Using Weekly “Look-fors” to Coach Schools towards Instructional Goals

Christine Diaz

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

The Challenge

How can principal supervisors help school teams target their coaching to what drives instructional improvement?

Going into this school year, Christine Diaz worked with her colleagues to create a detailed plan for instructional improvement across the eight schools she supports. The plan outlined the highest-priority teacher and leader competencies to focus on during each week of the first semester, in order to keep on track towards success for every student. (For more, see “If everything’s a priority, nothing’s a priority”: Aligning Schools on Instructional Goals as a Tool to Advance Equity.)

But to realize the plan’s vision she also needed an ongoing system to clearly communicate its evolving expectations, monitor progress, and direct the right guidance toward addressing any observed gaps in implementation — as soon as they occurred.

The Solution

Weekly “look-fors” tied to instructional goals

Diaz understood that the best way to achieve her vision of success for every school and student was to align her entire instructional improvement system around a small number of weekly priorities. In her theory of action, if she:

  • Clarified for principals and network instructional leaders what success looks like for a handful of high-leverage practices around lesson planning and delivery;
  • Deployed her network coaches weekly to assess practice in those priorities, and to coach school leaders to support implementation; and
  • Used her weekly leadership meetings and principal check-ins to gauge progress toward mastery and to plan for the next week’s set of priorities;

Then she could focus the energies of all of her instructional leaders on pursuing the right strategies at the right time, so that all students increased the likelihood that they would achieve at high levels by the end of the year.

“If we’re not super clear about what we’re prioritizing–meaning what the “look-fors” are, and how we’re monitoring and responding–then success is just hit or miss … If we want everyone to be successful, it has to be by design, not chance.” — Christine Diaz, VP of Schools for Tarrant County, TX, IDEA Public Schools

The Strategy: “One band, one sound”

Diaz learned the value of focusing on a few powerful strategies as a leader of alternative high schools in Chicago, where she spent 16 years as a teacher, principal, and network leader. In that time, she led the turnaround of one such school by emphasizing a handful of schoolwide priorities, like daily exit tickets to assess student understanding, and teaching students note-taking skills.

She would apply that approach again when she moved south to take a leadership role at IDEA Public Schools in Tarrant County, Texas. As that region’s VP of Schools, Diaz has made it her mission to bring about greater collaboration and coordination throughout the network, focused on effectively executing a small number of high-impact instructional improvement strategies. She drew on the strategic planning work she encountered in Relay Graduate School of Education’s leadership development programs to shape her approach.

To drive home the point about the importance of collaboration and coordination, she often cites a line from the movie Drumline: “One band, one sound.” Says Diaz: “We can all play different instruments, but we’re all one sound.”

Month-by-Month Instructional Goals

Another of her key insights is that what matters most for instructional improvement changes as the year progresses. Hence Diaz’s system for monitoring and supporting effective instruction is anchored by a detailed “Arc of the Year” she created with her predecessor as VP of schools, and with input from her network team and principals. The 17-page planning document calls out the teaching and leadership skills that are the most critical to get right by the end of each month. Those priorities unfold along the following trajectory:

  • August. “Strong Start”: Building productive classroom norms, high expectations, and a joy of learning.
  • September. “Precise Execution”: Of instruction — i.e. planning lessons with the key elements of effectiveness (modeling, guided practice, etc.).
  • Oct-Nov. “Rigor and Engagement”: Shifting the cognitive load to students through high-level questioning, extended reading, and frequent feedback.
  • December. “Benchmarking for Success”: Determining mastery of academic standards to create re-teach and intervention plans.

Each month, Diaz translates those priorities into a set of “look-fors” for network and school leaders. Her process follows three major steps:

  1. Zero in on the goals for teacher and leader skill-mastery outlined in the Arc of the Year document for the next four weeks. ( e.g. In the second month of school, the emphasis is on ensuring strong instruction of new concepts, so a key goal is that all teachers create lesson plans that meet specific criteria.)
  2. Dig into IDEA’s teacher and leader evaluation rubrics to pull out the most important actions included in those skills. (E.g. One element of effective lesson planning in the teacher rubric is creating exemplar student responses as part of their lesson planning process.)
  3. Draft a set of descriptions (in clear, principal-friendly language) of what to look for to know if teachers and school leaders are implementing those actions. (E.g. At least two days before teaching a lesson, each teacher submits exemplar responses for all deliverables that students will produce.)

The end result is a set of look-fors for each week of the month that fit on a single page. Examples of such look-fors for lesson planning are:

  • The Objective is specific, measurable, aligned to the rigor of the standard, and in student-friendly language.
  • Exit tickets require students to show and explain their thinking.
  • Key points are clearly listed for student reference, and aligned to what students need to master the objective.

