Middle Schools “Breaking Ranks” to Increase Student Achievement

Teams from 16 different campuses receive training on collaborative leadership strategies

January 27, 2012

In the military, the term "breaking ranks" means someone who disrupts the cohesiveness of a group by marching out of step with others, and it is considered a very undesirable thing.

But in the Houston Independent School District, that phrase is actually quite positive — and it is fostering greater unity among educators and other school partners by showing them how to work together more effectively in new and different ways to achieve better outcomes for students.

Sixteen teams of school-based leaders began receiving training at the district's headquarters on Jan. 26 on "Breaking Ranks," a comprehensive framework for school improvement designed by the National Association of Secondary School Principals (NASSP).

The framework is based on three core areas (collaborative leadership; personalizing the school environment; and curriculum, instruction, and assessment) and nine cornerstones (leadership, professional development, culture, organization, curriculum, instruction, assessment, relationships, and equity).

"The thing to remember about Breaking Ranks is that it is not a program, it is a framework," said NASSP Director of Professional Development Pete Reed, who assisted with the training. "We're not telling people, 'Here, do these specific things at your campus.' Rather, we're providing them with a set of recommendations, processes, and strategies they can use to engage their school communities in setting the course for improvement that makes the most sense."

Principals, deans of instruction, campus coordinators, teachers, team leaders, and other school staff members participated in a number of exercises to explore various strategies to engage other members of school communities in a systemic improvement effort.

Many trainees experienced "a-ha" moments in the course of the first session, and took home valuable insights.

For instance, "you don't always have to be the one solving the problem," said School Improvement Officer Rhonda Johnson, after an exercise involving a Gordian knot (or an intractable problem). "Sometimes, it's enough that you're on the sidelines cheering other people on."

Other participants talked about learning the importance of being flexible and willing to delegate responsibilities or other decision-making tasks.

"The framework helps people talk and think about things in a different way," added Reed, "because the idea that a school's success depends exclusively on the principal is a fallacy. Student success is a team effort, and it requires everyone — parents, community members, teachers, and others — to work together."