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  • Writer's pictureAllan J. Mucerino


Among the more interesting ideas my students and I are discussing in my current doctoral leadership class is policy coherence. If viewed as a process by which schools use multiple external demands to strengthen students’ opportunities to learn, coherence might provide a more productive organizing construct to improve student learning, according to educational researchers Meredith I. Honig and Thomas C. Hatch.

As a superintendent, sadly, improving student learning is often in conflict with the barrage of competing policy-driven demands on time, testing, and accountability, all emanating from a variety of sources including federal and state governments, local school boards, unions, and school-based and community-based groups.

The savvy superintendent uses policy incoherence to drive change by accepting it as an ongoing process and engaging the organizational actors, as opposed to the traditional definition of coherence as an objective outcome.

The two primary organizational actors are schools and the central district offices that serve and support them. Successful superintendents negotiate the fit between external demands and their schools’ site-based goals and strategies. Honig and Hatch contend that crafting coherence involves at least three broad activities: (1) schools setting school-wide goals and strategies with particular characteristics; (2) schools using those goals and strategies as the basis for their decisions about the extent to which they might productively engage external demands; and (3) school district central offices supporting these new forms of school decision-making.

Superintendents navigate the policy coherence landscape in one of two ways. First-generation systemic and standards-based reforms address the challenge from the district perspective as it is handed policy from state and federal agencies. Second-generation systemic reforms have focused on solutions within schools. The hallmark of second generation systemic reform is bottom-up strategies that are site-based and engage school leaders and their communities to set their own goals and improvement strategies and then use them as a framework for decision-making. Successful schools create and maintain collective decision-making structures, and manage information, all hallmarks of productive goal and strategy setting. But it’s not easy since schools are passive agents of their environments. Furthermore, school are vulnerable as subordinate and highly dependent organizations in America's hierarchical education system.

Successful superintendents learn how to bridge and buffer external demands. They use external demands to advance internal goals and strategies. Bridging increases interaction while buffering does the opposite. 

Buffering allows schools to advance their goals and strategies by buffering themselves from external demands. Buffering may protect an organization while it is incubating particular ideas, thus allowing it to overcome and ignore environmental negativity that often derails initiatives. Common examples of buffering include rejecting certain funding sources that have strings attached or by applying for waivers from regulations. Charter schools are by definition buffered from regulatory policy.

Since policy incoherence stems from a limited conceptualization of what coherence entails, the savvy superintendent cannot only mitigate the potential negative impact of it, but can turn it into something positive. In fact, a savvy superintendent turns everything that is potentially negative into something positive by being a student of education policy and leadership practices. 


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