How do you improve student outcomes?  How do you improve the instruction in the classroom?  There have been many approaches to these questions over the years.  Answers that have been postulated include providing standards to hold students, teachers, and schools accountable to the learning.  Lately, the push is on professional development.  Also, the tried and true cowboy mentality (our national meta narrative right?), hire one charismatic person to lead the school into the sunset of enhanced educational dreams and glorious futures.

Well, all of these seem(ed) like very good ideas from the outset.  Richard F. Elmore provides a different paradigm for thinking about these questions and he calls it the instructional core.  In his paper, Improving the Instructional Core, Mr. Elmore provides a method for thinking through how to improve the classroom instruction.  He proposes that it is a combination of raising the level of the content (increase rigor) that is taught to students, increase skill and knowledge of the teachers (increase capacity as it relates to pedagogy), and increase the level of active student learning (student engagement).  If you improve all three, you have a shot at improving student outcomes in the classroom.  Mr. Elmore further provides 7 principles which help develop his thoughts.  I cannot use them here lest I violate his copyright, but suffice it to say that they readily elucidate his thoughts on the matter.

So what are some takeaways (my takeaways) from his article?  Well, the first and foremost is that my role, as an administrator, in providing leadership and support for improving classroom instruction is by helping increase those three elements.  My effectiveness at increasing these three things will correlate into improved student outcomes.  It does not, however, Mr. Elmore argues matter if I work to capture more data, analyze the standards and our results, generate reports on why or how our students are achieving, or any of these other typical “leadership” activities.  My success is the school’s success is the teacher’s success is the students’ success.  It all starts and ends with the students.  This is humbling, it is a swallowing of pride moment, but it is also liberating.  It takes the pressure off of the John Wayne mentality which is engendered in our culture (but you can call me The Duke if you want).  My role as leader in the building is to help teachers build capacity so that they can increase rigor and focus on student engagement.

Now a further question must be asked… is Mr. Elmore correct?  Do his ideas have merit?  Well, I have assumed up to this point that they are.  Let me answer this by saying that I don’t know.  Truly.  He has some interesting and provocative messages in his paper that deeply challenge the existing culture of professional development in schools.  I have not been a huge fan of the status quo so his ideas resonate with me on many levels.  I believe that he has some very important points that seem to have tremendous merit.  His view of how professional development can work, for instance, is one of the best models that I have seen (one of the few that makes sense).  He is also one of the few people I have heard in education say that we need less reform and that schools need to do fewer programs.  Usually it is recommended that we fraction up our time trying to spend as much time as possible in a million different directions, and then to add more stuff on top of that!

At any rate, I think that Mr. Elmore holds some keys and I think that his work is very thought provoking.  I know that we at TCS will be examining some of his thoughts to see what keys it holds to helping us improve student engagement, increase pedagogical practices, and increase rigor.  More on how that all pans out later.