How Student Work Exemplars Became the Focus for One Network of Schools

March 20, 2023

Jenny Tan

Chief of Schools, KIPP Public Schools Northern California

This profile is part of the Follow the Leaders project, an ongoing series from Relay Graduate School of Education to share insights and inspiration on leading for equity, wellness, and achievement. Subscribe here.

Executive Summary

A school system leader needed an instructional improvement plan to address student performance. She rallied her team around one clear focus: creating and internalizing student work exemplars. She did this by: 

  • Using observational data to determine that exemplars would be a high-leverage way to strengthen lesson planning and implementation,
  • making exemplars the instructional priority for the entire school year,
  • defining success criteria with room for educators to grow over time, and
  • connecting this plan to the school’s equity-focused mission.

The Challenge:

Breaking Through a Plateau in Teacher Practice 

In the summer of 2022, Jenny Tan was preparing for her second year as the leader of 18 schools serving more than 6,300 students in Northern California’s Bay Area. At the time, one of her top concerns was that student learning seemed to be hitting a plateau.

Her network had established a system of weekly data meetings, intensive professional development on planning and standards-based teaching, consistent coaching and feedback, and an aligned and instructionally focused culture. And yet, observation data from one of the system’s instructional tools suggested that a majority of teachers were “stuck” in their efforts to move further in their instructional trajectory. 

Seeking the root cause of these slowing indicators, Tan and her team identified common issues with lesson planning that resulted in teachers struggling to articulate the skills that students needed in order to demonstrate mastery of learning objectives. “How can you teach when you aren’t crystal clear on the outcomes—the actual skills when you look at the problems?” Tan asks. “That really started the conversation for what it would look like for us to support our teachers.”

The Solution:

Help Teachers Create High-Quality Student Work Exemplars

As she formulated a strategy to help teachers sharpen their vision for what they wanted to see their students produce during the 2022-23 school year, Tan and her team made a bold call: high-quality exemplars would become the instructional priority for the entire year—a decision she calls a “power play.”

“We saw strong exemplars as helping catch things that should have happened with the lesson planning and then helping with the instruction that followed,” she says. “It was about calling our shots and setting a priority before the year starts.”

Tan’s rationale was that asking teachers to do the work students were asked to do would help them internalize the learning steps required for students to be successful. Teachers could then make better decisions about what to model, what classroom activities to assign, what key misconceptions were likely to surface, what to monitor as students work, and how to respond to gaps in the moment. 

Tan also believed that focusing on exemplars would help school leaders and instructional coaches monitor teaching and provide feedback in better ways. She says:

“I know 9 out of 10 leaders walk classrooms and look for the objective. But going straight to the exemplar that [teachers] created provides us better intel on what the end goal is and how prepared the teacher is to get there.”

By carefully thinking through the expectations for exemplars and introducing them to school leaders during the summer, Tan helped ensure the narrow focus would yield benefits during the 2022-23 school year, including strong interim test results and positive feedback on professional learning activities. 

The Strategy:

Setting Clear Expectations for Exemplars

As Tan and her team planned how to execute on the systemwide focus on exemplars during summer 2022, they recognized the need to set realistic expectations that teachers could grow into. “We realized that everyone’s in a different place,” she says. 

Phased Criteria, With Room to Grow

In order to move from the “what” to the “how,” Tan and her team broke down the process to a few key phases that all teachers would need to go through to ensure that their planning would result in improved learning, as evidenced by what students produced in the classroom: 

  • Phase 1: Create the exemplar to clarify the vision for what success looks like
  • Phase 2: Internalize what students need to know and show to demonstrate mastery
  • Phase 3: Use the exemplar to monitor and respond to gaps in learning in the moment

“If we think about [the process of making and using an] exemplar as having lots of skills attached to it, then we don’t want to just tell the teachers, ‘You have to get all 15 of these bullets right the first time,’” Tan explains. “The phases were our attempt to put some sort of developmental sequence to it.”

