TCHERS' VOICE / Coaching

Setting Effective Instructional Priorities for Next Year

The end of the year is always an exciting time in schools. Along with the promise of summer, the cyclical nature of the school year means it's time to take stock of the year just completed and look forward to the next.

Schools often set Performance Goals at the end of the year. Performance goals are set for student performance on some type of measure, whether it be a state summative exam or local assessment.

They're often written in the form of SMART goals to ensure they are Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Results-based, and Timebound. While performance goals are important, they're merely the "what," or in other words, the target. Schools also need to determine the "how," or the means they'll use to reach the goal. Coming up with an Instructional Priority is a way to help ensure you meet your performance goals.

The Importance of Instructional Priorities

According to literacy expert Lucy Calkins in the book Pathways to the Common Core, "Achievement accelerates when schools offer a coherent instructional approach, one that brings teachers in a school together and allows one year's teaching and learning to build upon the next." Setting no more than one or two instructional priorities as a school can help teachers focus on changes they can make to impact student learning amidst the noise of new programs and initiatives.

Calkins tells us that innovations implemented with low or even medium levels of fidelity have no effect on achievement, while those implemented with 90% fidelity can have an extremely high impact. The ability to focus is literally the difference between success and failure.

Picking an Instructional Priority

Student achievement data, student work, and observations of teacher practice should all influence what you choose as an instructional priority. The Instructional Shifts on the Common Core Standards site are a great place for ideas. However, it's not as simple as picking the latest buzzwords, such as text-dependent questions. Text-dependent questions are a nice starting place, but in this form it's too general to be an effective priority. Instead, make it concrete and observable by thinking about the change you want to see in teacher practice. For instance, you could refine text-dependent questions to read, "Teachers ask text-dependent questions that address challenging areas of the text, and scaffold students toward key understandings, leading to discussion and student writing."

Setting Practice Outcomes

In their work Switch, Chip and Dan Heath talk about the power of "shrinking the change" by breaking a big change into small, achievable steps, and celebrating the progress as each is achieved. The closer you are to accomplishing your goal, the harder you will work toward your goal. A change which could feel overwhelming now seems within reach, and with each little milestone along the way, momentum builds and you feel motivated to continue the change.

A Practice Outcome is a way to see teaching practice change. Breaking your instructional priority into smaller practice outcomes will make the change seem manageable. As teachers achieve and celebrate these small milestones, positive momentum will build. In my work coaching school leaders with Achievement Network, I have found the process of moving from performance goals, to instructional priorities, to practice outcomes, a great way to help schools and teachers achieve their goals.

The Instructional Practice Guides from Achieve The Core are an excellent resource to refine instructional priorities and set practice outcomes. They include a coaching tool that lists observable indicators of effective, Common Core-aligned teaching, such as, "The teacher expects evidence and precision from students and probes students' answers accordingly."

Examples of Practice Outcomes

Practice outcomes can focus on many different areas of teacher practice. For instance, you may focus on planning, and track the percentage of grade level teams that use a protocol to closely read a text they will teach to determine areas of complexity, and craft scaffolded, text-dependent questions. You may set a goal about the percentage of lesson plans that contain effective text-dependent questions, and measure that change over time. You may set a goal around the number of classrooms where teachers ask effective text-dependent questions, or the percentage of class time spent discussing or writing in response to text-dependent questions, and do learning walks as a leadership team to measure progress.

When the new year begins, be sure to celebrate small wins along the way. By the end of the year, text-dependent questions -- or whatever you choose as your instructional priorities -- will be a part of your culture at the school, and your students will be better readers and writers.

Have you set instructional priorities for the coming year? If so, what are they and how will you track your progress? Let us know in the comments section below.

Ryan McCarty is a coach with Achievement Network, a nonprofit organization that helps school leaders support teaching that is grounded in standards, data, and the best practices of schools across the country. He partners with schools in Massachusetts. Prior to that, he was a literacy coordinator, instructional coach, and teacher in Chicago, IL. All views are his own. Follow Ryan on Twitter: @RyanP_McCarty.

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