Toby A. Travis, EdD
4 Essential Areas of Leader Involvement in the Nuts & Bolts of a School
[The following is an excerpt from Chapter 4 of “TrustED: The Bridge to School Improvement” by Dr. Toby A. Travis, reprinted with permission.]
School leaders provide the Bearings for the bridge to school improvement, decreasing stress, and controlling movement when directly involved in designing and implementing curriculum, instruction, and assessment practices. These are the nuts and bolts of operating a school.
Questions to Drive School Improvement
One means of ensuring that improvements in CIA are driven by the school’s mission, vision, and values is for school leaders to invite their team to answer questions such as:
What are the primary objectives of the school’s existence?
What are the desired characteristics of our graduates?
How does our school distinguish itself uniquely from others?
By clearly identifying the school’s focus and purpose, leaders can then address the design, development, and improvement of its CIA practices. School leaders need to know where they are going and establish CIA programs and practices that support unified schoolwide priorities and goals.
By clearly identifying the characteristics of what the school hopes to see realized in their graduates, school leaders can lead a universal design process in their curriculum. They begin by clarifying the knowledge, skills, and competencies expected of their graduates, then utilize a backward design approach to the development of the CIA.
By clearly identifying how the school distinguishes itself from other schools, school leaders assist their teams in articulating the school’s unique selling proposition (USP). Every trusted business or product has a distinct USP. Here are a few very famous examples:
Avis: We are number two; we try harder.
FedEx: When it absolutely, positively has to be there overnight.
M&Ms: The milk chocolate melts in your mouth, not in your hand.
Domino’s Pizza: You get fresh, hot pizza delivered to your door in 30 minutes or less, or it's free.
For schools, this work needs to be borne out within the CIA of the school. For example, if a school’s USP is “connecting learning to real life,” then that branding needs to be integrated into as much of the CIA as possible; determining the teaching objectives and standards, shaping the instructional methods, and ensuring assessments are connected to skills and knowledge attached to life examples. Otherwise, the USP is not authentic and will work to decrease trust levels. Schools must be genuine in the pursuit of their mission and vision. Here are a few examples of excellent USPs for schools:
Orange County Public Schools: Leading students to success.
Sarasota Learning Cottage: Where love and learning meet.
San Antonio Christian School: Boldly Christian. Undeniably academic.
Blake School: Leaders are made, not born.
Chadwick International School: Think. Do. Lead.
The Raleigh School: Designed with your child in mind.
Note that each of the USPs above addresses a perceived need of the families they wish to attract. Parents want their children to succeed, love learning, be bold in their faith and yet academically challenged, become a leader, be a thinker and a doer, and learn in an environment that recognizes their unique learning style and differences. Also, note that all of these USPs are short and easy to memorize and foster a positive emotion (e.g., success, love, boldness, compassion).
School leaders must ensure that their school’s USP is authentically supported throughout CIA practices. When schools can clearly articulate their USP and authentically support the fulfillment of their proposition, they are trusted.
Areas of Leader Involvement
In many schools, teachers develop the curriculum. However, few teachers possess a formal background and training in curriculum design. One national study concluded that schools must "dedicate time during each term of the school calendar to conduct massive in-service programs if teachers are to make a genuine impact in the curriculum development process" (Ramparsad, 2006). Other studies, which focused on language and science curriculum development, concluded that significant amounts of training are necessary for teachers to be expected to function successfully as curriculum developers (Shawer, 2010).
Teachers certainly have a significant role in developing and improving a school's curriculum design, but only when accompanied by substantial amounts of PD, which also actively involves school leaders.
School leaders develop higher levels of trust and ensure mission-centered school improvement when they are active in the following elements of CIA design:
1. Identifying Aims and Objectives
CIA objectives must align with the school's clearly understood and well-defined mission, vision, beliefs, and values. Leaders and teachers must possess a clear picture of the desired results before designing and implementing the CIA. Identifying clear desired outcomes is known and understood as the essential first step in backward design. Grant Wiggins refers to this as Stage 1 in his now-classic work Understanding by Design.
