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REL Midwest Ask A REL Response


August 2020


What research resources are available on governance, management, and operations that support K–12 school improvement?


Following an established Regional Educational Laboratory (REL) Midwest protocol, we conducted a search for research reports, descriptive studies, and literature reviews on governance, management, and operations that support K–12 school improvement. In particular, we focused on identifying resources related to commitment to diversity and equity, personnel procedures, resource allocation, data systems, and district policies. For details on the databases and sources, keywords, and selection criteria used to create this response, please see the methods section at the end of this memo.

Below, we share a sampling of the publicly accessible resources on this topic. The search conducted is not comprehensive; other relevant references and resources may exist. We have not evaluated the quality of references and resources provided in this response, but offer this list to you for your information only.

Research References

Berry, B., & Farris-Berg, K. (2016). Leadership for teaching and learning: How teacher-powered schools work and why they matter. American Educator, 40(2), 11–17. Retrieved from

From the ERIC abstract: “Over the past 20 years, federal and state reforms have drawn on heavy-handed attempts to close the achievement gap through top-down management of teachers. Such approaches have often included high-stakes accountability systems that mandate what to teach and how to teach it and that evaluate teachers on the basis of annual standardized test scores. In short, policymakers have focused on fixing teachers more than on maximizing their expertise and leadership potential. One of teachers’ greatest sources of frustration is their lack of authority to determine how to meet those demands in ways that will benefit students. There is a growing movement to transform the profession with teachers serving as the agents of change—rather than being the targets of it. Simultaneously, growing numbers of policymakers are becoming aware that deeper learning outcomes for all students will only be achieved with their teachers leading the transformation of schooling. A convergence of research also supports the benefits to students when teachers can make significant schoolwide decisions. This article presents teacher-powered schools as one notable school governance model that supports student learning and enhances the leadership, engagement, and professionalism of educators.”

Bryk, A. S. (2010). Organizing schools for improvement. Phi Delta Kappan, 91(7), 23–30. Retrieved from

From the ERIC abstract: “How schools are organized and interact with the local community can dramatically alter the odds for improving student achievement. There are five essential supports for school improvement: a coherent instructional guidance system, the professional capacity of its faculty, strong parent-community-school ties, a student-centered learning climate, and leadership that drives change. A longitudinal study by the Consortium on Chicago School Research on more than 400 schools found that schools with strong indicators for these supports were much more likely to improve than were schools with weak indicators.”

Note: REL Midwest was unable to locate a link to the full-text version of this resource. Although REL Midwest tries to provide publicly available resources whenever possible, it was determined that this resource may be of interest to you. It may be found through university or public library systems.

Gill, S., & Campbell, C. (2017). Partnership schools: New governance models for creating quality school options in districts. Seattle, WA: Center on Reinventing Public Education. Retrieved from

From the ERIC abstract: “In at least ten cities across the country, there are schools that operate under some sort of partnership school model: a ‘third way’ governance strategy that breaks through district-charter divides that could help improve struggling schools or increase the number of quality school options in a neighborhood. Like charter schools, partnership schools enjoy more freedom of action than a traditional district-run school. Partnership schools are legally distinct from charter schools, which are authorized under a specific process outlined by a state’s charter school law, while partnership schools may be permitted under a separate state law. This brief examines the ‘third way’ approach to school improvement and provides guidance for district and charter leaders and policymakers considering partnership schools.”

Herman, R., Dawson, P., Dee, T., Greene, J., Maynard, R., Redding, S., et al. (2008). Turning around chronically low-performing schools: A practice guide (NCEE 2008-4020). Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences, National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance. Retrieved from

From the ERIC abstract: “This guide identifies practices that can improve the performance of chronically low-performing schools—a process commonly referred to as creating ‘turnaround schools.’ The four recommendations in this guide work together to help failing schools make adequate yearly progress. These recommendations are: (1) signal the need for dramatic change with strong leadership; (2) maintain a consistent focus on improving instruction; (3) provide visible improvements early in the turnaround process (quick wins); and (4) build a committed staff. The guide includes a checklist showing how each recommendation can be carried out. It uses examples from case studies which illustrate practices noted by schools as having had a positive impact on the school turnaround. The following are appended: (1) Postscript from the Institute of Education Sciences; (2) About the authors; (3) Disclosure of potential conflicts of interest; and (4) Technical information on the studies.”

