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Roundup Blog Series

Taking an innovative approach: A System of Great Schools

Taking an innovative approach: A System of Great Schools

By Paul Pastorek and Duncan Klussmann | August 27, 2018

This post is the second in a series examining how REL Southwest, the Texas Education Agency, and other partners in the Southwest School Improvement Research Partnership are collaborating to examine and improve support for district and school improvement in the state. Coauthors Paul Pastorek, former Louisiana superintendent of education, and Duncan Klussmann, former Spring Branch Independent School District superintendent and general superintendent coach for the Texas System of Great Schools (SGS) Network, discuss how SGS empowers schools by supporting district leaders, ultimately ensuring more students go to more great schools. Learn how Texas SGS districts manage school performance and improve access to high-quality schools. (Read Part 1 of the series.)

The Texas Education Agency (TEA) has engaged us to serve as executive advisors to support school district superintendents who want to explore innovative methods to operate their school systems. It is an exciting project because it provides practical solutions using a systematic approach to manage all schools to quality.

Is there a better way to run school systems than the traditional approach used by most system leaders?

Yes, a district superintendent and his or her team can do much better than simply keeping schools up and running and compliant. Most district teams want to do more than that, but most do not have a tried and tested system that can generate high-quality schools.

In cities like Denver, Spring Branch (TX), Indianapolis, Washington D.C., and New Orleans, new models of running school districts have emerged that have shown preliminary signs of improving student outcomes. In these cities, districts are using the strategies and resources of the System of Great Schools (SGS). A key aspect of the SGS approach is that each school system shapes it to meet the unique needs of their local community.

What is a System of Great Schools?

A System of Great Schools is one where schools have much greater responsibility and flexibility to deliver education to students in that local school community. It is built on the belief that the people closest to the action make the best decisions about teaching and learning.

The TEA SGS strategy is a system-level innovation and problem-solving approach that seeks to:

  • Support educators to design and lead high-quality schools
  • Empower families with high-quality options and informed choices
  • Focus central offices on high-leverage oversight, innovation, and support activities

Foundational to the work of SGS is a district-designed framework that defines quality and measures whether a school is making progress toward improvement. The School Performance Framework is developed with community input to ensure the needs and priorities of the students, school, and community are met. Communities describe the schools they want, and the district engages schools to identify and measure these priorities. Once you have a framework, you can measure schools and hold them accountable to live up to the community’s expectations.

The framework launches a district into a new way of operating, doing things differently than it may have in the past. The central office becomes responsible for developing and implementing the framework. It begins to shift additional responsibility for running schools to school leaders, tells them what it expects, and empowers them to create strategies and determine how they will meet priorities. Districts move away from a one-size-fits-all approach to one in which they are addressing specific needs in service to the schools and sharing and spreading practices that are successful.

How can a System of Great Schools empower school leaders to thrive?

Change can happen and school leaders can lead—if you trust them to lead. In every school district there are trailblazer principals. The district office doesn’t have to tell them what to do; they just do it. When told what to do, they may ignore the district office. Yet they not only survive, they thrive. Find those leaders who do well according to the framework and you have the basis for starting the work. Create a cohort out of that leadership group and give them support for autonomous decision-making. To start, give leaders modest autonomy:

  • Staffing – including determining who they hire and who they remove
  • Budget – flexibility on how money is spent, with training on how to follow the rules and be accountable
  • Curriculum and Instruction – flexibility to select, implement, and modify the school’s curriculum and instruction model

If they fail, they lose some flexibility. If they succeed, they gain more flexibility.

SGS is about trying to take weak or good schools in a district and make them Great Schools. It’s about relying on the ingenuity of a principal to determine for his or her school a better way of teaching the children who attend every day, who are often far different than kids at other schools. It is about believing in people.


For more information about school transformation, REL Southwest suggests these resources:

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Author Information

Paul Pastorek

Executive Advisor

Texas System of Great Schools Network

Duncan Klussmann

Executive Advisor

Texas System of Great Schools Network