In these observations, administrators expected to see students working on grade-appropriate content, and that teachers would be able to explain exactly how they were addressing the full scope of the instructional shifts and the standards.
In this school, we heard from teachers and administrators alike that a consistent vision for great instruction, a strong curriculum, professional development aligned to that curriculum and designed to support teachers to implement it successfully, and a culture of high expectations for everyone were key. As one teacher explained, “Professional development didn’t used to be helpful, but we started focusing on standards and what good instruction should look like.” Another noted, “We are held to high expectations and we hold our kids to high expectations.” Relative to the other schools in our sample, this elementary school showed higher levels of student engagement and strong instruction—suggesting that their focus on increasing access to those two resources in particular has paid off.
The other schools that jumped out as positive outliers shared many of these characteristics. At one small high school, adults in the building were similarly focused on a core set of academic priorities: in their case, literacy across all subjects. (For example, students used a consistent writing protocol across all their classes.) Teachers and administrators articulated a common vision of what instruction should look like and spent a lot of time addressing how to fully implement the standards. The school also prioritized a high level of both support and accountability for teachers, through weekly observations and debriefs, and regular data meetings with administrators.
We found classrooms and schools like this across our sample, serving a diverse range of students and families. In about 70 of the classrooms we observed, students spent most of their time with grade-appropriate assignments; in nearly 30 classrooms, we saw strong instruction throughout all the lessons we observed; in 25 classrooms, students were engaged at least 80 percent of the time.17 These classrooms looked different, but their spirit was the same: students who were enjoying their learning; teachers who believed their students could do well; content and instructional practices that demanded students stretch themselves and honored their abilities to do just that. We met teachers in these classrooms who were making conscious decisions to take a leap of faith and offer students more challenging assignments than they might once have attempted. There were teachers who were forcing themselves to step back and let their students do hard work (and sometimes stumble), and those who were holding themselves and their students accountable to a high bar. At the school level, we repeatedly saw a consistent focus on a relatively small set of academic priorities, and a high level of support for teachers to meet those priorities.
Unfortunately, classrooms and schools like these were the exception. School experiences that included ample access to the four key resources—grade-appropriate assignments, strong instruction, deep engagement, and high expectations—were few and far between for most students.