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Thinking and Acting Systematically: Improving School Districts Under Pressure

reviewed by Angela Urick - March 07, 2017

coverTitle: Thinking and Acting Systematically: Improving School Districts Under Pressure
Author(s): Kara S. Finnigan & Alan J. Daly (Eds.)
Publisher: American Educational Research Association, Washington
ISBN: 0935302441, Pages: 254, Year: 2016
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The edited book Thinking and Acting Systematically: Improving School Districts Under Pressure explores the value of a district level approach to school improvement. Prominent scholars in this domain share recent work to understand how to better inform district reform policies and practices. The introduction (by Kara S. Finnigan and Alan J. Daly), commentaries (by Mark A. Smylie in Chapter Eight and by Kenneth K. Wong in Chapter Nine), and conclusion (by editors Daly and Finnigan) of this volume present emergent themes across the texts chapters. They identify frameworks, methods, and strategies to promote the paradigm shift necessary to support districts consistently labeled as low performing during an era of high-stakes accountability. In his comments, Wong describes urban districts as struggling with academic performance due to larger political and socioeconomic structures. Further, in the books conclusion, Daly and Finnigan argue for a shift in a way we view our public system and those who work within it, away from blame, and toward complex systems of change with support (p. 238).

To meet this charge, the chapters provide readers with an assessment of district effectiveness research (by Tina Trujillo in Chapter One), an overview of school indicator systems for accountability (by Laura S. Hamilton and Heather L. Schwartz in Chapter Two), and an implementation and a study of instructional initiatives (by Jonathan Supovitz in Chapter Three; by William R. Penuel and Angela Haydel DeBarger in Chapter Four). The chapters also include district-wide policy adoption. This includes portfolio reform (by Susan Bush-Mecenas, Julie A. Marsh, and Katharine O. Strunk in Chapter Five), Common Core State Standards (CCSS) (by Priscilla Wohlstetter, Brandon Buck, David M. Houston, and Courtney O. Smith in Chapter Six), and the network structure of school and district leaders over time (by editors Finnigan and Daly with help from Yi-Hwa Liou in Chapter Seven).

In the introduction, Finnigan and Daly explain why systemic and district-level improvement (as opposed to school by school change) is the outlet for the achievement of greater educational opportunities for public school students. They state that this book offers two main underlying discussions toward synthesis and usefulness of the field. First, the authors highlight reform successes and challenges throughout their chapters. Second, Finnigan and Daly also rely on evidence-driven systems thinking to evaluate district improvements. These two areas help readers learn how to approach and assess reform at the district level.

The first section of the book (Chapter One and Chapter Two) provides an overview of district level research and accountability policy to date. Trujillo analyzes the methodological and conceptual approaches to district effectiveness research compared to school effectiveness research (Chapter One). She concludes with similar shortcomings across each research line and presents groups of effectiveness correlates. The author suggests extending beyond hyper-rational frames of effectiveness to more holistic approaches that include political and normative factors. While Chapter One reviews research, Chapter Two synthesizes policy measures of accountability. To discuss the potential change of school indicators systems under the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), Hamilton and Schwartz summarize multiple measures of school accountability used by states up to the implementation of No Child Left Behind (NCLB). They argue that school districts offer an advantageous system level for small-scale tests of measures before broad dissemination or high-stakes implementation. The authors help guide district leaders and policy makers in the considerations necessary for the adoption of more purposeful, accurate, and practical indicator systems. Researchers, policy makers, practitioners, and education partners are currently concerned with how to merge effectiveness findings (Chapter One) with policy measures to implement ESSA (Chapter Two). This section is appropriately located at the beginning of the book as a background prior to a set of chapters with separate studies of different districts.

The second section (the third and fourth chapters) and the third section (the fifth, sixth, and seventh chapters) of the book examine improvement. The second section consists of two studies of classroom initiatives. The third section includes two studies of district policy reforms and one study of district leadership. In the second section, the authors of both chapters discuss findings relevant for districts that want to implement change with teachers, the importance of partnerships between researchers and practitioners, and a description of design-based research methods allowing for feedback to adjust initiatives. For instance, Supovitz explains the value of using experiments for formative feedback in program development in Chapter Three. With a critique of traditional experiments as being too rigid and not replicable as treatments adjust, formative experiments offer a solution in line with other design experiments (Cobb, Confrey, Lehrer, & Schauble, 2003), design-based implementation research (Penuel, Fishman, Cheng, & Sabelli, 2011), or the improvement research model (Bryk, Gomez, & Grunow, 2011). Supovitz uses a formative experiment of teacher data that is used for instruction to demonstrate how an experiment compared to a non-experiment helps to inform program changes in a pilot. In addition, Penuel and Haydel DeBarger (Chapter Four) provide a background in formative assessment coherence. Subsequently, they launch into a description of their design research that creates and tests science formative assessments for a district partner. The authors explain the benefits of their collaboration with district teachers to design instructional tools. They also discuss the consequences of limited coordination with school and district leaders on horizontal coherence and sustainability. The authors from the second section exemplify complementary design-based methods for improvement research and practice. They also present findings to inform district initiatives for teacher instruction.

