Coherence has gained attention among education reformers in the last decade as an answer to the question, “What does it take to drive school improvement?” Proponents of coherence stress that alignment across the units of a school system is ultimately what makes the difference. While there is growing evidence that supports coherence as a key distinguishing factor among successful schools, less work has been done to understand how schools come to be coherent in the first place. Taking up this question in Achieving Coherence in District Improvement: Managing the Relationship Between the Central Office and Schools, coauthors Susan Moore Johnson, Geoff Marietta, Monica C. Higgins, Karen L. Mapp, and Allen Grossman ask the question, “What does it take to achieve coherence?”

In setting out to answer this, they sampled six high-achieving US school districts with varying strategic orientations. Conducting interviews with both district and school leaders, the authors aimed to further their understanding of how coherence can look and of the unique tensions and trade-offs experienced in each district around key features of coherence.

An outgrowth of the Public Education Leadership Project (PELP), Johnson and colleagues’ work distinguishes itself in a number of ways. First, in focusing on large, urban school districts, the authors situate their work at the district rather than school level. In zooming out in this way, they hear from key stake-holders, such as superintendents, as they discuss strategy and organizational culture and make decisions that have implications for coherence. Also distinguishing this work from prior research on coherence is the focus on district-school stakeholder relations that is threaded throughout. Since this relationship is often pointed to as a critical aspect of successful policy implementation (Daly & Finnigan, 2010), the dynamics between principals and central office officials are considered in this work as they pertain to achieving coherence.

In the first two chapters, the authors focus on decentralized versus centralized district strategies. With strategy as a core component of coherence, chapter 1 discusses the study’s methodological sampling, looking at various strategies in order to ascertain whether coherence is more strongly associated with one approach over another. Selecting five school districts from across the country, the authors conducted interviews with key stakeholders in the central office and school leadership teams, asking questions about who was ultimately responsible for decisions around budgeting, staffing, and curriculum. While they found differences in district strategy, with some team members adhering almost entirely to centralization on all factors and others to decentralization, all districts showed consistently high student achievement. Chapter 2 extends this by illustrating that even across these differences in district centralization strategy, a consistent finding for these high performing districts was alignment between strategy and other features of the school system—in other words, coherence.

Having established the presence of coherence in each district, the authors address the different tensions that emerge around achieving coherence through various strategies by devoting a chapter to each factor of coherence: stakeholders, culture, and external environment. Beginning with stakeholders in chapter 3, Johnson and colleagues focus primarily on the role of the principal in the districts they studied. They note that the nature of this role varies, and they review each district for differences in the ways principals and district officials work together to make hiring decisions and resource allocations. However, some common themes emerge around what productive, coherence-supporting principal relationships look like across the districts. In perhaps the most normative moment in the book, the authors assert that pushing final hiring decisions (even in centralized districts) down to the school level is key in aligning stakeholder interests in a manner that allows other features of coherence to fall into place.

Chapter 4 looks at the various organizational cultures in each district. While culture is often considered an outcome of other organizational design factors, Johnson and colleagues assert that culture can be deliberately designed and that doing so can be a way to craft coherence at the district level. They provide examples of ways in which leadership messaging and decisions are emblematic of a district’s organizational culture and thus can be intentionally harnessed to signal desired culture shifts. Describing a positive organizational culture as “a secret weapon that often goes unnoticed and underutilized” (p.133), the authors stress that it is not only important to think about positive organizational culture in and of itself but also to recognize that culture can be a critical tool when strongly aligned with strategy.

Chapter 5 focuses on a third factor in achieving coherence, the external environment. Noting that the environment surrounding school organizations is often contested and conflicted, the authors stress that alignment between other factors of coherence and the environment may be uniquely challenging in an education context. Framing environmental features as “forces” that interact with school districts, they discuss the legal, economic, and political climates that surround districts, focusing on the ways in which each may either constrain or enable other features of coherence. Across the districts, any change to coherence factors, such as strategy, was influenced by the environment. The authors therefore recommend that district leaders consider stake-holders’ capacities to observe, diagnose, and work nimbly within certain environments when making key decisions.

Achieving Coherence in District Improvement not only contributes to the scholarly dialogue on the multiple and varying factors that enable the achievement of coherence at the district level and the strategies that coherence-oriented reform may take but it also adds to our practical knowledge of what works on the ground in education. In taking time at the end of each chapter to speak directly to a practitioner audience, particularly district-level stakeholders, such as superintendents, Johnson and colleagues distill each chapter’s lessons into concrete takeaways and suggestions for those seeking to move toward greater coherence at the district level. What this work stresses at every turn is that when it comes to coherence, it’s not so much what you do but how you do it.

A. J.
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K. S.
A bridge between worlds: Understanding network structure to understand change strategy
Journal of Educational Change