Figuring out how to sustain improvements in teaching and learning across an entire school system — especially over an extended period of time — is one of the most difficult challenges education leaders face.
The story of how Washington’s Blaine School District took up that challenge and found success bolstering student engagement and achieving measurable gains in learning is the subject of a new video podcast with the University of Washington Center for Educational Leadership’s Max Silverman and Joanna Michelson. Silverman, executive director, and Michelson, director of teacher leadership and learning, discuss how CEL partnered with Blaine to help the district develop a shared vision for instructional improvement — and to equip Blaine’s principals and other instructional leaders with the tools to aid teachers in their professional growth.
The partnership between CEL and Blaine started four years ago with work to identify the most pressing problems facing students and then develop the structures needed to create a strong culture of adult collaboration.
“It’s pretty clear across the country that students will have no different of a learning experience than teachers,” Silverman said, “and teachers will have no different of a learning experience than their leaders. So when we speak of helping folks develop cultures of rigorous teaching, learning and leading, what we’re learning is if we really want to see schools where students are engaged in what lots of folks are calling deeper learning — where students are thinking, problem solving, owning their own work, getting to inquire into things they’re interested in and curious about — then the professional culture for teachers needs to be the same. They need to learn in ways and work in ways where they’re problem solvers and thinkers, just like they want their students to be.”
Michelson and Silverman said that among the leadership dispositions enacted in Blaine to drive instructional improvement were:
- Maintaining focus
- Getting close to students to learn how efforts are working
- Challenging beliefs of adults
- Investing deeply in teacher capacity building
- Giving each other grace to be vulnerable with each other
- Establishing a vision for teaching and learning
“[Blaine’s] leaders, over the years, have developed a much more calibrated vision for powerful instruction,” Michelson said. “The leaders know how to set conditions for teachers to learn together and collaborate with one another. They’ve opened classrooms at the leadership level so they observe one another’s leadership in response to teaching.”
Michelson and Silverman also discussed the recently released findings of a national study exploring the impact of principal professional learning; CEL was a partner in study, providing professional development to over a two-year period to a group of principals spread across eight school districts.
While the study didn’t find a link between the principal professional development and student achievement outcomes, Silverman noted that the design of the study meant the professional development provided to principals was disconnected from broader school and district goals and from principals’ supervisors.
“Without that support and encouragement and accountability, it’s really hard for somebody to go do that work of changing their instructional leadership practices,” he said. “So we’re really curious about that condition and how it differs from how we work in our day-to-day partnerships with a full partnership of central office and principals together.”
Another takeaway from the study, Michelson said, was the importance of focusing on problems of student learning as the driver of efforts to improve instruction.
“Those need to be named and owned by the people closest to the work, the teachers,” Michelson said. “Leaders need to develop ways for teachers to surface these problems of practice that are solvable.”
Read more about CEL’s partnership with Blaine School District in the latest edition of the UW College of Education's Research That Matters magazine.
Max Silverman, Executive Director, Center for Educational Leadership
Joanna Michelson, Director of Teacher Leadership and Learning, Center for Educational Leadership
Dustin Wunderlich, Director of Marketing and Communications