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
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.
To paraphrase Dostoevsky, the quality of a society should be
measured by the quality of its schools, particularly the
quality of its schools educating the most disadvantaged
Thomas Timar’s areas of expertise include education finance,
policy, and governance. In addition to his faculty
responsibilities, he is also director of the UC Davis Center for Applied Policy in
Education (CAP-Ed) and a member of the steering committee for
Policy Analysis for California Education (PACE).