WHEN I BECAME
superintendent in 2010, the Ascension Public Schools in Louisiana was a relatively high-performing district with 13 of 28 schools earning an A or B rating from the Louisiana State Department of Education. However, eight of the other schools were rated D or F and had seen little improvement in student performance despite the district’s investment of additional resources.
With great resolve, I sought to implement an all-out focus on improving the instructional culture of our low-performing schools. We created what we officially called a turnaround zone but what we internally referred to as an innovation zone for those eight struggling schools. Through initiatives nurtured in the innovation zone, not only did our low performers improve, but our entire district profited.
Three years later, we nearly tripled the number of schools given A’s by the state and no longer did any receive an F.
The three most important actions we took to create a culture of instructional excellence follow.
» No. 1: We defined excellent teaching.
Having a single districtwide language and shared vision for instructional excellence was a key. We adopted the National Institute for Excellence in Teaching’s TAP teaching standards rubric, which defines teaching practice across four domains and 19 indicators of practice. This common rubric formed the foundation from which we raised our expectations for classroom instruction and developed more effective teachers.
» No 2: We supported excellence through principal and teacher leadership.
Defining higher expectations for classroom practice must be coupled with more support for each teacher. We developed teacher leadership in a strong cohort of instructional coaches, master teachers and mentor teachers, who played a critical role in implementing the new standards for teaching practice.
These teacher leaders were charged with providing small groups of teachers professional learning directly related to their instructional needs and their students’ needs. They then followed up in each teacher’s classroom with individualized coaching and support. We also supported principals in building and managing their school leadership teams and weekly professional learning groups with rigorous goals and robust tracking of individual student progress toward mastery of each standard.
» No. 3: We supported excellence through financial and human capital management.
We aligned the district’s financial and human capital to make sure the maximum resources were available to support instructional excellence.
First, we invested in a small cadre of in-district trainers who guided more than 400 administrators and teacher leaders in the observation and feedback process.
In addition, we restructured the central office to provide one leader to each school in the turnaround zone, who was tasked with coaching the principal and the leadership team on school improvement efforts as well as marshalling resources and removing obstacles to success.
To make sure our most-effective teachers would serve where they were needed the most, we made it clear that the district valued working in a turnaround zone school when making promotion decisions, which contributed to keen interest among the accomplished teachers assuming new leadership roles.
To pay for the investments behind this human capital vision, we analyzed how dollars were being spent and, with some creativity and buy-in from the school board and other stakeholders, were able to identify diverse sources of local and federal dollars to expand this work.
What began as a teacher leadership strategy in our high-need schools became a broader human capital management system across the district. None of this came easily, but by having a clear, districtwide definition of instructional excellence, we could better develop effective support systems to ensure every teacher continued to improve his or her practice and thus raise outcomes for all students.
a former superintendent, is president and chief development officer of the National Institute for Excellence in Teaching in Santa Monica, Calif. Twitter: @NIETteach