A Learning Community for School District Leaders Promotes Evidence-Based Decision-Making

Researchers, practitioners, policymakers, funders, and support providers all share the same goal: improving educational opportunities for all students, with particular emphasis on those who have been historically underserved. Even as they work toward the same outcome, however, they rarely have opportunities to work together across organizational lines, learn from one another, and use their collective experience to influence education policy and practice.

The California Collaborative on District Reform was designed to meet this need. The Collaborative, which has operated continuously since 2006, is a venue for these stakeholders to engage in evidence-based dialogue and creative problem-solving. The Collaborative is housed at, and staffed by, AIR. Joel Knudson, a senior researcher at AIR, currently serves as the Collaborative’s deputy project director and answered questions about the Collaborative and its work.

Q: What makes the California Collaborative different from other learning communities?

Knudson: There are two particularly distinctive aspects to the California Collaborative. The first is the emphasis on school districts, and the role they play in facilitating improvements to student instruction and student learning. Collaborative meetings are nested in the context of a host district and focused on a particular problem of practice. The other is the unique set of participants we bring together. Our members include superintendents, state-level policymakers, researchers, civil rights advocates, support providers, and funders who support education reform. At any given time, we have approximately 40 members—big enough to bring in different voices to enrich the dialogue, but intimate enough that everyone can participate and develop meaningful relationships. Our members all have different perspectives, different sets of experiences and different areas of expertise, so when they hear directly from one another, they’re able to understand the issues in new ways and generate new ideas.

Q: What are the California Collaborative’s biggest accomplishments?

"The Collaborative is all about relationships, so it's essential to have the right voices at the table."

Knudson: The continued existence of the Collaborative is a major success. The issues facing California school districts and the context in which they appear constantly evolve, yet people continue to see major value in the group and keep participating, maintaining an active dialogue around issues like ensuring high quality instruction; addressing students’ academic, social, and emotional needs; and navigating opportunities and challenges associated with school funding.

District leaders also report changes in their daily practice based on lessons learned through the Collaborative. Sometimes this takes the form of adopting methods and solutions that have worked for their colleagues—for example, the establishment of a family resource center, the redesign of a middle school, or the creation of a family-facing report of academic performance. Just as frequently, the relationships developed through the Collaborative mean that a district leader has a colleague to call on for advice and input when navigating a particular issue.

The Collaborative has also become a significant and respected voice in education policy in California. For example, the President of the State Board of Education asked for the Collaborative to meet and provide input regarding the implementation of the state’s new funding system. Policymakers frequently look to the California Collaborative to help elevate the perspectives of local education leaders and identify areas for attention and improvement.

Q: What are the main challenges facing the Collaborative?

Knudson: The Collaborative is all about relationships, so it’s essential to have the right voices at the table. Because turnover is very common among urban superintendents, it’s important that we sustain relationships with individuals and organizations through leadership transitions. Also, because we’re focused on addressing the needs of underserved students, we want to make sure to incorporate perspectives and ideas that help us understand and address those challenges. Equity is a consistent through-line in the topics and strategies we explore within member meetings. The Collaborative membership has also evolved over time to bring in voices that help us better address key equity issues, and we continue to seek ways to better organize our work to support underserved students and communities.

Q: Why California? Is this model scalable?

Knudson: California was a particularly good fit for this model because the state has many districts operating in similar contexts—large student populations with similar assets and needs, and therefore similar challenges. California also has a strong philanthropic base of funders who are interested in education reform and willing to support an effort like the Collaborative. However, we absolutely believe that this model is scalable and could be explored in other contexts.

Principal Researcher