Magazine article The Learning Professional

From Theory to Action

Magazine article The Learning Professional

From Theory to Action

Article excerpt

While teachers face new expec- tations for student learning and more equitable educa- tional outcomes, instruction and assessment remain rooted in traditional approaches that are largely inequitable, cul- turally irrelevant, and intellectually disengaging, contribut- ing to gaps in academic achievement across student groups (Darling-Hammond, 2010; King & Bouchard, 2011).

The quality of teaching is the most important school- related factor influencing student learning and more equitable outcomes (Elmore, 2004; Leithwood, Louis, Anderson, & Wahlstrom, 2004). But many current re- form initiatives - high-stakes accountability, school clos- ings and turnarounds, charter and voucher schools, teacher evaluations and pay based on student performance - do not engage directly with critical tasks of building capacity for improved teaching.

In an urban high school in the Midwest, however, principal and teacher leadership that promotes collabora- tion among staff results in teacher learning to strengthen the instructional core.

One of four comprehensive high schools in Madison, Wisconsin, La Follette serves about 1,500 students. As Madison's demographics changed dramatically between 2000 and 2013, so did La Follette's, shifting from largely white and middle class to 50% students of color and 50% economically disadvantaged students.

With some of the lowest annual student achievement results in the district, a perception among staff that stu- dents' poverty and low skills, as well as disengaged families, were more potent than any teacher's impact led to a sense of futility.

La Follette teachers came to work every day, often ex- cited about their content and feeling some affection for students, but left at the end of the day deflated by a sense that their best efforts were ineffective and unappreciated by students, their families, or the system in which they worked.

The transformation of La Follette High School - from a losing-ground institution to a model for other educators and for university researchers who study school improve- ment - is attributable to the coalescence of distributed instructional leadership around three essentials of strong professional learning communities: a focus on learning, collaborative culture, and results orientation.

Today, staff members increasingly concentrate on the implications of their actions for student learning - on knowing their impact (Hattie, 2012). Administrative and teacher leadership is evolving as it is enacted, promoting enhanced adult learning that fosters improved classroom practices and increased student achievement results.

La Follette's progress and lessons learned along the way are relevant for educators seeking to implement meaningful reforms. Central elements for La Follette's growth include:

* A small team of learning leaders that includes the prin- cipal;

* Key adults to lead the work in groups; and

* Schoolwide systems, grounded in a theory of action, to strengthen the instructional core.


Administrator and teacher leaders, partnering to plan and implement schoolwide work, are critical. La Follette's principal and instructional coaches plan, facilitate, and participate in professional learning alongside the school's staff of nearly 200.

Schools that most effectively close achievement gaps have a principal who "views teaching as a continuous learn- ing endeavor and models this by participating in and/or by facilitating professional development on-site" (Brown, Benkovitz, Muttillo, & Urban, 2011, p. 75). La Follette's culture has improved through the principal's participation in learning with teachers, his frequent classroom visits, and his ownership of the school's theory of action.

La Follette's leaders understand the value of multiple staff groups working toward the same outcome - purposeful in- struction to increase student achievement. Together, they work strategically with assistant principals, department chairs, and in- novative teacher leaders in four integrated teams (see table above). …

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