Feature                                                     Pages 34-38

Planting My Flag as a Leader

of Learning   

A superintendent adopts a ‘cycle of inquiry’ as he guides his district’s instructional leadership development


As the superintendent of a school district, how do you establish yourself as a leader of learning? This question was paramount to me as I began my first year as superintendent in Kelso, a 5,000-student district in southwestern Washington. I wanted my staff and all stakeholders to know I was serious about instructional improvement and about making a difference for all children, but that I would also honor and build off the good work of the past.

I felt I needed to “plant my flag” right from the start.

Robert MagGregor
Superintendent Robert MacGregor of Kelso, Wash.

The improvement of instruction in our public schools is more than just a sound idea — it is now making its way into law through mandates aimed at overhauling our teacher and principal evaluation systems. As experts like Charlotte Danielson have pointed out, teacher evaluation reform presents an opportunity for educators to help professionals improve their practices related to delivering high-quality instruction. It is imperative that superintendents establish themselves as leaders of learning.

I devised a few strategies within weeks of starting the job to strenghten the culture of learning in our district. In doing so, I identified three key focus areas for my work as a district-level leader of learning: (1) defining and supporting instructional leadership; (2) grounding myself in transformational practice; and (3) implementing a systemwide cycle of inquiry.

Send Your Message
Simple visual tools help communicate powerful ideas. If I was planting my flag as a leader of learning, I wanted to roll out a graphic or a brand that conveyed my beliefs about leadership for learning and our beliefs about leadership in the school district.

In my early presentations to the district leadership team, to the school board and to the entire staff, I shared those visual tools and elaborated on each dimension of the graphic as a means of communicating the foundational beliefs about school district leadership and to affirm my commitment to being an instructional leader.

The graphic below contains four quadrants that reflect the basic ideas for district leadership: (1) engender a sense of urgency; (2) create a sense of hope; (3) engender a system of learning; and (4) create a system of support.

URGENCY. Data can do the heavy lifting for leaders on this dimension. Many ways exist to slice the data to show where a school or a system can improve, and the closer we can get to putting student faces on the data, the more sense of urgency we can create. Good resources are available to assist school and district leaders in efforts to use data regularly to affect practice. One particularly helpful book is Data Wise: A Step-by-Step Guide to Using Assessment Results to Improve Teaching and Learning edited by Kathryn Parker Boudett.

HOPE. A sense of urgency should be balanced with a means of instilling hope in staff and stakeholders. Having a theory of action that will address the problems illuminated by the data can give staff hope that, by working collaboratively using research-based approaches, we can make a positive impact on our practice and ultimately benefit our students.

Harvard professors Elizabeth City, Richard Elmore and others offer a thorough explanation of the power of a good theory of action in their book Instructional Rounds in Education. Ultimately, a good plan based on a solid theory of action and communicated effectively will transform hope to a collective confidence that our work will pay off for our kids.

In Kelso, we developed a theory of action and a plan to reach a districtwide learning target. The plan included clear expectations and dates for collecting data and reviewing progress, as well as a comprehensive communication plan. Such transparency around a plan instills hope and confidence for those implementing the plan.

LEARNING SYSTEM. It’s important to punctuate the idea with stakeholders that learning is something that should be occurring at all levels of the system — from the classroom to the boardroom.

A principle related to learning that we adhere to in our district is to model before we mandate. For example, before we require teachers to implement learning targets in their day-to-day instruction, district leaders and principals use learning targets in their facilitation of adult learning activities. This includes using such practices in any learning situation, be it a professional development activity or a school board update on school improvement plans.

CULTURE OF SUPPORT. Finally, the quadrant that I typically use to wrap up my discussions regarding district leadership is the one emphasizing that district leaders must create a culture of support. Few would dispute the notion that teachers and administrators face unprecedented pressures to improve outcomes for kids. Widespread agreement also exists that improvements must occur at the classroom level, that what happens between teachers and students is most essential.

If we are to improve all schools as meas-ured by improved student performance, we must affect what happens in the teaching and learning environment. As Paul Black and Dylan Wiliam point out in their 1998 article “Inside the Black Box: Raising Standards Through Classroom Assessment” in Phi Delta Kappan, “Learning is driven by what teachers and pupils do in classrooms.” Instructional leadership must be grounded in support — for teaching staff, for principals and for the central-office leaders responsible for supporting building leaders.

As superintendent, I make frequent and public claims that our district leadership will support the practice of instructional improvement. Such support is demonstrated through a collaborative approach to planning for challenging work.

