her team set out on deep looking, listening and learning. At the start of the pandemic, she launched a dynamic strategic plan called “A New Way Forward” to allocate and maximize resources in the following areas: time, talent, tier-one instruction, and target support. Doing so would give students equitable access to high-quality resources and exceptional teachers.

Since its inception, the district has seen remarkable improvements on the State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness:

  • 33 campuses are rated A/B, more than double compared to 2019.
  • Reading levels have nearly recovered to pre-pandemic levels at the elementary level.
  • Elementary and 8th-grade academic growth outpaced state averages in most subjects.

Recommendations for leaders

From their interviews, the researchers identified four primary leadership behaviors that have successfully defied traditional norms to meet the complexity and student needs of our current generation:

  1. They ignite their teams toward embracing disruptive change and advancing a compelling picture of a future state.
  2. They identify and prioritize clear opportunities that address critical stakeholder needs and take high-leverage, strategic risks that accelerate progress toward meeting those needs.
  3. They insist on teams working differently across silos to redesign systems, staffing, and resource allocation to align with their desired future state.
  4. They invest in people and support systems to learn, adapt, and execute toward the achievement of a different state, developing both core and new capabilities across the organization.

“Across all of the interviews we found that those four key leadership insights were prevalent,” Dujon says. “These are some staple leadership pieces that have to be in place in order for change and innovation to take place.”

But they can’t do it all at once, notes Robinson. All districts must first instill a sense of hope and risk-taking in their systems.

“Based on their learning from stakeholders across levels in the district and the main challenges they see, can they determine one or two opportunities for breakthrough change in their system right now,” he says. “They should organize learning, collaboration and idea generation from stakeholders across the system and then devote their resources, their budget and their strategy toward pursuing those breakthroughs and learning from them.”

Now more than ever, organizational change is at the tip of our fingers. If we don’t take advantage of this moment, cautions Dujon, we will miss our opportunity.

“I think right now the education system as a whole is really ripe for transformation,” she says. “There’s a hunger and a desire for it. People want to do things differently. And they recognize that if we don’t do things differently, there can be big trouble ahead, especially in terms of staffing and student outcomes. Now is the right time for us to get in front of it.”

Do you have a story to tell? Share with us how your district is pursuing innovation.

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Micah Ward
Micah Wardhttps://districtadministration.com
Micah Ward is a District Administration staff writer. He recently earned his master’s degree in Journalism at the University of Alabama. He spent his time during graduate school working on his master’s thesis. He’s also a self-taught guitarist who loves playing folk-style music.

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