By Christian Schunn

A perennial topic involves equality vs. equity—should all receive the same or should each individual receive something different based upon their needs? The IFL has consistently advocated for universal access to high cognitive demand instruction, but also adaptations needed for the context. Here I want to move the focus to the educators so that improvements are equitable for their students across classrooms and schools.

Educators and schools whose students have high average achievement tend to be given a lot of freedom whereas educators and schools whose students have low average achievement are given little freedom. For example, in one large urban district, serving over 140,000 students, almost all the buildings receiving low overall ratings from the state serve high proportions of economically disadvantaged students; conversely, most of the buildings receiving the highest overall ratings serve low proportions of economically disadvantaged students. By district policy, the highest performing schools have 23 autonomies, whereas schools in the three lowest categories have only one autonomy. These autonomies range from simple things like control over school logos and color branding on the website to being allowed to pilot new technologies, creating customized common assessments, modifying the school schedule, and being able to change the curriculum. While this example involves a large urban district, discrepancies between the autonomies afforded in these two environments exists within districts of all sizes and across districts.

The problem. As I noted in the example, educators and schools whose students have high average achievement tend to be given a lot of freedom whereas educators and schools whose students have low average achievement are given little freedom—sometimes the term “earned autonomy” is used. While there is some appealing logic to the approach, in my experience the approach tends to have many negative consequences, and the net effect is to amplify inequities.

The problem is fundamentally this: classrooms are not all the same and a given approach won’t work if applied in a one-size-fits-all fashion. I want to be careful, though, in my comments. The core goals and approach of high cognitive demand instruction, rigorous tasks, and student-centered routines are absolutely applicable to all learners and classrooms; in no way are ‘some learners’ or ‘some classrooms’ needing low cognitive demand instruction. But exactly how to get there needs to be adjusted to local conditions, not just of the uniqueness of each and every student as a learner, but also to the uniqueness of each and every school as a complex, multi-layered learning context. And the educators in those contexts need to have high agency in shaping those adjustments because they have key knowledge of their complex learning contexts.

What goes wrong when educators don’t have autonomy. In fact, I would argue that the contexts in which students are struggling the most are the contexts in which local educators will need to have the greatest autonomy in making major adaptations to the approach. Every intervention model has some ‘load-bearing conditions’ in its design—things that must be true as a foundation in order for the intervention to work (e.g., that there are consistent teachers for the whole year who can participate in training and have some supervisor who has time to learn about and coordinate efforts; perhaps they assume there is an instructional coach who is focused on one subject area). Unfortunately, these load-bearing conditions often aren’t fully met in the schools where students aren’t currently high achieving (e.g., rotating long-term subs; vacant coach positions; assistant principals who are shared across buildings or are also doing instruction because of vacant teaching positions). As a result of problems with load-bearing conditions, the model simply won’t work without major adaptations. The resulting problems are many, common, and significant: teachers can’t apply the model because of competing initiatives, teachers don’t attend professional learning events because their leaders weren’t aware of them, teachers don’t receive appropriate coaching, teacher frustration is high, teachers quit, and the next year is no better than the last.

This point about needing adaptations is the heart of improvement science approaches: local adaptations will be needed, and time is required to iteratively improve. It is also a core idea in culturally relevant pedagogy: letting individuals address their needs and leverage their assets to become successful. I want to emphasize that last point again. Yes, some schools have more challenges, but every school has unique assets and equity is much more likely to be obtained when those unique assets are leveraged (e.g., teachers who have knowledge of the language spoken at home by many students, knowledge of cultural practices familiar to students, or strong existing skills with some parts of a new instructional model).

Israel Alfaro from Adamson High School works with his students using a task that he co-planned with his fellow 9th grade colleagues.

A related point involves the key conditions for educator learning. When a context is very hierarchical such that leaders closely control all decisions, educators tend to have poor conditions for their own learning and useful adaptations are unlikely to occur. These conditions can create “risky” environments where teachers are unwilling to share confusions or details from their classrooms that would prevent successful implementation of a provided model and similarly principals are unwilling to share confusions or details from their schools that similarly will prevent successful implementation.

Collective action and integrity of implementation. But I am also not advocating for letting a thousand flowers bloom (i.e., letting each educator fully determine all aspects of instruction). High cognitive demand instruction takes time and support to develop; and collective action is much more likely to be effective for most teachers and thus for most schools as a whole. Too often improvement science approaches fail because teachers are left to work entirely on their own. The core idea of socializing intelligence is central to adult learning as well as to student learning.

We also know that some strategic support and accountability are needed so that teachers are willing and able to attempt more challenging forms of teaching. Educators, in particular, need to understand what the most important elements of an intervention are, as well as understand why those elements are important; then educators can make wise adaptations to a model that will work for their context (i.e., maintain integrity). For example, in ELA, we have learned that it is critical to have students engage in comprehension work before doing analysis work on a text; specific actions like annotation or dyad discussion may not be needed each time, but skipping comprehension work will always cause problems because students cannot analyze texts they don’t comprehend.

A tweet from one of the IFL partners, Syracuse City School District, about an IFL Math Fellow’s work in with Quantitative Reasoning teachers. Through learning labs, teachers, coaches, and district leaders share, study, and refine instructional practice and program implementation in their local context.

Schools serving learners with the greatest needs have unique challenges that must be addressed and unique assets that must be leveraged if substantially improved outcomes are to be obtained. Highly regulated one-size-fits-all approaches rarely work in those contexts and actually tend to produce greater inequities. A culture of collective professional learning and experimentation with expert guidance is much more likely to produce improvements in instruction, in addition to creating school environments where families and educators want to stay.