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Instructional Operations: Moving Parts to Break Constraints

Note: Greg Gunn, entrepreneur in residence at City Light Capital and co-founder of Wireless Generation, is guest-posting this week.

One of the most fun parts of my work has been watching school teams try to redesign the way they work in order to achieve big gains in student learning.

I had the opportunity two years ago to visit an elementary school in North Carolina that was working hard to improve its students' reading outcomes. The principal realized that the last few years of spending on professional development and supplemental curriculum wasn't significantly changing results.

The principal realized that he had more leverage to change student trajectories in K-2 than later, but that the current structure only allowed time for intervention for his lowest 15% of students, though nearly 50% needed it. He and his team decided (over some resistance) to make the fairly radical move of shifting most of his teaching aides from the upper grades to working on small group reading intervention in K-2. They replaced the small resource room with a much bigger classroom to allow for work with 4-5 small groups simultaneously, and set up a "data room" where the status and progress of every K-2 student was tracked carefully on a big board to allow for weekly planning and regrouping. The team's bet was that by extending intensive, responsive small-group instructional time to all students below grade level in K-2, they could get most students to grade level by the end of second grade and significantly reduce the need for intervention resources in subsequent grades. Early indicators were that this approach was working.

I've started using the term "instructional operations" to describe this kind of work. The term helps one naturally think of all of the resources involved in instruction--staff, schedule, space, curriculum, student grouping, technology, and information--as working together in a highly integrated way. And more importantly, teams understand them all as movable parts that can be put together in different ways to achieve different instructional goals.

Like the school above, teams doing this work go through the same general steps:

  1. They define an ambitious, but specific, instructional goal.
  2. They identify the highest value activities towards that goal, how much of those activities are needed, and what resources would be needed to carry out these activities.
  3. When they find a resource constraint that would prevent them from achieving the goal, they find a way to break it--either by investing in more of that resource or by using other existing resources in new ways to achieve the goal.

The constraint-breaking conversations are the most critical and most interesting part of the process. I've heard teams discuss such ideas as:

  • We need a lot more space for small-group intervention work. The library is our biggest room--can we redesign it for this purpose?
  • Analyzing student data is taking up 5% of teacher time that we need for instruction. Can we create a new "analyst" role to take on this burden and do it more efficiently? Who could take on this role?
  • We need to free up 10% of our teachers' time to do more problem solving with students. Can we use some distance learning courses to achieve this without losing instructional time?

Redesigning any instructional operation is hard work. So how can we help more schools do it effectively? I can imagine a web-based resource with the following tools to help schools find and tweak useful designs:

  • A "design language" for instructional operations--with the level of specificity and completeness seen in fields like architecture, engineering, and operations management--that would help teams describe their operation clearly.
  • A searchable knowledge base of operational designs that schools have implemented in the field--submitted by the schools themselves--along with useful contextual information such as their instructional goals, design tradeoffs they had to make, and implementation challenges they faced.
  • Operational design metrics and calculators that help schools evaluate potential designs against their own needs and situations.

School teams that do the work of redesigning any part of their instructional operation end up with a much deeper understanding of how their system works towards learning goals, and how new resources can be best invested to deliver better results. This is also a big step towards solving the elusive problem of measuring return-on-investment in education. In my next post, I'll talk about some of the barriers to investing a school's money well and how they might be addressed.

--Greg Gunn

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