Profiles in Transformation: MNPS Achieves and the School-Based Instructional Leadership Initiative in Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools
MNPS ACHIEVES AND THE SCHOOL-BASED INSTRUCTIONAL LEADERSHIP INITIATIVE IN METROPOLITAN NASHVILLE PUBLIC SCHOOLS
The Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools defines school improvement as a complex ongoing process grounded in a common vision and theory of action. Over the past three years, a transformation process has been led by Nashville Superintendent Jesse Register.
Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools (MNPS) serves about 80,000 students in a diverse system of 143 schools, where 73 percent of students qualify for free or reduced meals, and 23 percent of students are English language learners. When Register arrived in early 2009, the school system was on the verge of a state takeover and had not met federal performance standards for six years. MNPS representatives described the system’s staff as “shell-shocked” from churn and turmoil.
In May 2009, Register launched a multifaceted, systemwide transformation effort called “MNPS Achieves.” Register’s reforms were developed collaboratively through nine “Transformational Leadership Groups” (TLGs). These teams of central office administrators, principals, teachers, community leaders, and parents were asked to review data, best practices, and research and develop reform proposals in eight specific areas. Each group includes ten to fourteen members with equal representation among MNPS employees and community members (defined as parents, city or state representatives, local business and non-profit leaders, and colleges and universities). Each TLG focuses its efforts on one of nine identified areas of need, including supports for disadvantaged youth, students with special needs, and English Language Learners, middle school reform, high school reform, human capital systems, communications, information technology/data management systems, and central office effectiveness. A tenth team, the “Change Leadership Group,” is charged with monitoring progress and ensuring coherence among TLGs.
MNPS Achieves Principles
A set of core beliefs drives the initiative:
- There must be a common vision for the school system, and that vision must be developed with all of the key stakeholders.
- Changing school culture is fundamental to that vision. School leadership must be prepared and equipped to improve school culture.
- District bureaucracy must be reduced and become school based as much as possible.
Systemwide focus must zero in on improving instruction and supporting teachers.
TLGs meet monthly and are charged with finding effective practices in their topic area, with a specific emphasis on increasing student and adult performances, developing reforms that utilize distributed leadership, and ensuring collaboration between community and district leaders. The teams are co-led by a district employee and a community member — and already have been responsible for a range of concrete reforms, including:
- developing a teacher leadership institute
- redesigning teacher induction
- increasing the inclusion of special needs students throughout the district
- adding data coaches at schools
- developing high school academies and a new vision of and measurable criteria for successful high school graduates
- developing a teacher leadership institute
As the TLGs met and developed their proposals, Register led a central office redesign that has moved more than 200 central office staff, including instructional support personnel, closer to schools and created cluster-based support teams.
Register believes that the more district personnel become school based, the more they form relationships with teachers, parents, and students – relationships that are key to building trust and ownership of reforms.
Each school now has an instructional leadership team, including consulting teachers, literacy and academy coaches, and social workers. Each of these school-based specialists come together in “Network Learning Communities” for two days each month to reflect with peers on what’s going on in the schools, review data, and develop new strategies. The rest of the month, these experts are in the schools supporting teachers by modeling lessons, determining professional development needs, and more.
Professional development for both teachers and principals has been a key component of the effort. “Model Classrooms” have been established in some schools, where highly skilled teachers demonstrate successful teaching techniques. A leadership institute for principals was created in July of 2010 and meets every six months. Principals work together to reflect on strategies, hear from external experts, and review data.
Principals in Nashville now serve on year-to-year contracts. A new position — “Lead Principal” — is being created to give the district’s strongest leadership additional recognition and responsibilities as trainers and mentors to help develop a pipeline of high-quality leadership.
Register doesn’t believe that the district has the capacity, or even should attempt to “implode” all the district’s low-performing schools. Instead, he is working to replace the leadership teams in low-performing schools and allow new leaders to choose a critical mass of high-performing teachers to work with him/her over time.
The district has also organized family support teams in each school cluster. These teams work actively in the community to help engage parents and train school staff in how to work with parents.
In August 2011, the district announced that ten of its most troubled schools would be placed in an “innovation cluster.” These schools would take part in intensive turnaround efforts designed to dramatically improve student performance. MNPS has hired the British-based Tribal Group, Inc. to support this effort.
While it’s early to determine the extent of the district’s academic performance gains, it is clear that there is significant change in Nashville. School board members and others describe an increasing trust of the district from the community and a positive reshaping of the public’s impression of changes in the district.
The district’s culture is becoming more collaborative, particularly within central office. Community partners and others external to the district’s process see the work of the TLGs as a major step toward opening up communication and involvement. These outside eyes have provided a fresh look and creative approaches to district management.
The district’s infrastructure has also been improved with the shift to school-based staffing. The new structure not only improves the relationship between central office and the schools but also provides a much greater opportunity for more effective, job-embedded professional development. Teacher induction was revamped, and principals are creating a learning community through the leadership academies.
The TLG process has created a learning culture that has resulted in “an extraordinary amount of engagement and effort to identify best practices and adapt them for use” in the system, according to an evaluation of the program by the Annenberg Institute for School Reform at Brown University, in December 2010.