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Special Work, Advisory, and Ad Hoc Groups

Special work, advisory, and ad hoc groups are structures available for Ohio leadership teams — DLTs, BLTs, and TBTs — to use in their systemic improvement efforts. Practically everyone is familiar with such groups: advisory groups, task forces, and so forth. This Foundational Concept provides more detail about this array of leadership structures, whose use is often at the discretion of DLTs, BLTs, and TBTs (Buckeye Association of School Administrators, 2013).

The following discussion reviews five broad concerns: (1) purpose, (2) district policy on the use of special groups, (3) dimensions of special groups, (4) types of special groups, and (5) organization of special groups.


Why use special groups, especially if leadership is already organized by leadership teams? Leadership teams cannot by themselves complete all that needs to be done.

  • Perhaps, for instance, a detailed set of data needs to be gathered and discussed as a basis for planning work to improve instruction.
  • Or possibly, a needs assessment with students or parents would be helpful.
  • Maybe, a fact-finding mission is necessary as a way to deal with a high-profile issue.
  • Or a districtwide curriculum change might require input from a wide range of stakeholders.

The list is nearly endless. Leadership teams need tools to support their collaborative work, and special groups are one kind of tool. These groups enable district and school decision makers to collaborate with representatives from a broader stakeholder base than is possible with leadership teams alone.

As Hargreaves and Fullan (2012) explain, collaboration needs to reach deeply into the educational system, and special groups help establish that reach. Leadership teams — at all three levels — can, for instance, delegate extended efforts to people who are stakeholders in the issue under consideration. Extending team involvement in this way deepens organizational capacity.

Note also that special groups cannot be alternatives to DLTs, BLTs, or TBTs. Why? It’s because OIP leadership teams ensure common purpose, continuity and coherence of action, and shared leadership. In fact, attempts to replace these teams or lessen their importance would tend to undermine "the collective collaborative approach to improving professional practice" (BASA, 2013, p. 7) that constitutes Ohio’s Leadership Development Framework and anchors the OIP.

District Policy on the Use of Special Groups

The DLT has a special role in helping the district to organize and deploy special groups. And use of such groups requires district-level policy. Who can authorize them? How will their work be overseen? How can their use by BLTs and TBTs be facilitated? What limitations might apply?

District-level policy on the use of these structures makes sense in view of such questions. Use of special groups by leadership teams might be the exception rather than the rule, especially in some districts. Nevertheless, with applicable policy in place, leadership teams across the system could be encouraged to use special groups to accomplish significant tasks, so long as these groups operate in accordance with policy.

Dimensions of Special Groups

Some special groups are temporary (ad hoc), and some are permanent (standing). Some exist at just one level of a system (horizontal); others cross levels (vertical). And some groups focus on one school or district only (organizationally bounded); while others connect schools, districts, agencies, or other organizations (cross-border groups).

Ad hoc vs standing groups. An "ad hoc" (Latin meaning "for this") group exists to accomplish something specific and accomplish it during a limited time span. Sometimes called "work groups" or "task forces," ad hoc groups are very common in organizations. By contrast, standing teams (or committees or group) have a sustained and more general purpose (e.g., district and school leadership). DLTs, BLTs, and TBTs are standing groups.

Horizontal vs vertical teams. Sometimes groups of educators are horizontal (all elementary school music teachers in a district), but they can be vertical too (music teachers from all grade levels in a district). Leveling, though, is partly a question of perspective. Organizational level (district, school, classroom) is one kind, but "level" might refer to participant level—student, teacher, administrator. Here are some more examples:

  • A horizontal team is made up of BLT members from the same grade and subject from multiple schools.
  • A vertical team includes DLT members; several BLT members; and an elementary, a middle-school, or a high-school teacher.
  • A vertically organized curriculum committee includes middle-school and high-school math teachers.

Organizationally bounded vs. cross-border groups. Many (or even most) special groups will be organized as within-district efforts — with educators and sometimes students or parents as members. But DLTs and BLTs may often find it useful to organize "stakeholder groups" with members representing organizations that are outside the district. These groups may benefit from the perspectives offered by members of health and human service agencies, community groups, regional service providers, and so forth.

Types of Special Groups

Special groups can be considered in two categories: (1) special within-district work groups and (2) groups established to span the organizational border. Any of these groups could be organized vertically or horizontally. Interestingly, groups of the first type tend to be ad hoc — organized for a task and then disbanded. Groups of the latter type, by contrast, tend to be long-term: standing committees, advisory boards, and interagency collaboratives.

