One of our goals at Partners for Educational Leadership (PEL) is to provide districts with conceptual frameworks for strategizing and planning – educators who have been involved with us for any length of time will recognize that as one of our hallmarks. When schools were shut down in 2020 to try and slow the spread of COVID-19, we started thinking about how to support schools in planning instructional support for students who had missed several weeks of school – we did not know at that time that the country was facing two-plus years of interrupted schooling.
We sought out resources that might help, including studies that had been done with students who had missed schooling through natural disasters or teachers’ strikes; research on instructional practices that have been shown to create more learning gains than others; our own experience working to improve equity through educational improvement; and advocacy from other organizations.
As a result of a long and involved planning process, we developed the Accelerating Learning Framework, which has five major components: prioritize essential concepts and skills; design academic tasks as deep-learning experiences; practice responsive teaching based on formative real-time assessment; scaffold learning and prerequisite skills; and centering student self-efficacy in instruction, task design and classroom culture.
Astute observers will notice that there is nothing new or surprising here – we have no quick fixes or silver bullets. Our shared mission with our partner districts is to focus on improvements that will last beyond the pandemic, rather than jumping from solution to solution. So, despite the apparent simplicity of these five components, implementing well, especially in the incredibly challenging times in which we find ourselves, requires adaptive leadership, solid structures and routines, and sustained focus and attention to detail over time.
We created a workshop series based on the Accelerated Learning Framework, via Zoom, that reached almost 1,000 educators in 46 districts, mostly in New England but some in other parts of the country; many readers of this newsletter attended. Each version of the workshop was tailored to the time when it was offered – the spring of 2021 version, for example, included a session on research on effective interventions, tutoring and summer school – but all involved a close look at each component of the framework and time for each team to work together to self-assess and to plan.
Since the Accelerated Learning workshops, we have continued to work with many districts in a variety of formats on various parts of the framework. Some districts have asked us to work with them individually, helping them develop their own version of a definition of high-quality instruction based on the framework; some have joined us in the Acceleration Community of Practice (CoP), which is facilitated by PEL but which is planned and led by educators from member districts who are looking to share ideas, learn from each other and provide mutual support; and some have joined the Acceleration NIC.
Putting improvement science to work
NIC stands for Networked Improvement Community, and it is modeled after the work of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, which uses improvement science to guide the strategic choices that districts make, as detailed in the book Learning to Improve (Bryk et al, 2015). In the NIC that we facilitate, six districts come together every quarter for two-day workshops led by experts in improvement science, and use the guidance they receive to:
- Better understand the problems they are facing, specifically how these issues are created by the system as it currently functions
- Develop a theory for what changes they could make that would lead to the improvements they want to see
- Decide on a specific change idea to pursue
- Create a prototype intended to bring about the change
- Design and implement a series of small-scale tests to see whether the change results in an improvement
- Spread and scale the changes that do lead to measurable improvements.
While each district has its own unique history, capacity, leadership and challenges, all the districts decided to focus on the quality of the tasks that students are asked to engage with on a daily basis, and we invested in curating resources that they could draw on to improve instructional task design. This actually represented a metaphorical homecoming for the Partners, as task is at the center of the instructional core, described in the book Instructional Rounds (City et al, 2009). We have been using this book since its publication (and, in fact, we are featured in it) to support educational leaders’ thinking about teaching and learning through such activities as the Superintendents Network and SIIP.
Isobel Stevenson is director of Organizational Learning for Partners for Educational Leadership. A former teacher and principal, Isobel’s work includes equity, leadership coaching and training, strategic planning and supporting instructional improvement.