Hill, P. T. (2014). Governing schools for productivity (Productivity for Results Series, No. 4). Dallas, TX: George W. Bush Institute, Education Reform Initiative. Retrieved from

From the ERIC abstract: “The lack of productivity of school systems stems from a number of reasons, including the way in which schools are governed. The author explains in this paper that policies from on high often work against campuses being more productive. His list includes state policies that stop districts from hiring experts to teach subjects that other educators aren’t prepared to teach. As with the other papers in this series, Hill explains how to change the bias against productivity. This paper ends with definite recommendations about how new governance arrangements can promote productivity. Many of these ideas are already present, in at least rudimentary form, in leading school districts including New York City, New Orleans, and Denver. These are pursuing a ‘portfolio strategy’ of continuous improvement. However, districts following this strategy are exceptions to the norm in K-12 public education. This paper will show how, in the vast majority of localities, current governance arrangements encourage little effort on behalf of productivity. It will also lay out preconditions for productivity, which will establish premises for a proposed new governance system.”

Hough, H., Byun, E., & Mulfinger, L. (2018). Using data for improvement: Learning from the CORE Data Collaborative. Technical report. Getting down to facts II. Stanford, CA: Policy Analysis for California Education, PACE. Retrieved from

From the ERIC abstract: “Under emerging policy structures in California, the responsibility for school improvement is increasingly placed upon local school districts, with County Offices of Education (COEs) playing a critical support role. In this system, districts are responsible for school improvement, with counties in charge of ensuring quality across districts and providing feedback and support where necessary. Underlying this major policy shift is the idea that local leaders are in the best position to drive real educational improvement and ensure quality across multiple schools and contexts. As California supports districts and counties statewide to embark on this improvement journey, there are important lessons to be learned from the CORE districts, six of which developed an innovative accountability system under a waiver from No Child Left Behind (NCLB). The CORE districts are early adopters of the new accountability paradigm: local leaders using multiple measures of school performance and working together to figure out collectively what works best for struggling schools. Now deepening their work together as a Networked Improvement Community (NIC), the CORE districts have simultaneously expanded access to their multiple-measures data and learning system by inviting other California districts to join their ‘Data Collaborative.’ Districts who join contribute their own student data to the CORE measurement system and are then able to benchmark student performance against other schools in the state. Data Collaborative districts engage in structured network learning activities that enhance their capacity to use data to drive system improvements. Currently, over 50 California school districts representing nearly a million students have joined the Data Collaborative. This report first provides a framework for how data use for improvement is different from data use for accountability and how data should be used by actors at different levels of the system. Next, it discusses the policy context in California and the current state of data use based on interviews conducted in the summer of 2017 with 41 leaders from state education agencies, COEs, school districts, technical assistance providers, education advocacy organizations, and education associations. Finally, the report shares lessons from the CORE Data Collaborative about how data can be used for improvement within networked structures, including what data is needed and how learning and collaboration can be facilitated.”

Lazarín, M. (2013). How approaches to stuck-in-the-mud school funding hinder improvement. Washington, DC: Center for American Progress. Retrieved from

From the ERIC abstract: “Many state and education leaders continue to support and employ methods that prevent schools and principals from undertaking the efforts that they think are most needed to improve education in their classrooms. The use of state categorical grants—funds to school districts with strict limits on their use—exemplifies this lack of innovation in school finance. Categorical grants remain all too common in state education finance systems. New survey data released today in a Center for American Progress issue brief by Joanna Smith and researchers at the Rossier School of Education’s Center on Educational Governance at the University of Southern California, provide a national overview of which states have embraced more flexible funding streams and which are still using rigid bureaucratic categorical grants to fund schools. The data also show the extent to which categorical grants comprise state education budgets and reports on state finance and district officials’ opinions of categorical grants. Key findings from the study include: (1) Categorical grants are prominent in state education finance systems; (2) A variety of policymakers are empowered to create or terminate categorical grants; (3) States most commonly used categorical grants for special education; (4) State education officials generally have a positive view of categorical grants; and (5) District superintendents and school board members are favorably disposed to categorical spending, though they expressed the desire for greater flexibility.”

