In the fall of 2017, Malmö set into motion a system-wide strategic plan designed to improve student achievement. The program placed emphasis on instructional leadership practices at the school and system level. Additionally, the effort encompassed several interrelated initiatives that would impact budget, structure, process, professional knowledge and, ultimately, the innate culture and effectiveness of the system.
The scope of the project involved 80 Malmö Elementary Schools, 3,500 students (six to 16 years of age), 270 school leaders and approximately 5,000 teachers. After accounting for significant demographic changes and a focus on student achievement, the jurisdiction put forth a plan for improvement, centred on three key forces: system leadership; structural and process change; and professional learning for all leaders. These forces were guided by what is known about effective schools, systems, and leaders, at all levels.
Unsurprisingly, the leadership efforts of senior leaders proved to be the most dominant force for change. The plan was strategic and reflected system thinking as defined by experts including Fullan (2005, 2011, and 2016) and Leithwood (2013), among others. Senior leaders from Malmö demonstrated a clear understanding of the vital connections between professional learning — its processes, structures, practices — and the intended outcomes. Not to mention how each should be viewed as a source of leverage within the change process.
Structural and process changes
The second phase focused on redesigning structural and process elements within Malmö’s system — a step necessary to achieve the intended outcomes. The common refrain heard from local school leaders was how they ‘did not have enough time to be pedagogical leaders.’ The municipality responded in-kind, allocating an Administrative Chief to each school to assist with this roadblock. They were tasked with operational responsibilities, which provided principals with the time they coveted and ultimately, needed. This initiative sent a powerful message to the system about the level of commitment and focus.
Born out of this newfound collaboration and allocation of local resources was the Malmö Framework. The document was created with the purpose to identify strategic priorities; build common language and understanding; and to identify key leadership practices who would deliver on the priorities. Similar frameworks have proven to be powerful tools in shifting and aligning practice at the school and system level around collective understanding.
The third and final force of change involved provisions of professional learning for school and system leaders. ISL was tasked with delivering its two signature leadership programs – one for school leaders and the other for system leaders. These programs were carefully contextualized and aligned to provide coherence within the programs and the overall change initiative.
Authors Byrne and Scott (2019) identified essential design components of a professional learning program for school leaders. For Malmö, each component was addressed to support the overall plan.
The module structure was maintained, although the final module — which requires the application of the new learning to the development of a plan — was incorporated into system level planning requirements.
Contextualizing the content involved a site visit by one ISL instructor who met with senior leaders, principals, system personnel, and toured several schools. Furthermore, local documents and initiatives were reviewed so they could be incorporated into the program. The modification of the modules was a collaborative effort staged between senior leaders and ISL personnel.
Activities related to the creation of the Malmö Framework, were included in the program, thus aligning the program with system-level initiatives. The program provided a wide-variety of leadership and school frameworks that fostered discussions with the goal of advancing the development process. This change to the program was tactical and strategic in nature.
ISL programs are highly interactive and utilize strategies that can be leveraged by school leaders when working with teachers and instructors. These remained relatively unchanged, save for the removal of the required personal reflection for each module. In this case, leaders from Malmö opted to make them available to participants, but were not required to do so.
In the end, both school and system programs were delivered concurrently. In fact, the system program was completed prior to the offering of the school leaders’ program. This approach allowed superintendents to join their respective school ‘clusters’ for the school program and assist the ISL instructor where appropriate. This structure and overall approach proved to be a powerful strategy. System leaders were thus enabled to model behaviours of a “learning leader” (Fullan 2014) as they acquired knowledge alongside their team members.
With the learnings and programs structured over a two-year period, leaders were afforded a
period of reflection and application on an ongoing basis. Having time to absorb the material and trial it in different ways was well received by Malmö school leaders.
ISL instructors were engaged to achieve groupings of 25 to 35 participants. The local superintendents, who were ahead in their program, served as knowledgeable assistants and coaches in each of these sessions. Meaningful relationships were forged because the instructors remained with the group throughout the three on-site sessions.
System leaders were organized into one cluster, which included the director and all system leaders: legal, human resources, financial and school superintendents. Organizing groups in this manner was designed to build common language and knowledge — regardless of the individual role — with a focus on student achievement.
Impacts on practice
Having Malmö senior leaders probe the impact of the professional learning on the practices of school and system leaders, was part of the overall strategy. The study involved focus groups, school visits, and 1-on-1 interviews. One focus group had system leaders explore the impacts, barriers, and quality of implementation of the key learnings from the ISL program.
Ten schools were targeted for an in-depth analysis of the impact, which involved interviews with principals, deputies, and teachers. Two vice principal and principal focus groups provided data from ten additional schools. Recordings of these sessions were then transcribed and subjected to a thematic analysis.
The results of the analysis identified five key areas where elements of the program significantly and directly impacted the practice of leaders:
- Probing the question ‘Why?’
- Data analysis
- Conceptual frameworks
- Classroom walkthroughs
- Role of reflection
The evidence suggests that the overall strategic plan positively impacted the culture within the school system. In particular, the related efforts fostered the creation of a shared vision and firmly placed ‘learning together’ at the heart of the organization.
These collective and collaborative efforts reignited the passions and dreams of Malmö school leaders. The overarching goal of instilling sustained change and improvement in student achievement was realized.
The case of Malmö Elementary Schools substantiates the claim that system thinking matters. The system-wide strategy for improvement in student achievement focused on leadership at every level: collective professional learning, changes in structures and processes, and a financial commitment. The professional learning realized for leaders was primal.
On the program’s efficacy, Anders Malmquist (Director, Malmö Elementary Schools) had this to say: “The ISL program has made a huge impact on our school system and has created coherence and alignment for all our school and system leaders. We have become better using data and identifying key factors for school improvement and it has helped us lay the foundation for our framework. The learning and commitment have increased for everyone involved and by the power of collective learning we have built capacity within our teams. The program is a good mixture of theory and practise and the instructors were very professional and structured.”