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In what represents a major change, School District 65 is moving from a system of strong central control to a “distributive leadership” model. The plan was announced last May. On Oct. 22, administrators and panels of principals and teachers filled in the School Board on how it is being implemented.
“Distributive leadership is where you build teachers as leaders within the schools,” said Ellen Fogelberg, assistant superintendent, when the plan was announced. While recognizing that principals will continue to be ultimately responsible for the school, she said, “You can’t expect principals to be experts in all the curricular areas or always to be able to handle everything happening in the school.” Under the plan, “teachers do take on the role of leadership in the areas of school improvement planning, professional development planning, and planning how to implement Board goals and District initiatives,” she said.
“We are making this change because we see the rate of improvement in academic achievement has stabilized,” said Assistant Superintendent Susan Schultz at the Oct. 22 Board meeting. She added that the change would assist in implementing the shift to college and career readiness, and in implementing the common core standards.
“Instructional leadership teams also provide greater ownership of school improvement and bring it back to the school,” said Ms. Schultz. “There will be greater teacher participation in the school improvement process. Overall it will result in an increase in leadership capacity in each building…. We’re looking at having distributive leadership having an impact on teaching and instruction and to impact learning.”
“Distributive leadership is fundamentally rethinking organizational design to generate greater leadership capacity,” said Ms. Schultz. “It’s the common denominator in schools that have sustained improvement over a five year period. Schools that have shown sustained improvement are schools that have implemented a distributive leadership model.”
Ms. Fogelberg said, “There’s a deliberate organizational change that’s going to draw upon the leadership skills of many in the schools. Leadership Teams typically consist of four to seven people that really set the priorities and set the plan and then they draw upon the leadership capacities of teachers from different aspects for school improvement. But it is all about improving student achievement and student learning.”
Ms. Fogelberg said the District was not abandoning its existing structures or programs such as the Inclusion Program, Response to Intervention, or differentiated instruction. “We’re just taking advantage of the leadership that’s in the building and we’re building capacity for people to take on additional roles,” she said. “It’s just through this lens of teacher leadership working with the administration to create a more powerful effort around school improvement and student learning.”
The Leadership Teams are participating in ongoing training with Dr. Shelby Cosner, University of Illinois-Chicago, said Ms. Fogelberg, adding that Dr. Cosner’s research shows distributive leadership supports instructional change.
At the school level, the Leadership Teams have looked at all the data available, including student achievement data, teacher and parent surveys, and data available under the Charlotte Danielson framework for effective teaching, to develop a “robust plan that is going to move their schools forward. “Some schools have similar plans, some have very different plans,” said Ms. Fogelberg. “But it is based on what the data says to them about where they need to be going.”
Panels composed of the principal, assistant principal and teachers at Washington and Oakton schools explained the process and their focus to improve student learning at their schools. Kate Ellison, principal at Washington School, said, “We’ve gone through some great professional development about how important ‘purposeful talk’ is to move students forward in their thinking and their learning. We decided to make that our overriding professional development theme.”
The Danielson framework for effective teaching emphasizes the importance of high quality questioning and discussion. A distinguished teacher “uses a variety or series of questions or prompts to challenge students cognitively, advance high level thinking and discourse, and promote meta-cognition,” says one of Danielson’s rubrics.
Oakton School has a similar goal built around “purposeful talk.” Karen Barbour, a reading teacher at Oakton, said, “For us, for purposeful talk, we felt the part that was missing was high-level questioning. We’ve been very much focusing on developing cognitive focus and talk structure. We believe this will result in higher comprehension for kids.”
Karen Joseph, a second grade teacher at Oakton, said “We’re trying to create a culture in a school where questions will be high-level and kids will talk about that in a purposeful way. We are trying to have richer, deeper conversations in the classroom.”
Teachers said the Distributive Leadership model was promoting a more collaborative process that includes peer observations and feedback, guided walk-throughs, team planning, and job-embedded professional learning.