Moffitt, S. L., Lyddon, M. J., Morel, D., O’Neill, M. K., Smith, K. B., Willse, C., et al. (2018). State structures for instructional support in California (Technical Report. Getting Down to Facts II). Stanford, CA: Policy Analysis for California Education, PACE. Retrieved from

From the ERIC abstract: “New academic demands and challenges in schools require increased capacity to support instructional improvement. Capacity comes in many forms: technical, organizational, and political. In addition, there are different sources of capacity, such as the state government and networks. This report examines: (1) What sources of capacity to support instructional improvement operate in California?; (2) How are they distributed?; (3) How does California’s capacity compare with other states?; and (4) How might capacity be strengthened? As it addresses these questions, this report strives: (1) To build on but not repeat prior analysis of California’s education governance; (2) To focus on state structures for instructional support, but not consider all aspects of educational governance capacity; and (3) To focus primarily on state-level structures for support, with particular attention on the California Department of Education.”

National Forum on Education Statistics. (2015). Forum guide to college and career ready data (NFES 2015-157). Washington, DC: National Center for Education Statistics. Retrieved from

From the ERIC abstract: “The National Forum on Education Statistics (Forum) organized the College and Career Ready (CCR) Working Group to explore how state and local education agencies (SEAs and LEAs) can use data to support college and career readiness initiatives. The working group determined that high-quality data in integrated K12, postsecondary, and workforce data systems can be of value to all CCR stakeholders when they are used to: (1) foster individualized learning for students; (2) support educators in identifying and addressing student-specific needs; (3) measure progress made by education agencies in achieving CCR accountability and continuous improvement goals; and (4) maximize career opportunities for all students. Through the presentation of five data use cases related to these goals, this document can serve as a practical guide for determining the appropriate data elements, metrics, and reporting tools needed to support specific CCR initiatives within SEAs and LEAs.”

Nettles, S. M., & Herrington, C. (2007). Revisiting the importance of the direct effects of school leadership on student achievement: The implications for school improvement policy. Peabody Journal of Education, 82(4), 724–736. Retrieved from

From the ERIC abstract: “Much is left to be known regarding the impact of school principals on student achievement. This is because much of the research on school leadership focuses not on actual student outcomes but rather on other peripheral results of principal practices. In the research that has been done in this area, significant relationships have been identified between selected school leadership practices and student learning, indicating that evidence existed for certain principal behaviors to produce a direct relationship with student achievement. Further, although these relationships typically account for a small proportion of the total student achievement variability, they are of sufficient magnitude to be of interest and additional investigation. Actions taken to better understand and improve the impact of principals on the achievement of students in their schools have the potential for widespread benefit, as individual improvements in principal practice can impact thousands of students. It is in this light that potential direct effects of principal practices should be revisited.”

Note: “REL Midwest was unable to locate a link to the full-text version of this resource. Although REL Midwest tries to provide publicly available resources whenever possible, it was determined that this resource may be of interest to you. It may be found through university or public library systems.”

Opalka, A., Jochim, A., & DeArmond, M. (2019). A middle way for states in the ESSA era: Lessons from Texas. Seattle, WA: Center on Reinventing Public Education. Retrieved from

From the ERIC abstract: “In 2017 the Texas Education Agency (TEA) launched the Systems of Great Schools (SGS) initiative. With a combination of incentives and capacity building, SGS attempts to transform how school districts approach school improvement. It calls on districts to manage school performance in new ways, expand access to school choice options, and take a dynamic approach to managing their supply of schools. As one of TEA’s partners said, SGS is ‘basically changing the operating system of the district.’ Unlike other recent improvement efforts, SGS has set out not to change individual schools, but entire systems. The promise of this approach rests on the hope that districts, in turn, will reinvent themselves in ways that enable them to eliminate low-performing schools and foster higher-performing schools to take their place. The policy environment in Texas has created conditions that may help realize those hopes. The combination of reprieve from potent state accountability, incentives to partner with external organizations to improve low-performing schools, additional capacity support and grant opportunities, and a strong but flexible framework for locally designed accountability systems help make SGS more appealing, and more feasible, for districts. These policy tools are not new, but the coordinated use of them to create meaningful incentives for districts to voluntarily make system-level changes should be of interest to state leaders elsewhere. Texas’ initiative suggests several important lessons for other state leaders interested in adopting ‘middle-way’ programs in other state agencies, which we list in this report: (1) New programs don’t necessarily require large new departments, but benefit from creative reorganization and realignment of existing programs and resources toward new strategic goals; (2) While it’s important to attend to the organizational and human side of change inside the state agency by finding ways to align with existing work and strategies, it’s also crucial to secure political support from the top and outside to make and protect organizational and resource changes; and (3) Successful change efforts require clear communication about the shifts the state expects to make, what success looks like, and how they will support districts to get there. While sustained improvement in participating districts is not guaranteed with SGS, this account of TEA’s early experience reimagining state-led change can inform efforts in other states in the post-No Child Left Behind era.”

