Making data-informed decisions for your students isn’t easy, especially on the scale of a school district or charter network. It takes building approaches and models grounded in shared mindsets and tools, which can grow a strong ecosystem where everyone understands both the why and the how of equitable education. It takes coherence.
Educators can vary on their definitions of coherence–for our shared understanding, we’ll define coherence as alignment with clarity on a priority across levels of your district. It’s ensuring each school and the district leadership are working towards a goal in the same manner, with the same outcome in mind. Coherence is the key to making data actionable.
If you’ve ever thought:
I need to improve the quality of instruction across schools. I want to see greater alignment across schools in this area.
My team is not confident about the quality of our current curricula but is hesitant to adopt something new.
My leadership team and I have questions about the alignment, quality, purpose, and number of our current assessments.
You’re not alone. These are common concerns we hear from educational leaders across the country about their schools. All of these thoughts boil down to creating coherence across a priority, whether that priority is curriculum adoption and implementation, instructional practices, or assessment strategy. If you’re investing time and energy into the work, you want scaleable impact. But how?
How to create coherence across a school district or system
“I honestly believe without ANet's partnership and guidance to district-level decision-making around the implementation of the curriculum that we would not have seen the gains that we actually experienced. With our desire to implement high-quality curriculum the Achievement Network's partnership really focused on leadership coaching and acclimating our leaders to if you're annotating lesson plans or taking teachers through that process what's the role of the leader, and ANet really brought that expertise not only to the school level leadership but also to the district level leadership.”.
-Assistant Superintendent, Louisiana.
Achieving alignment across your schools is no easy task. If any of the earlier bullet points resonated with you, then you have an idea and a vision for where you’d like your district or systems work to go. Let’s take a look at three of the common problems from above and what coherence could look like for those challenges.
- I need to improve the quality of instruction across schools. I want to see greater coherence across schools in this area. Every school leader in my district has the same understanding of what quality of instruction looks like and receives ongoing professional development to strengthen this muscle.
- My team is not confident about the quality of our current curricula but are not sure if it’s time to adopt something new. My team created a criteria to evaluate our current curricula based on understanding of standards and state requirements with input from our parents and community. We adopted something new and were able to plan a smooth implementation because of the structures we built in the evaluation phase.
- My leadership team and I have questions about the alignment, quality, purpose, and number of our current assessments. My leadership team gathered input from our staff across our schools about the number of assessments and what data they gleaned from each assessment.
“When we analyzed standards and rigor that was where we kind of had this a-ha around - if you have all of those things but don't have rigor, you can't have equity. And so here, we talked about that rigor is equity.”
-Executive Director of Schools, Washington
If you’re thinking ‘that sounds great, so how can I get there?’ here are some suggestions to start building your structure to achieve coherence.
Gather a team of diverse perspectives and a breadth of department representation in your district or system. Make sure your meetings are aligned in purpose and unified in your understanding of the priority at hand.
Narrow your focus. One of the most difficult aspects of being an educator is the numerous competing priorities across the district. The best way to help create sustainable change is to focus on incremental change across a period of time. Remember, quality not quantity.
Gather input. Chances are, a wide amount of internal and external stakeholders have perspective and investment into your priority. Whether it’s through a survey or focus groups, give opportunities for teachers, leaders, parents, community members, and students to give feedback.
Gain a unified understanding of what data you’re gathering, your methods of data collection, what each data point should point to, and how you plan to use the data you get.
Align on your district’s values and methods to support your students. For example, if you have a large bilingual population in your system and its part of your values to support biliteracy within your district, your methods to support students could be prioritizing trans-adapted assessments and true cultural pedagogy.
Dig deep into the standards and what rigor looks like in your district. What does a rigorous, standards-aligned curriculum look like for your students?
To help move the work forward or gain additional insight into your goals, you may decide to move forward with a trusted partner. We call these folks coaches or system-level coaches at ANet, and it all boils down to job-embedded support that can fill in the gaps in your work and help guide the process. Together, you and your ANet coach begin to create a foundation for the work and build structures to create a sustainable impact. Our team brings a wealth of experience and resources to pair best practices with your practices.
