Principals Leading with a Coaching Lens

By Ariane Watson and Veronica Strueve

Principal and Assistant Principal, Propel Schools- Pitcairn
Before becoming building principals, we were instructional coaches, each of us having coached either mathematics or ELA. Instruction was always the focus of our coaching work. After several years as principals, we realized that though supporting teaching and learning was a component of our work, it was no longer the focus. Once we came to that realization, we knew that we needed to make some changes.

At the end of the 2018–2019 school year, in anticipation of the next year, we took stock of what was going well with instruction in the classrooms. We reviewed the state data across the years and looked more closely at the district and building data. We also inquired about new instructional materials being purchased by the district and learned that the new materials were comprised mainly of tasks and texts of high-level cognitive demand.

The insights we gained from this preliminary work suggested that students needed more rigorous learning opportunities and that teachers needed opportunities to learn about and refine their practices related to instructional conversations. It was at that moment that we committed to making support for instruction the priority, and in doing so, revived our coaching lens.

We engaged the Institute for Learning as a partner in education and began crafting a plan for the 2019-2020 school year. We started by conducting an Asset Walk was which allowed us to name aspects of classroom practice that could serve as the foundation on which to build. With the adoption of high-quality instructional materials, we decided that the best way to increase academic rigor and enhance the quality of scholar discourse was to focus on Accountable Talk® practices.

We knew that as instructional leaders, the changes we sought would only happen if we maintained a laser-like focus on facilitating Accountable Talk discussions and supported teachers in both learning and refining their instructional practices. Although we were in the role of principals, we knew that putting on our “coaching hat” was key to supporting the teachers. With this in mind, we built a yearlong PD plan dedicated to the study of Accountable Talk practices. It included a series of cross-content professional development sessions. The sessions provided educators opportunities to gain insights about high-leverage instructional practices of which facilitating Accountable Talk discussion is one, the dimensions of equity as related to equitable instruction, ways to support the development of student agency, and the role of socializing intelligence. The plan allowed for frequent content-based PLCs so that Accountable Talk practices could be explored deeply within a content area. As part of the PLC work, educators coded classroom transcripts for Accountable Talk features to better understand what it takes to implement these practices and to track the implementation of these practices over-time.

Since we know that refining practice doesn’t just happen overnight, so in addition to the work outlined in the PD calendar and plan, we also linked our walk-throughs and formal evaluations to the learning and insights gained by educators during PD sessions and PLCs. We also committed to providing time for classroom educators to reflect on practice through classroom case stories so that they can share their implementation journeys. The work also includes learning labs so that classroom educators can see each other engage in planning for, facilitating, and reflecting on Accountable Talk discussions of high-level tasks.

As a community of educators, everyone is encouraged to continuously look for and name what is working related to the implementation of Accountable Talk practices, so there is regular feedback on our collective efforts. As part of the feedback (and central to improvement work), we wonder about and identify a specific aspect of practice for further inquiry. We know that sustainable change takes time, and we have committed to a three-year process to support classroom educators as they refine their professional skills and competencies related to content pedagogy.

Having the intentional focus of increasing academic rigor and the use of the high-leverage practice facilitating Accountable Talk discussions has allowed us to reclaim our coaching lens. And, in doing so, we have been able to more effectively support classroom educators as they refine their instructional practices to create more equitable learning environments.

Tagged with: Accountable Talk® Discussions, High-Leverage Teaching Practices, Instructional Coaching, Leadership, Math, Partner Spotlight, Principles of Learning

Teaneck’s Advantage: Educational Excellence Through Rigorous Teaching and Learning

By Jennifer Lin Russell, Jennifer Zoltners Sherer, and Jennifer Iriti

Partners for Network Improvement, Learning Research Development Center, University of Pittsburgh

At Teaneck Public Schools (Teaneck, New Jersey) we are focused on establishing common instructional practice across all classrooms that is designed to increase our students’ opportunities to engage in demanding curriculum content in both mathematics and English language arts lessons. We have determined to meet this objective by supporting all our teachers with content-specific professional development grounded in the Principles of Learning, developed by the University of Pittsburgh’s Institute for Learning (IFL).

We are currently in the first phase of this endeavor. With support from the IFL, we are working to ensure that our students in Grades K–5 have access to high-level tasks and text and high-quality learning opportunities to build the critical thinking and deep reasoning skills that are essential for academic success. We have identified characteristics of high-level mathematics and English language arts tasks. After working to gain a common vision of rigorous tasks—by studying examples and discussing their characteristics—we have incorporated them into our classrooms. We have made sure to align our definition of high-level tasks with research’s named criteria, emphasizing the importance of tasks that require thinking and reasoning.

