January 5, 2024
On why you should read Systems for Instructional Improvement
Happy New Year! I’m writing this from my dad’s place in Edinburgh, where at this time of year the sun doesn’t rise until 8:45 and it starts getting dark around 3:30. New Year is a big deal in Scotland, a great time to be here. I particularly love running along the canal and back through the city, and going to the National Galleries, where a bequest of Turner watercolors is on view during January, and only during January, and they are fabulous. I try to work while I’m here, despite the many distractions, and I was planning to write a follow-up to the last Coaching Letter on standard work and recipes, but I started reading Systems for Instructional Improvement (Cobb et al, 2019) and got totally swept up in that—although, as you will see as you read this, they are not so disconnected. So this Coaching Letter is a plea for you to drop everything and read it. It is just like Building Thinking Classrooms in that it is ostensibly about math, but almost everything in the book is applicable to instruction and leadership in general.
I’ve owned the book for a while, but had no idea what a treasure it is. I opened it looking for resources to support several projects, including what high quality, equitable instruction looks like, and what effective professional learning systems comprise, for our next workshop, on facilitation, which takes place in a couple of weeks. (If you are not already registered, act now! Registration is just about to close, and we’ll be sending out the Welcome Letter as soon as it does, because there is more prep for this workshop than we usually ask participants to do.) I am, in fact, a bit embarrassed that this great book exists and I didn’t know about it.
The book documents the major findings of a mammoth research project, involving several districts over the course of several years and a huge team of researchers, exploring the entirety of the instructional improvements, coaching, leadership, strategy, and conditions necessary to bring about more effective instruction in middle-school mathematics at scale. You can read more about the background of the study here.
So here are some of the many Big Ideas that Systems for Instructional Improvement provides research to substantiate:
- Equity cannot be a separate goal, plan, strategy or initiative. “As we argued in chapter 3, it is crucial that teachers view all their students as mathematically capable and that they know how, in practice, to engage all students, especially students who have been historically marginalized, in rigorous mathematical activity. As we discussed above, our partner districts often treated equity as a separate set of issues that was unrelated to the development of ambitious instructional practices… Our findings also raise questions about the value of any instructionally-focused PD that does not explicitly surface issues of equity. It was common to hear in interviews with teacher that while they saw great value in a vision of ambitious teaching, it was not appropriate for their students. For example, in interviews with one hundred teachers in year five of the study, more that half of the teachers expressed sentiments [that the district vision and math program were] not appropriate for his students because the vision and text ‘assume that the students can do a level of thinking that they cannot do.’ ” pp. 85-86. This is huge. As we like to say in my organization, there is no such thing as equity-neutral. If you are not actively attending to matters of equity, then you are allowing for the perpetuation of inequity. In this way, the study is a neat complement to the great work by Decoteau Irby (2022) in Stuck Improving, in which the district under study only made improvements when it stopped seeing its work on equity as separate from the core mission of the organization and its strategy for improvement.
- My organization’s position that instructional improvement is the purview of system leaders and not only school leaders nor individual teachers. The book lays out a theory of action for improving instruction at scale comprising “three top-level components” p7: a coherent instructional system for supporting teachers’ improvement of their instructional practices, school leaders’ practices as instructional leaders, and district leaders’ practices in supporting the development of school-level capacity for instructional improvement. I’ve often been struck by how often system leaders (superintendents and assistant superintendents) seem to see the school as the unit of improvement, rather than the system as a whole, which means that they see their function as holding principals accountable (what the book calls a “surveillance stance” p. 106) rather than seeing what happens in schools as feedback to the system and their own leadership practices. The book documents the difference between an instructional improvement orientation and an instructional management orientation (p. 199) and how that plays out in the work of leaders. There’s more detail than I can go into here, but here’s an example that I found particularly instructive: “In year five of MIST, there was a change in this district’s senior leadership and the new superintendent and CAO greatly reduced the role of the central office in instructionally focused decision making. The CAO made it clear that central office leaders in C&I could suggest but not require that schools use particular instructional materials. Few principals specified particular materials for their schools and instead left this decision to teachers, with many pulling together materials they found on the internet. As we report in chapter 9, within two years the proportion of teachers using cognitively demanding tasks as the basis of their instruction dropped.” p. 203.
- The case that professional learning should be a coordinated set of processes, including but not limited to “learning events“ such as pull-out professional development, but also coaching, facilitated teacher collaboration, and teacher advice networks, which should all be in service to actualizing the district vision of high quality instruction. I wrote a whole Coaching Letter on why districts should have a vision for high quality instruction. The corollary of this is that coaching by itself is not a solution for improving instruction. My friends and colleagues Kerry Lord and Sarah Woulfin and I wrote a book about this, Making Coaching Matter, that makes the case that if the potential of coaching as a high leverage instructional improvement practice is going to be realized, system and school leaders must connect it to all other aspects of the district strategy for improvement, including a vision for high quality instruction, professional development, and continuous improvement. And, the conditions in which the coaching is located is just as important as the coaching itself.
