Allan J. Mucerino
DON’T GIVE UP. DON’T EVER GIVE UP. COHERENCE SYSTEMS AND HOW DISTRICT LEADERS CAN BEAT THE ODDS.
Updated: Apr 10
It’s March Madness. And I love basketball. But even casual sports fans pay attention to college hoop’s annual ritual and millions partake in the bracket challenge. When I think about March Madness, I think about Jim Valvano, whose North Carolina State team won the 1983 NCAA championship against improbable odds. As famous as Valvano became for leading his upstart Wolfpack to one of the most iconic victories in college basketball history, he became even more famous for his fight against cancer ten years later.
His refrain, “Don’t give up. Don’t ever give up,” delivered during an inspiring speech he delivered while terminally ill, is a mantra education leaders would be smart to adopt in their effort to overcome the improbable odds of creating coherence systems despite institutional characteristics that may at first glance appear to be immutable to change.
I define coherence as the coordination of systemwide activity around improvement (theories of actions). I define coherence systems as whole institution approaches (WIAs) to embed continuous individual and institutional learning processes as a fundamental principle of practice, enabling theories of action, at the center, to flourish. The opposite of coherence is fragmentation. Fragmentation occurs in the absence of coordinated efforts to bring coherence to school systems. There is no center. There's likely no trust.
Not to be confused with school improvement frameworks, coherence frameworks borrow concepts from organizational theory and use them to develop frames to study the best ways of coordinating activity around improvement in a specific school district. Each situation is unique. School improvement frameworks describe a broader set of organizational features, typically plan-do-study-act models, such as PLC’s, or Bernhardt’s Continuous School Improvement model, for example. [Note: PLC's is a brand name for professional communities of practice. If functioning at a high level, these within-school groups meet frequently to examine student work and other contextual data, think through problems of practice, focus on the learning goals of the schools, and reinforce a mutual commitment to internal accountability]. Question: Is your PLC a professional communities of practice?
Coherency frameworks are systems theory-based, abundant, and fundamentally similar. They commonly share one primary principle: A focus on causal pathways to measurable outcomes; and one common foundational element: Continuously translate new knowledge into practice based on how the change affects the people in the organization (Change Theory). As such, the processes are constantly evolving as new knowledge emerges. Leaders must be situational to create the conditions structurally and behaviorally.
Every district is unique. Frameworks are applied conditionally. They are not manuals. In the wrong hands, they can set districts back and lead to distrust in change and improvement efforts.
The protocol-centric frameworks I teach in the CSUF doctoral program and have utilized in practice are the PELP (Public Education Leadership Project) Coherence Framework, adapted from Tushman’s & O’Reilly’s (2002) Congruence Model (2002), the Strategic Education Research Partnership's Internal Coherence (IC) model of assessment and professional development (Elmore, et al.), and Fullan’s & Quinn’s Coherence Framework, outlined most recently in Coherence: The Right Drivers in Action for Schools, Districts, and Systems (2016). Frameworks and constraining protocols help leaders take targeted action. To that end, The Council of Chief State School Officers (2017) has developed principles of effective school improvement systems. Same concept, but not a framework, per se. As far as protocols to that end, The Power of Protocols (McDonald et al.) provides a valuable set to tools.
At this point, you may be asking the question, “Is this type of work transformational and does it require a transformational leader? The answer is yes and yes. But don’t let that scare you. A leader need not be “transformational” in order to do transformational work. It’s a process in which leaders are shaped by the work they are doing.
If a leader describes herself/himself as transformational, ask her/him what they have transformed, because leaders acquire and develop the competencies required to do transformational work by doing the work. The work comes first.
Transforming a school system into a coherence system, particularly if the district is highly fragmented and/or dysfunctional, requires leaders to not only understand how every component of the change process interacts with the other, but also how to foster coupling among the parts to allow the whole to function at a high level.
Oh, one more thing. Don’t give up. Don’t every give up. Transformational work is hard. Very hard. That’s why it’s estimated that only one-quarter to one-third of school districts nationally attempt, let alone succeed, in doing systems-level work.