When the wave of education reform starts at the national level, the national policy discussion often takes place at the macro level. When education reforms hit the local school level, does the policy discussion continue? That’s a question explored by the College’s Shelby Cosner, PhD, associate professor of educational policy studies and academic program director of the Ed.D. Urban Education Leadership program, in a keynote address to the Wisconsin Association of School District Administrators.

With Common Core state standards among the latest district and school reform initiatives to be supported in many states throughout the US, Cosner was called on to help Wisconsin school districts leaders consider how to productively harness this and other such policy initiatives at the district and school level.

“Teachers can see a policy initiative as something not affecting them and may not see the problem the policy initiative is seeking to address,” Cosner said. “As a result, they don’t always see the learning and doing they will have to engage in if that policy is to have an impact on student learning.”

Cosner’s September address to Wisconsin School District Superintendents featured four key points. First, districts and schools need to connect policy initiatives to “cycles of inquiry,” because inquiry models can help educators understand policy initiatives as responses to within-school problems. Second, to aid teachers in understanding the learning and doing demands of a policy, district and school leaders should develop “theories of action” for each policy initiative. Such theories make visible the teacher learning and subsequent changes to teacher practices that are likely to be necessary if the policy initiative is to impact student learning.

Cosner argues that theories of action are critical tools that leaders use to support school-wide improvement. When such tools are not used by district and school leaders teachers oftentimes remain unclear as to how a policy initiative is expected to impact student learning.

“Right now, if you were to go to teachers and ask, ‘How will Common Core state standards impact student learning?’ I don’t think many teachers would know about a theory of action,” Cosner said. “A theory of action needs to specify in very granular ways what those [instructional] changes are and the teacher learning that is required.”

Third, district and school leaders must consider the kinds of organizational and leadership capacities that are necessary for schools to productively enact policy initiatives and they must diagnose and then develop those capacities within local schools across the district.

“Districts look at policy initiatives as only attending to instruction and fail to marshal the leadership and organizational resources of schools to support that instructional improvement work,” Cosner said.

Cosner argues that districts must come to understand the kinds and nature of organizational and leadership resources that exist within the schools of the district and that districts must then take deliberate actions to further cultivate these resources across the schools in the district.

Fourth, larger school districts need develop and engage a senior leadership team to take on these challenges collaboratively rather than have this work led by individual roles, divisions and departments in the central office, At the district level, Cosner says school leaders need to consider how to break down siloed efforts. Often, these educational leaders, while well-intentioned, work in isolation.