Shared expectations are one of our most powerful tools for leading improvement.

But often, we develop the wrong kinds of shared expectations—like checklists and rubrics that aren't very helpful to teachers, even though they seem to describe what we want to see. 

Today, I thought I'd share the detailed guidance I'm giving our Instructional Vision Project study participants as they develop their frameworks for helping teachers improve. 

I'm using my High Expectations Framework (PDF) as an example.

Below, I'll show you a few ways we could go wrong with this focus, but the full rubric is a pretty solid “solo first draft,” and you can make something similar for a focus of your choosing by following the process:

High Expectations Framework

Here's how to develop your solo first draft of shared expectations for a specific practice.

1. Choose a focus aimed at solving a real problem.

The first step is to choose a focus, based on a real problem/opportunity you see in your school.

This focus should be a specific practice (or area of practice) for a specific group of people in your school—usually teachers, but sometimes other staff like aides or office staff, depending on the problem you're trying to solve. 

For my example, I've chosen “High Expectations for Student Learning” as a focus, to address a (hypothetical) problem I'm seeing among my teachers—low expectations for many students, and a lack of clarity on how to help more students reach high expectations.

Now, for this to be the right focus, I really need to believe that it's a real problem that holds considerable potential for improvement. 

If there's a deeper, more fundamental problem, I may want to focus on that instead, but there's also value in getting quick wins by picking the “low-hanging fruit” of improvement. 

You decide—and doing your solo first draft will help you evaluate your decision before moving forward with staff.

On to step 2…

2. Break the practice into its key components. 

This is where it gets tricky—deciding what really makes up a practice.

We are NOT talking about:

  1. Steps in a procedure for using the practice
  2. A checklist of observable “look-for” characteristics
  3. Abstract principles like “excellence”

We're trying to capture the “insider's view” of the practice, without worrying about what it “looks like” to an observer. 

Ask yourself “What is the practitioner thinking about as they exercise professional judgment in this area?

If you want to improve teacher practice, you must improve teacher decision-making, because teaching is fundamentally professional work. 

Another way to identify key components is to ask yourself “What does it mean to get this right, and what does it mean to miss the point or get it wrong?” 

We're trying to get at the heart of practice—the true essence.

For example, in my High Expectations draft, one way we might miss the point is to have high expectations only for some students—so one of my key components is “Inclusivity.”

We can't have high expectations for just a few students; the point is to have high expectations for everyone. 

Now, how else might people fail to “get” high expectations? 

Another big problem is having high expectations for students, but not effectively supporting students in meeting those expectations. 

So I've added “Milestones” and “Scaffolding” as key components—teachers must break down their high expectations into stages, and must support students in reaching high expectations.

What would be some key components in your framework? 

3. Outline levels of performance for each component.

Here's where the magic happens: by describing different levels of performance for each key component, we're creating a roadmap for growth.

Adding levels of performance makes your framework look like a rubric…but hold on a sec—it's easy to get this wrong. 

We don't want to end up with a long checklist; we want to end up with a roadmap

A good map tells you two things: where you are, and how to get where you want to go. 

Figuring out where you are (without GPS, anyway) involves looking at the map, and looking at your surroundings, and matching them up.

“Oh, I'm on Highway 65 where it intersects with State Route 10.” 

Then, figuring out how to get where you want to go involves looking at the map, and applying it to your decision-making.

“OK, so I need to turn left here, and I'll be on State Route 10 for about 5 miles.”

Now, contrast this “roadmap” approach with a “checklist” approach. 

A map and a checklist serve fundamentally different purposes—a safe driving checklist might include things like:

  • Checking that tires are properly inflated
  • Filling windshield washer fluid
  • Checking that all lights and signals work
  • Checking the oil level
  • Checking the weather and traffic reports

…none of which will actually tell you how to get to your destination. 

Too often, when we're trying to help people improve, we give them a checklist rather than a roadmap…and we wonder why practice doesn't change. 

If you need to know which way to turn on State Highway 10, being reminded to check your oil doesn't help one bit…

…yet that's precisely how many observation instruments are designed—as checklists that don't focus on the key decisions teachers need to make as they enact a practice. 

Imagine what would happen if I didn't map out the levels of performance in my High Expectations rubric—I'd end up with a checklist like this:

High Expectations for Student Learning—Bad Example:

  • Has high expectations linked to standard(s)
  • Communicates high expectations to students
  • Has high expectations for ALL students
  • Expectations are rigorous
  • Big projects/units are broken into milestones
  • Scaffolding is provided to help students reach high expectations

As a checklist, this isn't especially useful—even if we organize it into a rubric layout, like this—Bad Example:

High Expectations Checklist-Style Rubric

This kind of rubric sends the message that more is better

…and that quality doesn't matter. It's really just a checklist. 

This same message is sent by “frequency/extent” rubrics, like this—another bad example:

High Expectations Frequency-Extent Rubric

This type of rubric implies that improvement is about doing the right things more consistently, and better…yet it fails to describe what better actually looks like. 

If you want people to improve their practice, you MUST be specific about what quality looks like. 

So instead of listing our key components in one row, and saying “do all of them all the time, really hard” we can simply be descriptive—providing great detail on what practice is like at each level of performance.

Here's just one row from my solo first draft, focusing on the “Scaffolding” component of High Expectations:

High Expectations Framework

As you can see, there is a qualitative, tangible difference between the levels of performance. 

As the instructional leader, you can get a pretty clear sense of where someone falls on the roadmap, even from just a single good observation.

(In contrast, we can never really have enough data to use “frequency/extent” rubrics well—there's always a chance that we'll miss something.)

As the practitioner, you'd know right away which level matches your current practice. 

And most importantly, you can get a clear sense of how your practice would have to change in order to improve.

You get a vision for improvement. 

Let's say I'm a teacher who “has high expectations” but could be doing a lot better in this area.

I know high expectations are important, and I try to help all students reach my high expectations…

…but I'm not very clear on the idea of “scaffolding” or how it could help more students achieve at higher levels. 

Would this roadmap be useful for me? Would it tell me what to do differently? 

If I'm not providing scaffolds at the moment, this phrase probably rings true to my practice: “The teacher attributes students' difficulties to a lack of ability or effort, and does not take responsibility for providing scaffolds.”

Ouch! I don't want be that person, but if I'm honest with myself, I'm at a Level 1 or 2—I'm not really taking responsibility for providing scaffolds. 

So how can I improve? I can look over to Levels 3 and 4.

What do I need to do? I need to “Anticipate difficulties that students may face” and “proactively provide supports.”

Ah! Now we're getting somewhere. 

See how this could work for your teachers? Given a specific roadmap, people can improve rapidly.

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