7 steps for sustaining reform: relentless focus on a single goal is key to long-term improvement of instruction

7 steps for sustaining reform: relentless focus on a single goal is key to long-term improvement of instruction – education, United States

Nancy L. Akhavan

Given the current emphasis on student achievement, many principals have implemented some type of reform strategy. As schools continue with reform efforts, these instructional leaders must focus on two key elements simultaneously: improving student achievement and sustaining the reform effort. The following seven steps focused and sustained reform efforts at Hanford Elementary School District over the past two years and hold promise to other schools seeking a map to improved instruction.

1 Choose a goal. The principal focuses on one goal in relation to the improvement of instruction. By focusing on a single goal, the leadership team and the teachers have a clear focus and unifying vision. The goal is communicated and discussed at staff meetings, during professional development and at district-level meetings.

Professional development is delivered to improve instruction around the specific area that the goal targets. The principal weaves the goal throughout the school from agendas to accountability expectations, creating a laser-like vision around what is important.

Together the staff outlines how to measure progress toward the goal and chooses a benchmark. The benchmark states what the student work should look like when the goal is reached. The staff decides which assessments will measure progress and routinely discusses progress, barriers to reaching the goal, and successes a long the way (Schmoker, 1999).

The goal states what the instructional improvement will be, when it will be measured, and how it will tested. Last year one school in Hanford Elementary School District wrote this goal around reading instruction: By May 25, there will be a 30 percent increase students meeting grade-level standard in reading measured by the DRA (Developmental Reading Assessment) or Lit Conn (Literature Connection) assessment.

The staff measured reading achievement during the year with Running Records and other informal reading assessments. The staff regularly met to discuss improvements in student achievement related to the goal and outlined their needs in professional development.

2 Believe in the goal. The principal has to be the leader and role model of the instructional change. Ugo Betti (1946) wrote in the play “Struggle Till Dawn,” “When you believe in something you also have to believe in everything that’s necessary for believing in it.” Instructional leaders will find this easier said than done, but will need to make it a mantra.

The principal has to believe in the goal enough to make tough decisions and move forward in regard to uncomfortable situations. If the principal waivers in diligence, vision or confidence in the goal, the focus on instruction by teachers and support staff will waiver.

The principal concentrates on ensuring reform efforts continue in the school. He or she must believe in the reform plan and everything that is necessary for believing in it. Changing instructional practice is difficult. To continue reform efforts, the principal needs emotional resolve to deal with the myriad situations that could derail efforts.

The principal must communicate effectively two components: why it is important to set a goal that can be measured with student work, and how goal setting will lead to improved instruction and student achievement. At Lee Richmond School in Hanford Elementary School District, the principal led the staff through a series of meetings on goal-setting. The staff developed the goal and then a plan for meeting the goal.

Many times the teachers would come to the meetings frustrated and feeling defeated because many of the students were not reading at the expected benchmark levels. Instead of giving up on the goal, or making excuses for the results, the principal and teachers brainstormed barriers and solutions for student achievement.

The principal gave the staff hope by never changing the expectation that the students would reach the academic levels that the staff had written into the goal.

3 Begin with the end in mind. To continue the change efforts the principal needs to develop a plan incorporating district standards and organizational change theory. The plan is a map that looks more like a construction schedule. What is constructed is adult learning. All of the staff development that teachers receive is delivered by the principal or other staff designated by the principal. The principal must know what he or she wants to teach the adult learners, and how that instruction is going to look as a result of the professional development.

The purpose of the plan is to change instruction by giving the adults time to learn and think about issues, practices and purposes. The plan outlines what professional development will be delivered each month at every staff meeting.

The leadership team writes the plan at the end of the previous school year. Team members begin by discussing the progress of the reform implementation at the school, taking stock of what students can do and demonstrate in relation to district standards. The next step is to outline what professional development the teachers need in order to improve achievement in deficit areas.

Goals for professional development for the subsequent school year are set and a plan is mapped out beginning with the new goal and working backwards. The plan focuses on what the teachers need to know and be able to do in instruction to improve student achievement.

The plan, or map, drives the adult learning. The plan provides focus for the leadership team after the school year begins when they are writing agendas for professional development. This is critical for the principal. The plan provides a clear focus and direction so the principal does not lose sight of what is important after the school year has begun. The plan is a dynamic document that the leadership team can amend as needed based on teacher professional development needs. It also provides accountability for the principal. The principal can use the plan to ensure that he or she is meeting expected targets.

4 Embed professional development into daily routines. In Hanford Elementary School District, the instruction of adult learning occurs on a daily basis. Staff meetings are used to deliver professional development. Other business that normally occurs during staff meetings is re-evaluated and communicated in alternate ways. Issues needing feedback are sent to staff on e-mail and the business of man aging the school is communicated through newsletters and memos.

