In a recent piece about the state of standards-based reform, Dale Chu weighs the benefits and challenges of a district “relinquishment” versus “instructional coherence” approach to improving student learning. Districts that pursue a strategy of relinquishment turn schools over to educators, embrace parent choice, and hold schools accountable in order to drive academic improvement. And those that pursue instructional coherence focus on the alignment of curricula, educator professional development, student assessments, and accountability systems to high academic standards.
As a former leader of both Louisiana’s Department of Education and its Recovery School District, which were both recognized nationally at the time for their innovative school reform efforts, including the process of New Orleans transitioning to an all-charter district, I’m a proponent of—and led the work on—the nation’s largest undertaking to devolve decision-making to the school level. I’ve seen firsthand that relinquishment and instructional coherence are not at odds with each other.
Relinquishment doesn’t cause incoherence
In each classroom in America, the teacher should be clear about what her students need to master by the end of the year, be equipped with the best-in-class curriculum and assessments needed to achieve that goal, and be trained on how to use these specific tools. The teacher builds a plan for her specific students using the curriculum to plan out her daily lessons and using the assessments to evaluate student progress and adjust course as necessary. This is instructional coherence, and for a student, this translates to a day-to-day experience that ensures they are ready for the next grade.
Yet most classrooms are not instructionally coherent, largely due to the way districts currently make academic decisions in any given school year. Each of these decisions, whether it’s about what instructional materials to purchase or how to observe and offer feedback to educators, are often made by individuals in different offices within a district and thus without consideration of other related decisions and without consideration of how these decisions will, together, play out in a classroom. The result is often a single teacher being provided one curriculum, three online supplements from different sources than the curriculum, two different formative assessments, training on a generic topic like differentiating instruction with no connection to the aforementioned tools, and observation and evaluation protocols that are entirely disconnected from an actual plan for student learning. Any teacher in such a circumstance would find it difficult to build a coherent plan of instruction for her students.
Louisiana as a model
Now more than ever, as the nation grapples with how to effectively recover from the massive amount of learning missed due to the pandemic, states have a responsibility to guide districts to do better by their teachers and students. States can focus districts on planning for the most critical academic decisions, budgeting for these decisions, and supporting school leaders and teachers to implement these decisions in service of their students.
In Louisiana, we identified and helped leaders in 500 schools most in need of improvement to plan, budget, and implement so more classrooms were led by a teacher with a clear vision for student learning, the curriculum and assessment tools to get there, and the training to use these specific tools in service of her students. And it worked. Louisiana saw shifts in teacher practice that translated to growth on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), putting Louisiana among the top ten states for growth on all four NAEP subjects over the past decade.
Specifically, Louisiana focused district planning around the most critical academic decisions by:
- Supporting districts on three critical choices that impact teachers: their choice of an English language arts and math curriculum, their choice of a formative assessment, and their choice of the vendor partners that would support professional development on these tools.
- Curating a marketplace of products and services aligned to these three decisions that elevated the best-in-class curricula, assessments, and professional development providers, from which districts could select supports most suited to their needs.
Louisiana focused district budgeting around the most critical academic decisions by:
- Replacing dozens of different applications for federal and state dollars with a single, simple instructional plan called the “Super App” that dramatically reduced administrative burden and distraction for districts and encouraged the alignment of funds from all of these grants to these three critical decisions.
- Awarding almost all competitive funding across all federal and state grants to supporting the purchase of products and services from the curated lists.
Louisiana focused district and school level implementation by:
- Hosting an annual teacher leader event that provided 7,000 teachers and school and district leaders with direct training from the vendors of their selected curricula and assessments.
- Redesigning classroom observation and feedback tools to focus on whether students were successfully mastering the tasks within the curriculum that represented grade-level achievement, thus ensuring school leaders were focusing their teacher support on the use of coherent curricula and assessments throughout the school year.
- Redirecting the agency’s district-facing staff to use these observation and feedback tools in school walk-throughs in partnership with school leaders across the identified schools.
- Celebrating the schools and districts that made strong choices, even supplying the language for districts to use in local press releases to celebrate their own progress.
Those efforts in Louisiana resulted in almost every one of these 500 schools voluntarily changing their approach to curriculum, assessment, and teacher support. And because our state’s efforts provided focus on district planning, budgeting, and all the way down to classroom level implementation, the state saw significant changes in classroom practice.
Beyond the Pelican State
Now these ideas are being replicated across the nation. A recent study shows that a network of states has increased the adoption and use of high-quality instructional materials through state-level incentives. Virginia, in an effort to boost literacy rates, recently passed a bipartisan instructional coherence bill requiring all K–3 teachers to be equipped with curricula, assessments, and professional learning aligned to reading research by 2025. And the Texas Education Agency used a single application, the Texas COVID Learning Acceleration Supports grant, to distribute $1.4 billion in ESSER funds to districts with coherent academic recovery plans.
What’s more: Louisiana encouraged districts to embrace an instructional coherence strategy while still allowing for educator autonomy, parent choice, and strong accountability at the local level. In New Orleans, which became the first system of only public charter schools in the decade following Hurricane Katrina, relinquishment led to immediate and dramatic improvements in student assessment proficiency, on-time high school graduation rates, and college enrollment. But when test scores there plateaued, as neighboring districts experienced academic growth, most charter leaders opted for the state’s strategy, lending credence to the value of instructional coherence done in tandem with district relinquishment. Because even when a district relinquishes control to educators, the educators are still faced with making the same instructional decisions as those within traditional school systems.
Instructional coherence may be hard, but incoherence will not lead to more student learning. Our country’s varied school governance systems sometimes put instructional decisions in the hands of the district and sometimes in the hands of a school leader. Regardless of who is making the instructional decisions, states should set the stage—with the establishment of rigorous standards, the identification of quality services and materials, and the provision of funding and support districts and schools need—and let excellent educators select and use those quality tools to their students’ benefit. It’s not a trendy reform. It’s what works.