New Book Focuses on the Role of Districts in Leading Complex Educational Reforms for Low-Performing Schools

Thinking and Actiing Systematically bookKara Finnigan, associate professor of educational policy at the Warner School of Education at the University of Rochester, and Alan Daly, professor and chair of education studies at the University of California-San Diego, have co-edited a book about the important role of central district offices in turning around the nation’s lowest performing K-12 schools.
Titled Thinking and Acting Systemically: Improving School Districts Under Pressure and published by the American Educational Research Association (AERA), the book comes as federal high-stakes accountability policies and programs, such as No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top, have had limited success at the school level over the last decade. Finnigan, Daly, and the book contributors illustrate the important role of districts as a lever for change given the success measures of traditional school-by-school efforts in carrying out complex educational reforms.
A more systemic approach, the co-editors explain, has the potential to significantly improve educational outcomes.  “Our objective is to share and discuss empirical, theoretical, and methodological innovations that are focused on the examination of persistently struggling districts,” Finnigan and Daly explain in the introduction. “Indeed, system-wide approaches to improvement under pressure have received inadequate coverage in policy-related discussion about low academic performance, which we argue is a missed opportunity to improve educational opportunities and outcomes for youth in our public education system at scale.”
The nine chapters in Thinking and Acting Systemically are divided into four sections. Section one focuses on the system (or school district) as the leverage point for improvement. Sections two and three focus on current programs and policies, highlighting challenges in implementation. Section four focuses on the implications of the role of districts in reform.
Finnigan, Daly, and the contributors have identified narrow understandings of improvement that undermine the complexity of turning around low-performing schools and the competing values and beliefs that exist within and outside the school system. They also found variability among districts in whether they hindered or supported learning and improvement and complicated relationships with external and intermediary organizations that need to be further explored.
In addition to writing the opening and concluding chapters, Finnigan and Daly summarized their findings from a recent study in a chapter that looks at how leadership churn has undermined learning and improvement in low-performing schools, which they co-wrote with Yi-Hwa Liou from the National Taipei University of Education. Using social network analysis methods, the researchers illustrate how turnover among education leaders—particularly central office directors, school principals, and other high-level administrators leaving and entering these positions in urban school districts—has severely damaged the strong, trusting relationships and the collaborative learning that other studies have shown are essential if school districts are to succeed in dramatically improving educational outcomes.
Finnigan, Daly, and the book contributors argue for:
  1. The need to pay greater attention to building the capacity of leaders within districts, given the shifting instructional, curricular, and socio-emotional needs in school systems.
  2. Policies that focus on skill development, recognize and support performance, create opportunities for collaboration, build leader capacity, and create networks of knowledge sharing. These policies hold potential for improving districts, but will require a paradigm shift in the way society views the public school system and those who work within it—one that moves away from blame and toward complex systems change.
Thinking and Acting Systemically is intended for K-12 school district leadership, policymakers, and researchers, especially those whose focus is leadership, policy, school improvement, and district reform. The book emerged from a two-day intensive workshop, funded by one of the first grants awarded from AERA’s Research Conferences Program, where scholars focused on district improvement under high-stakes accountability policies, with an emphasis on the linkages between organization learning, district-wide communities, and underlying social networks. The workshop was held in Rochester, N.Y. and was facilitated by Finnigan and Daly.
Kara FinniganFinnigan is completing a three-year term as chair of AERA’s Mentoring and Membership Committee (Division L Educational Policy and Politics) and a two-year term as treasurer of AERA’s Politics of Education SIG.  She is also serving a three-year term as a member of AERA’s professional development and training committee, and she was recently named an AERA Knowledge Scholar. Her research focuses on low-performing schools and high-stakes accountability, district reform, principal leadership, and school choice. Blending perspectives in education, sociology, and political science, Finnigan’s research employs both qualitative and quantitative methods, including social network analysis, and focuses on urban school districts.
Thinking and Acting Systemically is available for order on AERA’s Web site.
About the Warner School of Education
Founded in 1958, the University of Rochester’s Warner School of Education offers master’s and doctoral degree programs in teaching and curriculum, school leadership, higher education, educational policy, counseling, human development, and health professions education. The Warner School of Education offers an accelerated option for its EdD programs that allows eligible students to earn a doctorate in education in as few as three years part time while holding a professional job in the same field. The Warner School of Education is recognized both regionally and nationally for its tradition of preparing practitioners and researchers to become leaders and agents of change in schools, universities, and community agencies; generating and disseminating research; and actively participating in education reform. 
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Tags: book, education policy, educational policy, K-12 schools, Kara Finnigan, low-performing schools, school reform