The Challenges District Administrators Face: A comparison of C-SAIL and Gallup Poll findings

Laura Desimone, Katie Pak
Tuesday, October 3, 2017
College- and Career-Readiness
Common Core State Standards
Policy Attributes Theory
Standards Implementation

A recent Gallup poll of superintendents provides insights about the challenges they face—namely improving the academic performance of underprepared students, the effects of poverty on student learning, and resource constraints. C-SAIL’s ongoing work in our partner states as part of our Implementation study takes a similar but focused look at the challenges district administrators face as they grapple with implementing college- and career-readiness standards. Here we present survey and interview findings in light of the new Gallup Poll results.

Survey Findings: Individual and Systemic Challenges

In C-SAIL’s Implementation Study survey of district administrators, we asked about challenges specific to implementing college- and career- readiness standards. In two of C-SAIL’s partner states, Texas and Ohio, district administrators had similar concerns about students, though there were some differences in what they considered challenges. In both states, respondents named the biggest challenges as conflicting state initiatives; a wide range of student abilities; the level of difficulty of the standards; low student achievement; and, insufficient class time (based on defined survey choices). While Gallup reported that superintendents considered pressure from assessments a mid-range concern (it was a bigger challenge in 2013), 45% of district administrators responding to our survey in Ohio reported that they considered the amount of time used for district-administered assessments to be a challenge to standards implementation.

The C-SAIL survey illustrates that challenges to standards implementation are both individual and systemic. That is, student achievement and differing ability are top concerns, but so are organizational and policy variables such as state initiatives, class time, and the nature of the standards.

On the positive side, C-SAIL district respondents found several resources useful for helping them bring

 college- and career-readiness standards to the classroom. The top five resources district officials said they found helpful were textbooks; curriculum resources and formative or diagnostic assessments aligned to the standards; information about how to identify and implement effective curricula or instructional strategies; and, information about how CCR standards change what is expected of teachers’ practice.

These findings provide evidence that despite the continuing challenges we face in educating a diverse student population, district leaders do find that certain materials and information developed to support standards implementation are helpful in supporting and improving their efforts.

Interview Data: Ambiguities driven by Local Control

C-SAIL’s interviews with key district leaders in Ohio, Kentucky, and Texas provide rich insights to add to our survey findings. While Kentucky district administrators did not take the C-SAIL survey, they were interviewed about CCR implementation. The narratives of leaders across these three states paint a portrait of agentic leaders and how they turned challenges into opportunities.

Some of the issues that district administrators named as challenges on the survey (e.g., a wide range of student abilities, level of difficulty of the standards) relate to the broader challenges produced by the ambiguities inherent in the notion of “local control.” In local control states, who should be the ones to articulate how teachers should accommodate a wide range of student abilities and how they should make the standards more attainable for their students? State officials in Kentucky, Ohio, and Texas all reference the principle of local control when describing why they may provide some suggestions for curriculum and instruction, but ultimately it is up to the districts to identify how they will operationalize and implement the standards in their own unique localities. Kentucky is a site-based decision-making state, which means that school councils have the final say on how they choose to implement the standards and that even their district administrators cannot mandate how schools approach standards-based reform. District officials confirm that state leadership defers to local control of policy decisions relating to standards implementation. The state decides on the overarching vision of college- and career-readiness, but “it’s more to the local entities to really standardize that, articulate it, and create thoughtful plans towards that” (Interview 11, Texas).

However, the presence of local control does not preclude district administrators from wanting more guidance from the state. In one Kentucky district, for example, administrators said that while they welcomed the state sending them curricular documents and videos, they would have found useful more information about how to apply them to their direct practice. Administrators in a district in Ohio shared a similar sentiment related to wanting more details about state expectations.: As [the standards] are written, they may give you a suggestion of, ‘this is what the student should be able to do duh-duh-duh-duh-duh’, in terms that are not always laymen’s terms. They’re expecting that the person would know exactly what that meant” (Interview 7). A similar concern in Texas about the lack of state specificity in the revised math standards spurred such protests that the state board of education voted to add more clarification to the standards documents. District administrators in Texas also express wanting more guidance for English language learners.

While local control may cause some district administrators to yearn for more proactive support and communication from the state, it also invites opportunities for local adaptation and grassroots professional development. Because state officials did not impose curricula on any of the local education agencies, many district officials created their own materials with input from their instructional coaches, principals, and teachers. These local constructions of curriculum aligned to the standards took on a variety of forms: in some districts, school-based staff were consultants on district-driven efforts to create curriculum and formative assessment materials, while in others, teacher teams representative of different content areas, expertise with students with disabilities and English language learners, and student socioeconomic statuses were the main drivers of the process. Additionally, instructional coaches cropped up in almost every district as the bridge between the central office and schools, as they provide ongoing support to teachers developing their own understanding of the standards and how best to implement curricular resources in their classrooms. Another emergent trend is the practice of district administrators working side-by-side with professional learning communities in schools, helping them to utilize protocols for analyzing student data and determining instructional action plans.

As states and districts meet the challenges of what local control means in practice, we are finding that states are respecting district autonomy, while simultaneously trying to be responsive to requests for more assistance; while districts are stepping up by creating innovative mechanisms to bring specificity and consistency to the use of standards in their schools.