- Speaking of conditions, the authors of Systems for Instructional Improvement note that although significant advancements have been made in the quality of curricular materials, what we know about the instructional practices that most contribute to student learning, as well as professional development, they all have had a limited impact on actual instructional practice. They go on to explain, “In our view, this limited impact is due in large measure to the way in which research on teaching and learning typically treats classrooms and teachers as disconnected from school and district policies and leadership. Yet, abundant evidence suggests that teacher instructional practices are profoundly influenced by the school and district contexts in which they work.” p. 16. The importance of understanding and attempting to improve the system as opposed to evaluating and trying to fix the individuals who work within said system is of course a key tenet of our work with the NIC, and improvement science more broadly.
- The point I made in the last Coaching Letter that almost all leaders are not qualified to give feedback to teachers trying to implement Thinking Classrooms: “Our findings indicate that even with considerable professional development, it is extremely challenging for principals to be effective in directly supporting teachers’ development of ambitious and equitable instructional practices. This finding is significant as it indicates that district initiatives that primarily rely on school leaders directly supporting instructional improvement are unlikely to be successful (e.g., observing classroom instruction and providing feedback to teachers).” p. 180. And, interestingly, there is another article published as part of the same research as Systems for Instructional Improvement that includes some really interesting research in its lit review: “The studies that explored the impact of school leadership on student achievement had few significant findings. For example, Shin and Slater (2010) found that there was not a relationship between student achievement and either the time that principals spent on instructional leadership (defined as developing curriculum and pedagogy) or the time spent on supervising and evaluating teachers; Horng et al. (2010) found no relationship between multiple school outcomes (including student achievement) and time devoted to instructional tasks, such as classroom observation; and a follow-up study found that time spent on informal classroom observations, or walkthroughs, was negatively associated with learning and school improvement (Grissom, Loeb, & Master, 2013).” Those are fairly blockbuster findings. Elsewhere in the article, they hint at a possible explanation: “Finally, as mentioned above, there is ample research that highlights the tension between the dual roles of administrators as both evaluators and instructional supports (Darling-Hammond et al., 1983; Glanz, 2005; Ovando & Ramirez, 2007; Zepeda, 2007). This tension may prevent teachers from being able to view feedback as support for instructional change, even if the feedback is of high quality.” (From Rigby, J. G., Larbi-Cherif, A. L., Rosenquist, B., Sharpe, C. J., Cobb, P. A., & Smith, T. M. (2017). Administrator observation & feedback: Does it lead toward improvement in inquiry-oriented math instruction? Educational Administration Quarterly, 53(3).) Trust me: I know exactly how counternormative this is; in the work we do helping districts rethink educator evaluation, in several of my coaching contracts, in working with veteran principals and rookie APs alike: the idea that leaders should be instructional leaders, and instructional leadership includes substantial time spent observing in classrooms and giving feedback to teachers, is very, very heavily entrenched.
- The need for a theory of action to be formulated at a specific enough grain size to be actionable, measurable, and to ensure coherence throughout the system. The MIST team describe their experience with this realization as follows: “With hindsight, it is clear that our initial conjectures were far too global and under-specified. As a consequence, we had to claw our way up to what we came to call the level of concrete practice” p.33. One of the main functions of the concept of standard work and recipes is to codify the optimal practices of teachers, leaders, and coaches alike in order to create a stronger shared understanding around the work of instructional improvement, as well as to shrink the variance across the system. Which then brings us back to the last Coaching Letter, which makes the case for standard work.
- I’ve already written much more than I meant to, but I just want to refer to one last thing that really validates where I have put a lot of energy over the last couple of years: the enormous importance of engaging students with challenging tasks, but the equally huge challenges of ensuring that this happens. This intersects with teachers’ beliefs about what students are capable of, their mental model of what good teaching looks like, the quality of the curricular and instructional resources, the focus of the district’s improvement efforts, and so on and so on. Here are my notes from when I started working on this 3 years ago, and here are the slides on Task, which are a combination of my and Richard’s work on Acceleration towards the start of the pandemic. You can also watch me talk about a model for high quality instruction which amplifies challenging task based on grade-level content. And the importance of getting Task right will feature prominently in the next book, I hope.
Thanks again for reading The Coaching Letter, thanks to everyone who responded to the last one—if I didn’t get back to you, please prod me again—and I look forward to engaging on this one! All the very best for the New Year, and let me know if there is anything I can do for you. Cheers, 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