Three Phases of Leading District Change with Formative Instructional Practices

Three Phases of Leading District Change with Formative Instructional Practices

Formative assessment is a timely topic. In education conversations today, we often hear about “balanced” or “coherent” assessment systems. Formative instructional practices (aka, formative assessment) play a major role in that balancing act. Three common challenges classroom teachers face – gathering timely, actionable data; meeting students where they are; and preparing students to be college and career ready – are best met (and supported) with a coherent assessment system, where the formative and summative uses of data are considered and evaluated on an ongoing basis.

Research shows that formative uses of data are best supported by the formative gathering of data – the in-the-moment evidence collection that occurs when teachers integrate formative practices into their instruction (Hattie 2009, Black and Wiliam 1988).

While there are hundreds of strategies, the key question we have to ask ourselves is — “What’s formative about that?” It’s not about simply using the strategies and moving on. It’s about using the strategies to make informed, in-the-moment decisions about what’s next. And it’s not just teachers who need to make those decisions. Students have a huge voice and responsibility in a culture of learning where these practices are well integrated – automatized if you will. We have to explicitly do something with the data, and that “we” is both educators and students, or all members of the classroom learning team.

As leaders, how can you support teachers in making the changes to their instructional practice that will have an impact on learning and achievement?

In the four previous posts in this five-part formative series, we:

  1. explored why formative assessment is more relevant than ever
  2. delved into four powerful classroom practices that dominate the research
  3. talked about how to transform formative assessment into a lasting school and district habit
  4. shared recommendations from leaders and teachers who are doing it well

Let’s take a minute now to summarize the three phases school and district leaders must go through as they help their teams integrate formative practices into instruction. Download this article to see more detail, as well as targeted questions leaders should ask themselves at each phase.

Phase 1: Needs Assessment – Where are we starting?

Continuous improvement in districts and schools is supported by setting direction, developing people, and organizing the system to support the work. Figuring out the baseline for each of these aspects, and then comparing it to the goal of the work, clarifies which areas benefit from focus and support. Needs assessments allow learners to have a voice in what they need and want to learn.

Phase 2: Planning and Implementation What will our work look like?

Systematically planning for success makes sense. It also means that acknowledging where participants are in the change process and supporting them throughout the process matters. If we want to move the work from something that staff are doing to more of a way of being, making the work a habit, time, and support need to be planned. Identifying and planning for a variety of levels of concern (Hall and Hord 2005) is critical. Planning for and acknowledging that change takes time makes a difference in the planning process. Time may mean three to five years, or even five to seven years, which is a paradigm shift for those used to thinking about what might happen this year. Questions to be considered might include: How will we diversify leadership? How will leaders and participants be supported? What are the expectations for success? How will expectations be communicated?

Phase 3: Sustaining ChangeHow will we keep the work going?

Changing instructional practices and activating learners doesn’t happen quickly. Envisioning and establishing a culture of learning in each classroom, throughout a school, and throughout a district, involves changing the way stakeholders think, process, and work. A few of those changes may include:

  • Mindset: enhancing a growth mindset
  • Engagement: engaging all learners at the level most appropriate for them
  • Structures: voice and choice (agency) support scaffolding and have to be intentional if you want to help build learner autonomy

Monitoring the progress of the change effort is an important part of sustaining the work. Integrating formative learning walks can be useful (Moss & Brookhart 2015), a process in which information is gathered in classrooms from what students can be seen and heard doing that reflects evidence of new professional learning that teachers are integrating into their practice. What other practical steps need to be considered to sustain the change? These steps might include the responses to these two questions:

  • How does formative assessment fit into the school or district assessment system and professional learning plan?
  • How do formative instructional practices connect to, support, or extend work that has gone before?
  • A learning walk is.

Next Steps for Action

  • Plan and conduct a needs assessment. One tool that exists online is the Approaches to Classroom Assessment Inventory (ACAI) from Queens University.
  • Identify places where time currently exists in your setting, or establish collaborative structures to support ongoing staff professional learning.
  • Build a long-term implementation plan, incorporating teacher voice.
  • Plan a process to monitor progress of your change effort that incorporates formative learning walks.
  • Expand your professional learning network (PLN), and share ideas related to formative instructional practices. Follow #NWEAformative on Twitter or jump into the formative space on NWEA Connection, our new online community where learning about formative assessment is extended and includes peers around the world. Both of these resources are NWEA’s way of supporting education leaders and teachers in taking the next step.


Black, Paul, Chris Harrison, Clare Lee, Bethan Marshall, and Dylan Wiliam. 1988. Assessment for Learning: Putting it into Practice, 1st Edition.

Hall, Gene and Shirley Hord. 2005. Implementing Change: Patterns, Principles and Potholes.

Hattie, John. 2009. Visible Learning: A Synthesis of Over 800 Meta-Analyses Relating to Achievement.

Moss, Connie M., and Susan M. Brookhart. 2015. Formative Classroom Walkthroughs: How Principals and Teachers Collaborate to Raise Student Achievement.


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