The authors of the three chapters in the third section have a more complex and systemic view of districts. In Chapter Five, Bush-Mecenas, Marsh, and Strunk describe the process of portfolio reform, the competition of internal (e.g., teachers and administrators) and external partners (e.g., charter school networks) to take over low-performing schools or to create new schools in the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD). They comment on the need for planning time prior to implementation, the political nature of this type of reform, and the involvement of different stakeholders. In Chapter Six, Wohlstetter, Buck, Houston, and Smith study the implementation of CCSS in New York City schools in a multisite case design. The authors conclude that structuring support through networks (and a high degree of school leader autonomy) is better suited for high performing as compared to low-performing schools. In Chapter Seven, Finnigan, Daly, and Liou examine the social networks of principals and district leaders over a four-year-long period in a midsized urban district requiring improvement due to NCLB standards. The authors argue that to improve the district through organizational learning, actors must have adequate trust and the required social networks to facilitate both work-related and affective exchanges. The establishment of these relationships is difficult since nearly half of the leaders leave, or churn, during this four-year span. In the third section, the authors draw largely on organizational theory for frameworks like the theory of action (Argyris & Schön, 1974 in the fifth and sixth chapters) and organizational learning (Argyris & Schön, 1995; Levitt & March, 1988 in the seventh chapter) to incorporate the fuller complexity of systems by evaluating their assumptions and coherence.

The book closes with commentaries from experts and a conclusion by the editors. In a commentary framed through an organizational lens, Smylie suggests that district improvement (a) "demands holistic, multifaceted, and mutually reinforcing . . . levers and strategies" (p. 211), (b) "need[s] to adopt an open-systems perspective . . . [with] attention . . . to the relationships between the organization and the elements of its environment" (p. 212), and (c) should consist of "careful reform efforts [that] take into account the cumulative effects of multiple sources and types of pressures, as well as the capabilities of organizations to respond productively" (p. 216). Wong comments on these chapters through a policy lens and argues in favor of their significance for urban districts. He states that this book calls for researchers to assess and to generate practical knowledge for moving beyond the status quo. In sum, Daly and Finnigan explain that the politics of beliefs, values, and assumptions at an individual, an organizational, and a system level combine to drive implementation. Due to a need to establish relationships, collaboration, and capacity, the editors argue for a major shift in reform from accountability to development. The readers are then provided with suggestions for future research to support this change in districts and policy.

Overall, perhaps the authors and editors of Thinking and Acting Systematically demonstrate that school districts are an important point of flux. Specifically, from their perspective, they represent two things. First, districts represent the complexity of negotiating federal and state policy for multiple schools and partners in practice. Second, districts also represent the specificity of a unit necessary to test policies and initiatives for large-scale adaptation and use.


Argyris, C., & Schön, D. A. (1974). Theory in practice: Increasing professional effectiveness. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Argyris, C., &, Schön, D. A. (1995). Organizational learning II: Theory, method, and practice. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley.

Bryk, A., Gomez, L., & Grunow, A. (2011). Getting ideas into action: Building networked improvement communities in education. In M. T. Hallinan (Ed.), Frontiers in sociology of education, Vol. 1 (pp. 127162). Rotterdam, NL: Springer.

Cobb, P., Confrey, J., diSessa, A., Lehrer, R., & Schauble, L. (2003). Design experiments in educational research. Educational Researcher, 32(1), 913.

Levitt, B., & March, J. G. (1988). Organizational learning. American Review of Sociology, 14, 319340.

Penuel, W. R., Fishman, B., Cheng, B. H., & Sabelli, N. (2011). Organizing research and development at the intersection of learning, implementation, and design. Educational Researcher, 40(7), 331337.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: March 07, 2017
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 21858, Date Accessed: 3/1/2022 2:13:08 PM

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About the Author
  • Angela Urick
    University of Oklahoma
    E-mail Author
    ANGELA URICK is an assistant professor at the University of Oklahoma in the department of Educational Leadership and Policy Studies. She is interested in the study of school improvement through leadership, teacher supports and more holistic ways to measure student and school success. She has recent publications, in Educational Administration Quarterly and Journal of Educational Administration, which address how leadership varies across schools, is shared with teachers, and promotes teacher retention. With a research grant from the American Educational Research Association funded by the National Science Foundation, she currently studies the relationships between leadership, instruction and student opportunity to learn to inform both practice and policy.
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