Research Thomas Timar Mary Briggs

Establishing Shared Goals for Improved Instruction: What’s a District Leader To Do?

Too often school district leaders focus so much on operations and compliance with state and federal policy that they don’t pay enough attention to teaching and learning, according to Thomas Timar, professor of education at the UC Davis School of Education. The result is a cacophony of efforts, often working at cross-purposes.

In a three-year study concluding in June 2016, Timar partnered with Michael Fullan, professor emeritus at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education at the University of Toronto, to evaluate how Fullan’s Whole System Change program could help district leadership establish a shared vision for instructional reform. The study looked at the implementation of the program in four Northern California school districts. 

The aim of the three-year Systems Transformation Collaborative was to deepen leadership skills at all levels of a district to mobilize commitment and energy to achieve shared goals with a laser-like focus on improved instruction, according to Timar.

“This research builds on previous work by focusing on leadership that fosters clear connections among district priorities and initiatives to improve teaching and learning through collaborative goal-setting,” said Timar. “Establishing a shared vision with clearly defined and articulated goals is critical for districts to focus on the core mission of teaching and learning.”

Preliminary findings, based on the first two years of the study, suggest that involving teachers, principals, district personnel, and superintendents in shared goal-setting may lead to small improvements, but the researchers found a lot of gaps.

For instance, teachers and site administrators struggled to identify district goals. During the first year, only district leadership defined the goals, so when asked about the goals during the second year, principals and teachers were often unable to describe the goals or reported different ones. 

Researchers also identified two major factors that impede district leaders’ ability to establish and articulate shared goals. First, superintendents and their staff are beset with myriad competing district and statewide policy initiatives that are difficult to connect with any new goals. Secondly, district leadership turnover is so prevalent that it is hard to provide consistent and coherent district-wide goal setting. Over the course of the last 18 months of the project, three of the four districts changed superintendents.

Timar, along with PhD students and co-authors Kelsey Krausen and Mary Briggs, present “Defining District Goals in a Systems Transformation Collaborative: The Role of Leadership” at the Annual Meeting of the American Educational Research Association on Sunday, April 19.

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