Dr. Rhonda Neal Waltman, National Director of Learning Supports at Scholastic, explores the need for distributed leadership models in schools with a three component approach: instruction, management, and Learning Supports.
Earlier this year in the spring, a New York principal shared with me that she had worked tirelessly to prepare her staff for the return of their middle school students for in-person learning. After seven months of virtual delivery, it was finally time to meet students face to face! The principal and leadership team knew this “opening” was going to be unlike any before for so many reasons. As a school leader who has always valued relationships as a catalyst for success, this principal was deliberate in her effort to expand her distributed leadership model using an approach that focuses on equity beyond instruction.
What is this Leadership Approach?
As part of the school leadership team’s professional learning, they were introduced to a distributed leadership model that expands school improvement from a two-component approach of instruction and management, to a three component approach, with the inclusion of Learning Supports. This expanded model provides a systematic approach to addressing student barriers to learning in an equitable way.
As authors Glenn Singleton and Curtis Linton explain, “Equity is not a guarantee that all students will succeed. Rather, it assures that all students will have the opportunity and support to succeed. In an equitable system, the barriers that inhibit student progress are removed.”
School leaders today recognize that while many students come to school motivated, engaged, and prepared to learn, that is not the case for all children, largely because of the barriers they face in their homes, communities, and classrooms. These barriers take many forms and include social, emotional, and behavioral issues, as well as factors related to school climate, safety, substance abuse, poverty, homelessness, mental health, community issues, and attendance. And as every educator can attest, even the most innovative instructional plan is no match for a student traumatized from abuse, homelessness, or neglect. Many students also face the challenge of needing a more intense level of home- or community-based supports for their learning journey—this is possible when schools and families work together to provide wraparound supports for all students.
Additionally, this leadership model highlights the different “on ramps” through which administrators can internalize working in three components and approach this work from different perspectives. Over the summer, I worked with two principals who saw this model as an opportunity to take ownership of their own infrastructures by defining and clarifying expectations for their leadership teams.
In one example, the principal utilized the three-component framework to clarify buckets of responsibilities for his assistant principals. This clarification has given his assistant principals the autonomy not only to make key decisions in their areas, but also to begin to build their respective “benches” of leaders to sustain this work. This model is about building capacity, not about delegating responsibility. The leadership team has a sense of accountability for the impact of their respective efforts to improve student learning and their school’s overall continuous improvement efforts.
The second principal experienced this leadership model as an opportunity to reorganize duties of her leadership team and clarify the expectations and responsibilities of each of the assistant principals in her building. This clarification has given her team the necessary tools to be more efficient and not duplicate efforts or let things fall through the cracks. Building the capacity of their respective teams of teacher and support staff leaders helps clarify the many moving parts of running a school and provides a foundation for sustainability. When leaders are empowered to take ownership of their work, micromanagement is diminished, and communication and trust become non-negotiable.
Both principals understand this is a process. The model allows them the flexibility to adjust to fit their needs. Being thoughtful and intentional in their planning efforts will begin to yield a deepened capacity for their staff and students to be successful.
Informed by decades of research from Dr. Howard Adelman and Dr. Linda Taylor from the UCLA Center for Mental Health in Schools, this model prescribes that schools can move beyond the adoption of strong instruction and management and provide the third layer—Learning Supports. This expanded approach to school improvement addresses factors beyond those available through effective curriculum and instruction, to include non-instructional barriers in the home or community that often prevent students from engaging in the classroom in the first place and achieving their full potential—in academics and in life.
What are Learning Supports?
Learning Supports are the resources, strategies, and practices that support intellectual, physical, social, and emotional development to ensure student success. Learning Supports are deployed school-wide and in individual classrooms to address barriers to learning and teaching, and to re-engage disconnected students. According to Adelman and Taylor, the full range of Learning Supports can be organized in six practice areas:
- Classroom-Based Supports
- Student and Family Interventions
- Crisis Intervention
- Community Collaboration
- Family Engagement
As the name implies, Learning Supports are just one tool, among many tools, to enable students to circumvent the barriers they encounter. If they can successfully navigate through and around these barriers, thanks to the right academic, leadership, and social-emotional supports, then students will be able to grow in a way that leads to learning for life.
In most districts, however, the majority of non-instructional services are funded by discrete, categorical funding, which often results in a multitude of disconnected activities. This service fragmentation does not allow supportive programming to be delivered efficiently or cost-effectively. Because the problems students face are complex, only the creation of a comprehensive, integrated system of supports can successfully transform the system—moving from a “one child at a time,” case-by-case approach, to a system that meets the needs of all students. An integrated and equitable system of learning supports identifies, addresses, and removes barriers to learning and teaching so all students can successfully navigate their individual learning pathways.
What’s the Best Way to Get Started?
For principals to effectively implement an equity-focused leadership model based on the three component approach of instruction, management, and Learning Supports, they should consider the following:
- Create an expanded framework for effective, continuous improvement using a three-component model for leadership teams; include a lead for Learning Supports on the school improvement team.
- Identify redundant and ineffective Learning Supports and uncover gaps in critical services provided to students; take an inventory of programs and practices in place for universal, targeted, and intensive intervention.
- Maximize effective use of existing staff and program resources; make certain that non-instructional staff works together and not in silos.
- Clarify opportunities to weave together school, family, and community resources; see families as partners and tap into community-based organizations.
- Use data to determine which students are not making progress and get to the root cause of why they are not (what are the barriers?), rather than waiting for students to fail.
When school leaders deliberately use a three component lens to address school improvement, there is a clear and empowered cross-functional team that focuses on systematically addressing barriers to learning.
Adelman, Howard and Linda Taylor. Rebuilding for Learning: Addressing Barriers to Learning and Teaching, and Reengaging Students. New York: Scholastic, 2008.
Linton, Curtis and Glenn Singleton. Courageous Conversations About Race. California: Corwin Press, 2006, 46-47.