Assessment Opinion

How School- and District-Level Leaders Can Prepare Students for Success

By Peter Kannam & Elyse Rossi — May 17, 2017 6 min read

Editor’s Intro: I worked with America Achieves and Policy Studies Associates, Inc. on the new report, "Instructional Practices for Deeper Learning: Lessons for Educators.” The report explores practices taking place in three districts in the United States and one district in Canada, and it discusses specific actions that can be taken at the district, school, and classroom levels to improve instruction and ultimately drive strong student achievement and acquisition of deeper learning skills. My colleagues, Peter Kannam, Co-founder and Managing Partner, and Elyse Rossi, Senior Program Manager at America Achieves, highlight some of the key findings here.

Learn more by joining America Achieves and the Alliance for Excellent Education for a webinar, “Global Lessons for America’s High Schools,” on Thursday, May 18 at 3 pm ET.

We are in the midst of the most significant and rapid economic shift the world has ever experienced, with the possible exception of the Industrial Revolution. Technology and corresponding innovations are driving profound disruptions in the workforce, including the automation of tens of millions of jobs across the skills spectrum. These changes are outpacing our educational improvements, creating a widening disconnect between education and skill outcomes and labor market and economic needs.

How do we ensure that our schools are preparing students from every background and community for good jobs and careers in this rapidly changing economy and labor market? This question is consistently raised by parents, teachers, administrators, and policymakers. Past PISA (the Programme for International Student Assessment) results, which rank countries around the world based on student achievement levels, have suggested that the United States is in the middle of the pack compared to other international systems when it comes to equipping its young people with the skills needed to be successful in the global labor market.

Yet there are bright spots. We have individual school systems in plenty of places that we can learn from. For example, four districts in North America—three in the United States and one in Canada—are engaging in inspiring continuous improvement efforts to ensure that their students develop the skills needed to access opportunities in a changing world.

When we look across these four districts, common strategies for improvement emerge. Below are a few such strategies that are helping leaders to develop sound instruction that supports student acquisition of critical deeper learning skills, thus positioning students to become better thinkers and problem solvers.

  • Use data to drive instructional improvement
  • Develop successful professional development for teachers
  • Differentiate instruction and address different learning styles among students
  • Communicate system wide visions for improvement

Use data to drive instructional improvement

Data has an important role to play in spurring practice shifts and helping systems target improvement efforts correctly. Based on visits to schools and interviews with district- and school-level staff, the report found that data was especially helpful to leaders in identifying areas for improvement and identifying groups of students needing targeted instructional interventions.

Specifically, one high school with a history of deficits in reading comprehension on a number of assessments, launched a school-wide reading initiative to promote literacy across the curriculum. The school’s assistant principal formed a literacy committee, made up of teachers from across the curriculum, to identify effective reading strategies to be implemented in classrooms. The assistant principal positioned the members of the literacy committee as ambassadors for the reading initiative because having teachers champion the effort was essential to achieving buy-in and school-wide implementation.

Develop successful professional development for teachers

Clearly, teachers are crucial to the delivery of instruction that develops students’ deeper learning skills, so it is important that strong professional development for teachers plays a prominent role in any system or school’s improvement strategy. Five major strategies for providing effective professional development are:

  • ensuring that teachers have time for collaboration, including common planning time;
  • providing adequate support, such as coaches, to teachers;
  • encouraging teacher-led change;
  • providing ongoing feedback to teaches; and
  • developing professional development opportunities based on the needs voiced by teachers.

There are different approaches to providing teachers with time for collaboration. One district built into teacher contracts a 90-minute weekly period for collaboration among teachers who teach the same or similar subjects. In another district, schools had more autonomy to create their own structures for collaboration: some schools allotted collaborative planning time twice a week and each school decided how best to utilize this time.

Differentiate instruction and address different learning styles among students

By differentiating instruction and addressing different student learning styles, teachers are able to deliver instruction that meets the needs of all students. Injecting flexibility into instruction gives students the freedom to choose the path that is the best fit for them, which helps them achieve deeper levels of learning. To meet student needs, teachers can tailor instruction (e.g., incorporate multimedia into lessons for students who struggle with reading), encourage multiple ways to solve problems, and give students choices and options.

To demonstrate different approaches to solving problems, a geometry teacher encouraged his students to think about the multiple theorems they could use to prove congruency of the same angle. In algebra classrooms, teachers also encouraged the use of different methods to solve problems, using equations, tables, and graphs to arrive at the same answer.

Communicate system-wide visions for improvement

Regardless of the way in which a school system is structured, it is important that system leaders develop a vision for delivering strong instruction and then communicate the vision throughout all levels of the system. There are various ways in which leaders can effectively communicate system-wide visions for improvement, including (1) aligning around a system-wide framework or strategy, (2) using data to explain improvement efforts and facilitate gaining buy-in from school leaders, and (3) offering guidance and support to school leaders and teachers to help them understand new frameworks, competencies, and associated practices.

For example, one district adopted the Understanding by Design framework, a three-part, backward approach to planning curriculum where educators first identify desired results, determine the appropriate assessment evidence for those desired results, and then design instruction accordingly. Using Understanding by Design as a consistent framework has helped the district to adopt a focus on deep student understanding rather than simply acquisition of knowledge.


The report highlights actions that a few North American districts have taken in an effort to prepare their students for the 21st century economy. By using data to drive instruction, delivering strong professional development, continually meeting the varying needs of students, and setting the vision, school systems are putting students on the right path. These are just a few key learnings, but in order to continuously upgrade our education system, we need to keep sharing lessons learned from systems that are committed to improvement.

Connect with America Achieves and the Center for Global Education on Twitter.

The opinions expressed in Global Learning are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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