A Framework for Executive Leadership of Continuous Improvement in K-12 Public School Districts: Learning from Research and Practice

Author: ORCID icon orcid.org/0000-0002-2115-5015
Dixon, Christina, Administration and Supervision - Curry School of Education, University of Virginia
Eddy-Spicer, David, Curry School of Education, University of Virginia

Executive leaders play critical roles in transforming their organizations to create systems that have the capacity to continuously and sustainably improve. Across the field of education, however, little is known about the role of K-12 leaders in creating the conditions for continuous improvement in their districts. In this study I sought to begin to fill that gap by building a testable, research-based framework that offers a theory of what executive leaders of exemplary K-12 public school districts think, do and focus on to create the conditions for continuous improvement that produce district-wide improvements in student outcomes.

I conducted this study in three phases. I began with developing a draft conceptual framework, then carried out case studies of two continuously improving K-12 public school districts and concluded with a revision of the framework based on findings from the case studies.

I based this study’s initial conceptual framework on the “three interdependent dimensions of high-impact leadership” (Swenson, Pugh, McMullan & Kabcenell, 2013, p. 6): how leaders think (mental models), what leaders do (high impact behaviors), and where leaders focus efforts. Using an adaptation of framework-based synthesis (Dixon-Woods, 2011), I conducted a review of current research-based knowledge about system-level leadership that creates the conditions for continuous improvement and ultimately drives district-wide improvement in student outcomes (Dixon & Eddy-Spicer, 2019). Given that the current research base on this topic in education is quite limited, I considered literature from multiple sectors.

Guided by the synthesis of the literature, I then investigated the nature of such leadership within two exemplary K-12 school districts. I used the strategy of “reputational case selection” (Goetz & LeCompte, 1984, as cited in Miles, Huberman & Saldana, 2014, p. 3) to select Dr. Patricia Greco, Superintendent of School District of Menomonee Falls in Wisconsin, and Mr. Matthew Navo, Superintendent of Sanger Area School District in California to participate in the study. Within each district, I identified continuous improvement officers (CIOs) (e.g. Assistant Superintendent, Chief Improvement Officer) and school-level leaders (e.g. Principal, Assistant Principal) through a snowball sampling method (Atkinson & Flint, 2001). I then conducted individual, semi-structured interviews with each superintendent, and with four district- CIOs and three school-level leaders from their districts.

I analyzed data and compared findings from the superintendents, CIOs and principals, first within role groups, then within each case and finally across roles and contexts. I then compared the findings from the cases with the literature reviewed to highlight convergent and divergent perspectives, and analyzed them further to consolidate what is currently known based on research and practice.

Overall, findings from Menomonee Falls and Sanger regarding how leaders think, what they do, and where they focus their efforts showed substantial alignment with the domains identified in the literature, although the findings from Menomonee Falls matched the initial framework more closely than those from Sanger. I summarized the most credible findings across all sources to produce a revised conceptual framework for district-level leadership of continuous improvement in education. Key findings included that such leaders value learning and people, and think systemically. They act to set system-wide vision, goals and measures; develop capability; and create a culture of improvement. Further, they focus their efforts on promoting organizational alignment and building infrastructure to support improvement.

I concluded with a discussion of the limitations of this study and the framework itself, and made recommendations for future inquiry and action to grow effective executive leaders of continuous improvement in education.

EDD (Doctor of Education)
continuous improvement, district-level leadership, superintendent, improvement science, leadership framework, quality improvement, education
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