Education Opinion

Coherence is Signature Quality of our Most Effective Schools

By Justin Reich — December 28, 2016 3 min read
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This is the fourth post in a series based on the new free online course, Launching Innovation in Schools, offered through edX and taught by MIT faculty Justin Reich and Peter Senge. Launching Innovation in Schools guides school leaders--teacher-leaders, principals, department heads, IT directors, superintendents--through fundamental principles of launching and sustain innovation in schools. It launches January 17 and you can register now.

The signature quality of our most effective schools is coherence. In our best schools, everyone in the building has a shared vision of what high quality teaching and learning looks like. They have a shared set of hopes for their graduates, and they plan around a common set of outcomes. They have a shared instructional language that lets people talk back and forth about what high quality teaching should look like, and a common language and set of goals let’s faculty work together to measure their progress towards those goals.

There are lots of different models that are out there for what high quality in schooling can look like. There are democratic schools, there are competency-based schools, there are project-based learning schools, there are no excuses schools. These kinds of schools are all very different and they all have strengths and weaknesses, but each of these models represents a coherent vision of schooling.

Within each of these models there are exemplars: High Tech High and Science Leadership Academy for project-based learning, Summit Public Schools for competency-based learning, HB Woodlawn for democratic schools, MATCH in Boston for no excuses and so forth. When you walk through these schools with a principal, he or she can explain how all of the different parts of the school environment-- the schedule, the curriculum, the assessment, the professional development-- all fit together towards the school’s mission on behalf of kids.

As existing schools look to these exemplars for models of improvement, the key insight is that it is more important to try to get one system right than it is to pick the one right system. Really great schools can be different from one another in pedagogy and approach, but what they have in common is a shared set of goals and understanding among the faculty. It’s this shared understand that sets the conditions for effective collaboration and continuous improvement.

One of the best ways to approach coherence in a short-term way, over a period of one or two years, is to try to figure out an appropriate “right-sized goal” for your school community. What’s an innovation that your community can tackle together for one years or two year or three years that you could look back on and say, “That really made a difference in the learning lives of our students.” The effort should be big enough and ambitious enough that it would take a community working together over a period of time to get better at, but it shouldn’t be so enormous that progess feels impossible or invidividual educators can’t find their own place within the effort. It shouldn’t be so constraining that there isn’t room for individual autonomy and exploration, but it shouldn’t so free that individual teachers all go off in their own direction.

One of the signature challenges of leadership in schools is trying to create that coherence especially in schools that have been around for a long time with a really strong tradition of what we might call radical teacher autonomy: letting every teacher go to their own classroom, go to their own space, and teach and improve however they want. If we look at the schools that have grown the most in the last five or ten years, schools that have made really significant improvements for their students in learning, these are the places that have had teacher communities that have been willing to come together and pull their oars together towards the same coherent goals.

Register now for two free upcoming edX courses for educators and school leaders:

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