Systems Improvement for All Students, Including Students with Significant Cognitive Disabilities
Chapter 4: Building Capacity Through Support and Accountability
Effective use of systems of support and accountability helps school districts and schools build “capacity.” The capacity of an organization is its potential--what the organization knows and what it can do. Capacity isn’t a fixed quantity. All people and all organizations can increase their capacity.
Organizations build capacity by finding ways to improve individual and collective efficacy, that is, the ability to produce desired results. For school districts working to improve instructional outcomes for all learners, instructional efficacy is the most important capacity to develop. Instructional efficacy comes from a combination of individual teacher efficacy, individual principal efficacy, and teacher collective efficacy. Of these types of efficacy, teacher collective efficacy seems to have the most direct influence on students’ learning. And cultivating that efficacy requires districts to make positive changes to accountability structures and support mechanisms.
Michael McCormick Video 3 retag: https://www.youtube.com/embed/1VuYXzYeNy8
Superintendent McCormick believes that letting teachers take the lead is key to building collective efficacy and teacher capacity. He believes, “Those closest to the work ought to be guiding the work” (1:15).
Four Sets of Practices that Build Capacity Through Support and Accountability
Building capacity to improve instructional outcomes for all students involves several research-supported leadership practices:
- establishing goals and expectations that shape district and school norms;
- fostering internal and mutual accountability;
- providing essential professional learning, data-based evaluation, formative feedback, and coaching; and
- promoting collaborative conversations that focus on instructional improvement.
A key responsibility of the leadership of a school district is to establish goals and expectations that shape district and school norms. Goals are explicit statements of what the district, the schools, and those who work for the district must accomplish to support system-wide improvement. Explicit goals have measurable outcomes, as in this example:
Currently, 10% of our students with significant cognitive disabilities are spending 80% or more of their time in general education classrooms. Our Year 1 target is to increase that percentage so that 20% or more of our students with significant cognitive disabilities spend 80% or more of their time in general education classrooms.
Expectations specify the actions needed to fulfill each of the goals of the organization. This example of an expectation relates to the above goal:
We expect all teachers to participate in professional development to prepare them to effectively teach students with disabilities in general education classrooms.
Norms embed expectations into the life of the school district and guide the actions, beliefs, values, words, and practices of the people in the district. As the adults come to understand and buy into district goals and expectations, the behavioral and cultural norms of the district are shaped. New norms replace old ones and a unified way of acting and thinking develops. The norms become “the way we do things around here.”
In the above examples, the goal and expectation support a changing norm:
The district wants all general education teachers to assume responsibility for the education of each child in their classroom, including those children whose educational team comprises other teachers (e.g., Special Education teachers, English Learner teachers) or paraprofessionals.
In a district striving for real and lasting positive change, all the adults in the system must internalize and embody norms of thinking, talking, and doing things that focus on improvement. These norms lead to deep implementation of practices that work better, build greater equity, and lead to increased efficacy.
Michael McCormick Video 4 retag: https://www.youtube.com/embed/jJ2bWsSvXLc
Superintendent Michael McCormick reflects on the process through which norms gradually—over many years—reshaped the ways teachers in his district view and carry out their roles in improving instructional outcomes for all learners (1:33).
Critical leadership practices in improvement-focused districts foster systems of internal and mutual accountability. Systems of internal accountability keep everyone motivated and committed to fulfilling district expectations and meeting district goals.
Districts cultivate internal accountability by turning their focus away from the high stakes testing and performance targets mandated by external bodies (for example, state departments of education) and concentrating instead on instruction. In systems of internal accountability, educators use formative measures of student performance and of adult implementation of agreed-upon instructional strategies to improve the effectiveness of instructional practices and to reveal where additional support might be needed.
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Stephen Barr, Assistant Commissioner of the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, believes that systems of internal accountability are more effective than systems of external accountability in supporting the widespread changes in instruction needed for meaningful improvement in student learning (1:18).
Michael McCormick Video 5 retag: https://www.youtube.com/embed/X-rXPqA_hsQ
According to Val Verde Unified Schools’ Superintendent Michael McCormick, external accountability can even inhibit the success of new initiatives, whereas internal accountability motivates teacher persistence and creativity (2:16).
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Josh Englehart, Superintendent of the Painesville City Local School District (OH), explains how the culture of accountability in his district engenders instructional improvement (1:48).
Building internal accountability through a focus on instruction takes time, possibly even several years. When internal accountability for the success of all students prevails, the adults across the system think, feel, and act responsibly toward students, families, and communities. Students do better. Local support for the district and for the work of its schools grows, and community and family engagement increases.
