October 12, 2023
Peter Liljedahl working with teachers & coaches in Manchester in April: One district’s work to create shared understanding of high quality equitable instruction.
On why districts must create a shared understanding of high quality equitable instruction
Hello, I hope this finds you well. First, a couple of reminders: we are running a repeat of the Educator Evaluation Convening that we hosted for the first time on September 22 (I think I was unclear about the fact that it’s a repeat in the last Coaching Letter; sorry about that). The date of the repeat session is October 23, so coming up fast! This is intended to help Connecticut districts think through their design principles for the revision of educator evaluation. REGISTER HERE. It’s only $100 and you get a book and lunch and access to any of our follow-up sessions or materials, so it’s a steal. Here’s a sample of the feedback from September 22:
“The Evaluation Convening helped me refocus on the true purpose of evaluation and professional growth plans. Through a thoughtfully constructed series of experiences, I walked away with a deeper knowledge of the research about evaluation and renewed hope for what could be. We’ve been afforded the opportunity to do things differently and the Evaluation Convening inspired a new vision for a plan with lasting impact.”
Also, since the first two BTC for Math Coaches workshops are now full, we have opened up a third opportunity on December 14. REGISTER HERE. And if you’re not on our BTC mailing list but would like to be, sign up here.
This Coaching Letter is part of what’s turning out to be a series on high quality equitable instruction. In CL #184 I wrote about some of the myths about teaching that we need to let go of, and in CL #185 I wrote about how expectations (which is often merely a euphemism for bias) show up in instruction. This Coaching Letter is about why a district should have a shared understanding of high quality instruction in the first place.
I decided to make this the topic of this Coaching Letter because Pedro & Joaquin Noguera wrote about it in this article in Educational Leadership, Creating Clarity on Equity in Schools, which I mostly like. They talk about the need for a framework supported by the research on educational improvement:
In creating a framework for equity efforts, we suggest that district and school leaders utilize the “Five Essentials of School Improvement” put forth by UChicago Consortium on School Research (Bryk et al., 2010). These qualities are based on extensive research on what schools that have made measurable academic progress have in common. They are:
- A coherent approach to learning and teaching.
- Ongoing development of professional capacity.
- Student-centered school culture.
- Strong parent and community engagement.
- Shared leadership that drives change.
I appreciate this for a couple of reasons. First, I think it’s absolutely the case that there ought to be a shared understanding of what high quality teaching and learning looks like. Second, I appreciate the reference to Bryk et al, because we are big fans of Bryk’s work and have used several of his books extensively, including but not limited to Learning to Improve and his most recent, How a City Learned to Improve Its Schools.
Anyway, Noguera & Noguera go on to be more specific about a shared understanding of high quality instruction:
A coherent approach to learning and teaching. In his 2015 book, Coherence, Michael Fullan points out that when school systems are clear about what should be taught and provide teachers guidance on how to teach it, they are better able to provide support to schools and teachers. Coherence requires a clear instructional framework and a commitment to bringing teachers together on a regular basis to plan lessons, analyze student work, design common assessments, and ensure that they are learning and adapting in ways that remain equity-centered and vision-aligned. It also means that teachers have time and support to incorporate instructional strategies and practices that enable them to be responsive to student needs. Assessment data should be used to identify areas where growth is needed, and teachers should be supported to enact strategies to address these areas. By reducing teacher isolation and providing greater clarity on curriculum and instructional expectations, leaders can increase teacher quality throughout a school—a key starting point for equity.
So already we have Pedro Noguera, Tony Bryk, and Michael Fullan all talking about the need for a shared understanding of high quality instruction. And Susan Moore Johnson wrote about coherence around instruction in Where Teachers Thrive, which is a really excellent book (and I have a couple of extra copies which I am happy to give away…). So let’s add Richard Elmore, shall we? And then we’ll have quite the star-filled cast of characters. From Instructional Rounds:
…when people ask us, “What more can we do at the system level to foster improvement in schools and classrooms?” our answer is, “Don’t broaden the work with new initiatives, deepen the work with greater focus on building a strong culture of instructional practice.” …These schools don’t need more things to do. In fact, they need to do less with greater focus. They need a more powerful, coherent culture of instructional practice. The pattern of improvement that we see in the aggregate with existing improvement strategies is a direct consequence of a chronically weak instructional culture.