Special Within-district Work Groups

Schools and districts confront many issues and undertake many tasks. Within-district groups, often ad hoc in nature, frequently take on this work. Educators may be familiar with ad hoc groups of district employees who are convened for purposes such as recommending textbooks, developing curriculum materials, and planning special events. Less often used – but potentially helpful – are six types of within-district groups that address educational improvement: networked improvement communities, data teams, study groups, focus groups, critical friends groups, and walkthrough teams.

Networked improvement communities. These special workgroups (NICs) are part of the Improvement Science toolkit (Bryk et al., 2015). They are equally useful for supporting the work of all three OIP leadership teams (i.e., DLTs, BLTs, and TBTs). The focus of Improvement Science, though, is on improving well-defined operations, using NICs to collect application data and make incremental adjustments at scale — as for an entire school or district (Bryk et al., 2015). NICs require specialized leadership that is highly organized, deeply experienced, and data-savvy. Before undertaking an improvement project, NIC members should understand the principles of Improvement Science (Proger et al., 2017; Rohanna, 2017). Even though NICs require their members (and especially their leaders) to have considerable expertise, they are nonetheless ad hoc groups: They convene, address an issue (perhaps for as long as several years), and then disband.

Data teams. Education practitioners are notably challenged to "analyze data" (Kippers et al., 2018; Schildkamp et al., 2019), especially data that extend beyond what they encounter in day-to-day practice. Educators often lack the necessary expertise, and almost always lack the time. For these reasons, some districts and schools establish data teams. This approach enables the district or school to focus data capacity-building efforts on a specialized work group. Once they have the necessary skills, data teams can assist DLTs, BLTs, and TBTs to analyze data that reveal patterns, trends, and underlying conditions. Schildkamp and colleagues (2019) offer insights about establishing and managing data teams of this sort.

Study groups. Study groups in education have a long history (e.g., Granum, 1975). They have been deployed at the national, state, and regional level (more often than at the district level), where they have considered issues and provided reports relevant to political debates and agendas (e.g., National Commission on Excellence, 1983).

At the district level, a study group might be called a "task force," especially if the issue for study is larger or more complex than, perhaps, a particular teaching technique. For example, a district might empanel a task force to study disproportionality districtwide. Or it might pull together a task force to infuse a particular assessment strategy – portfolio-based assessment, perhaps – into all classrooms in the district. The task that a study group undertakes might last several months or even several years, and its work might benefit from consultation with experts or from the inclusion of members from the community or state organizations (Faneslow, 2006). Reporting progress and eventually findings to relevant OIP teams (especially the DLT) helps a special study group keep its work attentive to district needs and closely aligned with district priorities.

Focus groups. Focus groups are used in interview research ("focus group research"). In this sense, they are part of a research method rather than a work group. A large literature about focus groups exists, including a variety of toolkits for conducting focus group interviews (e.g., Center for Community Health and Development, 2021; Oklahoma Department of Education, 2021; Family Justice Center, 2021).

A leadership team, a study group, or a task force might choose to convene a focus group to discover what a particular set of stakeholders thinks about a situation, issue, or proposed idea. Typically, focus groups come together for a single meeting (the focus group interview), during which the members are asked a series of questions about the situation, issue, or proposed idea. Although the life of a focus group is brief, its input can be extremely useful. This approach is not used as often as it might be by leadership teams, but Winand and Edelfson (2006) provide an example of how it was used in a small Ohio district.

Critical friends groups. Critical friends groups (CFGs) support educators’ reflection about an issue, project, process, or role (e.g., the role of principal, or of DLT member). A "critical friend" is a lot like a cognitive coach (Costa & Kallick, 1993): a trusted colleague who asks good questions and helps reframe issues. If a DLT or BLT viewed the use of a certain instructional practice as an issue, for instance, it could establish a CFG to address the use of that practice in a school, department, or grade level (e.g., Fahey, 2012). With CFGs, buy-in and trust are important because giving and hearing critique are difficult for most people (Seager, 2018). Members of a CFG, however, need to understand the value of critique and be experienced in providing and responding to it.

Walkthrough teams. Walkthroughs were originated as brief, informal classroom visits by a single person, the principal (Downey et al., 2004). Now, districts allow a much wider assortment of stakeholders to participate in walkthroughs: BLT members, district-level administrators, board members, teachers, and even students. Walkthroughs can be particularly beneficial to members of the leadership teams in a district: DLT members as well as BLT and TBT members (Bushman, 2006).

From the start, the point of walkthroughs has been to familiarize observers with what is happening routinely in classrooms — not to evaluate teachers. Nevertheless, one common use of walkthroughs, especially when they are conducted by TBT members, is to document the degree to which agreed-upon instructional strategies are being implemented with fidelity. Some authors caution against using walkthroughs to collect data (including fidelity of implementation data), however, because data collection may seem too much like teacher evaluation and tend, therefore, to undermine collaboration (Lemons & Helsing, 2009).