With this understanding of high-level tasks, our educators are equipped to ensure that all students are expected to think and reason at a high level and to provide the support and resources needed to maximize their learning potential. We found that we had to work consistently to make sure students could think and reason cognitively. Research on factors that contribute to a task being carried out as intended tells us that students actually get such opportunities only 37% of the time. Participating in learning labs has provided opportunities and guidance for teachers to adapt their individual instructional practices and increase those opportunities. Hosting teachers collaboratively plan lessons with IFL fellows using high-level tasks and texts, and then implement the planned lessons in front of their colleagues. Following the lesson, the hosting teacher and their colleagues debrief and make connections to their own work to increase intentionality of planning and implementing specific pedagogical practices. As such, the learning labs serve as a means to learn and refine pedagogical practice through apprenticeship. Teachers and administrators have had the opportunity to see, plan for, and model high-level tasks that make it possible for students to share and discuss their mathematical reasoning and also develop student agency.

Our overall goal as a district is to give all students access to academically rigorous mathematics learning opportunities. This means that we have a commitment to teach mathematical reasoning as well as the knowledge core. We will ensure students are academically engaged in making connections, looking for relationships and patterns, and forming generalizations related to mathematical ideas. In our journey, we will keep our eye on the target, by collecting and analyzing student work in order to determine if students are thinking in rigorous ways about mathematics.

Based on set indicators associated with academic rigor, we set out to collect and analyze student work samples. The data below has been coded for aspects that lead to the development of conceptual understanding, but are not limited to

• use of representations;
• connection between representations;
• explanation for how a problem was solved; and
• explanations of mathematical reasoning.

In looking at our work, we are proud to notice the following: 

• At every grade level, more than half of the students are using representations in their work, and some students are making connections between representations.
• We have several examples of mathematical reasoning to guide our instructional practices.

We look forward to our next analysis of student work in March. We are using this opportunity to monitor and ensure that we are advancing student learning. At the same time, our teachers are developing a shared vision of teaching and learning.

Tagged with: Data and Assessment, High-Level Tasks / Curriculum, Leadership, Online Instruction, Partner Spotlight, Principles of Learning

Amplifying the Academic Rigor in Math Classrooms: Butler Area School District’s Journey

By Jennifer Lin Russell, Jennifer Zoltners Sherer, and Jennifer Iriti

Partners for Network Improvement, Learning Research Development Center, University of Pittsburgh

Getting students to think deeper about the content takes intentional choices and instructional moves on the part of teachers and administrators. One of our partners, Butler Area School District in western Pennsylvania, has worked this year to increase the academic rigor in their mathematics classrooms.

The district has worked in several arenas in order to focus the work. Teachers and administrators have worked on curriculum mapping in all areas so that content and standards are linked. Through a partnership, the Institute for Learning (IFL) has provided professional development. The PD focused on the use of high-level tasks in math classes, teacher questioning to press on deeper student thinking, and how to engage students in Accountable Talk® practices. As a result of the PD, the district is working to include tasks of high cognitive demand in the curriculum map for every grade level. Data is being collected as an indicator of the effectiveness of the curriculum maps.

Victoria Bill, math fellow with the IFL, has been working with Butler Area School District. She reflects on the impact of the PD in the district: “Teachers recognized that their students were not getting enough opportunities to think and reason deeply about mathematics. Teachers worked together to identify the high-level tasks or to modify tasks to increase the demand of tasks. All the teachers in the districts used the high-level tasks identified, thus giving students opportunities to problem solve and to reason about mathematics.”  

Hopp and Robb also share that there are still areas of need. “One of our biggest struggles is having a large number of teachers across six buildings. This means that there are six different administrators who are supporting this work. Logistics, communication, and coordination are a big challenge. Our strategy for consistency has been to select high-level tasks that are integrated into the curriculum map. Every teacher at the grade level will complete the high-level tasks. Our hope is that this provides accountability for implementation.”

That said, the district is already seeing the impact of their work both in the classroom and on high-stakes assessments. Hopp and Robb stated that the pedagogy studied in the IFL PD sessions “provides a basis for making our classrooms more student-centered. The use of Accountable Talk practices has increased the communication between students and enhanced their ability to discuss mathematical concepts.” In addition, they share that there have been increases in assessment scores: “We have seen significant increases in our PVAAS (Pennsylvania Value-Added Assessment System) growth scores. We have also seen increases in most of our buildings in the number of students scoring advanced on the PSSAs (Pennsylvania System of School Assessment). We feel there is a direct connection between our work with IFL and these increases.”

