How Leaders Help Elevate the Rigor of Curriculum

June 22, 2022

Jeanine Zitta

Network Superintendent, St. Louis Public Schools

The Challenge:

How can leaders help teachers get the most student learning from a new curriculum?

When her district recently adopted a new literacy curriculum, Jeanine Zitta knew it was too much to ask teachers to figure out the most powerful ways to bring it to life entirely on their own. Her network of 11 elementary schools had seen strong gains in student proficiency rates over the last few years, and she was determined to maintain the momentum.

As she planned for the start of the school year, she knew she had to take ownership for supporting her instructional leaders in supporting teachers as they mastered the curriculum in ways that maximized student learning. Zitta recognized how much teachers are already responsible for, and how incredibly stretched they feel. She reflected, “Teachers can’t do this all on their own, so supporting them in this way is the right thing for us to do.”

The Solution:

Building the expertise of leaders to support the expertise of teachers

In Zitta’s theory of action, if she:

  • Worked with her network and school-based instructional leaders to build their own understanding of the curriculum through co-observations;
  • Provided concise weekly guidance and supplemental support materials to address observed gaps and suggest ways to increase rigor; and
  • Acknowledged people’s efforts and progress, as well as the challenge of learning a new curriculum;

Then over the first month of school they could build teachers’ confidence with mastery of the new curriculum, putting them in a strong position for further enhancing the rigor over the course of the year.

The Strategy:

Building a shared vision of excellence

Zitta has long treated the instructional leaders she supports as a single team. She works alongside them to understand what excellence looks like and to identify common challenges. She also puts considerable energy into distilling the right guidance at the right time, often curated from the professional literature. A key tool is her weekly newsletter to her school leaders, called ZEN (for Zitta Education Network) — a collection of the most important current trends seen in their classrooms, practical tips to close the most important gaps, and words of encouragement.

Weeks 1–2: “We are all learning together!”

Zitta started building a shared understanding of excellence right out of the gate. In the first week of instruction in August, she and her instructional leaders co-observed teachers delivering the curriculum, bringing along the teachers’ edition for the lessons as reference. After each observation, the group would debrief, discussing what demonstrated effective delivery of the curriculum and what could be improved.

Along with the co-observations that Zitta took part in, her school-based instructional leaders did co-observations on their own. She encouraged them to zero in on the parts of each lesson that did the most to stretch students’ thinking. Under the heading, “Coaching: A Form of Love,” her August 26 newsletter offered a page of suggestions, including:

  • Ground yourself in what your most expert teacher would be doing
  • Consider observing that teacher first, to set the bar for subsequent observations
  • Look for moments when the teacher lifts up student thinking, and pushes rigor to higher levels.

These initial observations revealed a number of gaps. Some teachers were mistakenly trying to get through in one day a series of activities meant to be covered in three. Others were confused about when in a lesson to model certain activities. Zitta noted these trends in her September 2nd newsletter to school leaders, along with guidance on how to address them with teachers. She also urged them to help teachers find ways to incorporate additional engagement strategies–like “turn-and-talks”–into the lessons, to get students interacting more.

At the same time, her network’s instructional leaders started working with teachers on lesson internalizations with the new curriculum. These sessions were guided by the Lesson Plan Internalization Protocol, an approach that Zitta learned while participating in the Leverage Leadership Institute at Relay Graduate School of Education. The process involves unpacking a single lesson from the curriculum to better understand where the rigor can be found in the lesson, the criteria for success in student work, what students are most likely to struggle with, and how to plan ahead to address those struggles.

Weeks 3–4: “How do your students talk to you?”

By mid-September, Zitta was ready to shift from a focus on teacher actions to looking at student work. As she wrote in her September 9 newsletter, “By now, during every classroom observation, you should be flipping through student workbooks to see what students have completed, and how they are completing it.”

Making this shift early in the year was key to understanding if teachers’ delivery of instruction was actually helping students to produce high-quality work. Zitta urged her school leaders to set the bar high, by asking themselves: how would a student on track towards college- and career-readiness respond? As she says, repeating the wisdom of Zaretta Hammond, “Student work is how your students talk to you about their learning.” But she also reminded leaders to allow themselves and their teachers “grace and flexibility,” as they continued to learn the new curriculum.

In their fourth week with the new curriculum, Zitta zeroed in on a particular concern: Many teachers were stopping short of giving students the chance to do independent practice. The curriculum included such opportunities, but teachers were only getting through the modeling and guided practice. The network leader knew this was a critical problem; only by allowing students to do the work on their own could teachers know if they had truly learned it, and what additional instruction they might need. Adds Zitta: “We were creating dependent learners.”

She realized part of the issue could be teachers’ lack of confidence in their mastery of the new curriculum–or in students’ ability to do what it was asking of them. She offered her school leaders two remedies: Coach teachers on 1) Effective scaffolding (Like graphic organizers or exemplar responses) to guide students into doing the work independently; and 2) How to closely monitor independent practice time and quickly respond to common misconceptions.

But, as she reminded leaders in her newsletter: “Be careful not to over-scaffold — Our goal is to remove scaffolds gradually, over time!”

“The starting point, not the finish line.”

A month into her network’s implementation of the new curriculum, Zitta knew they still had far to go before they could claim to be maximizing student learning. But they had a solid foundation upon which to keep building.

In November she urged her leaders to coach teachers on getting students to do more conceptual thinking, offering such prompts as, “Now tell me why that works.” She used a March newsletter to share some of what she learned from a recent UnboundEd Summit about stretching the rigor of student tasks beyond what’s described in the standard. Quoting from a session at the event, she wrote that tasks that merely ask students to “identify” and “construct” … “become problematic when they are the finish line, and not the starting point for instruction.”

By early spring, she was already thinking about next fall. To further strengthen teachers’ instruction with the literacy curriculum, she enlisted her district’s science and social studies lead coaches to build cross-curricular connections, so the lessons in each subject were mutually reinforcing. She began recruiting leaders from her network to help plan the next year’s first professional development for teachers, with a focus on increasing student engagement and rigor, in part by codifying the most effective strategies they saw working in the classroom this school year. Asking for volunteers in her newsletter, she wrote, in bold: “If you’re game, drop me an email–I’m excited to explore these ideas to strengthen our classrooms with a dream team.”

For more on how to plan a focused initiative to achieve progress in a short period of time, see Relay’s practice guide: Reset: How school leaders can address equity gaps right now.

Taking it Back to Your School

Start building a shared and deep understanding of excellence with your curriculum:

  • Block off time to observe classrooms with your instructional leaders. With the curriculum’s lessons in hand, look for those moments that really push students’ thinking. Note any gaps–like the absence of independent practice–that should be addressed. Debrief on these points after each observation.
  • As you continue with these observations in subsequent weeks, start looking at student work. Ask yourself: how does this work compare with what a student on track for college- and career-readiness would produce? What gaps in student understanding suggest themselves?
  • Based on these observations, which observed gaps in teaching and in student understandings would, if closed, have the greatest impact on student learning? What weekly mechanisms can you employ to address them with targeted guidance–e.g. lesson planning meetings, leadership team meetings, written communication, practice clinics?

Now in her 22nd year with the St. Louis Public Schools, Jeannie Zitta has been a music teacher, assistant principal, principal, and coordinator of instructional coaches — in addition to serving in her current role as a Network Superintendent in the district. She is a graduate of Relay GSE’s National Principal Supervisor’s Academy and Leverage Leadership Institute. She also is now a leadership development consultant for Relay and a facilitator for UnboundEd Learning, Inc.


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