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Association of California School Administrators
Association of California School Administrators
Reimagining schools
Innovation for the betterment of student learning
By Chris Steinhauser and Jay Westover | March | April 2022
At the onset of this school year the education community yearned for a return to normalcy, and yet the reality has been unexpected challenges faced by students, parents, teachers and administrators in what has become known as the next normal in education. We have seen a significant strain on the education system as the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic has brought forth a wide-range of student needs requiring social-emotional supports, innovative approaches for student engagement and more impactful strategies to accelerate student learning. This shift in education could best be phrased as “reimagining schools for the betterment of student learning” and should be considered as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for transforming climate, shaping culture, building capacity and creating coherence to achieve equitable growth in student learning. However, the beliefs, behaviors, confidence and shared understanding of the work at hand within and among schools has resulted in either growth, stagnation or regression in student learning.
Consequently, we have witnessed much variability in how teachers and leaders are attending to this challenging and critical work, and so, the book Schools on the Move (Westover & Steinhauser, 2022) has provided guidance for navigating this next normal in education to accelerate growth in student learning. Schools demonstrating success in light of the challenges at hand have embraced a collaborative inquiry mindset and structured process for co-leading improvement efforts. We would call these “schools on the move” that have employed robust collaborative inquiry processes to create clarity of focus, cultivate shared leadership, develop collective expertise and engage in continuous improvement. Prior to the pandemic, these four key drivers of improvement were delineated in the book Districts on the Move (Westover, 2019) and then further refined to establish school level improvement strategies. Now that almost two years have passed since the beginning of the pandemic, we are witnessing teachers, site administrators and district leaders embracing an agile and iterative improvement process to collectively seek out how best to reimagine schools for the betterment of student learning; equity in action. So that lessons learned from these schools on the move can serve as guidance for others to successfully navigate this next normal, each of the four drivers of school improvement are expanded upon to assist with shaping a coherent path of progress.
Setting the stage with collaborative inquiry
By design, a school improvement strategy must engage teachers and site leaders in the collective effort of accelerating student learning. Furthermore, district leaders need to be active participants so that school site support systems can be adapted and improved using insights gained from the work of school sites. Based on these criteria, the research points to collective teacher efficacy as the second highest effect size (1.39) strategy for improving student outcomes (Hattie, 2018).
“Accomplishing the maximum impact on student learning depends on teams of teachers working together, with excellent leaders or coaches, agreeing on worthwhile outcomes, setting high expectations, knowing the students’ starting and desired success in learning, seeking evidence continually about their impact on all students, modifying their teaching in light of this evaluation, and joining in the success of truly making a difference with student learning outcomes.”
When this improvement strategy is closely examined to discern the fundamental components giving rise to such high levels of student growth, four key drivers are found to be at the core: clarity of focus, shared leadership, collective expertise and continuous improvement. And the unifying factor that conjoins these four key drivers is collaborative inquiry. This model can serve as a framework for educators who desire to develop collective teacher efficacy.
But how is collaborative inquiry associated with both reducing the root causes of student learning variance and guiding improvement efforts to achieve equitable growth in student learning? Collaborative inquiry provides the structure for educators to lead and learn together productively and, in so doing, develops distributed leadership, grows professional capital, increases collective efficacy, and focuses efforts on the causes of student success and failure (Donohoo et al., 2016). The power of collaborative inquiry is that it “shapes a common mindset” promoting improvement of practices and growth in student learning and, at the same time, provides a “structured process for co-leading improvement efforts” to achieve continual growth in learning for all students.
For this reason, the engine of school improvement efforts is recurring collaborative inquiry cycles that consist of four phases: analyze, design, implement and refine. Analyze evidence of student learning to clearly define the problems of practice that are barriers to student learning growth. Design improvement strategies and identify evidence of learning for monitoring student progress, knowing the impact of teaching on student learning growth. Implement the improvement strategies and make adjustments along the way based on evidence of impact on student learning. Refine improvement strategies by clarifying what works best and why so that improvement efforts can be enhanced moving forward. Repeat the process as part of recurring teaching and learning cycles.
Clarity of focus
A critical question for consideration is “How do school leaders and teachers create clarity of focus that guides the ongoing process of improving practices and student learning outcomes?” We know that when school sites collectively define the desired impact of teaching on student learning at the classroom desk, a coherent path of improvement emerges that gradually results in achieving school priorities and district goals for student learning growth (Westover, 2019). The greatest challenge with creating clarity of focus is that it requires a collaborative inquiry process that engages school staff in collectively defining the most critical work at hand. As noted by Michael Fullan, focusing direction is a key driver for coherence making as it creates a shared depth of understanding about the nature of the work and how it impacts the results desired for student achievement (Fullan & Kirtman, 2019). In this regard, the most promising practices focus the collective efforts of school leaders and teachers by clearly defining the work with the greatest potential for achieving equitable growth in student learning. Schools that engage in collaborative inquiry informed by the following key questions will be more successful with shaping a common vision and structured process for co-leading improvement efforts.
  1. How can a moral imperative for improving student learning be shaped as staff analyze data, share personal experiences and establish agreed upon values that define the most critical work for the school?
  2. How can staff input and feedback be used to shape agreed upon structures and processes for collaborative decision-making on schoolwide priorities and action steps?
  3. How can staff engage in authentic and vulnerable conversations about confidence in the ability of individuals and teams to successfully implement school improvement efforts?
  4. How can staff come to recognize that creating shared meaning and depth of understanding for the work at hand is an ongoing process wherein the school continuously adapts and adjusts to meet the learning needs of all students?