Tagged with: Academic Rigor, Accountable Talk® Discussions, High-Leverage Teaching Practices, Leadership, Math

The Principles of Learning in Action

By Dr. Annine Crystal

Assistant Superintendent for Curriculum and Instruction, Guilford Public Schools

Contributor: Emily Jermine

Math coach, Melissa Jones Elementary School

Dr. Annine Crystal
Guilford Public Schools

The Guilford Public Schools’ vision is that of a professional learning community where instruction invites effort and supports academic rigor for all students and educators. To that end, our daily work in classrooms is rooted in and supported by the Principles of Learning (POLs). These nine principles have been foundational to our work over the past 10+ years.

The importance of the POLs in Guilford is evidenced by just how prominently they factor into ongoing district work. Prior to the start of the school year, Guilford administrators participated in a retreat focused on equity.

A portion of the retreat was a retrospective on the Principles of Learning during which each POL was defined and mapped to both the high-leverage practices and the TRU Framework.

Administrators watched several classroom scenarios and considered the application of the Principles of Learning as a way to frame instructional conversations with their faculties. Principals and administrators brought this work back to their buildings to support a deeper understanding of each principle as well as to clearly represent each principle’s impact on classroom instruction. 

A deep and growing understanding of the Principles of Learning has been established through our long-standing partnership with the Institute for Learning and is reflected daily in our schools’ cultures and in the way our students engage with content and process.

In our classrooms, we see evidence of the Principles of Learning in action every day. For example, our content-focused coaches have supported teachers as they continue to grow their conferring practice.

Effective conferring helps teachers and students develop clear expectations for growth and encourages self-management and self-assessment of learning.

Clear Expectations:
Student-generated criteria chart clarifies expectations about quality mathematical explanations

Self-Management of Learning:
This student identified “Use precise math vocabulary” as a goal and is keeping notes on a sticky note to support her progress.

Effective conferring helps teachers and students develop clear expectations for growth and encourages self-management and self-assessment of learning. Teachers keep notes of conference teaching points and use these notes to track the trajectory of learning, to plan, and to individualize instruction to meet the needs of each student. Conferring also facilitates the identification of strengths on which to build and the creation of goals for improvement by the students themselves.

Let’s step into a classroom to see the impact of several of the Principles of Learning, specifically Clear Expectations and Self-Management of Learning. Students in Ms. Pierce’s 4thgrade classroom at Melissa Jones Elementary School have been working on clearly communicating their mathematical thinking.

This work has included using visual representations as well as written and oral explanations to clarify and make visible mathematical reasoning. After engaging in this work on several occasions, students were given the opportunity to individually reflect on their areas of strength as well as the concepts they find challenging. 

Following this self-reflection process, the class worked as a whole to brainstorm elements of a quality mathematical explanation. This, in turn, led to a class-generated criteria chart indicating the qualities of effective communication of mathematical reasoning upon which all students agreed. Each student used this checklist to self-assess one of their previously recorded mathematical explanations and then identified one area to set as their goal for better meeting the criteria for quality explanations. A copy of the chart was posted in the front of each student’s math journal and is being used independently by students as a guide when reviewing mathematical explanations and monitoring progress towards an identified goal. Teachers are able to reference this student-generated tool when conferring with students in order to better ask advancing and assessing questions that push students’ thinking around mathematical reasoning.

Clear Expectations:
The student-generated criteria chart is posted in front of a student’s math journal for easy reference.

Tagged with: Leadership, Math, Partner Spotlight, Principles of Learning

Building an Improvement Network

By Jennifer Lin Russell, Jennifer Zoltners Sherer, and Jennifer Iriti

Partners for Network Improvement, Learning Research Development Center, University of Pittsburgh

This feature article illustrates the work of improvement science networks. Through the work of such networks, there is alignment to the Principles of Learning. Clear Expectations are evidenced by developing common understanding and specific goals, hypothesizing intermediate steps, and analyzing and reflecting on your work and the work of others. Self-Management of Learning and Recognition of Accomplishment, which tie closely to Clear Expectations, are hallmarks of the work of improvement-science networks. Networks use practical measures to monitor and adjust their ongoing work. The same measures allow networks to recognize their progress incrementally and in meaningful ways.

