“Tony Wagner makes an excellent case for what he calls ‘strengthening instruction’ in the following post appearing on his blog at www.tonywagner.com. Rather than arguing the merits of more testing, we believe as Tony does that the real conversation among educators should be around questions such as these: What does good teaching look like, and how do we create systems of schools and districts where every teacher has the opportunity and the support needed for continued improvement?”
With the new requirements of the No Child Left Behind Act, and high-stakes accountability tests now in nearly every state, education leaders are under unprecedented pressure to improve student performance. The problem is, many don’t know what to do that is different from what they have always done.
Politicians and media pundits tell us that America’s schools are “failing” and need “reforming.” The implication is that educators once knew how to educate all students to higher standards and have just gotten lazy or forgetful. But after 20 years of reform efforts that have yielded few improvements, it is becoming clear that the overwhelming majority of school and district leaders do not know how to help teachers better prepare all students for the higher learning standards now required for future learning, work, and citizenship in a “knowledge society.”
The real challenge in schools today is not just to get more students to pass more tests, but to create new knowledge about how to improve the level of instruction for all students
And so the real challenge in schools today is not just to get more students to pass more tests, but to create new knowledge about how to improve the level of instruction for all students. More testing, alone, will not improve teaching. We must understand clearly all of the elements of a more systemic approach to strengthening teaching in every classroom.
The overwhelming majority of school and district leaders do not know how to help teachers better prepare all students for the higher learning standards now required for future learning.
At the Change Leadership Group within Harvard University’s graduate school of education, my colleagues and I work with educators to increase their effectiveness at implementing systemic improvements in their schools and districts. As a part of this effort, we’ve documented the strategies used for improving teaching in those districts that have dramatically raised the level of student achievement for the lowest quartile of students, including those from the most at-risk populations. We have identified seven practices that appear to be central to any successful instructional-improvement effort.
Districts as diverse as Lancaster, Pa., and New York City’s Community School District 2 have been pioneers in the development of these practices, but each has implemented them in its own, unique way. So what we call “The Seven Disciplines for Strengthening Instruction” should not be seen as a blueprint. It is, rather, an outline of both a process and a set of intermediate goals that are most likely to significantly improve student achievement. They are described briefly here:
- The district creates an understanding and a sense of urgency among teachers and in the community for the necessity of improving all students’ learning, and it regularly reports on progress. Data are disaggregated and are transparent to everyone. Qualitative data (for example, from focus groups and interviews), as well as quantitative data, are used to understand students’ and recent graduates’ experience of school.
Too many districts use either the “hide and seek” approach to data or the reverse—flooding people with so much information that they drown in it. By contrast, Vicki Phillips, when she became the superintendent of Pennsylvania’s Lancaster schools, chose a single piece of data to disseminate throughout the community: the number of students who read at grade level by 4th grade. Then she took students to adult gatherings all over town to dramatize the data. She’d explain that only two out of 10 students in the district left the 4th grade meeting the reading standard. She’d have 10 students standing on stage with her, request that eight of them sit down, and then ask the audience, “Which eight of our students will we leave behind?”