Mutual accountability requires a district to provide the support and structures needed for all its members to meet agreed-upon expectations and goals. In other words, the people charged with carrying out the district mission are given what they need to become successful.
What are some of the supports districts need to provide in order to fulfill their part of the mutual accountability bargain?
- clearly articulated goals and expectations (including performance targets), at both the district and school level, that address identified needs;
- professional learning related to the effective use of new practices, using data wisely, and creating inclusive and equitable learning opportunities;
- data-collection systems that facilitate formative assessment of district, school, and group progress and that show areas in which additional support might be beneficial;
- formative feedback about instruction, as well as coaching, to help educators improve instructional outcomes for students;
- time and opportunities for educators to collaborate and to practice new strategies; and
- resources (including money, materials, and personnel) and structures that align with district goals and that support instructional improvement, inclusivity, and equity for all learners.
BethanyPeteVideo7 retag: https://www.youtube.com/embed/TWagYrpAT6w
Struthers City School District (OH) Superintendent, Pete Pirone, and former Principal, Bethany Carlson, believe that the team structures and leadership practices that are part of their state’s improvement initiatives (the Ohio Improvement Process, or OIP) promote accountability by providing a collaborative system for establishing goals and evaluating progress in meeting those goals (1:57).
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Superintendent Englehart describes a data-collection system his district uses to assess school and group progress and to provide formative feedback about instruction (1:00).
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Amanda McNinch, Director of Special Services in the Struthers City Schools, explains how professional learning opportunities in her district equip teachers to implement new instructional practices in working with all students and across multiple curricular areas (1:43).
Michael McCormick Video 6 retag: https://www.youtube.com/embed/twVsDLt25rk
Superintendent Michael McCormick describes structures in the Val Verde Unified School District that promote the efficacy of teachers (3:18).
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Struthers City Superintendent Pirone believes that empathy and understanding are critical for supporting staff focused on the challenging process of instructional improvement (0:59).
Research has shown the importance of building individual and collective capacity among all members of an organization in order to achieve significant and sustained improvement. Districts enact capacity-building measures focused on their core work: instruction and support for instruction. This critical leadership practice involves providing essential professional learning, data-based evaluation, formative feedback, and coaching.
To boost the capacity of district personnel, school district leadership identifies a small set of effective instructional practices on which to focus and provides high-quality professional development and learning opportunities (peer-observation, independent practice, co-teaching, for example). District leaders set performance targets (benchmarks) and implement data-collection systems that facilitate formative assessment of district, school, and group progress. Formative feedback supports educators’ learning, improves instruction, and leads to better outcomes.
JoshVideo13 retag: https://www.youtube.com/embed/A5-HBu3lVr4
In the Painesville City Local schools, professional learning and support for instruction start when teachers first enter the system. Superintendent Englehart explains (0:53).
BethanyPeteVideo9 retag: https://www.youtube.com/embed/asfV_wu0KgE
Struthers Elementary School former Principal Carlson stresses the importance of helping educators in her district engage in professional learning opportunities within and outside of the district (0:34).
Michael McCormick Video 7R retag: https://www.youtube.com/embed/BMaISPN3kCc
Superintendent Michael McCormick explains that the Val Verde Unified schools take a different approach to professional development in which teachers draw on their professional expertise and deep understanding of district needs to plan, implement, and deliver professional development to their educator colleagues (3:18).
AmandaMcNinchVideo4 retag same as 2: https://www.youtube.com/embed/UVF9jh2Bvyc
Director of Special Services Amanda McNinch cites her district’s practice of providing professional learning that equips all teachers to work with all students, including those who have significant cognitive disabilities (1:13).
District and school leadership can boost individual and collective capacity by promoting collaborative conversations that focus on instructional improvement. In a system of internal accountability, everyone who performs core work engages in regular, ongoing collaborative conversations focused on instructional improvement. Districts align resources to facilitate instructional conversations and put structures in place that enable all core personnel, both within and across buildings, to join the conversation.
BethanyPeteVideo10 retag: https://www.youtube.com/embed/luUzkYisF0w
Bethany Carlson describes the collaborative conversations that constitute a major part of instructional planning in the Struthers City Schools (1:12).
JoshVideo14 retag: https://www.youtube.com/embed/vScuOpjo23c
According to Superintendent Englehart, building the collective capacity of a school district requires going beyond developing the capacity of the individuals within the organization. It means forging trust, empathy, connection, and unity of approach among all the people engaged in the mission (2:59).