How to Create a Results-Focused Learning Environment

on Jan 19, 2016
Boy in classroom


Getting everybody in the school community to focus on results for students is hard — but it’s one of the most powerful ways for principals to improve instruction.

“One of the responsibilities of school leadership teams with the strongest correlation to improve student achievement is in the area of monitoring and evaluating the effectiveness of school practices and their impact on student learning,” Beth Wallen, principal of Panther Lake Elementary School in Kent, Wash., summarizes the need to look at results.

However beautiful the strategy, you should occasionally look at the results. — Winston Churchill

No matter what challenges your school faces, in this age of heightened accountability creating and maintaining a results-focused learning environment is more important than ever. We are hard-pressed to find examples of schools eliminating achievement gaps without this culture present.

So let’s take a look at what makes for a results-focused learning environment and what specific actions leaders can take to create one.

What is a results-focused learning environment?

We have a simple definition of what a results-focused learning environment is — one where trusting individuals are committed to asking the right questions to ensure positive educational outcomes for all students.

Based on our experience in developing the 4 Dimensions of Instructional Leadership™ and working with schools and districts across the country, we’ve developed three key ideas for creating a results-focused learning environment. As with any theory, these aren’t the only factors, but we believe that if these three elements are present, you’ll be well on your way to creating a school where everyone is focused on ensuring positive outcomes for students. (We’ll share our learnings and tips at the upcoming institute on how to create a results-focused learning environment.)

Key Idea 1 – Schools should develop a culture of public practice regarding student and school data.

I recall my first several years of teaching were a very lonely and isolated job. My classroom was visited only a few times — primarily by the principal for the purposes of evaluation. As a new principal the same thing happened. I was alone in my practice with no other administrative staff and few opportunities to collaborate with my peers.

But this way of doing things is literally “old school” and we think that it’s one of the first concepts that must be addressed to create a results-focused environment. Because when the practice of teaching, leading, and learning is brought out in the open, individuals are committed to openly sharing ideas for improving the educational environment for students and student data is displayed and discussed by all.

To ensure equitable outcomes for all students we have to be willing to trust our colleagues.

Teaching is a highly complex and sophisticated endeavor, so a culture of public and reflective practice is essential. We say this because the practice of sophisticated endeavors only improves when it is open for public scrutiny. To ensure equitable outcomes for all students we have to be willing to trust our colleagues.

How can we open our practice in a way that is constructive and promotes growth? In recent years, many forward-thinking school districts have embraced the idea of instructional rounds and created collaborative structures such as professional learning communities and data teams.

One specific way to develop a culture of public practice is to create and maintain a year-long professional development calendar based on the use of student data to determine an areas of focus. This calendar is an organizational tool for the leadership team and staff, captures the work that supports student achievement efforts and teacher growth, and highlights meaningful connections to keep the focus on teaching and learning.

Beth Wallen remarked that this is important to Panther Lake because “everything is connected and it makes sense to keep that focus on teaching and learning.”

Key Idea 2 – A collaborative culture and structure where data is discussed and acted upon should be present.

To discuss and to act upon student and school data, it’s important that everyone in the school community is a part of a team. Ken Leithwood, Tony Bryk and others contend that leaders cannot do this work alone — they need distributed and shared leadership to be successful.

These collaborative structures should have two primary purposes: first to analyze and discuss data and second to act upon school data. Although many of the discussions revolve around student achievement data, collaborative structures can be organized to examine any school data including school culture, teacher data, and other data sources that school leaders can access.

All of us working in schools know that time for team meetings is short. So we should be really clear about how much time we are spending on discussing and acting upon data. Two questions to ask yourself about your collaborative teams are:

  1. What percentage of time is spent in your collaborative structures discussing data?
  2. What percentage of time is spent on developing plans to improve student/teacher performance (i.e. acting upon) the data?

Our stance is that you should engage in both — but be heavy on the action side, we recommend a 25/75% balance. The activities may vary by grade level content and context.

I recently observed a seventh grade math team that exemplified this idea. In an hour long meeting, they were able to:

  • analyze three key questions on a benchmark assessment (10 minutes)
  • chart student misconceptions based on their responses (10 minutes)
  • plan for immediate reteaching and a follow up quick assessment (40 minutes)

The team could do all of this because they had well-established norms, routines, and protocols to make the most of their time.

Key Idea 3: A structure of continuous improvement is in place that goes beyond the typical school improvement planning cycle.

Does this sound familiar to you? It’s September, the state test scores come back, and everyone writes their school improvement plan, some 50 or more pages long. After this school improvement frenzy, the plans end up on the shelf or — more productively — as a door stop.

If accountability and equity are two of your top priorities, school improvement needs to be an ongoing process.

Schools need to focus on continuous improvement all year long. To do this successfully, they need to have continuous improvement structures in place that go above and beyond the typical school improvement planning cycle. If accountability and equity are two of your top priorities, school improvement needs to be an ongoing process, one in which school teams analyze, examine, assess and refine the effectiveness of processes and programs.

One practical way to bring the school improvement plan to life is the use of SMART goal plans. Panther Lake develops goal plans for each grade level — these are developed collaboratively through professional learning communities. These plans are reviewed every 30, 60 and 90 days. Beth and her team use the plans to evaluate program effectiveness and they help inform teachers about which instructional strategies are working and if students are moving forward based on agreed upon targets.

Creating trust and ensuring equity

Here at CEL we have been training school and central office leaders in instructional leadership to eliminate achievement gaps for many years. We know how hard it is to create a results-focused environment and develop the skills and expertise to implement these practices.

But schools need to focus on results. It’s vital for us to know where we stand compared to school, district, state and national measures of accountability. It engenders trust in our families and the school community.

We also need to ensure equity for all students. That’s why we have to ask important questions such as — How are ALL of our students doing? And are we meeting the unique learning needs of all of our students according to these measures of accountability?

Creating this culture doesn’t happen overnight. It takes skill, persistence, and grit. But with the right tools and a team effort you can achieve something that all educators want: great learning outcomes for all students.


About the author: Sharon Williams

Dr. Sharon Williams joined CEL in 2014 as a project director. Dr. Williams is an experienced educator with 14 years of experience as a teacher, principal and executive director of teaching and learning and professional development. She is committed to serving the students, families, teachers and leaders in urban school districts and is using her leadership skills, education and varied experiences to fulfill CEL’s mission of eliminating the achievement gap in our country’s schools.

About the author

At the Center for Educational Leadership we partner with courageous leaders in classrooms, schools and the systems that support them to eliminate educational inequities by creating cultures of rigorous teaching, learning and leading. Our vision is transformed schools empowering all students regardless of background to create limitless futures for themselves, their families, their communities, and the world.
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