The power of intentionality, coherence and being ambitious and explicit around expectations in schools

By Dr Nina Hood

Education is top-heavy with slogans and sermons. As teachers, we may nod in earnest agreement that every child must be held to high expectations and deserve to feel safe and respected, but our practices often reveal something less than a warm embrace of those lofty ideals. [There is a] disconnect between words and deeds – between ideals and deliverables.

These words by Robert Pondiscio capture for me perhaps the greatest lesson from his recent book How the other half learns; Equality, excellence, and the battle of school choice, which documents his year inside Success Academy, a charter management organisation (CMO) which runs arguably forty of the most successful schools in New York. The lesson is the importance of making expectations, beliefs, values, behaviours and actions explicit, and putting in place the structures to ensure they are consistently upheld.

I’ve written previously about Success Academy. Similarly to then, there are aspects of Success Academy that Pondiscio describes that challenge my own educational philosophy and thinking. However, there also are some powerful ideas, ideas that are relevant to New Zealand’s education system.

Coherent, consistent, infused school culture

Culture, ultimately was what Pondiscio identified as the lynch pin of Success Academy’s success. Unlike so many discussions of school culture, which revert to platitudes, generic statements, or buzzwords, what struck me about the culture at Success Academy was the explicitness and specificity with which it was articulated, and the coherence and consistency with which it infused every aspect of school and broader organisational life. All interactions, teacher to student, principal to teacher, teacher to parent, central-CMO to school, were grounded in a shared understanding and common (and high) expectations.

High standards made explicit

Many teachers espouse high expectations for their students. However, too frequently there is a limited understanding of what high expectations actually are, or how to design the types of rigorous tasks or engage with the ambitious content that will enable students to reach the aspired levels of learning. Furthermore, while teachers may hold high standards, there often is a lack of accountability or support to ensure that they are reached. At Success Academy, expectations and standards are made explicit, and teachers are tasked with, (and are supported to) ensuring they are met. They also are unapologetically ambitious and academic in nature. Pondiscio recounted an episode where Success Academy CEO Eva Moskowitz, after observing several classrooms commented to the school’s principal: “You have an endemic problem with stupid shouting and call-and-response. Get them [the teachers] to a more intellectual place …. if that happened in an affluent neighbourhood, people would pull their kids out. They need to understand that they’re disadvantaging poor kids by doing that”.

Principals as instructional leaders

The principals at Success Academy schools are positioned as instructional leaders. That is, their primary responsibility is leading the teaching and learning (instructional practice) in their school, including the professional learning and continual development of their teaching staff. This in part is enabled by having a business manager in every school, who is responsible for operations and infrastructure. What was striking for me was that principals were frequently in classrooms observing their teachers teaching, providing feedback, and engaging in professional conversations with teachers around data and evidence of student learning. They knew, at an instructional level, the strengths and weaknesses of each of their staff members. Even if you do not agree with the particular pedagogical approaches at Success Academy, the rigour, consistency and attention to ensuring high quality instruction and supporting teacher learning and improving practice makes it a valuable model for others. In too many New Zealand schools, the instructional practice and the professional development of teachers lacks the rigour and consistency that would enable them to continually improve.

Centralised curriculum and teaching resources

At Success Academy there is a centralised curriculum developed by a central office team. This means that the unit plans, lesson plans, and teaching activities and materials are predeveloped for teachers. The result, as Pondiscio observes, is that teachers move from being instructional designers to instructional deliverers. Pondiscio further explains how the extra time / capacity teachers gain from not having to source and design their own lessons, enables them to focus more time on high impact practices such as providing feedback, building relationships with parents, and analysing student work. While for me there is something a little too restrictive in Success Academy’s centralised curriculum and pedagogical model, there also are considerable advantages to teachers having ready access to high quality, rigorous curriculum materials. Indeed, there is a body of research to suggest that the curriculum materials, teaching resources and lesson approaches teachers use can impact considerably on student learning.  

While aspects of Success Academy are in tension with prevailing educational philosophies and practices in New Zealand schools, it does seem that there is something for us to learn from their model and approach to schooling. For me it is less to do with their particular curriculum or pedagogical approaches and more to do the with the consistency, explicitness and intentionality that underpins the values, processes and systems across all aspects of their schools and organisation.