School is starting in districts all over this country, and the challenges of meeting the learning needs of all the students who come through those classroom doors is likely creating heightened levels of anxiety for the teachers and school leaders who are increasingly accountable for demonstrating success—which many have found in the past to be out of their reach.
And to up the ante, the new Common Core State Standards are changing and increasing the rigor of the content to be taught and the new emerging assessment systems are changing what and how students are expected to demonstrate what they have learned. If there was ever a need for schools and subject area departments to have a few targeted, powerful strategies for tackling the seemingly formidable challenges before them, it is now.
I often ask teachers and principals when we start our work together about their improvement strategy for the year—what they are working on collectively in math or science or English language arts to improve on the learning results they have been getting with their students. When I get a specific response, it is often the names of one or two programs, or a specific strategy, such as "using technology to increase student engagement," or "better use of data to target specific students for intervention programs." It isn't often, however, that I get the same responses from teachers who teach the same subject or grade level at a school, and when I do, it appears that a school-wide "problem of student learning" has been identified for all to work on, and the strategy is often too general, or doesn't go very deep.
The fact that every teacher in the building—at elementary schools as well as secondary schools—isn't able to articulate the specific ways in which they are trying to improve their teaching practices this year for a subject they teach – and that there aren't common responses to this question among teachers of a subject or at a grade level makes me wonder about the work of the principal. It also makes me wonder about the work of teachers. Knowing that there are targeted grade-level learning goals for students to accomplish is overwhelming. It's even more overwhelming when we consider that there is a five-year grade span of readiness among students in many classrooms. Why would anyone want to tackle this alone? Why should they have to? Why would this be allowed?
Focused and powerful strategies that actually guide the work of teaching and learning are critical to developing clarity for everyone about where they are going, how they will get there, and establishing the improvement culture that enables achievement of learning goals. And when you get teachers at a grade level or in a subject area all effectively engaged in the same powerful improvement strategy, you are following the pathway of schools that are achieving success in improving teaching practice and student learning results.
In our analysis of the literature on district reform and school improvement, including the 2010 landmark study by Leithwood, Seashore-Louis, Anderson, and Wahlstrom1, it is clear that many school leaders who are successfully achieving and sustaining school-wide improvements in teaching and learning are paying close attention to specific educational processes2 and clustering them in specific ways to achieve results, based on what they know and believe about how systems change and instructional improvement. Specifically, leaders of these schools establish a persistent, uncompromising focus on improving the instructional core—the quality of the interactions of teachers and students around content—and develop and implement improvement strategies that leverage district and school processes to accomplish the following five core objectives:
- Develop a shared, explicit vision of high quality instructional practice and student learning among teachers of a subject area and/or a grade level to accomplish improvements in teaching and learning. (Elementary principals often focus on one content area at an elementary grade level informed by student performance data.)
- Increase instructional program capacity and coherence around this shared view of high quality teaching and learning (by aligning instructional time and instructional practice with a rich, cognitively demanding curriculum and assessments that support high quality teaching and learning of the content).
- Increase human and social capital for enacting these high quality practices and performance (through the establishment of professional development that is coherent, focused and ongoing, and learning communities that open up classroom practice and focus on analysis of student work linked to teaching).
- Increase internal accountability for high quality practice and performance (through the engagement of all staff in the processes of direct observation, critical analysis, monitoring and feedback).
- Increase organizational capacity and coherence for high quality practice and performance (to support rather than constrain the intended improvement).
For many school leaders the problem of improving learning is not about "doing the right things," but rather of "knowing the right things to do3." Understanding how leaders of improving schools cluster and leverage these educational processes to guide and support teachers through the work of improvement can be very helpful to those who are trying to figure out the right things to do.
And a good place to start is with a persistent, uncompromising focus on improving the instructional core—understanding how the content to be taught and learned is changing as a result of the new CCSS—and the implications of this for how teachers teach and how students learn cognitively demanding work. This is also a good place to stay for a very long while.
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