The Power of a Coherent Education Improvement System to Ensure Effective Instruction

Leadership in America's Best Urban SchoolsIn the high-performing urban schools we studied, teachers employed effective instruction that resulted in student engagement and mastery. Many teachers regularly modeled the practices described in this chapter. In more typical urban schools, one might find several teachers who exhibit some of these practices, or one or two teachers who exhibit all of these practices. In contrast, in high-performing schools, these practices have become typical. Structures, routines, policies, and norms played substantial roles in helping leaders ensure that these practices became widespread throughout their schools.

Helping stakeholders feel valued and capable.

Leaders influenced the school-wide improvement of instructional practices by providing support that teachers perceived as timely, useful, and plentiful. Frequently, teachers described the support they received from principals, instructional coaches, and other colleagues. “Yes, my principal expects a lot of us,” explained a teacher at Horace Mann Dual Magnet Middle School in Wichita, Kansas, “but, he also makes sure we have whatever help we need. When you have that kind of support, you feel like you can meet high expectations.” This sentiment was echoed by many teachers who described the support they received through professional development sessions, principal observations and feedback, and through teacher collaboration meetings.

Teachers perceived the support was timely, often because principals and other colleagues visited and observed classrooms regularly. For example, a teacher at Highland Elementary in Montgomery County, Maryland explained, “Sometimes, my principal will notice that I need something even before I notice it.” She continued, “He’s in my classroom so much and he’s so attuned to what I am trying to accomplish. He will notice things that I need and order them before I even ask. Where else can you get that kind of support?”

By making teachers feel supported, leaders were able to maximize the extent to which teachers invested time and energy in improving instruction. “When you have leaders like this, you want to give it your all,” a teacher at MacArthur High in Houston’s Aldine District explained. “You see how they believe in you and it makes you want to live up to their expectations.”

Leading educators to develop a focus on teaching a set of important, challenging concepts and skills.

When teachers came together to specify the specific standards they would strive to have students master, often they gained clarity about what they needed to learn in order to teach their students well. By overtly specifying what students needed to be taught, teachers developed a sense of urgency about what they needed to learn in order to teach their students well. For example, a teacher at Jim Thorpe Fundamental School in Santa Ana explained,

The more we clarified what literacy skills we wanted our students to master, the more it became clear to me that I needed to learn a lot more about teaching literacy. I went to a good college, but I didn’t learn how to teach literacy today. And I wasn’t by myself. My teammates were in the same boat. We started listing what we needed to learn in order to teach our students these tough standards.

In high-performing urban schools, the power of professional development is often enhanced as teachers develop clarity about what they need to learn in order to teach students challenging academic standards. By engaging teachers collaboratively in specifying which standards, learning targets, and objectives should be perceived as critical, leaders helped create a readiness for professional development.

Leading educators to develop clarity about how they will assess student mastery of key concepts and skills.

When teachers worked together to specify how they would measure mastery of the critical learning outcomes they sought to teach, they acquired a clearer picture of what they needed to teach and they also acquired more questions about how they would teach those concepts and skills to the diverse groups of students they served. For example, one teacher at Dandy Middle School in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida commented:

When I saw the quiz my colleagues were developing to measure mastery of the genetics unit, I knew right away that I needed to up my game. I had been thinking about getting kids to be able to define terms, but they [my colleagues] wanted kids to be able to explain relationships. How was I going to teach that? So we talked right there in our team meeting about teaching strategies. We talked about what worked to get middle school kids to be able to explain relationships.

By engaging teachers in developing or adopting assessments to measure mastery, leaders increased the likelihood that teachers would recognize that traditional teaching strategies would be inadequate. Teachers felt a greater urgency to think “out of the box” about how they might help their students achieve mastery on the specific measures they were agreeing to use.

Leading educators to improve the effectiveness of initial instruction.

Collaborative planning, observation and feedback, and professional development were important tools for helping teachers improve initial instruction. While each one was significant individually, the three factors were even more powerful when integrated into a coherent educational improvement system.

1) Planning for effective instruction. Whether organized as grade-level teams, department teams, or work groups, these routines provided teachers regular opportunities to work together to plan lessons that were more likely to lead their students to engage in instruction and master the content. These collaborations provided opportunities for teachers to reflect deeply and critically on their own teaching practice, on the lesson content, and on the experiences and backgrounds of the learners in their classrooms. Sharing with one another in this way supported the risk-taking and struggle necessary for transforming practice (Putnam and Borko, 1997).