Networks that engage educators in continuous improvement have the potential to harness the power of collaborative work to accelerate learning and solve complex problems. District leaders have the opportunity to build improvement networks within their organizations, but they vary in some distinct ways from networks typically seen in K-12 education. We believe three indicators drive the potential of improvement networks and differentiate them from other networks, such as sharing networks.

Improvement networks are grounded in shared goals, norms, theories of improvement/action, and practices.

Members of improvement networks have a clear, common understanding of their objectives and a shared hypothesis about how to achieve them. Members also have a collective commitment to their work and a sense of shared responsibility. Beyond improving their own work practices, members of improvement networks believe they are collectively solving a broader, systemic problem, and they can articulate a clear theory of improvement that will move them toward accomplishing their shared goal.

Improvement networks engage in disciplined inquiry to learn how to solve their focal problem of practice.

Members use systematic methods of inquiry to test their theory about what strategies will be most effective for achieving their goals. They typically use systematic methods and routines such as Plan, Do, Study, Act (PDSA) cycles that are integrated into their daily work. Improvement networks measure outcomes, but members of improvement networks also use practical measures to assess the processes that contribute to improvement.

Improvement networks coordinate and accelerate learning and improvement through strategic knowledge management.

Network leaders monitor the changes that educators are making, review evidence that supports judgments that changes are leading to improvement, and work to spread and scale the most promising changes. This accelerates the learning within the improvement network.

District leaders can take the following five strategic actions to build improvement networks within their district.

1. Focus attention on shared goals pursued through common theories of action. Tools of improvement science can support this work (root cause analysis, building a shared theory of improvement represented in some way— e.g., driver diagram).

2. Embed improvement cycles and routines into existing collaborative structures. Examples of ways to do that include the following:

• Structure the work of existing PLCs to support inquiry for improvement.
• Principals and/or assistant principals work together on issues such as chronic absenteeism and inequitable discipline practices.
• Teachers work in PLCs to support a shift toward more ambitious forms of pedagogy, anchored in inquiry cycles.
• Use coaches to support continuous improvement.
• Leverage research-based best practices to accelerate improvement (e.g., partner with experts to identify evidence-based solutions to pressing problems).
• Create cross-school learning opportunities to optimize collective learning and opportunities to spread what is being learned .

3. Leverage a practical measurement system to guide continuous improvement. Improvement work involves data of multiple types, including short cycle data that informs action and summative data to assess the impact of an initiative. Districts can support school engagement in continuous improvement by identifying outcome and process measures, and by building tools and routines to collect, analyze, and act on data. To promote equity and learning, leaders must be intentional about what data is brought for discussion and how it is represented. In addition, leaders must build the capacity to analyze data and lead these sense-making routines.

4. Prioritize strategic knowledge management. When leaders engage in strategic knowledge management, they harvest and manage the learning of others in the organization and make this learning visible. They identify which changes lead to improvement and then facilitate the spread of the most promising ideas that emerge from the collective learning of the organization.

5. Build district capacity to operate as an improvement network through partnerships. While educators are reflective by nature and collaborative by design, operating as an improvement network requires new ways of working. Educators are both changing their practice while also learning to engage in improvement cycles. The data collection varies from traditional data uses and has new rhythms (especially those tied to inquiry cycles). Engaging external experts, often supported through partnerships, can support this complex work. District leaders can identify and convene partners with expertise in content knowledge relevant to the problem of practice, improvement science, change management, and analytics and practical measurement to build and operate the learning network.

Improvement networks can serve as a mechanism for building capacity within school districts to tackle complex systems’ problems such as chronic absenteeism, gaps in student achievement, inadequate supports for students with special needs, and teaching for conceptual understanding. Growing in popularity, these networks can serve as an alternative to rolling out district-wide initiatives that fail to recognize and respond to expected implementation challenges. Educators in improvement networks who engage in more intentional and coherent within-school and cross-school collaboration can build and spread promising interventions to solve specific problems. They can integrate necessary knowledge of implementation challenges to ensure that the changes they implement will contribute to improvement in varying contexts. Key to this work is the use of data to assess and adapt implementation through the course of an initiative. Partnerships can provide capacities necessary to design and implement improvement (research-based, high-leverage strategies; measurement and analytics; change management). Pushing beyond traditional sharing networks, improvement networks bring stakeholders with diverse forms of expertise together to support educators as they engage in inquiry cycles that can accelerate learning and drive toward improvement.

Tagged with: Continuous Improvement, Data and Assessment, Leadership