Shared leadership
The purpose of shared leadership is to grow the capacity of a group to co-lead their improvement efforts. This takes shape as a dynamic and interactive influence process among individuals for which the objective is leading one another to achieve agreed upon goals (Pearce & Conger, 2003). Two underlying factors impact the extent to which shared leadership is cultivated within a school. First is a mutual understanding of leadership as a “process” that can be taught, shared, distributed and collaboratively enacted. And the other is collectively recognizing leadership as “contextual” in that specific knowledge, skills and abilities are required based on the demands of the task at hand. The implication is that shared leadership is a social endeavor requiring clarity of focus for the work at hand, a structured process for co-leading improvement efforts, and collective capacity to navigate changes in practice for achieving agreed upon outcomes.
Many lessons have been gleaned from the work of schools and districts that have been successful with cultivating shared leadership. The key takeaway is to develop lead learners that support others in navigating the complexities of changing practices by shaping climate and culture (modeling beliefs and behaviors), engaging in collaborative inquiry (a structured process for co-learning and co-leading) and focusing efforts on achieving better results (agreed upon outcomes). This is achieved by modeling specific beliefs and behaviors to support others in co-learning and co-leading for the purpose of achieving agreed upon outcomes. If you want to accelerate change, then develop more lead learners, as this is the ultimate purpose of cultivating shared leadership. But who are the lead learners in a school? The principal and the members of the school leadership team should proactively take on this role of shaping climate and culture and building collective capacity to co-lead collaborative inquiry focused on the improvement of practices and results. Cultivating shared leadership calls upon principals and teachers to serve as lead learners who model and reinforce the practices that are desired to be undertaken by school staff. Lead learners are savvy change agents who understand the value of co-learning and the power of co-leading improvement efforts.
Collective expertise
The key ingredient for developing collective expertise is having a shared purpose that drives and sustains equitable growth in student learning. In simplest terms there needs to be a structured process that guides teachers and principals with support from district leaders in the continuous improvement of teaching and learning. And when district and school leaders serve as role models for developing collective expertise, the improvement of practice is 5.3 times more likely to be successful (Bachmann et al., 2021). This ongoing process of creating instructional coherence to develop precision of pedagogy is aimed at improving the instructional core; maintaining high levels of student engagement in the learning of rigorous and complex learning tasks supported by teachers with pedagogical expertise (City et al., 2009). Successfully engaging students in rigorous and complex tasks requires the integration of curricular resources with instructional strategies and assessments for learning in a way that supports the learning needs of all students. This is realized when school sites, in collaboration with district staff, design and refine guiding principles for high quality instruction that improves student learning at the classroom desk. Five key elements guide the process of developing collective expertise.
  1. A strategic school focus guides the continuous improvement of teaching and learning.
  2. Agreed upon outcomes drive the equitable growth in student learning.
  3. Clearly defined student learning priorities inform the design of rigorous and complex student learning tasks.
  4. Multiple sources of evidence monitor the impact of teaching on student learning growth.
  5. A robust collaborative inquiry process guides recurring teaching and learning cycles.
Continuous improvement
The concept of continuous improvement has always been a central focus in education whether framed as outcome-based, process-oriented or culturally-driven. In this regard, focusing on student equity would be an outcome-based model, engaging in collaborative inquiry cycles would be a process-oriented approach, and establishing a common vision, shared purpose and agreed upon structures, processes and practices for sustainable improvement would be a culturally driven strategy. All three paths of improvement lead to the framing of “problems of practice” to clearly define which leadership and teaching practices will have the greatest impact on student learning growth. Put another way, solving the problems of practice that are preventing equitable growth in student learning outcomes. Five key questions can serve as a guide for engaging in such evidenced-based inquiry cycles.
  1. What problems of practice are observed among students as they engage in rigorous and complex learning tasks?
  2. What problems of practice do teacher teams experience when engaging students in instruction designed to develop key cognitive skills for applying content knowledge?
  3. What problems of practice do school leadership teams encounter when facilitating job-embedded professional learning of teacher teams?
  4. What problems of practice do principals recognize as constraints for leading the improvement of school culture and practices?
  5. What problems of practice do district staff encounter when supporting principals and teachers in their collaborative work of school improvement?
Moving forward
As schools come to embrace the fundamental shifts taking shape within this next normal in education, the hope is that there will be a collective desire to reimagine schools for the betterment of student learning. This is no simple task and will require that teachers, site administrators and district leaders attend to the work at hand with a focus on achieving equitable growth in student learning. For this to occur, there must be a common mindset and structured process for co-leading improvement efforts driven by a robust collaborative inquiry process. And when these collective efforts are guided by the four key drivers (clarity of focus, shared leadership, collective expertise and continuous improvement) the result will be a steadfast movement towards leading coherence for equitable growth.
Bachmann, H., Skerritt, D. & McNally, E. (2021). How capability building can power transformation, Retrieved from https://www.mckinsey.com/business-functions/transformation/our-insights/how-capability-building-can-power-transformation
City, E., Elmore, R., Fiarman, S., & Teitel, L. (2009). Instructional rounds in education: A network approach to improving teaching and learning. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education Press.
Donohoo, J. & Velasco, M. (2016). The transformative power of collaborative inquiry. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.
Fullan, M. & Kirtman, L. (2019). Coherent school leadership: forging clarity from complexity. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.
Hattie, J. (2018). Collective teacher efficacy (CTE) according to John Hattie,. Retrieved from, https://visible-learning.org/2018/03/collective-teacher-efficacy-hattie
Pearce, C. & Conger, J. (2003) Shared leadership: reframing the hows and whys of leadership. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, Inc.
Westover, J. (2019). Districts on the move: leading a coherent system of continuous improvement. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.
Westover, J. & Steinhauser, C. (2022). Schools on the move: leading coherence for equitable growth. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.
Chris Steinhauser served as superintendent of the Long Beach Unified School District till 2020. Jay Westover is co-founder and chief learning officer of InnovateEd.
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