Skip to content
ascd logo

May 24, 2019

5 Shifts for Instructional Leaders

    Instructional Strategies
    5 shifts for instructional leaders thumbnail
      Note: This is part of an ongoing series on instructional leadership. Read part two and part three.
      Instructional leaders are faced with change on a weekly basis. State mandates, assessments, board policies, professional development, new standards, state report cards, ESSA, data dashboards, standards-based report cards, professional learning communities, Response to Intervention (RtI), apps for communication, hiring and training new staff members, and supporting blended learning are among the duties of an instructional leader. Implementing district initiatives requires leaders to develop an implementation plan and a communication plan. If an instructional leader has 7 to 10 new initiatives, it may be difficult for teachers and administrators to have a deep understanding of each initiative. Fullan (2008) warns us against “initiativitis” and “repetitive change syndrome”, or “the tendency to launch an endless stream of disconnected initiatives that no one could possibly manage” (p.1).

      The Need For Shift

      According to Hyatt (2010), “If you are happy with the status quo, you don’t need a leader. But the moment you want something to change - to shift - that’s when you need to bring in a leader.” Shifts allow instructional leaders to support teaching and learning. According to Rick DuFour (2004), a “simple shift - from a focus on teaching to a focus on learning - has profound implications for schools” (p. 6).
      Instructional leaders can support teaching and learning by making the following shifts.
      1. Shift your emphasis on grades to increasing student understanding
      At the end of the school year, several schools still have a student assembly to recognize students who made the A/B Honor Roll. Don’t get me wrong. I support student celebrations and student assemblies. My question for instructional leaders: “Have we focused on student understanding or coverage?” Some students can earn an A or B by showing up for class each day. A school or school district that focuses on student growth and lifelong learning will prepare students for the next level. In today's era of high-stakes testing and accountability teachers feel pressure to "cover" material, rather than teach for understanding. Covering material may indicate that a teacher has taught content or checked off each state standard, but it does not mean that student understanding took place.
      Student growth allows teachers and students to analyze if a student is making progress toward accomplishing the learning targets. When instructional leaders make student understanding the goal, then the school district’s priorities will be aligned with the purpose of schooling.
      2. Shift from an emphasis on academic content only to teaching employability skills and academic content
      All students need reading, writing, math, and communication skills. These skills should not be reserved for students who are enrolling in a two-year college or four-year university. The majority of high school graduates in the United States are not academically prepared for the rigor of postsecondary education or to enter the workforce (American College Test [ACT], 2009; Conley, 2007; Flippo & Caverly, 2009). Employability skills include adaptability, communication skills, creativity, critical thinking, lifelong learning, media literacy, perseverance, problem solving, and teamwork.
      “A great divide has emerged in the United States between the education and skills of the American workforce and the needs of the nation’s employers” (Bridgeland, Milano, Rosenblum, 2011, p. 2). Content is still important, but employability skills cannot be sacrificed for covering content. Instructional leaders need to shift the emphasis to employability skills. Whether a student enters college, the military, or a career, employability skills will support graduates in securing employment and being able to apply for promotions or new opportunities.
      3. Shift From Assumptions to Data Analysis
      How often have you sat in meetings and listened to educators state, “I believe that students are struggling in math.” Some educators may say, “We need to purchase a program to support our English Language Learners.” Wilhelm (2011) argued many schools are suffering from DRIP, that is schools are data rich, information poor (p. 30). In today’s schools, we have access to more data than ever before but we often rely on assumptions or tradition.
      Data analysis should drive decisions. In K-12 education, we often make purchases, select programs, implement instructional strategies, assess students, and hold weekly meetings without evaluating if we are reaching the desired outcome. “The job is not to hope that optimal learning will occur, based on our curriculum and initial teaching. The job is to ensure that learning occurs, and when it doesn’t, to intervene in altering the syllabus and instruction decisively, quickly, and often” (Wiggins & McTighe, 2007, p. 55). Instructional leaders focus on continuous improvement by using multiple data points to make informed decisions.
      4. Shift From Compliance to Contribution
      Instructional leaders need to ask, “What is the ratio of compliance vs. contribution in my school or school district?” Sarah Martin, principal at Stonefields School in Auckland, New Zealand, shared how the school staff held ongoing conversations around the question "What is Learning?" Once the staff had a definition of what learning looked like, the adults moved to the next question, "How do we cause learning?" Traditional schools focus on completing assignments, following directions, and memorizing the correct answer. Causing learning is a shift from making a master schedule and giving the same assignment to personalized learning. Personalized learning is one way U.S. schools are moving to student choice, student voice, and contribution. The goal has changed from making it to high school graduation to graduating from high school prepared to enter the world college and career ready.
      5. Shift From Individual Leadership To Multiplying Leaders
      Who are you investing in this year? When you multiply leaders, you will have leaders in every building and across grade levels. Empowering others is one of the main roles of instructional leaders. Tony Dungy wrote (2001), “By touching the lives of the people right around us, and by replicating leaders who in turn can replicate more leaders, we can create value far beyond the small sphere that we can reach and touch directly” (p. 201). Too often, first year administrators make the mistake of trying to identify and solve all of the school district’s problems. Mark Sanborn (2015) wrote, “In the past, leaders were those who knew the right answers. Today, leaders are those who know the right questions.” What questions are guiding the work of your team? When you enter your next meeting, leave your title at the door and focus on empowering others.
      Onderick-Harvey (2017) wrote, “Change leadership creates a mindset across the organization that focuses on what could or should be different, rather than asking people to simply adopt an already determined solution.” The shifts that instructional leaders need to make will require planning, identifying short term wins, multiplying leaders, communicating the plan, and focusing on continuous improvement.
      “No longer an end point in the public education system, the American high school is now being asked to prepare all its students for the postsecondary schooling and training required for full economic and social participation in U.S. society” (Balfanz, 2009, p. 18). As you focus on the needs of your school or school district, determine how to make these shifts part of the culture. What will you do to create a culture of learning?

      Steven Weber is the Associate Superintendent for Teaching and Learning at Fayetteville Public Schools in Arkansas.

      Learn More

      ASCD is dedicated to professional growth and well-being.

      Let's put your vision into action.