No Child Left Behind (NCLB) set a challenging goal of 100% proficiency for all students, prompting schools and districts across the nation to implement major reform initiatives to meet increasing federal achievement targets. Some schools and a few districts have been successful, however, the majority are still failing. The primary purpose of this study is to identify and examine the role of one high achieving school district's central office in supporting or constraining learning initiatives of schools within the district. In particular, this study explores the informal and formal relationships and structures that foster collaboration between central office and school principals. Lastly, the study investigates the conditions and structures that allow leaders to be innovative and creative with the goal of increasing student achievement.
To explore district/school relationships, this study drew on the theory and method of social network analysis, and its related and supporting theories of social and intellectual capital, and organizational learning. The concept underlying social network analysis is the more dense the relationships in an organization, the greater the potential for collaboration and creation of social capital. Collaborating, exchanging and combining knowledge among members leads to intellectual capital, which is essential for organizational learning.
The research design of this study was a descriptive, embedded, single-case study that used quantitative extant data and qualitative methods to answer five main research questions. In addition to the social network analysis of central office/principal relations, a cross-case analysis of two embedded cohorts within one district was also conducted using evidence from surveys, semi-structured interviews, focus group interviews, and document analysis to examine how the district and schools worked together to negotiate, communicate, and implement reform initiatives.
The study showed that there were dense networks of collaboration, communication, and innovation supported by high levels of trust among administrators at all levels. The qualitative data revealed that principals appreciated considerable autonomy to implement programs of their choice at the school site as long as they could show learning gains. Thus, the results presented a pattern of high levels of site-based decision-making autonomy coupled with high levels of accountability for student achievement — a finding not shown in most other studies of effective district reform. This district, serving a high percentage of English learners and socio-economically disadvantaged students, seems to have found a way to balance accountability with professionalism by focusing on student results rather than program mandates.