“The ANet partnership has evolved over the several years that we have worked together. I think originally it started simply as thinking about what it looks like to analyze data, and the support of coaches in buildings working with both leaders and teachers in doing that data analysis and how to reteach specific skills or standards from there. I think now we're at a spot where we're thinking primarily around what do the standards mean, what do they tell us, what does complex text look like as well as making sure that our first teaches are of higher quality. So really using that assessment proactively instead of reactively in order to move student achievement forward.”.
-Assistant Superintendent of Teaching and Learning, New York.
The most difficult part of creating district or systemwide coherence is twofold: First, often when you begin the work to tackle something like districtwide instructional materials or systemwide assessment strategy, you start to uncover other fractures or messes within that present unforeseen barriers to your work (and often become the next focus for your goals and priorities); and second, the other parts of your job and the urgency and immediacy that is sometimes infused into your role doesn’t stop because you’re working on this project. It’s not easy work that can get resolved quickly.
Creating coherence across multiple schools is a multi-step, often multi-year process. One of the best ways to help combat these potential roadblocks is to operate with a long-term, assets-based mindset. Reframe roadblocks as new information to help move your work forward and think about what you can learn. This is where a trusted partner like an ANet system services coach can add the most value. They can help keep the work steady while you momentarily step away, and then help bring you back to the work when the fire is put out.
How coherence can help you find more meaningful student data
“I definitely see a shift in how we talk about standards. And how we talk about data. And so we, have, I think all of the schools have thought about data-driven instruction in meaningful ways but having an assessment, having a thought partner on the table like I feel like our conversations have gotten a lot richer because our ANet partners really push us, they - you know we start with a test, they make us students first, you know, and so they put us in a space where we can be learners before we are leaders. And as a result of that our capacity continues to grow.”.
-Chief Academic Officer, Charter Network in Michigan
Coherence across your schools and in your administration office can promote clarity and direction in your priorities. Whether you were seeking clarity on your curriculum, instructional materials, assessment, or a specific inequity that your students face, the work you’ve done to identify the barrier and work collaboratively to move forward helps you narrow your focus on the most important pieces of information needed. Creating coherence can help eliminate bias when analyzing why a student may or may not be progressing, and help everyone on your team know how to translate data into action.
Let’s return to our earlier examples of coherence. With alignment across teams and schools, decision-making can shift. Here are a few examples from our earlier scenarios of what you could do now that you have coherent structures in place.
- I need to improve the quality of instruction across schools. I want to see greater coherence across schools in this area. Every school leader in my district has the same understanding of what quality of instruction looks like and receives ongoing professional development to strengthen this muscle. Now, we can conduct collaborative teacher observations with the understanding observations are for support and growth.
- My team is not confident about the quality of our current curricula but are not sure if it’s time to adopt something new. My team created a criteria to evaluate our current curricula based on understanding of standards and state requirements with input from our parents and community. We adopted something new and were able to plan a smooth implementation because of the structures we built in the evaluation phase. Now, we’re able to use our interim assessments to see how well our students understand the standards taught.
- My leadership team and I have questions about the alignment, quality, purpose, and number of our current assessments. My leadership team gathered input from our staff across our schools about the number of assessments and what data they gleaned from each assessment. Now, every level in our system knows the purpose of each assessment we give to our students, and we know which data points we can glean from each assessment and how to put the data into action.
As you can see, coherence and actionable data go hand-in-hand: one piece can’t happen sustainably without the other in place. Once you’ve done the work to unify and make sure everyone in every building knows what they’re doing, why they’re doing it, and how to get there, the work to make data-informed decisions can happen collaboratively and with the most benefit for your students. Coherence is the difference between a group moving in different directions and a unified force moving forward toward one person.
Creating coherence is multi-faceted and takes continuous trust and collaboration. The work may be long, but the positive impact on your students will be felt. You have all the tools to start the work at your fingertips. We can’t wait to see what you do!