3 ways to support ambitious instruction in your school

For school leaders, the task of rebuilding faith in the education system may never have been greater than it is today. As communities and schools struggle to recover from the challenges faced during the pandemic, a wide net may be cast to help explain the perceived decrease in student performance. This is not a new net.

When schools struggle, a familiar group of the usual suspects is blamed. It is easy to target the students, the teachers, or even the curriculum. When searching for ways to improve school performance, sometimes the simplest solutions are overlooked in favor of more complex or popular courses of action.

Despite the many distractions, successful school leaders can focus on key components of school improvement and keep the work simple. The University of Chicago’s 5Essentials research has identified key areas necessary for school improvement:

  1. Supportive environment
  2. Ambitious instruction
  3. Involved families
  4. Effective leaders
  5. Collaborative teachers

UChicago’s model provides a tool for assessing each area as well as accessing professional coaching to improve. In this post, I’d like to focus on the incredible value of ambitious instruction and how principals can support it in their school.

What is ambitious instruction?

Ambitious instruction is defined by 5Essentials as follows: “Classes are challenging and engaging. The instruction is clear, well-structured, aligned across grade levels, and encourages students to build and apply knowledge. When combined with a supportive environment, ambitious instruction has the most direct effect on student learning.”

A school leader must be capable of understanding and supporting this kind of instruction. The research is pretty clear on the characteristics of a great principal. The consistent set of characteristics commonly found in the literature regarding top qualities of effective principals almost always includes some reference to supporting high-quality instruction.

Leaders who are able to identify and support ambitious instruction on their campus have a great opportunity to remove the assumptions regarding poor performance at their school and prove that the usual suspects are not the cause, nor should they be made the scapegoats. I believe there are three primary ways to support ambitious instruction in a school.

1. Prioritize curriculum

One of my favorite questions to ask educators is, “What are the expectations for lesson planning?” The answers vary greatly, and the responses are always telling.

Think for a moment and reflect on how you would answer that question on your own campus and how your teachers might respond as well. Do the answers align?

The question, on the surface, may seem like a simple one, but it has a great deal to do with the learning culture that a principal provides for the campus. Some principals have strict expectations for lesson plans complete with fancy templates, but they may not always be able to really unpack what the teacher intends for their students to learn.

There are countless ways to design lesson plan templates to help your teachers guide and plan for their instruction. Start by keeping it simple. Curriculum documents may have numerous details and wording necessary to satisfy some district- or state-level expectations, but when it comes to the nuts and bolts of the classroom, teachers should focus on a few basic questions that meet the needs of their entire class and provide time for responsive planning.

  • What am I going to teach? Teachers are going to take the curriculum and make this decision regardless, so it is important that they can articulate it and how it meets an ambitious level for their class. All students should have access to the grade-level curriculum.
  • How are the students going to be assessed? While the word “assessment” can sometimes be used as a bad word in education, as the instructional leader you must be bold enough to ask the question. The response can be formative, summative, or ongoing, but being accountable for learning means that we can clearly determine if students learned what was intended.
  • How will I teach this lesson? Once a teacher has determined what they are going to teach and how they are going to assess the learning, the next consideration should be to develop the instructional plan.
  • How will I use data to respond to student needs? Part of equity within the curriculum is not making changes to the curriculum but, instead, adjusting instruction to respond to student needs.

Principals can positively influence curriculum and lesson design by setting high expectations for professional learning communities (PLCs). Some campus leaders set up PLCs and get out of the way. In some rare cases, that may be the best thing to do. The most effective schools, however, have instructional leaders who participate and expect certain activities to occur in PLCs. Here are a few things for principals to consider that would help teachers plan for ambitious instruction:

  • Allow enough time. Often, teachers are not given the appropriate time to explore or utilize their PLC. Principals must be creative in their planning and expectations to make sure teachers have enough time to work in PLCs.
  • Set clear expectations. No matter if a team meets daily, weekly, or monthly, determining the agenda and sticking to it is very important. Have you done enough capacity building to allow teachers to lead themselves?
  • Attend yourself. In a healthy learning culture, PLCs are not private or exclusive and they should never become so. While teachers need autonomy and time to work, a bold instructional leader should create time to participate as a PLC member and learn with teachers. This can be a tricky role to navigate for some, but it is also an effective way to build credibility as a leader.

Reflective question: What would your staff say is most important to you when it comes to lesson planning and lesson design? Why?

2. Carve out time to observe instruction

Recognizing and assessing quality instruction is a paramount skill for all instructional leaders, and instructional rounds are a way to achieve this. Walking the campus and classrooms and seeing students and teachers working and learning together can be a highlight of any principal’s day. To truly impact teaching, however, leaders must have an honest, critical eye and follow a few basic guidelines:

  • Be forthcoming. Observing quality instruction should never be a surprise, though that does not mean you have to tell teachers every time you are doing walk-throughs. What it does mean is that all staff deserve to know the purpose of the walk-through and what is expected. “Key practices for a successful classroom walkthrough” advocates transparency in the walk-through process so that staff members do not see the process as a trap. To achieve this, clearly establish a series of walk-through protocols, preferably around your campus goals or needs. For example, if your campus goal revolves around students developing ownership of their learning, design a consistent set of look-fors that identifies agreed-upon characteristics of student ownership.
  • Watch students, too. The second component of a well-designed walk-through should also include intentionally observing what the students are doing—not what the teacher asked them to do, but what they are actually doing.
  • Evaluate cultural responsiveness. Another benefit of classroom visits is helping a leader recognize and assess the cultural responsiveness of a classroom. An exceptional leader must have a moral compass that leads their campus to a place where learning for all students is valued.

Reflective question: What would your staff say you are looking for when you come into their classroom? What about your students?

3. Be intentional about assessment

One of our biggest challenges as educators remains trying to determine what data is most important and then using it to improve our craft. If teachers and students do not believe in an assessment, the data it provides (no matter how accurate) will be rendered useless. It can be incredibly difficult to build trust in assessment, but assessment literacy provides a basis for building that needed trust and credibility.

Challenge yourself to think differently about information overload and how to provide teachers with confidence in assessment by placing time and effort into how to use formative assessment in particular to impact instruction. When the investment of time and expertise has gone into high-quality curriculum and planning, and if the instruction has been responsive to student needs, then the information gathered can and should drive both the assessment and the next steps for learning.

Developing a culture of inquiry around practices and results allows teachers to develop ways to trust data and school leaders and provides time and space to complete a cycle of learning that includes curriculum, instruction, and assessment on the pathway to improved ambitious instruction in the classroom and across your campus.

Reflective question: How does data inform teaching and learning on your campus? What evidence do you have to show its impact?

Aiming for equity

The role of a school leader is perpetually changing by the week, day, or even minute. The ebb and flow of the job can be stressful and demanding, so much so that many principals find it difficult to focus on being an instructional leader even when they want to. But remember, it is easy for any principal to fill each day with the countless number of questions or distractions that come their way. It is those same distractions that can keep a principal from meeting perhaps the single most important goal of their job: ensuring that all students are learning and growing thanks to the ambitious instruction they so richly deserve.

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