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Systems for Instructional Improvement: Creating Coherence from the Classroom to the District Office

reviewed by Joy Esboldt & Travis J. Bristol - November 08, 2018

coverTitle: Systems for Instructional Improvement: Creating Coherence from the Classroom to the District Office
Author(s): Paul Cobb, Kara Jackson, Erin Henrick, Thomas M. Smith, Michael Sorum, & the MIST Team
Publisher: Harvard Education Press, Boston
ISBN: 1682531775, Pages: 336, Year: 2018
Search for book at Amazon.com

The rollout of rigorous new standards and assessments throughout the country over the last decade has tasked school districts with the responsibility of meeting these challenges equitably across sites. Specifically in math, English language arts, and science, new goals encompass new grade-level content and require new capabilities within these content areas. Despite what may be clear goals, the roadmap for districts to support teachers in their instruction towards these goals has been more nebulous.

In Systems for Instructional Improvement, Paul Cobb, Kara Jackson, Erin Henrick, Thomas M. Smith, and the Middle School Mathematics and the Institutional Setting of Teaching (MIST) team propose a pathway for districts to support a coordinated development of ambitious and equitable instruction in response to new state standards. The authors argue that successful efforts towards instructional improvement require the intentional coordination of supports, strategies, and initiatives across the system, namely between district and school leaders as well as classroom teachers. Merging literature on teaching and learning with that of educational policy and leadership, Systems for Instructional Improvement offers district leaders an empirically-based Theory of Action (ToA) across levels, from the classroom to the central office.

While the authors empirical work focuses specifically on supporting the development of ambitious and equitable instruction in middle-grade mathematics across four ethnoracially diverse, traditional public school districts, they also provide a relevant framework applicable to all disciplines. They also provide specific empirical examples related to their practical goal of contributing to the instructional improvement of partnering districts and a broad-level systems analysis that is relevant to school and district leaders (p. 228) in the United States.

The authors divide Systems for Instructional Improvement into 15 chapters based on the elements of their ToA. In short, the ToA includes three top-level components: (a) a coherent instructional system, (b) school leaders practices as instructional leaders, and (c) practices from the district office that support school capacity. These top-level components merit (and assuredly have generated) books devoted entirely to each one, but here the authors connect them all together, stressing the importance of their alignment and coherence (p. 228). As they note, no single strategy is, by itself, likely to support instructional improvements that will enable large numbers of students to meet more rigorous learning standards (p. 3).

Privileging a backwards design with student learning at the center, Systems for Instructional Improvement presents an initial overview and outline of the research sites before diving into the coherent instructional system, the first top-level component of the ToA. A visual aid in the Introduction helps organize this multidimensional system. Student learning goals and a vision of high-quality instruction rest in the center, surrounded by three facets: (a) supports for teacher learning, (b) instructional materials and assessments, and (c) supplemental supports for struggling learners. Chapters Four through Eleven address the individual components of these facets, such as pull-out professional development, teacher collaborative time, and supplemental supports. Each chapter includes a discussion of the potentials and limitations of the intervention, a summary of prior research findings, challenges that arose in their partner districts, and areas for future research. Deliberate coordination of these various components becomes a theme threading through these chapters, especially as without this coordination, teachers feel that they should select the practices that best suit them, thereby undermining the potential of any one form of support [or material] to have a lasting impact (p. 69).

Then, in Chapters Twelve and Thirteen, the authors address the remaining sections of the ToA: building and district instructional leadership, respectively. Here the authors highlight a common tension between principals goals of short-term improvement in student assessment scores and district instructional leaders long-term goals of instructional improvement. These conflicting agendas, influenced by differing understandings of barriers to student improvement, negatively influence teacher and student supports in a variety of ways and undermine efforts at improvement. To establish a shared agenda, the authors suggest that the primary goal of leadership should be to support the development of school-level capacity for instructional improvement (p. 13) by developing coherent instructional systems. In line with their overall theme of coordination, they argue that districts can only accomplish this if they prioritize collaboration and communication between departments, despite challenges and competing priorities.

Finally, in Chapters Fourteen and Fifteen, the authors return to a discussion of their pragmatic goal. They describe what they observed as the gap between how strategies were implemented in practice and how district leadership envisioned them. They conclude with their recommendations to address these gaps. The authors note that in total, their partnering districts at least partially implemented 67% of their recommendations. The book ends with a summary discussion of themes and implications.

Overall, while multilayered and containing multiple subparts, Systems for Instructional Improvement breaks down a generalizable ToA chapter by chapter into concrete analysis across varying levels. For example, the chapter on instructional leadership not only addresses the tension of balancing short-term student score improvement with long-term instructional improvement, but also discusses the limited payoff of the traditional drop-in principal observation model as well as the benefits and challenges of collaborating with instructional coaches.

Perhaps most importantly, this book brings different scholars, researchers, professionals, and stakeholders of education together in conversation to combat systemic disconnection. The authors directly address common tensions, disjointed interventions, and ineffective practices. In doing so, they convincingly adopt a whole-systems approach in a way that does not lose sight of what it looks like on the ground.

For all the book offers, it understandably has limitations. Some of the supports on which the analysis centers may not be available in smaller districts; for example, content coaches or intensive professional development for instructional leaders. Additionally, the intervention strategies for struggling students are limited to an analysis of double-dose math classes. While the authors note that this is the most common form of support for struggling students, Systems for Instructional Improvement lacks a larger creative imagination or systemic critique. This limitation extends to a general acceptance of new mathematical standards that focus on procedural learning, despite the authors perceptibly favoring inquiry-based over procedural learning. Additionally, while the coherent instructional system feels thoroughly developed as a whole, the sections on district and building leaders feel thin, especially since the competing goals of these two groups are noted as a significant obstacle.

Despite these potential limitations of scope, Systems for Instructional Improvement provides a useful whole-systems approach that appears concretely applicable across disciplines and levels. The authors detailed and concrete recommendations serve as a large-scope roadmap for districts to improve instruction while keeping students learning at the center.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: November 08, 2018
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 22557, Date Accessed: 3/1/2022 11:25:14 AM

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About the Author
  • Joy Esboldt
    University of California, Berkeley
    E-mail Author
    JOY ESBOLDT is a doctoral student in critical studies of race, class, and gender in the Graduate School of Education at the University of California, Berkeley. Her research focuses on Whiteness and teacher experience as they intersect with gender and cultural politics. She holds a Masters in Diversity and Equity in Education from The University of Illinois-Urbana Champaign. Prior to graduate studies, Joy taught high school Spanish and was a teacher leader focused on racial equity.
  • Travis Bristol
    University of California, Berkeley
    E-mail Author
    TRAVIS J. BRISTOL is an assistant professor of critical studies of race, class, and gender in the Graduate School of Education at the University of California, Berkeley. He is a former high school English teacher in New York City public schools and teacher educator with the Boston Teacher Residency program. Dr. Bristol's research is situated at the intersection of policy and practice and is centered on three interrelated strands: (1) district and school-based practices that support teachers of color; (2) national, state, and local education policies that enable and constrain the workplace experiences and retention for teachers of color; and (3) the intersection of race and gender in schools. His research has appeared in peer-reviewed journals, including Urban Education, the American Educational Research Journal, the Journal of Teacher Education, Urban Review, and Education Policy Analysis Archives.
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