In Chapter 3, we reported how collaboration helped teachers develop shared understandings about the specific standards they endeavored to teach. Additionally, collaboration helped teachers think through how they would teach specific standards in ways that resulted in high rates of student engagement and high levels of understanding and mastery. In the high-performing urban schools studied, teachers did not just identify worksheets, textbook pages, and supplemental resources that “covered” their instructional objectives. Instead, teachers utilized their collective knowledge of their students, their shared understanding of the standards they wished to teach, their knowledge of the content, and their knowledge of research and best practices to design lessons that had a high likelihood of leading all students to engage in the content and master concepts and skills. Planning teams endeavored to create lessons that helped students understand key concepts as a result of the initial lesson. In contrast, in struggling schools, teachers might spend less time planning initial instruction and then spend more time determining how to respond when students fail and require remediation. In planning teams, teachers (often with the support of administrators) helped each other think about issues such as:

  1. What key objectives must students learn in order to master the standard?
  2. What will be accepted as evidence of mastery?
  3. How might teachers logically and concisely communicate core ideas related to the lesson objective?
  4. What experiences, resources, materials, etc. will students need in order to master this concept or skill?
  5. How might the lesson be structured so that students are less likely to develop common misconceptions?
  6. During the lesson, in what ways might teachers receive frequent feedback from students that might help the teacher know how to adjust the lesson?
  7. How might teachers engage students with lesson objectives in ways that connected with students’ backgrounds, cultures, experiences, and prior knowledge?
  8. What questions might teachers ask students, or what small tasks might teachers ask students to complete, that signal students are ready to work independently with a reasonable likelihood of success?
  9. How might teachers engage students in speaking key lesson vocabulary so that students are more likely to develop fluency with important concepts?
  10. How might lessons be structured to maximize opportunities for students to utilize student-to-student interaction, engage with technology, or integrate learning across disciplines (including art, music, drama, and physical education)?

Teachers reported that they appreciated regular planning opportunities because joint planning helped them prepare and implement more effective lessons. Tschannen- Moran, Uline, Hoy, and Mackley (2000) found that as teachers worked together to develop new instructional skills, they transformed individual knowledge to organizational knowledge.

Strong professional relationships between and among teachers create new norms of cooperation and begin to extend the definition of what it means to be a teacher. Teachers begin to see how their individual knowledge can be applied beyond their own classrooms to support curriculum, program, and policy. They begin to create a more expansive school culture that promotes individual growth at the same time as it advances the organization’s capacity…. (p. 264)

In the high-performing urban schools studied, teachers reported that their students demonstrated greater academic success with lesson objectives because planning activities allowed them to support and be supported by their colleagues as they all worked to improve student learning across the school.

2) Observation and feedback. As mentioned in Chapter 2, in high-performing urban schools, teachers were observed and received feedback about their teaching practices more frequently than teachers in typical urban schools. Principals and other instructional leaders (including assistant principals, instructional specialists, instructional coaches, department chairs, and lead teachers) regularly observed instruction and provided feedback in ways that helped ensure that effective, engaging instruction occurred throughout the school.

Some leaders reported dedicating large portions of the school day to classroom observations. In many of the high-performing urban schools, leaders visited every classroom once a week or even more frequently. In the larger schools, principals shared observation responsibilities with assistant principals and instructional coaches. In order to create time for observing and providing feedback, some leaders intentionally left their offices at certain times of the day. They made classroom observation and feedback one of their most important job responsibilities. In some cases, district leaders helped by reducing district-level meetings and encouraging principals to spend more time in classrooms.

Importantly, observations focused on the extent to which instruction was engaging and effective for the students served. In their study of 14 principals of high-performing urban schools, Johnson, Uline, and Perez (2011) noted:

In every interview, principals spoke first, most, and most passionately about noticing the extent to which students were participating, learning, thinking, making sense, and understanding the concepts and skills being taught. Perhaps, at the most basic level, principals emphasized that they noticed whether all students were participating actively. (p. 139)

Instead of simply noticing what teachers did, leaders focused their attention on evidence of student engagement and learning. Often, during classroom observations, leaders asked students questions. For example, one principal reported, “Engagement means they are following the objective. They’re on task. I ask the students three questions. ‘What are you learning? Why are you learning it? How will you know you have mastered it?”

Regular, systematic observations influenced better learning results for diverse populations of students because leaders attended specifically to whether or not English learners were making sense of the content being taught. Leaders paid attention to whether or not Black, Latino, and immigrant students were actively engaged in learning activities. Often leaders provided feedback to teachers that helped them consider how to better provide engaging, effective instruction for students with disabilities and other groups of students with special learning needs.

It is important to note that these frequent observations were not intended to serve as district or state-required evaluations. Principals rarely used long, complicated evaluation forms. Instead, they conducted short observations (often five to fifteen minutes). By providing teachers with ongoing constructive feedback, principals were often able to help teachers improve their teaching performances before they conducted formal teacher evaluations.