In Stage 1, schools consider their goals, examine established content standards (national, state, district), and review curriculum expectations. They must make choices because, typically, they have more content than they can address within the available time. This first stage in the design process calls for clarity about priorities. (Wiggins and McTighe, 2005)
2. Ensuring the Design of Authentic Assessments
School leaders need to ensure that assessments authentically measure student mastery of the curriculum’s aims and objectives. Unfortunately, one of the common pedagogical blunders made by inexperienced teachers and curriculum writers is first creating course content, followed by identifying a means to assess content mastery. That is the proverbial putting the cart before the horse. First, identify the learning outcomes. Second, identify how the learning will be assessed. And, third, design the course content and instructional strategies.
Assessments must have the ability to measure whether or not objectives are being met…not if a student can memorize and regurgitate a catalog of information. In addition, assessments need to demonstrate that students understand how to use their learning and apply it in their world. Thus, course assessments need to be focused on the application of knowledge and information to real life. In addition, assessment grades should be viewed as a communication tool about the learning process and not as compensation for memorizing and producing information.
3. Safeguarding Meaningful Engagement
School leaders need to ensure that teachers and curriculum coordinators continually reaffirm that subject content and learning experiences engage students in meaningful ways. Since we live in an information age, it is far more critical that course content and learning activities be utilized as illustrative material to support key concepts or major learning outcomes. Concept-driven course design is far more valuable to students than a content-driven course – teaching how to master the course content rather than merely what to master.
Course content in every subject area will always expand and change. As a result, learning activities and teaching strategies are vast and numerous. For example, if a modern world history teacher attempts to build a content-based curriculum identifying the significance of every major event since 1500, they must expand course content every year. The limited amount of course time forces the teacher to make choices about the content to include.
The selection of course content and the learning activities are best made by first identifying the essential competencies students must master in light of the school's core mission, vision, beliefs, and values. Then, once schools recognize these major learning concepts, it is a matter of aligning content and learning activities, identifying real-life applications to support the curriculum, instruction, and assessment of those concepts.
4. Evaluating and Reviewing
Finally, school leaders build trust by their direct involvement in the ongoing evaluation and review of the CIA. School leaders need to ensure that every department of the school benefits from an established, systemized, purposeful, and intentional practice of evaluation and review of course contents, learning experiences, delivery methods, and assessments. It is truer today than in any preceding generation. Schools must continuously evaluate whether the learning outcomes of any given course meet the needs of the current generation of students. In addition, teachers must do their best to teach to the future, answering the question, "How will this course prepare students for life in the years to come?"
If leaders separate themselves from direct involvement in these school details, they distance themselves from its core function. Nevertheless, in many schools where the leader is absorbed with administrative tasks, their workdays are spent primarily in the business office. When school leaders leave the true business of the school in the hands of teachers and staff entirely, they are perceived as disconnected, and their level of trust diminishes. In addition, when administrators place the burden of CIA practices on others, they are perceived as insensitive to the faculty and staff workload (Droogenbroeck et al., 2014).
Many teachers feel inadequate with curriculum design and resent the responsibility as additional and other than their teaching responsibilities. Assigning curriculum design to teachers untrained in curriculum design frequently results in burnout, low levels of retention, and a low-quality curriculum. Thus, many school leaders employ curriculum coordinators as their representatives to guide, lead, manage, and ensure that teacher involvement in the process is present, valued, and balanced. For those schools who are financially unable to staff such a position, it must be an expected responsibility and duty of department chairs and principals to protect the workloads of their teachers and involve the faculty in meaningful ways.
When school leaders demonstrate their involvement in the nuts and bolts of the school, they can make continual small adjustments toward school improvement while at the same time minimizing the stress associated with the needed changes. They provide the Bearings for the bridge to school improvement and, in so doing, develop a greater level of trust.
Authored by Toby A. Travis, Ed.D. © SchoolRIGHT, LLC., unless otherwise specified. All rights reserved.