February 2, 2024
The theory of action description and strategy framework
from Systems for Instructional Improvement
On strategy, equity, and reducing variation
Hello, I hope you are well. Thank you for subscribing to the Coaching Letter, I am so glad you do. I get emails from Substack every time someone subscribes, and there has been a spate of folks subscribing from all over the globe lately—welcome! I would love to know how you came to find me—please drop me an email!
This Coaching Letter is about strategy. But first, a bit of advertising… (I won’t blame you if you skip this part).
In the last Coaching Letter I asked if anyone was interested in a book study on Systems for Instructional Improvement (SII), and lots of people indicated that they would be, so we will definitely be hosting that later in the spring. We’ll do it via Zoom at the end of the school day on the east coast, starting at the end of April. I have started contacting the authors of the book and members of the research team on the project (MIST) to invite them to participate; I’m hoping that we can start each session with a brief presentation or conversation with one of the researchers, followed by discussion of the relevant chapter(s) in small breakout sessions. I’ll let you know when I have more details, but if you want early notice and regular reminders, please sign up here. (If you filled out the form in the last Coaching Letter, you don’t have to repeat that step.)
We continue to expand our support for Building Thinking Classrooms (BTC). We had an amazing response to our 5 workshops on BTC for Coaches in the fall, and so now we are going to offer two workshops (the second a repeat of the first) in the spring: BTC for Leaders. Here are the fliers for the two workshops: April 5 and May 3. So if you know building or district leaders, formal or informal, whom you would like to attend, feel free to forward them this information. A couple of districts have asked that we take the workshop to them, so that’s an option, just so you know. Peter Liljedahl is coming back to Connecticut in May, and the latest news about those workshops will come through this distribution list.
We hosted a workshop on facilitation in January, which was very fun—I always learn a lot from days like these. The day was focused on what SII calls “pedagogy of investigation”: exploring the big ideas related to facilitation of large and small groups. In response to the feedback we received, we’re going to offer a follow up workshop, this time focused on “pedagogy of enactment”: we’ll focus on the implementation of standard work in small groups as a core practice for improving instruction. You don’t have to have attended the first workshop to sign up for the second, but if you did come to the first one we’re offering a significant price break for the second. Here’s the information on our website.
And please, if you can, come to one of our coaching workshops, they are great: Coaching In-Depth on May 8, Coaching for Leaders July 23-25, and The Coaching Institute in September. In particular, if your district teacher evaluation system involves coaching, you for sure should come to Coaching for Leaders! I’d also like to mention that Kerry and Rydell and I will be very involved in the Carnegie Summit this year—Bridget created a flier showing what we’re facilitating. Come if you can! The Carnegie Summit is a great learning opportunity—here’s a link to the registration page.
OK, so about strategy…
Obviously, since I’ve devoted the last two Coaching Letters to Systems for Instructional Improvement (SII), it’s been on my mind a lot. This is what it says about the book on the Harvard Education Press website:
Based on the findings of an eight-year research-practice partnership with four large urban districts investigating their efforts to enhance middle school math instruction, the authors seek to bridge the gap between the literature on improving teaching and learning and the literature on policy and leadership. They look at the entire education system and make recommendations on improvement efforts with a focus on student learning and teachers’ instructional vision. In particular, the authors offer insights on the interplay among various supports for teacher learning, including pullout professional development, coaching, collaborative inquiry, the most instructionally productive uses of principals’ time, and the tensions that tend to emerge at the district level. They provide a guide for district-level leaders in organizing their work to support significant teacher learning.
This linkage from classroom instruction to policy and strategy is of crucial importance. As you may know, I have spent some significant amount of time reading, and writing about, strategic plans and their development. While I would be really glad if you would read my and Jennie’s book on the topic, I’d be almost as happy if you’d read this article in the Kappan, which acts as a sort of prelude and rationale for the book. Reading SII has made me think about strategy, and just for kicks I spent some time over the weekend looking at some recent district strategic plans from the districts of some Coaching Letter subscribers, to see if they have changed over the last few years. Not really…
So here are some thoughts about strategy and strategic plans/school improvement plans, based on what I’ve written about other places, what SII advocates, and research from other sources. But first, I want to say that I am well aware that it is possible to be highly and tightly strategic without a strategic plan that reflects that—many strategic plans are public-facing documents filling a political and/or community need and the work happening at the school and district level is deeper and more complex. It may also be the case that a plan that looks great on paper is not driving the work of improvement—many principals see the plan an act of compliance (see Meyers, C. V., & VanGronigen, B. A. (2019). A lack of authentic school improvement plan development: Evidence of principal satisficing behavior. Journal of Educational Administration); similarly, many district leaders see the plan as a mechanism, whereas in fact it is only a tool. In other words, there is not a 1:1 correspondence between the published plan and the work being done, and that may be OK. Read the rest of what I have to say with that caveat in mind.
