December 2019 edition: The Work of School Improvement at Scale – Learning Lessons From The US

The Work of School Improvement at Scale – Learning Lessons From The US

At the beginning of the original Academies Programme many curious school leaders looked across the Atlantic to learn from the US Charter schools movement, which was by then, much more established. The first cohorts of Future Leaders (a predecessor of Ambition Institute) would make an annual trip to the US; and some of the most successful early academies and free schools – Dixons Trinity, King Solomon Academy, and Oasis Southbank, to name but a few, were heavily influenced by the work of KIPP, Uncommon, and other Charter Management Organisations (CMOs).

Ark enjoys a strong partnership with Uncommon Schools and their sister organisation the Relay Graduate School of Education. Most recently Mark Gregory, Ark’s Secondary Regional Director in Birmingham, embarked on an intensive year-long training programme with the Leverage Leadership Institute (LLI) at Relay – specifically focused on the work of "Principal Managers”. Over the last decade we have seen the emergence of many more executive leadership roles. These relatively new roles are complex and demanding. Mark’s experiences have prompted us to think differently about the way that people with responsibility for school improvement across multiple schools undertake that work. He describes the 6 principles that underpin the LLI approach below. It seems that a decade later, we still have a lot to learn from our US colleagues.

Leverage Leadership

Many of our universal challenges travel well. We know that which classroom a child enters matters more than which school they walk into, and the team at Uncommon would be the first to admit that reducing variation remains their fundamental challenge. The Leverage Leadership Institute exists to train both principals and principal managers in the explicit work of school improvement to reduce variation and its approach follows 6 core principles:

1. Identify and codify best practice:

Julie Jackson, the charismatic President of Uncommon, has described their approach to improvement as looking at what the best teachers do and codifying it so that others can assimilate it quickly in training.

The role of anyone working across more than one school is very complex. Working at scale and through others is challenging and it is easy to quickly become removed from the real work of school improvement, particularly through periods of significant growth or crises.

Rebecca Boomer-Clark & Mark Gregory

The practice comes before the codification – very much learning from what works. The LLI approach takes a very large corpus of observations of successful teachers and their leaders and attempts to identify the deeper structure that lies behind best practice. What, exactly, are our most effective people doing, both in the classroom and in leadership moments? Successful for Uncommon means getting exceptional student outcomes, these are unapologetically stretching – attainment in the top decile, or very rapid school improvement towards that goal.

Codification leads to the creation of models of excellent practice which are replicated through intensive instructional coaching and deliberate practise. These very detailed models inform all initial professional development input and the first part of the ‘see it-name it-do it’ coaching cycle that underpins the work. ‘See it’ means to very clearly see the exemplar model, and then to identify the gap between current practice and that model. Through coaching, teachers and leaders are supported to see the gap, and then identify the steps to closing it.

All instructional coaching models require strongly codified best practices, as a result they can be prone to being considered didactic, patronising and autocratic when implemented poorly. This is the nuanced difference between ‘why didn’t you do it like this?’ and ‘how does this model push you to change your practice to get a better result?’ The LLI approach encourages innovation, but only once a bar of technical expertise is reached.

2. More on models

In the pursuit to reduce variation, LLI ask for everyone to be familiar with the models of excellent practice across an organisation. Principals are expected to understand them in the same detail as their teachers, teacher educators and middle leaders. Typically, principals are much better at defining the implementation models for school culture (‘line up’ being one example) than they are at the ones for academic rigour (e.g. structuring questioning so that it asks students to make links back to the big ideas in any lesson). This is the first part of getting close to the work: knowing what the work is, and what it looks like in granular detail.

3. Getting close to the work

This is the key idea. Essentially it means understanding the models of practice, and getting into books, classrooms and meetings with those models in hand. It means spending your time differently, seeing the work in schools differently. There can be a tendency to look down the chain of command and ask: ‘why is that person not doing the important thing I told them to do?’. This approach goes the other way: ‘Where is the breakdown in student understanding? Can the teacher see it? If they can, do they know how to solve the problem? What are leaders doing to help teachers see the issue and solve the problem?’ A leader who is close to the work needs to be able to answer all those questions, and this means that they need to know where students struggle in the work and be able to identify the action steps to close the gaps. Colleagues at the LLI believe that nothing else that a principal does is more important, and the same follows for principal managers.

4. How we spend our time

The LLI programme seeks to redefine the role of principal and principal manager. We find ourselves in a place where universal titles – CEO, Director of Education – frequently serve to disguise the detail of the work. LLI encourages executive leaders to look critically at how they spend their time, and to name the tangible difference that they are making for teachers and students in classrooms. The group was obsessed with time and scripting is seen as key because it maximises impact and saves time. Meetings hit the mark because they’re designed with an end in mind and training can be replicated and improved upon without starting from scratch. Also, scripting helps you listen better to what others are saying, rather than worrying about what you’re going to say next.

5. Scope and sequence

This is how LLI codify the path to implementing the model. The scope and sequence simply names the implementation gaps and the precise action steps (the ‘name it’ part of the coaching cycle) to close it. This sharpens the precision of the action step and saves time! When Ark re-launched the Great Teacher Rubric 2.0, perhaps the most important new resource was a very clear scope and sequence for each aspect of the rubric – it’s one thing to name the strengths and deficits in teacher practice, it’s another to systematically replicate or improve upon them.

6. Primacy of practice

The ‘do it’ part of the coaching cycle means standing up to practise and getting feedback on your intended delivery (of a lesson, a meeting…) before you do it. Again, the model is key – as a coach you’re looking for the gaps in personal delivery. This is the bit that people are often most squeamish about, but it is where the power lies. It takes skill and knowledge from the leader to facilitate, but done well, it’s a co-created performance, not a didactic offering.

The role of anyone working across more than one school is very complex. Working at scale and through others is challenging and it is easy to quickly become removed from the real work of school improvement, particularly through periods of significant growth or crises. As the burdens of bureaucracy increase, the dream of securing excellence through autonomy too frequently diminishes, and the distance between some of our most effective school leaders and the work of school improvement widens. The Leverage Leadership framework sets out one approach to systematising the role of a Regional Director and sharpening their focus and precision across multiple schools.

If you are interested in finding out more, Mark runs regular Leverage Leadership information sessions and programmes through the Ark Teaching School Alliance in Birmingham: