Hi, I hope you’re doing well. A number of Coaching Letter readers live outside the US, but here in the USA it’s Memorial Day, when we remember those who have died in service to the Nation. Amen. And I know how this makes me sound, but I’m really glad it’s been a cold and wet weekend, because now I feel no obligation to host something or go somewhere—even the gym’s closed, so I feel no obligation to go there, either. I’ve been reading books and cooking, including a pot of Tuscan bread and tomato soup that was a complete disaster so I ditched it in the back yard. I hope I made some critter happy.

Every so often my work life gets so intense and therefore I have so many things to write about that I suffer from decision fatigue; I can’t write about everything that’s happening the way I would like to, but I can’t decide what to actually write about. And when I haven’t published a Coaching Letter for more than three weeks I get anxious, even though this is a demand that I place on myself—writing the Coaching Letter isn’t part of my job description, I do it because I enjoy it and I get a lot out of it. So my solution, every so often, is to provide a survey of what’s going on for me, as a sort of clearing of the decks. So here is a list of what I’m working on and thinking about at the moment that I think could be interesting or useful to you—it’s all about Acceleration, because that’s what is taking up most of my time, but Acceleration is a big topic related to all sorts of other ideas…​

  1. Acceleration: up until about 3 weeks ago, when I sent out the last Coaching Letter, I was obsessively checking for what other organizations were writing and doing about Acceleration, hoping that we weren’t missing anything. I am now officially over that. I am pretty convinced that if you want a framework for doing the best you can for students returning to full time school after a long hiatus, the Center’s Accelerating Learning Framework is what you should be turning to. I got to that point after reading two things (in addition to the resources I’ve mentioned in previous Coaching Letters):
    1. We can’t afford to love learning acceleration to death, which is a really bizarre title, but a thoughtful article that captures the challenges of implementing a strategy as complex as Acceleration, and along the way describes the strategy exactly as we envision it, agrees that it’s the right thing to do, and points out that it should be sustained over time—in other words, it’s not just a post-pandemic fix but a long-term approach to educational improvement;
    2. and this article from District Management Group—I wish we had their marketing team, and maybe they’re saving their best stuff for their institute (as are we, to be frank), but yet again it’s weak on the instruction part—how can you advocate accelerating learning without talking about instruction? I appreciate the emphasis on prioritizing curriculum and using data, but what about teaching? Call me crazy, but I think teaching is the critical variable in schools.
    3. I think you might also spend a profitable few hours on the Achieve the Core website—and follow them on Twitter. You might also read this report from TNTP, and this report from Council of Great City Schools. If you have been to one of our Acceleration workshops, all these resources, and more, are on the workshop website.
  2. We are starting a Networked Improvement Community focused on Acceleration. This is very much a continuation of the Center’s longstanding interest in continuous improvement—what is distinct about a NIC is that the members are focused on a common problem of practice, even though they come from different districts, and follow a particular methodology. I guess the best reference is the book Learning to Improve by Bryk et al, which is nicely summarized here, and Harvard Education Letter has a good short articles about NICs. And then there is a new book about NICs called Improvement in Action, which you can read about in this Stanford Social Innovation article. Planning for the NIC has been my biggest concern lately and I’m excited, daunted and stressed in roughly equal measure.
  3. Working on the Acceleration NIC has led me to a lot of other great resources, some of which I’m revisiting and some I’m reading for the first time:
    1. The Best-Laid Plans Can Succeed, from Ed Leadership—I’ve written a lot (here, here, here, and here) about moving away from traditional school improvement/strategic planning, and this article is a complement, describing a short-cycle approach to school improvement planning—and here is what the NIC version of that looks like;
    2. Scaling Up Excellence, by Bob Sutton and Huggy Rao (I’m trying to figure out how I feel about the idea of being called Huggy—also, Bob Sutton is the author of The No Asshole Rule, another cool name and another great book). In a recent Coaching Letter I took a bat to the idea of “buy-in”—I don’t wish to take back anything I wrote, exactly, but I do wish I had read this book first. It’s a much more constructive approach than what I wrote, and it’s also a much more positive frame than “getting buy-in”—it would make a great summer read. My favorite line: “Spread a mindset, not just a footprint.”
    3. Developmental Evaluation by Michael Quinn Patton. Exposure to the ideas behind developmental evaluation changed my thinking, and so I’m obliged to call out this book. It is, however, long… see next item for a shorter option…
    4. Speaking of things I wish I’d read… there are several parts of The Strategy Playbook where I felt like we were pushing boundaries and I worried that we were going too far. District strategic plans and school improvement plans are deeply embedded in the way K-12 education functions—such plans are frequently required by district policy and/or state and federal laws and regulations, so ditching them for something simpler and in many ways more ephemeral seemed like a tough sell. This article, “Eyes Wide Open: Learning as Strategy Under Conditions of Complexity and Uncertainty,” however, includes language that I wish I’d written, and ideas that I think are really important about the complexity, unpredictability and essential nature of improvement:
  1. “Much of the knowledge needed to support strategy can arise only during implementation
    ii. “…indicators need to be approached with great care and should not be used without thought about the behavior they will motivate.”
    iii. “Strategic learning is not something to be done about strategy, but rather is the core of strategy.”
  1. I’ve been thinking a lot about why, despite all my hundreds of hours in grad school, my understanding of continuous improvement was so weak until relatively recently. What are we teaching these days in principal and superintendent prep programs? Is it still: make sure you have a vision, make sure your goals are measurable, use a template that assumes that the plan will unfold in a linear and straightforward manner, hold people accountable, and don’t let the plan sit on the shelf because if you do it means you are a bad leader? Because all of that, to some degree or another, is horsefeathers. We must do better.

Just for the record, Acceleration isn’t all that I do. In particular, I want to give a shout out to all the people Kerry and I have worked with this year on coaching—people who have come to one of our coaching workshops, our coaching clients all over the country, and the people we learn from and inspire us. And of course, there is significant overlap among these categories. You all are amazing. We are hosting a Zoom happy hour for any and all coaches, clients, and supporters who would like to gather to connect with each other next Thursday. Some of you are already signed up. If it’s not on your calendar and you would like an invitation, click here!

Have a great week and let me know if there is anything I can do for you. Best, Isobel

Isobel Stevenson, PhD PCC
Connecticut Center for School Change
CCSC Services to Districts
Author of The Coaching Letter
Author with Jennie Weiner of The Strategy Playbook for Educational Leaders: Principles and Practices Routledge

Stevenson logo