January 17, 2024
On redefining what we mean by instructional leadership
Friends, I hope this finds you well. Here in Connecticut it has been really cold and icy, with school in most places canceled yesterday and delayed today. And Monday was a holiday in honor of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King. So it has been a strange week—I had to think about what day it is. I had planned to write a Coaching Letter to celebrate MLK Day, but I was really sick over the weekend so that plan didn’t work out. Nevertheless, if you didn’t already catch this interview of Clayborne Carson talking about Dr. King’s Letter from Birmingham Jail, you might give it a listen. I have spent a lot of time visiting Civil Rights sites and monuments and reading about the Civil Rights movement, and I have often thought that the citizens who have shown up to school board meetings across the country to argue against DEI, CRT, and woke culture, and who have invoked Dr. King as the “safe” or “reasonable” face of race relations in the United States, have clearly never read Letter from Birmingham Jail. (You can also listen to Dr. King himself read the letter, which is both startling and salutary.) I believe that Dr. King would be amused and bemused by the place he now holds in the American popular imagination; and I strive to not be the white liberal that Dr. King invokes in the Letter. Oh, and while we’re on the topic of Civil Rights, please also watch the biopic of Bayard Rustin on Netflix. He’s one of my heroes—a practical but also a theoretical strategist, a writer as well as an organizer, a Quaker at the center of the strategy of non-violence, and therefore a pivotal figure in the Civil Rights movement; but you are less likely to have heard of him, because he was gay.
Thank you, as always, to the people who responded to the last Coaching Letter—I am always so pleased and so impressed when people do. I think a lot of people have ordered Systems for Instructional Improvement (SII), so I think we might organize a book group to talk about it—I’ll keep you posted, but if you want for sure to be added to the list of people interested, fill out this very brief form.
One of the things I realized as a result of the responses I received was that I had clearly gotten emphatic about what effective instructional leadership is not, but had failed to talk about what good instructional leadership is. So in this Coaching Letter I’d like to correct that. To be clear: I’m not arguing that instructional leadership does not matter, but that what matters is not always what we think. The authors of SII make the distinction between direct and indirect instructional leadership. Much of what leaders have been taught are “good” instructional leadership practices fall into the first category, but that’s not what is likely to be most effective. Here’s an expanded version of the quotation I included in the last CL:
In this chapter, we first distinguish between school leaders with teachers directly to support their learning, and school leaders supporting teachers learning indirectly by creating conditions for others with instructional expertise to work directly with them to support their learning. 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). It appears more feasible for school leaders to support instructional improvement indirectly by creating sustained opportunities for teachers to work with others with expertise in ambitious and equitable math instruction, such as district math specialists and accomplished coaches. (p. 180)
One of my favorite articles is by David Cohen and Deborah Ball about the relationship between policy and practice. They talk about how complicated it is to ask teachers to change their practices, in a way that is much more sympathetic to teachers than many of the statements and exhortations and judgments I often hear from leaders:
It costs state legislators and bureaucrats relatively little to fashion a new instructional policy that calls for novel sorts of classroom work. These officials can easily ignore the pedagogical past, for they do not work in classrooms, and they bear little direct responsibility for what is done in localities-even if it is done partly at their insistence. However teachers and students cannot ignore the pedagogical past, because it is their past. If instructional changes are to be made, they must make them. And changing one’s teaching is not like changing one’s socks. Teachers construct their practices gradually, out of their experience as students, their professional education, and their previous encounters with policies designed to change their practice. Teaching is less a set of garments that can be changed at will than a way of knowing, of seeing, and of being. And unlike many practices, teaching must be jointly constructed by both teacher and students. So if teachers are to significantly alter their pedagogy, they must come to terms not only with the practices that they have constructed over decades, but also with their students’ practices of learning, and the expectations of teachers entailed therein. (pp. 334-335)
I interject this here because we always seem to be asking teachers to make significant changes to their practice, without much consideration for what that actually means to them. I often talk about how we talk about asking others to change like we’re asking them to flip on a light switch, but the socks analogy is just as good. So now, it seems to me, we are asking leaders to make significant changes to their practice, and I’m wondering how that’s going to go over.
So, combining the recommendations in SII with the recommendations from Beyond Heroes and other books and resources about standard work and improvement science that I wrote about in Coaching Letter #190, here’s what district leaders and building leaders ought to be doing. Let’s start with district leaders. The big buckets are:
- Effect the creation of a vision for ambitious and equitable instruction (which I wrote about in Coaching Letter #186)—which is not just a case of bringing people together and co-creating a vision based on their current mental models. There are some research-based specifics about what should be included such as:
- Challenging grade-level tasks;
- Student reasoning;
- Students making their thinking visible;
- Student academic authority (more on this one another time…)
- Create a Teacher Learning Subsystem, which includes:
- Pull-out PD (i.e. workshops without students present, what generally happens on a PD day)
- Instructional coaching
- Teacher collaborative time
- Teacher advice networks.
And again, it’s not enough just to create these, there are specifics about what they should look like, and they should be connected to each other and in service of the vision for equitable and ambitious instruction.
And building leaders:
- Coordinate facets of the Teacher Learning Subsystem at the building level (but do not provide direct support themselves);
- Create structures for teacher collaboration;
- Work with coaches and instructional supervisors to formatively assess the status of instruction;
- Foster productive teacher advice networks;
- Reverse the flow of feedback—i.e. Find out from teachers the stumbling blocks to implementation and work to remove them.
Can I just make a couple more points? I love how the work of district and building leaders is framed as being about supporting teacher learning, and how that changes the expectations for who is holding whom accountable. And I love how the work of coaches and instructional supervisors is elevated, so that they are framed as the experts who have a role in mentoring and guiding the work of building and district leaders. And I just want to repeat how important a focus on equity is; I wrote at length about equity and expectations in Coaching Letter #185, and SII makes a really strong case for ensuring that equity and expectations are front and center in any and all aspects of the Teacher Learning Subsystem:
Further evidence of the importance of teachers’ views of students comes from Sharpe’s comparative study of MIST teachers who improved their practice versus those who did not. She found that teachers who developed sophisticated visions and were provided with ongoing support to develop an ambitious and equitable vision of instruction did not develop the intended forms of practice unless they viewed their students from historically marginalized populations as capable of engaging in rigorous problem-solving. In other words, without productive views of students’ mathematical capabilities, teachers are unlikely to develop ambitious and equitable instructional practices. (p. 58)
It strikes me that this is a huge part of the power of HQI Live! in Milford; we have data to indicate it changes minds about what kinds of work students are capable of doing.
Finally, the book seems to offer a much more coherent roadmap than we have had before for what strategy in service of high level academic achievement for all students looks like. I can’t wait to continue the conversation… As always, please let me know if you have feedback, and let me know what I can do to help you. 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