Part 1 of 2
Principals responded brilliantly (and at great risk to their own well-being) to the chaos of the three school years beginning with 2019–20. They have shown themselves to be superb leaders by deploying resources where they were needed, even when the resources were scant; maintaining relationships with parents, even when the parents were, let’s say, not in a relationship-building mood; and keeping schools ready to open or shut their doors on a moment’s notice. They’ve been absolutely heroic.
Of course there’s always a cost to operating, even operating well, in chaos mode, and the cost for students has been that the focus on instructional consistency that was a work in progress at the time the pandemic struck will be hard to resuscitate. For more than two decades, researchers and communities have been telling principals that they must be not just managers, but instructional leaders as well (Grissom et al., 2021; Marzano et al., 2001). The skills they relied on to keep schools alive were drawn almost entirely from the managerial side of that ledger. Without deriding this accomplishment in any way, we do now need to recognize that principals may be out of practice on the instructional side, and help them get back to it. Instructional consistency is what we should all be pulling for.
“Consistency” may seem like an odd word to use at a time when so much has changed, for so many, so fast, but that’s exactly why we’re using it here in Deer Valley Unified in Phoenix. Often, leadership is portrayed as an iconoclastic struggle against conformity. “Disruptors” and “innovators” are lionized in the business press; there’s probably never been a Harvard Business Review case study about some guy in a gray suit who just wanted everything to stay the same. But of course that’s not what we mean by consistency. We mean creating the conditions for every teacher to be able to focus on the needs of every student, every day. Instructional consistency is a precondition for educational equity. This does not mean that every teacher does the same things, but, rather, that we are all striving to accomplish the same things.
To start at the beginning, every school should have a moral purpose, and everyone in that school should be able to articulate it. I (Kent) start PD sessions for school leaders by asking everyone to tell me their school’s or district’s mission, vision, and values, and a lot of them have to open their laptops to look it up. If school leaders can’t say why they do what they do, we can hardly expect teachers, or for that matter students, to be able to.
So the big picture is one form of consistency that school leaders should promote. Another is the more mundane, but no less important, realm of policies and procedures. What, exactly, do we do when a student misbehaves, or a teacher calls in and there’s no sub, or a fire door is persistently left open, or a student has multiple or long-term absences? Good habits need to be developed so that when routines are disrupted (by, say, a public health emergency) we have a basis for modifying them in ways that keep instruction happening.
As we write, districts nationwide are responding to Covid contacts (that is, students who must stay home not because they’re sick, but because someone close to them is) in many different ways so I’ll (Gayle) just describe how we’re handling the situation in my district in a way that prioritizes instruction. In planning for 2020–21, still shell-shocked from the sudden shutdown of 2019–21, we decided not to purchase off-the-shelf courses and instead use our LMS platform that let us create our own K–12 courses with our own Board-adopted text and curricular resources. Teachers are now responsible for keeping their online courses updated. In this way, we can ensure our “brick and mortar” kids and their “remote” classmates are seeing the same content and being held to the same rigor and expectations. Our district’s educators—not an anonymous software developer—are fully in charge of defining educational objectives and holding ourselves accountable for helping students meet them.
Now, there’s a cloud to this silver lining, which is that some of our teachers have enjoyed creating their online courses so much that they’re using them with students in the brick and mortar schools, which wasn’t what we intended. Still, amid the range of problems we could be having, this is a pretty good one to have. It shows that teachers get the importance of instructional consistency and are committed to meeting the needs of all students. We’re going to continue to refine our in-house system for 2022–23 because we think there may be one more year of Covid-related disruptions in store.
Next week: Regaining instructional consistency requires more than technology.
Kent Davis, consulting director of learning services at McREL International, is a former associate superintendent at Deer Valley.