Our team that is working on the new teacher evaluation system is composed of a balance of teachers and administrators, and it includes the teachers union president and me. I made a public commitment to our teachers that all of us working as administrators would work with them and grapple with them on the development of a teacher evaluation system that leads to professional growth.


Additional Resources

Defining and Supporting
School district leaders often use the term instructional leadership in conversation. But what does instructional leadership mean? Stephen Fink and Anneke Markholt, in their book Leading for Instructional Improvement, assert both good instruction and leading for instructional improvement should have a well-articulated purpose. For leaders to support instructional leadership, we must be able to articulate its meaning.

Meredith Honig, a University of Washington professor and researcher, defines instructional leadership as “involv[ing] principals working intensively and continuously with teachers to examine evidence of the quality of their teaching and to use that evidence to improve how they teach.” Such a clear definition leads to a discussion of how district leaders will support this leadership practice.

In Kelso, we adopted strategies outlined in the Wallace Foundation study “Central Office Transformation for District-wide Teaching and Learning Improvement” to support principals in their efforts as instructional leaders. This represented a fundamental shift in the work of principals as well as the relationship between key central-office administrators and principals.

While still a work in progress, these efforts to support instructional leadership involve two district administrators — in Kelso that includes me, the superintendent — who meet regularly with principals in order to assist in their efforts to improve instruction among their teachers. Working collaboratively on developing a professional development agenda for staff and conducting classroom walk-throughs together are just two examples of such practices.

An essential tool for leading instructional improvement is a comprehensive instructional framework. This is the starting point for school districts making systemwide improvements in instruction.

As superintendent, if I were to send the message that instructional improvement was the most important work of the district, then I needed to be a full participant in all relevant professional development. This is a departure from the practice of popping in and out of an in-service.

In addition, as district leaders in Kelso, we made a commitment to be visibly engaged in the practices that we expect our principals to demonstrate. Whether that is collecting classroom walk-through data or using outcome data in our own evaluations, it is important that we “walk the talk.”

Grounding Ourselves
In her book Transformative Professional Learning: A System to Enhance Teacher and Student Motivation, Margery Ginsberg outlines powerful strategies to support instructional improvement efforts. One such strategy is shadowing, which she describes as “the process of following a student through all or part of a school day to gain insight into what he or she experiences within the school setting.” I recently shadowed a middle school student, someone whom I would characterize as one on the downside of the achievement gap or a student at risk. It may have been the most powerful professional experience of my career.

What I discovered through the shadowing experience was nothing surprising on a cognitive level, that the quality of instruction experienced by the student, whom I’ll call Brandon, during that day varied immensely. Trying to put myself in Brandon’s shoes had an emotional impact for me, as I saw a child for whom school was not a place he felt connected with or competent in. As a result, he was not very engaged, particularly in settings where instruction was not of high quality. If we are to reach students like Brandon, we must do everything we can to provide high-quality, motivating instruction in every classroom, every day!

Shadowing Brandon grounded all my subsequent work and discussions on the improvement of instruction and gave me a renewed sense of urgency. I doubled my commitment to lead for learning.

A Cycle of Inquiry
How will we know if our hard work is paying off? Are we spending our time on the stuff that matters? As leaders of public institutions, school district administrators need to be able to answer those questions with confidence. In a system that is evidence-based, everyone from the classroom teachers to the superintendent needs to show evidence to back up claims that their work is making a difference.

Cycles of inquiry can take various forms, but most often they are time-bound cycles of action and research that begin with a problem of practice and lead to a theory of action and a plan for action. These steps are followed by implementation of the plan, an analysis of results and adjusting next steps based on those results. As former University of Washington professor Michael Copland points out, “We believe that the use of a cycle of inquiry perspective for guiding the improvement of teaching and learning helps leaders to see more clearly, reflect more deeply and act with greater certainty in service of all students’ learning.”

In Kelso, our beginning work with cycles of inquiry and supporting principals in their instructional leadership is making a difference. We are training principals and teachers to develop cycles of inquiry around their problems of practice related to the new teacher and principal evaluation work. In other words, teachers and principals will present the results of their cycles as part of their evaluation process.

By using cycles of inquiry throughout the system, we increase the likelihood that our professional development is embedded in practice and relevant to students’ success.

I sincerely believe public education holds the greatest promise for preserving and enhancing our democratic society. As leaders of learning, the responsibilities of superintendents are daunting. If we are purposeful about leading for learning, our staff and students will benefit and we will have systems that are supportive, learning organizations. I’ve planted my flag in Kelso, and I look forward to the path ahead.

Robert MacGregor is superintendent of the Kelso School District in Kelso, Wash. E-mail: rob.macgregor@kelso.wednet.edu


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