It's the instructional core

Remember when Bill Clinton tacked up the Post-it® note that reminded him, “it’s the economy, stupid?” This clear focus helped him win the presidency.

For the Heights schools the focus is “the instructional core.” And the goal is a high level of student achievement across the board.

In September Richard Elmore, the guru of the instructional core, was featured at a school district-sponsored retreat for more than 100 administrators, principals, teacher leaders, parent and community leaders, State Department of Education administrators, education advocates, and teacher educators.

Elmore is one of the thinker/practitioners who is helping to shape the transformation of the CH-UH schools. His message made real sense: if you want lots of children to excel and every classroom to be a place where students are engaged in activities that push them forward to high levels of learning, you must affect the instructional core.

The instructional core has three interrelated parts: the expectations for what children learn, the subject knowledge and teaching skills of their teachers, and classroom work that makes students active participants in their learning. Common sense? Yes. Easy? Not  quite. 

But by focusing on the instructional core the school district is counting on increasing the effectiveness of its primary existing resource: its teachers. This is not about new programs that “fix” kids, nor is it about blaming teachers. It's about recalibrating expectations for students to fit the needs of a changing world and overcoming outmoded biases. It's about a systematic approach to ensuring that teachers have the best educational materials and classroom strategies to effectively engage children in a demanding curriculum. And, it'is about monitoring progress and constantly seeking success.

Creating the optimum conditions for student learning throughout a school district is not achieved through simple declarations. It takes vision, a huge amount of effort, determination, and focus while challenging old assumptions, sharing leadership, and building new structures. The CH-UH City School District has been working on this for six years. You can see changes in the school culture as teachers and principals have assumed new roles and responsibilities, and in what transpires in classrooms.

Another important word in the district’s change lexicon is "coherence." If the district is to successfully strengthen the instructional core, then that objective must be the centerpiece of every decision. Educators must resist being pulled off track, which can mean some activities must be dropped to make room for the activities that will produce the greatest benefits for students.

The retreat's key message: If we actually want different results, everyone has to show restraint in the distracting demands we place on the people who are doing the work with kids. We need to value the priority that is being given to improving the instructional core, and find ways to support this emphasis. We can also help keep the district on track by looking for the right things: curriculum, classroom activities, and attitudes that demand more of students; teachers assuming new roles and collaborating more to ensure best practices in the classroom; and more resources devoted to increasing teacher knowledge and effectiveness.

Thankfully, Superintendent Delisle put the district on this course and has built a team that is committed to its success. Given her impending departure, it is more important than ever that our community understands and embraces these core ideas, and expects that sustaining this work is the top priority for new leadership.

The district is on the road to a major transformation, but it will take steadfast commitment to fully reap the benefits of this work. Post this note: it’s the instructional core!

Susie Kaeser is an advocate for public education. She founded Reaching Heights, a citizen advocacy organization for the CH-UH schools, in 1989 and retired as executive director last December. She is a resident of Cleveland Heights and her two adult children are graduates of the Heights schools.

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Volume 1, Issue 8, Posted 12:33 PM, 10.22.2008