Rowland, C. (2017). Principal professional development: New opportunities for a renewed state focus. Washington, DC: Education Policy Center at American Institutes for Research. Retrieved from

From the ERIC abstract: “Over the years, most states and districts have focused professional development on teachers rather than principals. However, evidence suggests that principals can play an important role in reaching our national goals of high achievement for all students. School leaders are powerful levers for change—when given the right training and support. But most of the nation’s school principals do not have access to professional learning that reflects what is happening in schools today (e.g., changing demographics, large-scale reform initiatives, changing technology, evolving instructional strategies) and what we know are effective practices. Improving principal professional development is going to require a new way of thinking, prioritizing, and budgeting—at the state and local levels. For example, professional learning for school staff tends to be a small part of school districts’ budgets. And when funds are ample, districts overwhelmingly support teachers’ professional development (Manna, 2015). But there are avenues for improving principal professional development. Some states and districts are already doing this work, and there is research that illustrates what can be done to enhance on-the-job principal professional development. This brief describes: (1) The need for more and better principal professional development to improve principal effectiveness, decrease principal turnover, and more equitably distribute successful principals across all schools; (2) The research on the importance of principals and how professional development can improve principals’ effectiveness; and (3) Options and examples for leveraging current policies to revisit and refocus efforts concerning principal professional development.”

Scott, C., & Ostler, N. (2016). Reshaping rural schools in the Northwest Region: Lessons from federal School Improvement Grant implementation (REL 2016-107). Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences, National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance, Regional Educational Laboratory Northwest. Retrieved from

From the ERIC abstract: “The five states in the Regional Educational Laboratory (REL) Northwest Region have many rural schools that have been designated as in need of improvement. And all five states had rural schools in the first cohort of federal School Improvement Grant (SIG) recipients. To address school improvement, the majority of those schools implemented the transformation model, which requires strategies related to improving instruction, ensuring high-quality staff, and engaging families and communities. REL Northwest Region state and district leaders asked REL Northwest to conduct a study examining the extent to which rural schools across the nation implemented the transformation model, the challenges they experienced, and the technical assistance they received. This report provides information about rural schools using the transformation model. REL Northwest Region leaders may be able to use this study to inform future assistance for their rural schools in need of improvement.”

Troppe, P., Milanowski, A., Garrison-Mogren, R., Webber, A., Gutmann, B., Reisner, E., et al. (2015). State, district, and school implementation of reforms promoted under the Recovery Act: 2009-10 through 2011-12 (NCEE 2015-4016). Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences, National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance. Retrieved from

From the ERIC abstract: “This report, based on surveys completed by all 50 State Education Agencies (SEAs) and the District of Columbia (DC) and nationally representative samples of districts and schools during spring 2011 and 2012, examines implementation of the key education reform strategies promoted by the Recovery Act in 2011-12, the extent to which implementation reflected progress since Recovery Act funds were first distributed, and challenges with implementation. Findings showed variation in the prevalence and progress of reform activities across the areas of reform assessed and by state, district, or school level. Implementation progress was most consistent across the areas of reform at the state level. At all levels, implementation challenges related to educator evaluation and compensation were common.”

Wayman, J. C., Cho, V., Jimerson, J. B., & Spikes, D. D. (2012). District-wide effects on data use in the classroom. Education Policy Analysis Archives, 20(25), 1–27. Retrieved from

From the ERIC abstract: “In the present study, an examination is conducted in three school districts of how data are used to improve classroom practice. In doing so, we explore the effects that attitudes toward data, principal leadership, and computer data systems have on how data are used to affect classroom practice. Findings indicate that educators are ambivalent about data: they see how data could support classroom practice, but their data use operates in the presence of numerous barriers. Many of these barriers are due to principal leadership and computer data systems; these barriers often have negative effects on attitudes toward data and disrupt the progression from using data to inform classroom practice. It is hypothesized that many of these barriers can be removed through effective district policies to improve structures and supports for using data.”

