Educators across the country are finding themselves caught in a maelstrom of reform brought about by the confluence of three powerful forces:

  • Standards-driven reform, the first significant educational reform initiative where the impetus for change is external to the educational establishment and therefore largely beyond its control;

  • No Child Left Behind, the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act and President Bush’s signature education initiative; and

  • Increasingly rigorous and comprehensive state reform initiatives.

At its core, the reform movement is not about changing states, or even changing school systems; these are collateral elements of the change process. Rather, reform is about changing dramatically what happens at the school and classroom level—specifically, the quality of the teaching and learning that takes place.

As one looks at the pattern of school performance across the country at this stage in the reform process, one fact becomes painfully apparent: Successful schools are those that have the capacity to address the challenges of the reform initiatives. The others—and they are the majority by far—lack that capacity and thus are either floundering in the sea change as they struggle to respond, or they are closing their eyes and praying it will go away—which it won’t.

The essence of standards-driven reform is the seemingly simple proposition that schools and school systems—and the people who work in them—should be held accountable for their performance, just as the students they serve are held accountable for theirs. Not surprisingly, this “simple” proposition seems to elicit three types of responses from those schools and systems that lack the capacity to respond:

  • The “this, too, shall pass” syndrome, where teachers and administrators begin counting (again) their years until retirement;

  • The belief that this reform is just more of the same and can be addressed “if we just try harder”; or

  • The recognition that the reform is real and is here to stay, coupled with a sense of inefficacy because the capacity to respond—not the will—is sorely lacking.
The first two responses are doomed to failure and deserve imposition of the serious consequences that accompany the reform proposals. The third, however, provides at least a toehold from which capacity-building can begin. But exactly what does “capacity-building” mean, and what steps are involved in making it happen?

Building school capacity means the development and infusion of the skills, understandings, processes, and resources that enable a higher level of teaching and learning that permeates the school and results in sustained improvement in student performance.

The Center for Leadership in Education (CLE) at Towson University in Baltimore, and the Maryland State Department of Education (MSDE) have joined forces to provide intensive training to build capacity for school improvement across the state using a data-based instructional decision-making approach.

While there are numerous reasons why schools fail to improve performance on a continuous, consistent basis, the predominant one is the failure to understand fully the linkage between classroom instruction and student performance—and thus be able to calibrate the one to produce desired results in the other.

The MSDE/CLE training model uses a highly interactive web course combined with four days of facilitated professional development, including job-embedded “homework” activities between the training days. To help ensure the development of core capacity at both the school and school system levels, three-person teams (the principal plus two other instructional leaders) from each school participate, along with two central office personnel, usually those with responsibility for professional development and/or school improvement.

The training focuses on instructional leadership through five key processes that must be in place for student achievement to meet—or exceed—high standards of performance.

The five key processes are:

1. Understanding the target. Of course teachers know what outcomes or learnings they expect as a result of their teaching. Or do they? Experience shows that if there are 25 classroom teachers in a school, there are most likely 25 different understandings—some subtle, some dramatic—of what the outcome should be, based on such factors as experience, depth of subject matter knowledge, and sense of priority among the various objectives being taught. But even if there is common agreement on the target, do the students understand the expected outcome—and is the outcome the one that is being assessed? How do we know?

2. Teaching the indicators. Where are the curriculum (i.e., teaching) priorities set? At the state level, with the system and school essentially in alignment? Or in each classroom? The “A” word—alignment—must be a reality, not just a hoped-for result, across the state, across each school system, and within each school and classroom. The indicators set by the state cover a comprehensive set of goals and outcomes that have been determined by some process (hopefully a good one) to be important for students to know and be able to do at each grade level. They also are the focus for the state assessment and thus become an important measure of school and school system performance—although not really an adequate measure of individual student performance.

3. Assessing the indicators. Needless to say, the state assesses the indicators, as can be attested to by the overwhelming attention that has been focused on state testing and its outcomes across the country—and in the media. Unfortunately, state tests have become the driver for educational reform and school improvement, even though they are a most unsuitable vehicle for these purposes at the individual school level. Nevertheless, the state tests are an important measure for political reasons, if not educational ones, and it behooves schools to ensure that all teachers base the assessments of their classroom work on these indicators, rather than assuming that what they are teaching is what is being measured at the state level.

4. Monitoring individual student progress. The jargon of public education is replete with references to “individualized instruction” in a multitude of forms. Like so many other concepts of the profession, individualization is yet another area where we fail, for the most part, to “walk the walk.” What emphasis on the individual student that does occur is more often than not on the input (teaching) side, rather than on the output (learning) side. In other words, most teachers in most schools fail to monitor individual student progress effectively against the indicators being assessed, focusing instead on grading an assignment—whether or not it is related to the indicators and whether or not it reflects actual student learning (as opposed to simply meeting the requirements of the assignment). Additionally, what data are collected are rarely used to inform instruction and to make adjustments responsive to the needs of individual learners, nor are the results shared with other staff to enrich dialogue and reflection and contribute to making the school a true learning community.

5. Intervening with students not succeeding. Like the philosophical argument about whether the tree that falls in the forest with no one around makes a sound, if a teacher “teaches” and a student fails to learn, does teaching actually take place? Absolutely not!

This is the crucial linkage in the teaching-learning equation: assessing individual progress and providing appropriate interventions when a student fails to attain an outcome. When an intervention does occur, all too often it consists of more of the same—with, quite obviously, the same result. More is not needed; different is.

The widely acknowledged key to true school improvement is genuine instructional leadership. That describes the “what.” The “who”—at least for the past decade—has been deemed to be the principal. If we know the what, and we know the who, this leads us to ask “why,” as in, “Why isn’t it happening?” The answer is straightforward: The who isn’t capable of delivering the what—not because they don’t want to, but because instructional leadership cannot be the sole responsibility of one woman or man, no matter how excellent an educational leader she or he may be. Instructional leadership must be seen as the responsibility of everyone who works in the school, regardless of his or her role—but especially the responsibility of the teachers. And it must be the singular priority of the school and each of its employees, not something that is pushed readily aside by the crisis de jour or the administrative needs of the organization.

We know what it takes to make a successful learner out of every child we teach. We must now exert the will and the political courage necessary to make it happen. As Rick DuFour, superintendent of Adlai Stevenson High School District 125 in Lincolnshire, Ill., and a noted consultant and speaker on school improvement, put it so well:

“It is time we acknowledge that organizations demonstrate their assumptions about their fundamental purpose not through the words of finely-crafted mission statements, but in the actions that dominate their day-to-day activities. Our real missions are communicated not by what we say, but by what we do.”


Maryland School Improvement page

Using Data to Improve Student Achievement course