Skip to main content
Log in

No one way: Differentiating school district leadership and support for school improvement

Journal of Educational Change Aims and scope Submit manuscript


This article examines findings from a qualitative investigation of how school district administrators in four mid to large sized urban school districts (10,000–50,000) identify and address differences in school performance. The analysis explores the interaction between district policies and actions that centralize and standardize expectations for teaching, learning, and leadership, and those that lead to the differentiation of district support to schools depending upon their identified needs. The findings demonstrate variability in district orientation and capacity to understand school needs to improve performance, as well as in district strategies for actually differentiating support to schools. Differentiated assistance can focus both on strengthening implementation of district expectations in order to improve school performance, and on supporting experimentation with non-standard solutions to performance challenges that are not solvable through use of established programs and practices.

This is a preview of subscription content, log in via an institution to check access.

Access this article

Price excludes VAT (USA)
Tax calculation will be finalised during checkout.

Instant access to the full article PDF.

Institutional subscriptions


  1. In January 2007, the U.S. Secretary of Education announced Building On Results: A Blueprint for Strengthening the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB). As part of this blueprint, the Department of Education called for differentiated accountability to allow states to vary the intensity and type of interventions to match the academic reasons that lead to a school’s identification as in need of improvement (Center on Education Policy 2009).

  2. Funding for this study was provided by a grant from the Wallace Foundation.


  • Berman, P., Weiler, D., Czesak, K., Gjelten, T., & Izu, J. (1981). Improving school improvement: A policy evaluation of the California school improvement program. Berkeley, CA: Berman, Welier Associates.

    Google Scholar 

  • Boyd, W., Kerchner, C., & Blyth, M. (Eds.). (2008). The transformation of great American School Districts: How big cities are reshaping public education. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Cawelti, G., & Protheroe, N. (2001). High student achievement: How six school districts changed into high-performance systems. Arlington, VA: Educational Research Service.

    Google Scholar 

  • Center on Education Policy. (2009). Mining the opportunities in differentiated accountability: Lessons from the no child left behind pilots in four states. Washington, DC: Center on Education Policy.

    Google Scholar 

  • Childress, S., Elmore, R., Grossman, A., & Moore Johnson, S. (2007). Managing school districts for high performance. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Collins, J. (2001). Good to great. New York, NY: Harper Collins Publishers.

    Google Scholar 

  • Datnow, A., Lasky, S., Springfield, S., & Teddlie, C. (2006). Integrating educational systems for successful reform in diverse contexts. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.

    Book  Google Scholar 

  • Elmore, R., & Burney, D. (1997). Investing in teacher learning: Staff development and instructional improvement in community school district #2. New York City, NY: Consortium for Policy Research in Education and National Commission on Teaching & America’s Future, Teachers College, Columbia University.

    Google Scholar 

  • Fullan, M. (2003). Change forces with a vengeance. London, NY: Routledge Falmer.

    Google Scholar 

  • Fullan, M. (2005). Leadership and sustainability: System thinkers in action. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Fullan, M., Bertani, A., & Quinn, J. (2004). New lessons for district-wide reform. Educational Leadership, April, 42–46.

  • Furhman, S., & Elmore, R. (1990). Understanding local control in the wake of state education reform. Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, 12(1), 82–96.

    Google Scholar 

  • Harris, A., & Chapman, C. (2004). Improving schools in difficult contexts: Towards a differentiated approach. British Journal of Educational Studies, 52(4), 417–431.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Hightower, A., Knapp, M., Marsh, J., & McLaughlin, M. (2002). The district role in instructional renewal: Making sense and taking action. In A. Hightower, M. Knapp, J. Marsh, & M. McLaughlin (Eds.), School districts and instructional renewal. New York, NY: Teachers College Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Honig, M. (2008). District central offices as learning organizations: How sociocultural and organizational learning theories elaborate district central office administrators’ participation in teaching and learning improvement efforts. American Journal of Education, 114, 627–664.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Hopkins, D. (2007). Every school a great school. Berkshire, England: Open University Press, McGraw-Hill.

    Google Scholar 

  • Kyriakides, L. (2007). Generic and differentiated models of educational effectiveness: Implications for the improvement of educational practice. In T. Townsend (Ed.), International handbook of school effectiveness and improvement (pp. 41–56). Dordrecht, The Netherlands: Springer.

    Chapter  Google Scholar 

  • Leithwood, K., & Louis, K. S. (Eds.). (2012). Linking leadership to student learning. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

  • Louis, K. (1989). The role of the school district in improvement. In M. Holmes, K. Leithwood, & D. Musella (Eds.), Educational policy for effective schools (pp. 145–167). Toronto, ON: OISE Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Louis, K. S., Leithwood, K., Wahlstrom, K., Anderson, S., Michlin, M., Mascall, B., Gordon, M., Strauss, T., Thomas, E., & Moore, S. (2010). Learning from districts' efforts to improve student achievement: Final report of the research to the Wallace Foundation. NY, NY: Wallace Foundation.

  • Marsh, J. (2002). How districts relate to states, schools and communities: A review of emerging literature. In A. M. Hightower, M. S. Knapp, J. A. Marsh, & M. W. McLaughlin (Eds.), School districts and instructional renewal (pp. 30–57). NY: Teachers College Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • McLaughlin, M., & Talbert, J. (2002). Reforming districts. In A. Hightower, M. Knapp, J. Marsh, & M. McLaughlin (Eds.), School districts and instructional renewal (pp. 173–192). New York, NY: Teachers College Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Rosenholtz, S. (1989). Teachers’ workplace: The social organization of schools. White Plains, NY: Longman.

    Google Scholar 

  • Simmons, J. (2006). School reform in Chicago, 1988–2005. In J. Simmons (Ed.), Breaking through: Transforming urban school districts (pp. 11–23). New York: Teachers College Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Snipes, J., Doolittle, F., & Herlihy, C. (2002). Foundations for success: Case studies of how urban school systems improve student achievement. Washington, D.C.: for the Council of the Great City Schools.

    Google Scholar 

  • Spillane, J. (1996). Districts matter: Local educational authorities and state instructional policy. Educational Policy, 10, 63–87.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Spillane, J. (1998). State policy and the non-monolithic nature of the local school district: Organizational and professional considerations. American Educational Research Journal, 35(1), 33–63.

    Google Scholar 

  • Stoll, L., & Fink, D. (1996). Changing our schools: Linking school effectiveness and school improvement. Buckingham, UK: Open University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Zavadsky, H. (2009). Bringing school reform to scale: Five award-winning urban districts. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education Press.

    Google Scholar 

Download references

Author information

Authors and Affiliations


Corresponding author

Correspondence to Stephen E. Anderson.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and permissions

About this article

Cite this article

Anderson, S.E., Mascall, B., Stiegelbauer, S. et al. No one way: Differentiating school district leadership and support for school improvement. J Educ Change 13, 403–430 (2012).

Download citation

  • Published:

  • Issue Date:

  • DOI: