By Anthony Petrosky & Sara DeMartino

This article is the second in a two-article series on the Dallas ISD/IFL Network for School Improvement.

In our previous article we shared the work we have done and the successes we have had in partnership with Dallas ISD as a network for school improvement. Since we began this work with Dallas ISD in 2018, we’ve learned a thing or two. In the sidebar, you’ll see a list of the key lessons we learned during our work with the NSI. While expanding on the lessons we’ve learned could fill a book, in this article we’ll expand on the lessons we’ve learned about coaching for improvement, developing instructional coherence, and adaptive integration.

Before we get into these larger lessons, there are finer grained observations about students, teachers, and teaching for continuous improvement that we’d like to call out. In the first installment to this report, we mentioned that during the root cause analysis work, the NSI teacher teams encountered considerable deficit thinking about students’ abilities to take on cognitively challenging text-based thinking, talk, and writing.


As the NSI progressed and teachers shared successes with their students, we came to see these successes as the most significant change agents for deficit thinking. The research literature supports that observation. Students’ successes change beliefs and expectations.

Teachers’ successes do much the same thing. They change beliefs about the types of intellectual work that students can do, but they also shape or reshape teachers’ identities. When students engage, use their curiosity, and share their ideas and reasoning, teachers do too. Intellectual enthusiasm socializes those it touches.

As the NSI progressed and teachers shared successes with their students, we came to see these successes as the most significant change agents for deficit thinking. The research literature supports that observation. Students’ successes change beliefs and expectations.
Key Lessons Learned from the Dallas ISD/IFL Network for School Improvement ● Conduct root cause analyses with the project’s students, teachers, principals, and coaches—then with district leaders—to understand the system through the eyes of the people most directly affected by it. ● Engage leaders at every level of the system to build vertical coherence. ● Enable just and equitable instruction that elevates students’ voices and assets through student centered routines that include Accountable Talk and writing. ● Build instructional coherence over time through the co-development of intentionally sequenced text-based instructional tasks. ● Adapt coaching and instructional tasks to district efforts and policies when possible. ● Build capacity in teacher leaders or coaches to support improvement efforts. ● Network teachers across schools so they can work collaboratively on common problems of practice and learn from each other. ● Use practical measures to better understand the impact of changes and to drive improvement.

® Accountable Talk is a registered trademark of the University of Pittsburgh.

Coaching for Improvement   

When we began our work with teachers in Dallas, we recognized that both improvement science and the integration of instructional tests of change required additional, context specific conversations with teachers, because both elements of the work were new. To help teachers make further sense of the work we were inviting them to undertake, we began coaching ELA grade-level teams in their PLC meetings and continued doing so for the first two years of our network. Coaching in grade-level PLCs allowed us to collaborate with teachers to make direct connections between improvement science, the curriculum, and the work happening in their classrooms.

At each school, teachers worked collaboratively with their school-based colleagues and IFL coaches to

    • plan instructional tests of change that provide just and equitable literacy instruction aligned with the Dallas ISD + IFL NSI Instructional Model
    • test instructional changes and reflect on their effectiveness based on observations, student perspectives (through exit tickets), and analysis of student work.
    • reflect on instructional tests of change in network events, including school-based professional learning community meetings and whole network monthly convenings.
Just and equitable literacy instruction is rigorous, student-centered, and culturally responsive curriculum, instruction, and assessment that 
•	builds cognitive capacity,
•	cultivates talent and skills,
•	affirms identity, and
•	seeks to redress opportunity gaps.

We learned early on that we needed to set the expectation that the IFL team members attending the PLC were not there to tell teachers what to do or lesson-plan for teachers. Our roles were to be critical friends and thought partners. As critical friends, we gave them feedback when they asked for it and, as thought partners, helped them think through instructional tasks and supplemental texts as needed.

In the fourth year of our work, we shifted to capacity building. This was another purposeful move. We knew that if we wanted the NSI work to take stronger root and grow to other grade-levels and schools in the district, we needed to add to our coaching efforts by working with Literacy Campus Instructional Coaches and the Instructional Lead Teachers who could in turn coach teachers. This meant that rather than meeting with the PLCs, we were then meeting with the coaches for the school and helping them plan how to support the network work during their planning time with teachers.

Developing Instructional and Vertical Coherence

Students benefit when they can experience and see instructional coherence in their classrooms, however, instructional coherence takes substantial effort at key levels in the system. We learned early on in our project that teachers’ time was at a premium and we did not want teachers and coaches to see the NSI as the IFL asking teaching teams to recreate the district’s curriculum from the ground up. During the first two years of our work, we focused on supporting teachers to work from the available curricular resources to make shifts to their classroom instruction by helping teachers

    • make sure that students were engaged in high-level comprehension work before taking on any text analysis or interpretation.
    • reconceptualize their role in the classroom, seeing themselves as facilitators rather than as the explainers of all ideas.
    • provide students opportunities to see their classmates as valuable sources of information through utilizing sequences of student-centered routines.

Aligning leaders’ visions of literacy instruction. Inviting teachers to shift their instruction did not happen without some resistance. Teachers surfaced and understood the changes that they needed to make but were still hesitant to enact some of those changes because they were afraid that their principals and campus coaches would not understand the instructional shifts when they came to observe teachers’ instruction. We learned to mediate this fear by engaging school and district leaders in conversation about the instructional changes that teachers worked on, and what leaders should expect to hear and see as they walked classrooms. We learned that we needed to be more transparent with teachers about how we were working to support them through our work with school and district leadership if we wanted teachers to feel comfortable

enacting change. By engaging school and district leaders in the tests of change teachers were undertaking and by walking classrooms with leadership, we were able to help leaders align their vision of instruction to the vision created in the network

Adaptive Integration

Working in a large district means being able to adapt (and adapt quickly and frequently!) to district initiatives. We learned that this meant supporting teachers to make sense of how the work of the network supports and aligns to these initiatives. We did not want teachers to think of the network as, “something else that I have to do…” or “now I need to find a day to do my IFL work.” The NSI goal is to frame the instructional shifts as tools in teachers’ toolkits that help them effectively work with and enact the programs and initiatives happening in the district and at their schools.

In our first years, adaptive integration also meant creating safe spaces in network meetings where teachers could share and learn from their adaptations to the NSI teaching approaches. The NSI teachers taught us how to adapt and integrate the NSI teaching approaches to new and already existing district efforts. We asked our teacher teams how they could adapt the NSI approaches to support district mandates for test preparation, for example, and for the changing ELA curriculum. They showed us the continued adaptations, not only for their students and district policies, but also for other district efforts. They adapted the NSI Instructional Model to support the Achievement in the Middle (AIM) initiative, the Assessment for Learning (AFL) Project for making learning visible with students, the International Baccalaureate, and the Advancement Via Individual Determination (AVID) Program.

In addition to learning from network teachers, we worked the following ways with initiative leaders to gain support of the integration of NSI into each initiative:

    • Took time to learn – learn about the initiatives happening at network schools and studying the resources for those initiatives (i.e., frameworks, curricular materials, protocols).
    • Formed relationships with key district personnel leading the initiative efforts.
    • Talked with leaders about how the NSI work could support success of their initiative.
    • Shared the teacher developed methods for integrating the NSI work into each initiative with initiative leaders.

Invited initiative leaders to come and talk with teachers at network convenings to show their support and talk about the relationship between the NSI practices and the various initiatives

IFL improvement chart

We’ve Improved Too

Through our work with Dallas ISD, we’ve learned deep lessons about the importance of helping teachers and school and district leaders develop a rounded picture of the problems of practice at their schools prior to engaging in any sort of professional learning. This, in turn, has led the IFL to structure our professional development around the problems of practice rooted in the artifacts of learning and data shared by the teachers engaged in professional learning. We are taking these lessons and developing a new series of professional development that includes wrap around support for teachers and district leaders to form a network, study literacy problems of practice in their own contexts, adapt instructional change packages for their students, and study data to understand the impact instructional change is having on student learning.