Systems Improvement for All Students, Including Students with Significant Cognitive Disabilities

Chapter 3: Prioritizing the Improvement of Teaching and Learning

The primary mission of schools and school districts is to prepare all students to become engaged citizens and capable participants in the workforce. Academic learning is central to this mission. Yet, schools have taken on many other missions. Preventing drug abuse, teaching teenagers to drive, winning state athletic championships—these and other additional focus areas beyond academic learning have, over time, become part of what many schools do. Although these endeavors may be worthy, adding them to the essential work of schools has stretched schools to the point where they may no longer be able to accomplish their core mission. Focusing the enterprise on the improvement of teaching and learning is key to improving instructional outcomes for all students.

The common perception of what goes on in schools is something like this: Adult teaching results in student learning. In schools and districts that effectively boost instructional outcomes for all learners, however, students are not the only ones doing the learning. The educational organizations themselves must be what Senge (1990) called “learning organizations.” In such organizations all the adults in the system are engaged in an ongoing, systematic, and data-informed process of improvement. Why?

  • This learning builds individual and collective capacity.
  • Students who observe adults learning are, themselves, more likely to focus on learning.

Four Sets of Practices that Prioritize the Improvement of Teaching and Learning

School districts prioritize the improvement of teaching and learning for all students through the use of four research-supported sets of leadership practices:

  • developing focused goals and strategies for improving teaching and learning;
  • involving school leaders as lead learners and as coaches who ensure implementation of effective instructional practices;
  • providing staff with multiple opportunities to learn; and
  • providing resources to support relevant district-wide professional learning.

The first set of practices involves developing, communicating, and promoting focused goals and strategies for improving teaching and learning. This process begins with a district defining its vision and mission. The district adopts a limited set of goals that uphold its mission and identifies practices that advance its core values. These critical practices are considered non-negotiables.

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Michael McCormick, Superintendent of California’s Val Verde Unified Schools talks about this work (3:53). 

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Josh Englehart, Superintendent of Painesville City Local School District in Ohio, explains how goals and instructional strategies are defined, focused, and clearly communicated in his district (2:18). 

Achieving the level of focus needed to accomplish district goals means getting everybody on board. Sometimes this requires educators to change their beliefs. For example, some educators might not believe students with significant cognitive disabilities can make meaningful progress with academic content from the general education curriculum. In order to effectively carry out the district’s academic mission, these educators will need to have their beliefs challenged by seeing other perspectives and outcomes in order to change their own beliefs. The process of getting everyone’s beliefs aligned with district goals can be challenging.

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Bethany Carlson, former principal of Struthers Elementary School in the Struthers City (OH) district, references this issue (0:39). 

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In Superintendent Michael McCormick’s southern California school district, the district’s mission has been communicated widely. The idea, according to McCormick, is to motivate, not mandate. The district has also aligned its curricula and instructional practices to support the development of these competencies in all students (3:21). 

The second set of practices involves school leaders as “lead learners” and as coaches who ensure implementation of effective instructional practices. A district’s central office administrators and building principals take on the role of lead learners in which they visibly demonstrate efforts to improve their own knowledge about instructional and intervention strategies. As lead learners, they engage educator colleagues in discussions about teaching and learning. They also identify educators with relevant instructional expertise and encourage others to observe those educators teach. 

Principals who provide instructional leadership contribute to improved academic outcomes. A strong research base supports this finding (Grissom et al., 2021). District administrators can help principals take on instructional leadership by:

  • providing principals with high-quality, evidence-based professional development that builds their competence as instructional leaders;
  • giving principals autonomy to implement inclusive, instructional leadership in ways that fit their particular schools;
  • supporting principals’ efforts to cultivate teachers’ collaborative learning;
  • reducing principals’ administrative management burden; and
  • providing training and coaching that helps principals prioritize tasks that have the greatest impact on teaching and learning.
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Superintendent Englehart describes how administrators in his district are trained and empowered to be instructional leaders (1:14). 

The third set of practices for prioritizing the improvement of teaching and learning involves providing staff at all levels with multiple opportunities to learn. These practices include:

  • creating structures that facilitate system-wide learning (i.e., teachers and principals within and across schools learning from one another);
  • providing opportunities for practice and feedback;
  • ensuring that professional development directly relates to the instructional practices chosen for improvement and includes enough support that staff are able to implement the things they learn;
  • differentiating support across the system so educators can get the kind and amount of support they need; and
  • providing all educators with high quality coaching, which research suggests is essential for supporting and sustaining professional learning.
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Superintendent Englehart explains how classroom visits and engagement give administrators insights into which educators might benefit from additional support to improve teaching and learning (1:54).

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Josh Englehart describes how his district builds the instructional capacity of its educators through job-embedded professional development (2:22).

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Stephen Barr, Assistant Commissioner in Missouri’s Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, explains how improving teaching and learning depends upon training staff at all levels to participate in implementing the district’s improvement practices (1:22). 

The final set of leadership practices relates to districts providing adequate resources for supporting district-wide professional learning. Improving instructional practice in order to improve student learning means that professional development and other district resources must be used to meet the learning needs of the adults as well as the children in the system. When everyone is provided with the tools they need to accomplish the tasks they have been given, teaching improves and learning increases.

As a district allocates its resources, issues of equity demand consideration. Are those with the greatest needs getting what they need? By directing resources to the highest priority goals and strategies, districts have the opportunity to give the most to those with the greatest needs.

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Josh Englehart discusses how his district secures and deploys resources to support professional learning (0:42). 

The professional development work undertaken as part of the Ohio Improvement Process (OIP) enables the district’s teacher teams, building level teams, and district level team to address issues of instructional equity for all subgroups of learners, including students with significant cognitive disabilities.

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Amanda McNinch, Director of Special Services in the Struthers City School District, explains that professional development in her district is intentionally designed to expand educators’ capacity to improve instructional outcomes for students with diverse learning needs (1:34).

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Assistant Commissioner Barr believes that the state also bears some responsibility for providing resources to districts—especially small ones—to support the improvement of teaching and learning (1:12). 

Putting it all Together: One District’s Approach to Prioritizing the Improvement of Teaching and Learning

Struthers City Superintendent, Pete Pirone, and former principal, Bethany Carlson, summarize the process their district uses to select and enact a small, coherent set of strategies aimed at improving teaching and learning for all learners, including students with disabilities.

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Superintendent Pirone and former Principal Carlson describe their district’s differentiated, job-embedded professional development and reference district structures—including leadership teams—that facilitate system-wide learning. Both of them cite the important role district administrators play as lead learners who also ensure that agreed upon instructional practices are implemented effectively across the district (5:17).