System Design and Strategic Leadership


In  public education, strategic leadership is an individual capacity and a characteristic of high-functioning organizations. Strategic leadership involves system thinking and outcome-oriented planning that is focused on designing improvement efforts rather than solely planning and implementation. In state education agencies, districts, and schools, strategic leadership is characterized by an intensive focus on improvement and setting of tangible outcomes, with an understanding that the improvement pathway is complicated and continually changing. Strategic leadership involves deliberate analysis of policies, systems, and local context in order to design improvement efforts that will accelerate student achievement, and are well understood, aligned, and meaningful to stakeholders. Cultivating leadership capacity through training, partnerships, and networking is a core feature of our work. 


Strategic Leadership Strands of Work

Leadership Capacity


Leadership Capacity Building

What is leadership capacity and why is it important?

State education agencies and districts are striving to develop strategies and policies that will help schools to engage in meaningful and effective improvement efforts. However, the development of an improvement and capacity building framework for supporting district and school improvement efforts entails that states and districts balance expectations to monitor and support, and attend to the capacity and resource issues implicit in this balancing act.


In many states, the number of schools identified for improvement is increasing, and state education agencies are moving towards a district capacity building approach as the most cost-effective and useful means of bringing improvement efforts to scale. Simultaneously, many districts are taking a  renewed interest in figuring out how to best support improvement efforts in under-performing schools. However, there is little research on how states can best support districts or how districts can best manage and support local improvement efforts. 

"If the district central office is to be the lever of change, then it is essential that state education agencies and districts develop the leadership capacity needed to provide support to, and provide incentives for, districts to engage in innovative change efforts."

What is the focus of leadership capacity building? 

We collaborate with state departments of education and districts towards the development of coherent and aligned systems of support for  under-performing districts and schools. Through the co-construction of district and school capacity building frameworks, we focus on building leadership capacity, aligning policies,  accountability provisions, and strategies, and creating a policy environment conducive to sustainable district and school improvement.

What are the outcomes of this work? 

The development of a framework for district capacity building and improvement that  articulates: (1) how support is provided to districts and schools, (2) how policies (including accountability incentives and sanctions) and  resources are coordinated to support such efforts, and (3) the organizational conditions necessary to ensure the successful implementation of the capacity building framework.

The development of an implementation road map that can be used by the state education agency (or district central office) to ensure that all stakeholders are involved in the implementation of  the capacity building framework. 

System Design


Turnaround Design and Panning

Why is systems-based design important?  

Most districts and schools are faced with multiple requirements with respect to planning and improvement. While planning requirements are intended to support districts and schools in developing strategic and actionable  plans, the reality is that most planning efforts do not lead to dramatic improvement. Improvement plans often involve the piecemeal implementation of short-term solutions with little understanding of how various challenges (and potential solutions) may relate to each other.  As a result, the hard work and thinking of dedicated educators (administrators, teachers, and school board members) often fails to result in dramatic improvements.

We engage clients in systems processes to design  district and school policies, teaming practices, and actions as needed to achieve specific goals. We believe that all districts and schools would benefit from the opportunity to participate in a formal design process followed by the development of improvement plans that are focused and strategic and that attend to school-based issues rather than  developed solely in response to accountability and reporting requirements.

"What  is needed is a useful, strategic, and systems-based means of  identifying the core challenges that a district or school is facing and a  process for developing the high-leverage strategies (both technical and  adaptive) that will build the capacity of district and school leaders  to engage in sustainable improvement efforts. "

What is the focus of systems-based design and strategic planning? 

We provide intensive support to district and school leaders engaged in district and school improvement, focused on developing a systems-based and strategic plan for improvement. We engage educational leaders in a systems analysis to identify high-priority needs and challenges, craft a set of targeted and strategic actions and develop an implementation  road map to support successful implementation of improvement strategies. Program activities are designed to lead to sustainable improvement efforts by building the capacity of an organization (and its leaders) to actively design, implement, and monitor innovative improvement strategies.

Networking for Improvement


Networking for Improvement

What is Networking for Improvement?

Networking among educational leaders and teachers is a time-tested approach to developing and expanding the reach of effective policies and strategies. Since 2010, there has been a growing effort to combine networking with "improvement science." In fact, this emerging movement has a long history, building upon the concept of Kaizen - often referred to as "continuous improvement."  Continuous improvement involves the use of the scientific method to "test" whether strategies are successful in achieving stated goals. Networking for improvement brings together multiple groups (states, districts, schools, grades) focused on a common problem of practice, with a shared agreement to use improvement science (e.g., continuous improvement) processes to test, study, share, and modify their strategies and approaches.

At INSTLL, we have found that the most effective networking occurs within schools (e.g., among teachers, across grades) and across schools within a single district (e.g., multiple elementary schools).

We are currently working with districts on the use of cross-school networks to accelerate the development, testing, and sharing of effective, contextually based strategies and approaches to improving teaching and learning. Specific protocols and measurement tools are used throughout our networking activities.

We invite states and districts to contact us to explore how we can partner to engage in this work together.