Such look-fors then become the basis for common observation tools used by school and network leaders to assess practice and guide their coaching (See image below for an excerpt; the complete tool is available here).

Creating a month’s worth of look-fors is a three-week process. That’s because Diaz takes the time to get feedback on her initial ideas from the region’s director of operations, human resources director, and executive director — as well as from her own team of network content and professional development specialists.

She says this helps to further align everyone’s understanding of the look-fors, and makes for a more clearly described set of expectations. It also acts as a form of “intellectual prep” for her and her team; it forces them to think more deeply about what needs to be accomplished at each point in the year, and about what supports teachers and leaders will need to be able to meet those expectations.

As Diaz explains: “When I’m clear about my goals I can use that to backwards plan — that’s what we expect teachers to do in their planning, so as leaders we need to do the same.”

Observation, Feedback, and Coaching Cycles

Diaz utilizes a series of ongoing mechanisms to bring the look-fors to life in schools and classrooms across the network. These include meetings, observations, and coaching to clarify current expectations, identify gaps in implementation, and support schools in closing those gaps. Among those activities:

  • At the start of a month, Diaz brings all principals together to explain the new look-fors and to address their questions about them. She then deploys the network’s content specialists and professional development leaders to observe instruction and coach toward the look-fors.
  • In their 1:1 weekly check-ins with Diaz, principals share their progress (e.g. by showing examples of teachers’ lesson plans), Diaz provides feedback, and they discuss any implementation challenges at the school. She also meets weekly with the network’s manager of coaches for a network wide snapshot of implementation.
  • Each Friday, Diaz meets with all of her network coaches to review the observation data from their school visits, identify common implementation gaps, and agree on exemplar schools where particular look-fors demonstrated a high level of performance;
  • The next Monday she joins the coaches in visiting selected schools to identify exemplar practices or to better understand priority gaps to determine the right support to provide in their coaching and professional development that week.
  • At the end of the month, Diaz collaborates with and supports her lead network coach in holding a step-back meeting with her full team of instructional leaders to assess progress, determine the most pressing remaining gaps and, as needed, make adjustments in plans for the next month’s look-fors. (In January, she and her team of regional coaches also meet for a step-back to review first semester data to determine network wide plans and priorities for the second semester.)
Diaz creates “heatmaps” from observation data collected for each competency to identify the most pressing remaining gaps to address in the coming weeks.

Diaz gives this example of how the process quickly identifies and closes gaps in practice. In September, one set of look-fors focused on whether school-based instructional leadership teams were leading lesson-plan-review meetings effectively. But at some schools, these meetings weren’t producing the intended analysis and feedback on teachers’ lesson plans that could drive improvements in student learning.

Network coaches knew from their observations at other schools that effective lesson plan reviews were the result of careful pre-work and clear agendas. So, they worked with teams at the schools with less effective practice to develop clear protocols for what an instructional leadership team does before, during, and after a lesson plan review meeting. After doing so, Diaz says lesson plans reviews have improved markedly.

The VP of Schools says her network’s best chance of realizing high levels of achievement for every student is to keep repeating such success stories throughout the school year. By continually aligning everyone’s efforts around collaborating to elevate the level of high-leverage practices, her network and school leaders maximize their team’s abilities to move all students towards mastery of rigorous learning goals.

“When you’re running a school or running a region, if you’re not aligned with all of your team members, you can’t win,” says Diaz, who says “winning” means high levels of achievement for every student. “Without that alignment, you might have pockets of winning, but that’s not how we measure success.”

Taking it Back to Your School

Work with your team of instructional leaders to develop a concise, clear, and timely set of high-leverage look-fors for lesson planning and delivery.

  • What are the 7–8 teacher and leader competencies that are most important to master at this point in the year, to keep students on track towards high levels of achievement?
  • How can you describe those competencies in practice, such that someone could determine if they were being implemented effectively in a school?

Plan a cycle of weekly and monthly activities for instructional leaders to take part in to bring those look fors to life in the school and classroom.

  • How can you clarify the expectations for principals and other instructional leaders?
  • How can you and your team get an accurate picture of current implementation across the school(s)? What check-ins, school visits, meetings, and data reviews will you include?
  • How can you and your team close the gap between current implementation and a clear vision for exemplary practice? What kind of feedback, coaching, and professional development mechanisms can quickly target the right support to the most pressing issues?

Artifacts

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 for two decades she taught in and led alternative high schools to notable success with students who had struggled in traditional high schools. Christine is an alumna of Relay’s Instructional Leadership Professional Development program and a current participant in the National Principal Supervisors Academy. To learn how she created a semester-long plan for improving teaching and learning, see “If everything’s a priority, nothing’s a priority”: Aligning Schools on Instructional Goals as a Tool to Advance Equity.)