Boundary-Spanning Groups

Boundary-spanning, in the sense used in this Foundational Concept, refers to the boundary between the school district and the rest of the world; and district leadership monitors that boundary most strategically and authoritatively (Sampson & Horsford, 2017). The groups discussed next are established for the purpose of bridging the boundary. Organizing these groups most often involves district leadership and the DLT. The superintendent or the DLT might, for instance, require or authorize each BLT in the district to establish and convene a community advisory group. And BLTs might also include one or more community representatives among their members or as members of special groups — with the advice and consent of the superintendent and/or DLT, of course.

Advisory stakeholder groups. DLTs might establish community advisory groups for a variety of reasons; the nature of the group and its planned purposes would likely vary according to district and community circumstances, including district size. And, in some districts, central office leaders or DLTs might decide that all schools should have parent or community advisory groups. Such decisions require substantial forethought and careful planning. Advisory groups are sometimes authorized as standing committees: Their mission is never-ending. Of course, advisory stakeholder groups might also be established as the requirement of a grant award or special project.

Coordinating inter-agency groups. Ohio has an unusually rich mix of educational agencies and organizations: Boards of Developmental Disabilities, Educational Service Centers, State Support Teams, and so forth. Districts and schools also work with local health and human service agencies. When organizational relationships develop and grow, coordination can benefit from a special group that crosses boundaries. Often such groups (commonly called "coordinating councils" or "interagency councils") function as standing committees, not ad hoc ones. Some interagency councils, however, bring stakeholders together for a specific duration to find solutions to difficult or pressing community challenges (e.g., homelessness, environmental education, and so on).

Higher education partnerships. Colleges and universities sometimes seek partnerships with school districts, especially to provide clinical experiences to candidates in their preparation programs. Districts, though, could enter into such partnerships for additional purposes: to secure perspectives and expertise relevant to systemic improvement efforts, for instance. DLTs can deepen, expand, and enrich their partnerships with colleges and universities over time. Many grant-funded opportunities require such partnerships, and districts can use those opportunities strategically to build or expand connections with higher education institutions.

District representatives to groups convened by other organizations. As with higher education, organizations sometimes recruit representatives for their own advisory bodies or work groups from among district staff. When this occurs, the individual serving on such a group (whether teacher, principal, or central office staffer) takes on a district-level organizational function. The individual educator not only speaks from the perspective of the school district, he or she becomes the "eyes and ears" for district leadership and the DLT.

Organization of Special Groups

Organizing special groups requires leadership teams to allocate time, expertise, and resources to the effort. Leadership teams – especially DLTs and BLTS, which are the most likely to use special groups — need to:

  • define the mission or task mindfully,
  • select the sort of special group to deploy,
  • specify membership, and
  • provide a template of procedures for the group to follow.

Defining the mission or task involves conceptualizing the problem or issue. A leadership group should devote ample time to this part of planning: setting up a special group to pursue a misconception wastes resources, incurring costs without yielding benefits.

Once the task is adequately defined, the kind of special group appropriate to the mission should become clearer. A fact-finding mission might call for a study group. Providing extra assistance for implementing a pedagogical practice responsively might benefit from the improvement cycles undertaken by a Networked Improvement Community (NIC).

With task and group type clarified, membership issues emerge. What roles might be needed, and what expertise? Then actual members can be nominated and enlisted.

This chain of decisions brings the leadership team to the next step, providing a template for special group operations. The template should be simple and clear, maybe a page or two in length. It provides ground rules — terms of reference (ToR) — for group operations. These ground rules should notably include reporting provisions. The professional literature should be consulted when designing the template. Resources provided by the Active Implementation Hub provide a starting point.

Finally, the special group needs several members familiar and (in the best case) experienced with the kind of group they will be part of — familiar, for instance, with critical friends groups or walkthrough teams or NICs. Particularly at the beginning of the work, these members can guide the group by helping it establish an identity, build trust, and adhere to agreed-upon templates (e.g., the ToR) and procedures.

Group membership. Membership might sometimes be confined to members of leadership teams, but — based on the issues of concern — might include other participants:

  • students;
  • educators from beyond the leadership team;
  • related services providers;
  • parents;
  • community leaders;
  • practitioners from other agencies (e.g., health, human services, juvenile justice);
  • SST consultants;
  • university or other experts.

The list is illustrative, and it suggests the wide range of issues that special groups might address.


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Center for Community Health and Development. (2021). Toolkit for conducting focus groups.

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