3) Professional development. Professional development was also powerful in helping teachers provide more effective, engaging instruction. In the high-performing urban schools, professional development was designed to help teachers provide engaging, effective instruction, as described in this chapter. The professional development was systematic, because it included multiple components designed to help teachers develop proficiency with important pedagogical skills. Unlike what might be found in more typical urban schools, professional development was less likely to “cover” a wide array of topics.  Professional development was less likely to provide a series of “once and done” workshops. Instead, professional development was designed to provide teachers multiple opportunities to become acquainted with an important concept, see the concept used in a classroom, ask questions, try implementing the idea, receive feedback, ask more questions, and refine implementation.

4) Synergy among planning, professional development, observation, and feedback. In typical urban schools, collaborative planning (if it exists) is disconnected from what principals observe in the classroom, and has little relationship with whatever professional development is provided. In the highest-performing urban schools, we found a synergy among these elements that had a powerful influence on classroom instruction.

In high-performing schools, the issues leaders identified in their observations directly influenced the focus of professional development activities. Similarly, leaders shaped teacher collaboration discussions in ways that helped teachers plan the classroom implementation of professional development ideas. Often leaders reinforced professional development concepts by looking for implementation during classroom observations and providing constructive feedback. As well, PLCs and similar collaborative structures gave teachers additional opportunities to consider how they might refine implementation of key professional development concepts.

For example, at Jim Thorpe Fundamental Academy in Santa Ana, the principal’s classroom observations frequently focused on issues related to quality student engagement. Teachers reported that the principal consistently provided feedback noting their successes at improving student engagement. As well, the principal often provided ideas about how they might improve the engagement of specific students or groups of students. During planning meetings, teachers were expected to help each other plan what they would do to maximize student engagement in lessons. Additionally, principal-led and teacher-led professional development sessions provided teachers with specific strategies for increasing student engagement. The synergy between principal observations and feedback, the PLC, and professional development activities helped accelerate teachers’ implementation of desired professional practices.

5) Leading educators to improve the effectiveness of intervention and enrichment. Collaborative planning, observation and feedback, and professional development also had a powerful influence on the improvement of intervention and enrichment. Typically, in high-performing urban schools, after initial instruction, students took common assessments. The data generated from those common assessments (the student work) became the focus of teacher collaboration meetings, sometimes became the focus of additional observation and feedback, and, at times, became the focus of additional professional development.

The principal of Franklin Elementary in Bakersfield, California explained that after assessments, she and the instructional specialist analyzed the data to determine what students learned successfully and what they still needed to learn. The principal explained that sometimes it was clear that only a small group of students did not achieve mastery. In those cases, grade-level teams would scrutinize the data to determine which students needed additional help, what did they learn well, and where were they confused. The teams would ask themselves questions about what might have confused students and they would create targeted intervention lessons for tutors (generally retired teachers) to use with specific groups of students.

Also, the Franklin principal explained that sometimes there might have been two or three teachers who succeeded in ensuring all or almost all of the students demonstrated mastery and one classroom where a large percentage of students had difficulty. In those cases, the principal asserted that there was a need for intensified observation, support, and feedback. Often, the instructional specialist would observe the teacher, offer suggestions, and provide a model lesson (focused on the same objective students did not master on the common assessment). This strategy helped build the teacher’s capacity to teach the concept, but also helped ensure that the teachers’ students would catch up quickly with their peers.

Finally, the Franklin principal noted that after some assessments, it was clear that many or most students had not mastered the content. In those situations, the principal argued that it was more appropriate to address the situation as a professional development opportunity. The principal and the instructional specialist (sometimes with support from district personnel) would determine what professional development might help teachers better understand more powerful ways to engage students and lead students to master the specific concepts that had been assessed.

While the principal at Franklin clearly and succinctly articulated this triage approach to assessment results, many of the high-performing schools studied used similar approaches to help ensure that students advanced their understanding of key academic standards after initial instruction.


In high-performing urban schools, effective, engaging instruction promotes equitable and excellent learning results, because instruction is purposefully tailored to increase the likelihood that every student masters critical concepts and skills. Instruction is effective, not because it adheres to a particular philosophy or method. It is effective because it results in high rates of student engagement and student mastery.

In high-performing urban schools, teachers consistently used several practices that contributed to effective, engaging instruction. All of these practices helped ensure that all students achieved mastery of lesson content. Some of the practices (e.g., introducing content clearly, logically, and concisely; acquiring and responding to evidence of understanding; building student vocabulary; and promoting successful practice) focused on cognitive issues. Other practices (e.g., connecting with students backgrounds, cultures, and prior knowledge; making students feel valued and capable; and leading students to love learning) addressed social-emotional concerns, while simultaneously addressing cognitive aspects of learning.

In the high-performing schools, these practices occurred regularly in most classrooms, not just a few. Coherent educational improvement systems were important in helping ensure that these practices became part of the fabric of these schools. In particular, regular classroom observations and feedback, collaborative teacher planning, and focused professional development were key elements that influenced the improvement of effective instruction throughout these schools.

Concourse Village Elementary School
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