All Articles Education Educational Leadership 3 levers to pull for systemic change for increased student outcomes

3 levers to pull for systemic change for increased student outcomes

School schedules, high-quality materials and effective professional development are three areas of systemic change that improve outcomes.

6 min read

EducationEducational Leadership

The word impossible written on a white paper, with a hand using scissors to cut the "im" off, for an article on systemic change in schools

Isabel Pavia/Getty Images

headshot of Kristan Rodriguez for article on systemic changes in schools

The other day, I was sitting on the edge of the sea watching a sailboat veer across the horizon. It made me think about how much our work as school administrators is like that of a ship’s captain. We can drift aimlessly at the mercy of the currents or take the helm and steer our ship purposefully toward our destination. A lot of schools are currently navigating a new normal, post-COVID. Just like a ship’s instrument panel, as educators, we have high-leverage tools to help chart a course toward success and resilience. Consider these three levers when you are making systemic change. 

Lever 1: Harnessing the power of the schedule 

Nowhere can a principal affect more systemic change quickly than with their schedule. I look for three key areas. 

  1. Does the schedule have time for colleagues to collaborate? Are the collaboration times purposeful in length and in configuration for professional learning, data meetings and facilitated instructional design time?
  2. Does the schedule have embedded time for intervention that supplements and does not supplant core instruction? One method for this is to have an intervention block built into the school day. An example is a WIN (What I Need) block. 
  3. Does the schedule have enough core instructional time? For example, for early literacy, are there 120 uninterrupted minutes a day to make time for foundational literacy skills? 

Creating the schedule is actually the easy part. Implementation of the schedule holds the make-or-break factor. 

A key undercurrent to any effective schedule is the staff to support it. Conduct a thorough staff needs assessment based on student data and evidence-based practices. It may result in hiring high-dosage tutors, interventionists or math/literacy specialists. 

Beyond staffing, focus on competency building for all. If teachers are going to be doing small group support during the WIN block, do they understand the data that drives that model? Does the school have organized data flowcharts to determine tiers of intervention during that block? Do interventionists have evidence-based materials, and do classroom teachers have professional development on effective small-group instruction?  

A few years back, I started separating Tier 2 into two levels: Tier 2A and Tier 2B. Below is a quick overview of the distinction and how it lands effectively within a tiered schedule. In both cases, Tier 2 supports occur in addition to those provided in Tier 1 settings. 

Tier 2A Tier 2B
Interventions offered by classroom teachers and tutors using core curriculum-based interventions. This may happen during the WIN intervention block.

For example, a teacher uses the high-quality curriculum’s intervention components with a small group of students, or the school offers a 1:3 ratio with high-dosage tutors for 50 hours, targeting key grade-level, standards-specific skills aligned to the core curriculum to support acceleration efforts. 

Interventions provided by an interventionist offered in addition to classroom support. This may happen during the WIN intervention block. 

For example, staff use a diagnostic assessment to identify skills where students are below grade level, and they work with an interventionist who uses correlated high-quality intervention materials, 

Level 2: Professional learning and coaching 

Ask some simple questions when reviewing professional development plans as part of systemic change.

  1. Do you have time in your schedules and calendar to have enough high-quality PD to affect change?
  2. Once you have the time for collaboration in your schedules, are you providing structures to make that time productive and purposeful, such as meeting norms; protocols for data meetings; or templates, prompts and exemplars for lesson design?  
  3. Do you have coaches to guide effective meetings and offer specific and related PD as a follow-up? Are you offering tiered coaching models and providing all staff with the extent and content of coaching specific to their needs?
  4. Are your professional learning plans aligned to student outcomes and the high-quality materials being used? Is your plan robust in hours and duration, informed by student data and tiered to their individual needs?

Lever 3: High-quality instructional materials  

High-quality instructional materials are essential for systemic change. These resources and materials are designed to facilitate effective teaching and learning experiences that result in positive student outcomes. They are specifically created to support educators in delivering engaging and comprehensive instruction to students. 

Many schools are having hard conversations if they are being asked to make a shift after investing time and money in materials that do not meet evidence-based criteria. You can begin this shift by assessing current materials. Use established sites with databases that identify and rate materials based on the definition of high quality. This generally sparks conversations about continuing with materials just because the organization already invested in them or choosing materials that will have a significant impact on student outcomes. 

 In addition, consider these criteria in an internal review process:

  1. Alignment with standards. The materials are aligned with educational standards, such as national or state curriculum guidelines, ensuring that the content and skills addressed are appropriate and relevant.
  2. Clear learning objectives. They clearly articulate the intended learning outcomes or objectives, providing teachers and students with a clear understanding of expected achievements.
  3. Comprehensive and well-organized. They cover the necessary content in a thorough and systematic manner, presenting information in a logical sequence and facilitating the progression of knowledge and skills.
  4. Engaging and interactive. They incorporate various media formats and strategies to engage learners.
  5. Scaffolded support. They provide appropriate levels of support and guidance to help students grasp complex concepts and include resources to use in small-group instruction. 
  6. Authentic and relevant. They connect learning to real-world contexts and incorporate diverse perspectives, examples and culturally relevant content that reflects the experiences and identities of all students.
  7. Accessible. They are accessible to all students, including those with disabilities and multilingual learners.
  8. Assessment and feedback tools. They include formative and summative assessment tools, such as quizzes, activities and rubrics, to monitor student progress and provide timely feedback.
  9. Teacher support and guidance. They offer supplemental resources, instructional strategies and professional development materials to support teachers in effectively implementing the materials and adapting them to their specific classroom needs.

Just as navigating treacherous seas requires a keen eye for detail, we must be systematic and explicit in identifying our needs and focusing on specific improvement steps. Imagine the difference between blindly tossing spaghetti against the ship’s hull, hoping it sticks, and truly understanding the root causes of the challenges. You can start systemic change by pulling these three levers. Prepare to set sail on a remarkable journey!


Kristan Rodriguez, Ph.D., is an education consultant, former superintendent of schools and co-author with Katie Novak, Ed.D, of ”In Support of Students: A Leader’s Guide to Equitable MTSS.” She has over 20 years of experience in teaching and administration and has published multiple state-level guidebooks on MTSS and leadership.

Opinions expressed by SmartBrief contributors are their own. 



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