And not to claim parity with these intellectual giants, but Jennie and I wrote about coherence around instructional practice in The Strategy Playbook. On page 79, we wrote:
We advocate that districts work toward implementing a district-wide model for high-quality instruction for the following reasons:
- Some educational practices are higher leverage than others, and districts should take seriously their obligation to ensure teachers employ, and supervisors enable and reinforce, practices most likely to cause the largest gains for students.
- As equity should be at the center of the district’s vision and mission, there must be a clear standard of what high-quality instruction looks like along with systems in place to ensure every classroom meets that standard, and direct and immediate interventions are deployed when they do not.
- There’s a limit to the depth and breadth of practices a district can effectively support. If all teachers are expected to figure out for themselves which techniques are best, there’s a diminished likelihood that the district can fully support these efforts, creating huge costs to efficiency and effectiveness.
- A shared definition of high-quality instruction means more opportunities for teacher collaboration. Teachers adopting new practices go through a great deal of trial and error, leading to what Fullan (2001) labels an implementation dip. When educators collaborate to implement a practice, they can share their results, and therefore learn from each other’s experience (Kruse et al., 1994; Weiner, 2014; Wiliam, 2007) thereby increasing learning and shortening the implementation dip.
- Absent a shared focus for improvement and given a teacher evaluation document that’s intended to be comprehensive, evaluators must decide for themselves what to focus on when they evaluate teachers. Since evaluators all bring their own mental model of what good instruction looks like to their work, how teachers qualify for a high ranking in the evaluation system will vary according to the evaluator. This is fundamentally unfair and confusing to teachers. It’s especially problematic in high schools, where it’s not unheard of for teachers to be assigned a different evaluator several years in a row, with each one telling them something slightly different about how to improve their teaching.
So, not to toot my own horn or anything, but I think this is just as cogent a rationale for why a district should have a districtwide definition of high quality instruction as anything else I’ve read, and given the renewed focus on educator evaluation, looks prescient. And it is one of a litany of sources all agreeing that a district ought to make sure that everyone knows what good instruction looks like. And just a couple of additional (but really crucial) points: a) teacher evaluation standards or rubrics are not enough, because they are of necessity so broad that they are open to myriad interpretations and therefore allow way too much latitude, and because you can’t create a shared understanding through one-way transmission of information; and b) coaching and supervision that happen after a lesson has taken place is likely only going to nudge instruction to what my colleague Rydell calls “the best possible version of the status quo”–what we really want is for teachers to be able to self-regulate, and for that to happen, they have to have a mental model of what good instruction looks like that they can aim for, not be told what they missed after the fact.
I have written about in many Coaching Letters now the framework for equitable high quality instruction that I use all the time, and you can watch me talking about it here. For the Educator Evaluation workshop, I put together a set of design principles for the model; an equity-focused instructional model must:
- Feature high-leverage, research-validated instructional practices;
- Prioritize the instructional practices that have the greatest impact on the lowest achieving students (i.e. be centered on instructional equity);
- Show how the components relate to each other and build on each other;
- Be represented by a visual that is simple, clear, and memorable.
So even if you don’t use the model I use, maybe these design principles will be helpful as you work on your own. And if you need any help, let me know. Best, Isobel
Isobel Stevenson, PhD PCC
Author of The Coaching Letter
Author with Jennie Weiner of The Strategy Playbook for Educational Leaders: Principles and Processes Routledge, 2021
Author with Sarah Woulfin & Kerry Lord of Making Coaching Matter: Leading Continuous Improvement in Schools Teachers College Press, 2023