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Listening in: Some dialogue from the Instructional Partners Learning Network

March 12, 2012 | Tags: instructional partners, secondary
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by Cathy Gassenheimer
I'm constantly awed by the insights and great ideas being shared by the educators who participate in the Instructional Partners Learning Network. You may recall (I wrote about it here recently) that IPLN is the online learning community where we engage daily with 13 school-based teacher coaches who are serving as "volunteers" in the ALSDE's instructional coaching PD pilot.
I thought I'd give you a small sample of the rich conversation going in our private IP social networking space.  
During some planning last month with ABPC consultant Jackie Walsh, I was reviewing some comments by one of my favorite education authors, Michael Fullan, the school leadership expert. He was actually quoting from another one of education reform's great thinkers, Richard Elmore, whose co-authored book on the Instructional Rounds process has meant so much to ABPC's work and the change efforts of teachers and school leaders in the Powerful Conversations & Key Leaders Networks.
Fullan was discussing strategies necessary for turning around an underperforming school. Here's the excerpt that struck me as very, very insightful:
Elmore goes so far as to say that 'internal accountability precedes external accountability and is a precondition for any process of improvement' (2004, p. 114). Schools do not 'succeed' in responding to external cues or pressures unless they have their own internal system for reaching agreement evident in organization and pedagogy…These schools have a clear, strong internal focus on issues of instruction, student learning, and expectations for teacher and student performance. In academia we call this a strong internal accountability system. By this we mean that there is a high degree of alignment among individual teachers about what they can do and about their responsibility for the improvement of student learning. Such schools also have shared expectations among teachers, administrators, and students about what constitutes good work and a set of processes for observing whether these expectations are being met." (p. 14).
I knew from reading the weekly reflections of our IPLN participants that they were focusing on the very things Elmore emphasizes here. So I started a discussion thread in our VLC with this question: What role do you see "internal accountability" playing in your school's continuous improvement process? Their replies total more than 3600 words! Here is just a bit of what they had to say.
(We've agreed on a no-names policy when we share parts of our private chat. And it will help you to know that the "instructional target" discussed in some of the quotes grows out of coaching expert Jim Knight's work. You can hear him talk about it here or read this review of his book Unmistakable Impact.)
"This is basically our PD focus for our next morning faculty session. We are coming up with our internal expectations. My principal and I (are) VERY excited to have all of our faculty together to determine what quality instruction looks like. We want a true "in the trenches" view, not just what the administrators and the instructional partner says defines quality instruction."
"I believe internal accountability definitely supersedes external accountability. One must make a conscious effort to be accountable to oneself before depending on the accountability measures of external forces. One of my favorite quotes sum up this notion by stating, “Character is doing the right thing when nobody's looking." Why should one have to wait for standardized testing scores, NCLB laws, etc. to hold us accountable before there is a need for change to occur? I am a firm believer that if one does everything it takes to ensure that he/she has done his/her part (without outside pressures), external accountability won’t cause the 'heartburn' and stress that it has for so many educators across America."
"I completely believe that Internal Accountability makes the difference. We are seeing this in the shifts we are making, and I believe the Instructional Target being in place keeps this accountability in check with our beliefs, vision, and mission. Our PD is completely changing, and we are looking to BE SURE we make an IMPACT with every session we present. (As IPs) we have to be accountable as well-- for the level of teachers' professional development!
"Most of our secondary schools are doing turn-around training...much of which is based on our PD with the ABPC Powerful Conversations and Key Leaders networks. At our high school, we've asked teachers to reflect on the alignment of their learning targets, instructional tasks, and assessment. In departments, teachers will sort their targets into knowledge, reasoning, product, and performance targets as well as their own targets which they are bringing with them to determine the rigor and expectations the targets represent. I agree that the internal expectations are most important. Learning begins and ends with teachers in the trenches. Monitoring what you expect is so important and building on this is how true change happens.  I always remind myself that teachers are operating and reacting at the level of their professional development."
"I love the statement, 'Teachers are operating and reacting at the level of their professional development.' I also have to remind myself of this powerful truth. We have our teacher and student expectations but need to go deeper with the bigger picture. And we need to determine goals based on district trends, not just at the school level."
"When people buy in, then you have Internal Accountability. People that don't have interest in the instructional target or a part in the development of the target will not have Internal Accountability. Involvement of all leads to interest and to internal accountability."
"I think 'internal accountability' plays a big role in the continuous improvement process at (our elementary school). Our teachers hold high expectations for our students and want to see them succeed. As a faculty we created our instructional target together focusing on what we already had in place and the needs of the students in our school. Keep in mind that this was created by the teachers themselves. Many times teachers are given too many things to focus on and become overwhelmed and shut down the same way our students do. This year we have really stuck to one topic (Formative Assessments) and have built upon that throughout the year.  The teachers seemed more focused and confident in teaching their students to mastery."
"We have worked extremely hard this year keeping all of our PD focused and cohesive. Within your original post the piece regarding a "high degree of alignment" struck a cord with me.  One way this has been possible at (our elementary school) was with the process of developing the one-page instructional target. This process has taken a very long time to finalize. However, I believe that the process brought alignment to our school like never before. Every teacher was part of the process and had voice in the final product. Also, I believe that peer coaching is a key piece of the puzzle to continuing the development of a faculty with that high degree of alignment."
"At (our middle school), we began our year by introducing strategic teaching. We had expert strategic-teaching teachers for each core subject in place. Because teachers are at different stages in their professional growth, we did not want to offend anyone who already knew how to teach strategically so we implemented 3 phases and allowed teachers to go at their own pace while setting an expectation for ALL teachers to become experts in engaging with the text and/or content “during” instruction first semester. It became like a disease!  Teachers all over the building started catching it. The administrators and I started hearing conversations about instruction in the hallway, the bus stop, the car line, etc. By the time second semester rolled around, only a few teachers needed to be nudged to get on our boat (and paddle in the same direction as the rest of us). We had the “critical mass” of the faculty in place."
"I completely agree that 'internal accountability' is more powerful than 'external.' I think (our elementary school) has successfully started that shift. We spent a lot of time allowing teachers to have input on our Instructional targets. We then took "OUR" target and put them directly into our CIP.  In years past, our CIP was something that our CIP team created. This year's CIP is "OUR" CIP (and) I feel that our teachers understand and use the CIP. Our grade level teams have created more specific targets for each grade. This truly made it their own. I feel that the teachers feel more focused and sure of what they are going to achieve this year."
"The shared leadership within our school, our one-page target, and embedded professional development all contribute to us having a focus on quality instruction, student leaning, and expectations for teacher and student performance. Teachers collaborate daily in conversations as well as during grade level team meetings and data meetings on curriculum, instruction, and assessments. Having a common language and shared understanding about best practices puts everyone on the same page, creates a collaborative culture, and internal accountability.  My principal asked various teachers across grade levels and subjects  to share at faculty meetings strategies their using in their classrooms.  Many teachers are highlighted for providing quality instruction. In a culture that permeates with quality, a mediocre teacher isn’t going to feel comfortable in the minority."
"I LOVE the story of the principal asking select teachers to share effective instructional practices. I am going to encourage my principal to do the same. He is on his journey to becoming the instructional leader of our school. I agree with your last statement... In a culture that permeates with quality, a mediocre teacher isn’t going to feel comfortable in the minority." VERY POWERFUL.

(You can also hear the Instructional Partners talk about their pilot program in this video!)
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