Using staff meetings for professional development sustains change efforts. Principals do not have to find additional time for the teachers to meet. When professional development occurs in staff meetings, the message is communicated to teachers that adult learning is important and takes precedence over other issues.

Professional development is delivered on a daily basis in the classroom. The principal, learning director and literacy coach demonstrate best practices and lead discussions with teachers around instruction and student learning. By having a goal, believing in the goal, writing a plan and finding ways to implement professional development, a principal can begin to sustain change.

5 Relate in new ways. Seymour Sarason (1990) writes in The Predictable Failure of School Reform that in order for districts or principals to sustain reform efforts, the power relationship in the classroom must change. The goal of the organizational change plan, or backwards map, is to improve instruction by changing power relationships between teachers and students and between principals and teachers. The principal becomes a coach of instructional issues — a coach with high expectations who expects results.

The efforts of the principal to set goals, plan and engage staff (the learners) in order to improve instruction is enhanced by support staff. The literacy coach and learning director provide support for the teachers to implement more effective teaching strategies. The principal is an integral part of the feedback loop.

The principal spends time in classrooms modeling, teaching and leading conversations around instruction. The principal coaches the teachers to understand new methods to improve student achievement. When the principal coaches teachers, the power relationship between the principal and the teacher is changed significantly.

The teacher learns from watching the principal demonstrate lessons and from participating in reflective conversation. The principal also learns from the teacher. The principal participates in the demonstration lessons and reflective conversations as an active learner, not as someone with answers. This structure causes the staff to share ideas in new ways and affects the traditional power structures.

6 Encourage rigor. Rigor causes instructional change. The principal must focus on rigor in conjunction with the goal. It is the outcome of the plan. When teachers have time to think differently about practice, what is expected of the students changes. The instruction also changes in purposeful ways, producing better student achievement.

The principal’s expectations also need to be rigorous for staff In conversations with teachers the principal gives direct, honest feedback in relation to how the teacher instructs students. If a teacher’s daily schedule does not optimize student learning, the principal expects change. If students are not making progress toward academic goals, the principal works with the staff to identify barriers.

The principal expects rigor when students are thinking, and most importantly, when teachers are thinking. Rigor infused into every instructional minute improves student achievement. The principal does not allow the curriculum to be watered down to meet student needs.

When comments are made about the ability level of students, it is the principal’s reaction that gauges how the teachers will respond. The principal doesn’t merely say back, “All students can learn!” The principal replies, “I see why you are frustrated. That doesn’t change our goal, or what we are focusing on. Let’s look at writing of the student you are most frustrated with. Maybe we can brainstorm some ideas together to further that student’s abilities.”

The principal monitors instructional rigor by spending a lot of time in the classroom. In the Hanford Elementary School District, the instructional day is broken into three blocks of time and the principal spends at least two of them focused on improving instruction. The principal may be visiting rooms and writing detailed specific notes to the teacher about the lesson presented or the room environment, conducting a focused walk, demonstrating a lesson or evaluating a teacher.

7 Be relentless in your focus. Hanford Elementary School District has focused on improving instruction for the past six years. The focus on improving instruction and raising student achievement has been relentless. Teachers and administrators alike have found that there is no “silver bullet” that increases student achievement. It is the focus itself that sustains the reform and provides answers for the professionals involved in the process.

The program in Hanford faces some limitations and challenges. The most formidable challenge is providing all teachers with sufficient support in the classroom to improve instruction. There are not always enough hours in every month or school year to meet everyone’s needs.

The district faces this challenge by continuing the focus on the goal of improved student achievement through professional development, and mentoring and coaching by the principal, learning director and literacy coach. As problems arise, solutions are brainstormed and the work continues.

Active leadership leads to success

During the past two years these seven steps have guided the principals’ efforts to sustain reform. The district uses the New Standards Reference Examination as a multiple measure of student achievement. The Reference Examination is designed to measure student performance in relation to standards in language arts and mathematics. Student achievement in language arts and mathematics has grown over the five years that the examination has been given.

By choosing a goal and believing in that goal, principals take the first step in instructional leadership. Active leadership continues in designing a plan, being an interactive coach and supporting rigor.

Sustaining reform is an uphill battle, but when the principal is relentless in focus, believes in the goal and coaches teachers to change practices, students will succeed over the long haul.


Betti, U. (1946). Landslide; Struggle Till Dawn; The Fugitive: Three Plays. San Francisco: Chandler Publishing Co.

Sarason, S. B. (1990). The Predictable Failure of Educational Reform: Can we change course before it’s too late? San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Schmoker, M. (1999). Results: The key to continuous school improvement. 2nd edition. Alexandria, Virginia: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

Nancy L. Akhavan is principal of Lee Richmond School in Hanford.

COPYRIGHT 2002 Association of California School Administrators

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