To support teachers in mastering each phase, Tan and her team developed an implementation plan for the upcoming school year, creating professional development tied to specific goals around exemplar use, which would be monitored across classrooms, schools, and the system as a whole. To create a shared understanding of what these phases look like, KIPP NorCal’s director of academics and team of content experts identified and annotated existing exemplars. Examples of each of the three phases are:

Phase 1: Creation. Teachers first answer student work for the standard or lesson objective themselves at the “bar of rigor” for their grade level and content.  In exemplars like the one below for an algebra lesson, teachers annotate student tasks with the steps and processes they will need to master the standard or objective.

In Phase 1, teachers complete—and show—the work and thinking students will do in class to show mastery of the standard.

Phase 2: Internalization. Teachers identify the academic vocabulary and language students need to successfully complete the lesson’s objective and identify potential misconceptions, as illustrated by this exemplar for another math lesson. As illustrated by the blue annotations below, the teacher first identifies terminology such as “perfect square” and then creates an explicit example of the academic language students will need to understand. The teacher also highlights questions that can be used to surface and respond to anticipated student misconceptions.

In Phase 2, teachers identify academic vocabulary (left) and then create academic language and questions to surface and address student misconceptions (right) as annotations within their exemplars.

Phase 3: Planning to respond in the moment. Teachers include in their exemplars how they will monitor student work in class, collect data, and respond to student misconceptions in the moment. This exemplar includes more extensive explanations of key procedural steps than in the earlier phases, but more importantly, it highlights how the teacher plans to monitor and respond to student work during the lesson, as illustrated below:

In Phase 3, teachers annotate exemplars with plans to monitor student work and address misconceptions during the lesson.

Winning Buy-In From School Leaders 

Presentation from KIPP NorCal’s Leaders Summer Learning program.

Tan and her team introduced the focus on exemplars to school leaders during the system’s Leader Summer Learning program, a one-day PD session for principals held on their first day back from summer vacation in mid-July. The presentation stressed that exemplars would be a high-priority instructional focus for the year and connected the strategy to KIPP NorCal’s “North Star”—its focus on educational equity. “Priorities seem to have a sense of not always aligning with the schools’ core function,” Tan says. “We tried to tie [this instructional priority] into what we’re about.”

The reaction from school leaders was overwhelmingly positive, Tan says: “The number one feedback we got was, ‘Oh, my goodness, thank you for helping us focus, and thank you for allowing it to be okay that we are not trying to get an A+ in every single thing.'” That reaction, she says, confirmed her hypothesis that the singular focus would help ensure the success of the tiered training, implementation, and monitoring that would begin in the fall.

In part 2 of this profile, to be posted by mid-April 2023, we’ll explore how Tan and her staff trained school leaders and teachers, monitored results, and plan to adjust their approach. To get an email as soon as it’s up, subscribe to Follow the Leaders.

Taking it Back to Your School

  • What is your number one instructional priority for the year?
  • In what ways have you clearly defined what success looks like if your teams achieve this?
  • To what extent are your teachers clear on what they are looking for in student work?  In what ways would a focus on exemplars strengthen teacher planning and execution of lessons?
  • What next steps might you/your teams take to sharpen your vision for what excellence looks like in practice?

Jenny Tan serves as the chief of schools for KIPP Northern California. As the principal of the Andre Agassi College Preparatory Academy, Jenny Tan helped the elementary school achieve the highest distinctions awarded by the Nevada Department of Education, such as "Exemplary" and "High Achieving." She became the first chief academic officer for KIPP Colorado, where she supported schools at all levels to become top-performing schools in Denver Public Schools. Tan then joined the KIPP Foundation, and she was most recently the associate dean of the Relay California Leadership Programs. She has a bachelor’s degree in cognitive science from the University of California at Berkeley and a master’s degree and a School Leadership License from Harvard University's Graduate School of Education. Tan is an alumna of Relay's National Principal Supervisors Academy.


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