Aligning Schools on Instructional Goals as a Tool to Advance Equity

November 4, 2021

Christine Diaz

VP of Schools for Tarrant County, TX, IDEA Public Schools

The Challenge

How can leaders use planning to foster coordination, clarity, and collaboration throughout the year, so all students succeed?”

When Christine Diaz took charge of the IDEA Public Schools Tarrant County Region, she knew it wasn’t enough for everyone on her team to do great work on their own. To pursue greater equity for every student across their eight schools, all school and network leaders would need to be pulling in the same direction. That called for clarity around a small number of shared priorities, month-by-month, and week-by-week.

The Solution

Mapping the Arc of the Year

The Fort Worth-area educational leader says there’s a natural life to the school year — from building relationships and setting expectations, to increasing rigor and engagement, to tracking progress and responding to gaps. To support strong execution at each of those stages, she collaborated with her predecessor as VP of schools to create an “Arc of the Year,” that calls out what all leaders in the region need to focus on most at each point in time. In her theory of action, if she:

  • Defined the top areas of focus for advancing instructional excellence at each stage of the year,
  • Identified a handful of the most important teacher and leader competencies to develop at each stage; and
  • Used the resulting tool to anchor all leadership coaching, progress checks, and professional development as the year progresses,

Then she could give her principals and their teams the direction they most needed, when they most needed it, and so keep their students on track towards 100 percent mastery — her and her network’s definition of ultimate success.

“We want to ensure all kids are being successful. … And everyone has a contributing role to ensure that success.”— Christine Diaz, VP of Schools, IDEA Public Schools

The Strategy

Planning Around “All Means All”

Diaz sees a clear connection between equity and organizational alignment. She first saw the consequence of a system that lets students fall through the cracks when she taught math at an alternative high school for students who’d dropped out elsewhere, been expelled, or otherwise struggled in their regular schools: “It gave me clarity in what my calling needs to be: to ensure 100 percent of kids get the high-quality education they deserve.”

But that can’t happen, she adds, when principals and network leaders get mixed messages about where to focus their energies. Says Diaz: “They can’t prioritize because they have a laundry list of 50 million things, and nothing gets done in a quality way. If everything’s a priority, then nothing’s a priority.”

Sequencing the Work

While Diaz began sequencing a set of priorities with her predecessor, she added more detail when she moved to the position of VP of Schools herself from that of director of leadership development. Mapping backwards from the goal of 100 percent mastery, they asked themselves what needed to be true at each point of the year.

This led to an evolving set of priorities for the first semester this year:

  1. Strong Start (August): Building productive classroom norms, high expectations, and a joy of learning — along with a professional culture of observation and feedback.
  2. Precise Execution (September): Planning lessons with the key elements of effectiveness (modeling, guided practice, etc.), and examining student work to evaluate mastery.
  3. Rigor and Engagement (October-November): Shifting the cognitive load to students through high-level questioning, extended reading, frequent feedback, and evaluation of mastery of concepts.
  4. Benchmarking for Success (December): Determine mastery of academic standards through assessment and examination of student work, and from that create re-teach and intervention plans.

She and her team are still fleshing out the details of the rest of the year, but they know the overall focus will be on executing re-teach and intervention plans based on the data they collect at the end of the first semester.

From Priorities to Capacity Building

For Diaz, the sequence of priorities is more than a reminder of where people need to focus; they point to a set of capacities that need to be built. If teachers are starting to facilitate higher-level discussions by the second month of school, then school leaders need to help them understand how — and the network leaders who support the principals need to coach the school leaders on how to do that.

Recognizing this, Diaz filled out her arc by attaching specific teacher and leader competencies to each phase of the semester. She did this by going to IDEA’s teacher and leader evaluation rubrics, and pulling from them the competencies most relevant to what needed to be accomplished at each phase of the Arc (See example below.)

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Examples of Priority Competencies

For “Rigor & Engagement” (Oct-Nov) — Shifting the cognitive load to students through high-level questioning, extended reading, and frequent feedback.

Key Competencies from Leader Evaluation Rubric

  • Lead student work analysis meetings.
  • Facilitate lesson planning, lesson rehearsal, and/or scripting meetings.

Key Competencies from Teacher Evaluation Rubric

  • Facilitate discussion and extended writing.
  • Respond to data in real-time to provide feedback on misconceptions.

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Getting it All on a Single Page

All of these priorities, phases, and competencies for the entire first semester are now laid out in a single, one-page document — an “At-a-Glance” Arc of the Year Scope and Sequence. Also included are the phases from the book “Get Better Faster,” which the region uses to guide its professional development for new teachers (Click here for an annotated version of the document.)

Detail of “At-a-Glance” Arc of the Year Scope and Sequence

Diaz stresses that the Arc of the Year is insufficient to drive alignment of effort by itself. She also had to create a series of monthly and weekly mechanisms for translating the priorities into clear and bite-sized action steps — and for monitoring progress and for adjusting plans accordingly. Her calendar now reflects a set of regular meetings for doing so with her eight principals and her regional team.

But without the Arc of the Year, Diaz says they’d be making it up as they go.

While the process of mapping the Arc of the Year may seem daunting, Diaz says it needn’t be. Her advice to other leaders is to start with their teacher and leader evaluation frameworks, and with their instructional leadership team identify the highest leverage competencies for what needs to happen at particular points in the year. And for those competencies, make sure they’re defined with sufficient clarity. As she says: “Do we know if we were to walk into a classroom or walk into a school what to look for?”

Advice to Other Leaders: Start with What Matters Most

When going through such an exercise, Diaz says it’s essential to keep in mind why it matters. It’s not about alignment for its own sake. The ultimate goal is to make sure every student gets what they need to succeed academically. “If you’re not aligned with all your team members, you can’t win,” she says. “Or you might have pockets of winning, but that’s not how we measure success. We want to ensure all kids are being successful. And everyone has a contributing role to ensure that success.”

Taking it Back to Your School

Create a compelling case for your team about why it’s important to align around the same priorities throughout the year.

  • What pain points would it alleviate?
  • How would it further your goals for students?

With your instructional leadership team, backwards map a set of priorities for each phase of the school year for all students to reach mastery of academic expectations by year’s end.

  • What kind of instruction needs to take place, and by when?
  • What kind of monitoring and planning?
  • What foundations must be laid before accomplishing these things?

As a leadership team, review your network or district’s evaluation frameworks to identify the highest-leverage teacher and leader competencies for each phase of the year.

  • What competencies are most essential to master for the instructional priorities at each point in the year?
  • Are they defined with sufficient clarity for someone to know what they look like in practice? If not, define them with greater specificity.

Artifacts

At-a-Glance ARC of the Year Scope and Sequence. Single-page document showing all priorities — and highest leverage teacher and leader competencies — for each phase of the first semester.

Detailed Arc of the Year. 17-page document that includes observable leader, teacher, and student goals for each week of the first semester.

Christine Diaz is VP of Schools for Tarrant County at IDEA Public Schools, a charter network that boasts a 100 percent success rate in helping its graduates get accepted to college. She came to IDEA two years ago from Chicago, where her work as a principal involved dramatically improving student outcomes at an alternative high school for students who had struggled in traditional high schools. Christine is a alumna of Relay’s Instructional Leadership Professional Development program and a current participant in the National Principal Supervisors Academy.