- The core work of the organization is to improve outcomes for students, and the way to do that is to improve the access, opportunities, and experience of all students, and the way to do that is to decrease variation in access, opportunities, and experience, so that the access, opportunities, and experience of the most marginalized students approaches the access, opportunities, and experience of the most privileged
- In other words, the mission of the organization is equity, whether or not that appears anywhere in the plan. And, interestingly enough, equity is frequently not the focus of school improvement plans—one of our staff associates is an expert on this, being the lead author on Marianno, L., VanGronigen, B. A., & Meyers, C. V. (2023). School improvement for all?: Critically examining school improvement plan templates for equity. Leadership and Policy in Schools.
- Most plans are not about instruction. They tend to be about operations (HR, Finance) and instructional support systems (curriculum, programs), which, like the flavor of your toothpaste, only matter to the extent that they make it easier to do what really matters. It is quite possible for a teacher to read their district’s strategic plan, or even their school’s improvement plan, and not see themselves in it at all. And yet, as the authors of Instructional Rounds put it,
There are only three ways to improve student learning at scale. The first is to increase the level of knowledge and skill that the teacher brings to the instructional process. The second is to increase the level and complexity of the content that students are asked to learn. And the third is to change the role of the student in the instructional process. That’s it. If you are not doing one of these three things, you are not improving instruction and learning. Everything else is instrumental. That is, everything that’s not in the instructional core can only affect student learning and performance by somehow influencing what goes on inside the core.
- Variation applies at all levels of the organization. We should be trying to reduce variation across schools, across grade levels, across classrooms, but also within classrooms. We should be paying attention to the research on teacher expectations, which suggests that the most effective teachers expect all students to engage in cognitively challenging work, because they believe that all students are capable of cognitively challenging work, and they believe that they can teach all students through cognitively challenging work. (Many of you will recognize that this is Perceived Self-Efficacy in action.)
- It’s very hard to find language in school and district plans that speaks to reducing variation. They are frequently about adding programs to expand opportunities, but there’s no way to know if anyone is paying attention to whether that is increasing or decreasing So when a plan includes expanding programs in gifted and honors, and also MTSS, who is paying attention to which students end up being placed in which programs? Because it’s quite possible that the creation of these programs increases variation rather than reducing it. And, tip of the hat to schools and districts who are removing programs, such as reducing the levels of high school course offerings in math and other subjects, or getting rid of interventions that are intended to support students but end up pulling them off grade level, lowering expectations for them, and therefore doing them harm and increasing variation in performance. Interestingly, I have the latest district strategic plan I looked at open right now, and you have to get to Goal 9 before there’s any mention of curriculum and instruction, and that goal is about increasing program options; and Goal 10 is about improving core instruction by, in part, providing PD that embeds research-based differentiation. There is almost no research to support differentiation, for several reasons, but there is research to suggest that it’s not good practice, because increasing variation means lower expectations for some students, and that means less access to cognitively challenge, and that is a bad thing.
- SII gives us a super helpful framework for thinking about how to operationalize that advice. Most of this and more is in Coaching Letter #192—forgive the repetition but I think it’s really important to think of this as the district strategy, rather than a separate body of work:
- The work of district leaders is to ensure that:
- There is a district-wide shared understanding of equitable and ambitious instruction (see Coaching Letter #186 for a bit of a tirade about that—and that was before I read SII) that really does apply to all students—see Coaching Letter #185 on equity and expectations;
- There is a Teacher Learning Subsystem that supports equitable and ambitious instruction by building the capacity of teachers.
- There is standard work for principals, supervisors, and coaches in support of the Teacher Learning Subsystem. So that’s both routines (Richard and I wrote an article about improvement routines) and processes for improving the capacity of teachers in service of reducing variation in the quality of instruction across classrooms.
2. The work of building leaders is to:
- 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 collaborate to find solutions..
I could go on, but this is already too long. Please read the book, please sign up for the book study, and then I’ll try to find other things to write about in the upcoming Coaching Letters, although right now I’m having a hard time thinking about what that might be… In the meantime, please let me know what your thoughts are, and if there is anything else I can do to help. 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