Wong, K. K., & Shen, F. X. (2013). Mayoral governance and student achievement: How mayor-led districts are improving school and student performance. Washington, DC: Center for American Progress. Retrieved from

From the ERIC abstract: “Mayoral control and accountability is one of very few major education reforms that aim at governance coherence in this nation’s highly fragmented urban school systems. A primary feature of mayoral governance is that it holds the office of the mayor accountable for school performance. As an institutional redesign, mayoral governance integrates school-district accountability and the electoral process at the system-wide level. The so-called education mayor is ultimately held accountable for the school system’s performance on an academic, fiscal, operational, and managerial level. While school board members are elected by fewer than 10 percent of the eligible voters, mayoral races are often decided by more than half of the electorate. Under mayoral control, public education gets on the citywide agenda. This report examines the effects of mayoral governance on two specific areas—resource management and student achievement. In analyzing multiple, longitudinal databases on student achievement and financial management, this report found that mayoral governance has improved urban school districts. The findings will be useful to current and future mayors who may consider taking a greater role in public education. The following are among the report’s key findings: (1) Mayoral-led districts are engaged in strategic allocation of resources; (2) Over the past decade, mayoral-control school districts have generally improved district-wide performance relative to average school district performance statewide; (3) There were 11 districts that were governed by some degree of mayoral leadership toward the end period of the authors’ database on state assessment results. Among these 11 districts, five made substantial improvement in narrowing the student achievement gap within their states. These districts include New York; New Haven, Connecticut; Chicago; Philadelphia; and Baltimore; (4) Mayoral control in New York City appears to have had significant positive effects on both fourth- and eighth-grade student achievement; and (5) In Boston and Chicago, achievement improvement was strong during the initial period of mayoral governance, but there has been a relative tapering of performance in recent years.”

Additional Organizations to Consult

U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences, National Center for Education Research: Improving Education Systems: Policies, Organization, Management and Leadership topic –

From the website: “The Improving Education Systems: Policies, Organization, Management, and Leadership (Systems) topic supports research on system-level education improvements at the school, district, state, or national level. Systems projects explore, develop, measure, or evaluate specific practices, programs, and policies intended to improve education at the system level or to improve the system’s ability to implement reforms. Examples include school reorganization, accountability systems, school choice, data use and cost accounting, early warning systems, and teacher incentive programs.”


Keywords and Search Strings

The following keywords and search strings were used to search the reference databases and other sources:

  • “Data system” “educational improvement”

  • “District policy” “educational improvement”

  • Educational finance “educational improvement”

  • Governance “educational improvement”

  • Personnel “educational improvement”

Databases and Search Engines

We searched ERIC for relevant resources. ERIC is a free online library of more than 1.6 million citations of education research sponsored by the Institute of Education Sciences (IES). Additionally, we searched IES and Google Scholar.

Reference Search and Selection Criteria

When we were searching and reviewing resources, we considered the following criteria:

  • Date of the publication: References and resources published over the last 15 years, from 2005 to present, were included in the search and review.

  • Search priorities of reference sources: Search priority is given to study reports, briefs, and other documents that are published or reviewed by IES and other federal or federally funded organizations.

  • Methodology: We used the following methodological priorities/considerations in the review and selection of the references: (a) study types—randomized control trials, quasi-experiments, surveys, descriptive data analyses, literature reviews, policy briefs, and so forth, generally in this order, (b) target population, samples (e.g., representativeness of the target population, sample size, volunteered or randomly selected), study duration, and so forth, and (c) limitations, generalizability of the findings and conclusions, and so forth.
This memorandum is one in a series of quick-turnaround responses to specific questions posed by educational stakeholders in the Midwest Region (Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio, Wisconsin), which is served by the Regional Educational Laboratory (REL Midwest) at American Institutes for Research. This memorandum was prepared by REL Midwest under a contract with the U.S. Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences (IES), Contract ED-IES-17-C-0007, administered by American Institutes for Research. Its content does not necessarily reflect the views or policies of IES or the U.S. Department of Education nor does mention of trade names, commercial products, or organizations imply endorsement by the U.S. Government.