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Leading and Managing Instructional Improvement

This post is by James Spillane.

There is tremendous pressure on schools to improve student learning and classroom teaching. While governments have mobilized various policy instruments to address this, including learning standards aligned with student assessments that are tied to high stakes testing, school leaders and teachers are ultimately the ones who do the work of instructional improvement from one day to the next. There is a dizzying array of strategies and models on how to improve instruction in schools. While some of these pre-packaged remedies and recipes can (and indeed do) enable the work of instructional improvement, inside the schoolhouse, they are insufficient. What will it take to improve instruction?

First, instructional improvement will ultimately depend on changing everyday work practice in classrooms and schools. By 'work practice' I mean more than just instructional practice. Specifically, we have to improve the practice of leading and managing instructional improvement. By extension, school leaders and teachers are/will be the chief movers and shakers in improving instruction even if they rely more, or less, on external reform remedies.

Second, we have to embrace practice as a social activity rather than equating it to the behavior of any one individual. Practice is a collective activity, thus, the efforts to improve it have to focus on the interactions among school leaders and teachers, not just the actions of individuals occupying particular positions. Quick fixes that teach school principals or instructional coaches new tricks or behaviors are unlikely to fundamentally transform the practice of instructional improvement in schools.

Third, school practices are enabled and constrained by social norms, organizational routines, formal positions, curricular documents, rules, protocols, procedures, and so on. We can think of these things together forming an infrastructure for the practice of instructional improvement. Some schools, local school districts, comprehensive school reform models, and charter school networks have well-developed, reasonably coherent infrastructures that support the practice of instructional improvement. Others have weak, fragmented, and incoherent infrastructures that frustrate the practice of instructional improvement. Efforts to improve the practice of instructional improvement, then, have to focus not only on the social interactions among school staff but also on the everyday things that enable and constrain these interactions, including something as simple as the language they use for talking about instruction and its improvement.

Fourth, we have to move the practice of instructional improvement beyond the implementation mindset focused exclusively on outside strategies. Implementation has its place, but it will only get us so far. The implementation mindset has to be complemented with a diagnostic and design mindset on the part of school leaders and teachers. School leaders need to engage in defining key problems with their school's instructional programs and especially important, to also engage in designing for improvement by molding aspects of their organizational infrastructure to ameliorate problems and meet particular purposes. Diagnosis and design are essential elements in leading and managing instructional improvement. Let's prepare school leaders to do this work and support them as they do it.

How do you engage in diagnosis and design work? What analytical framework guides that work? How are you designing an organizational infrastructure to support instruction and its improvement? What are the key components of that infrastructure?


James P. Spillane is the Spencer T. and Ann W. Olin Professor in Learning and Organizational Change, a professor of human development and social policy at the School of Education and Social Policy, and a faculty associate at the Institute for Policy Research, all at Northwestern University.
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