In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Coherent Instructional Systems at the School and School System Levels in the United States

  • Introduction
  • Foundational Works
  • School and District Level Coherent Instructional Systems
  • School and District Leaders’ Role in Supporting Instructional Coherence
  • The Broader Policy Environment
  • External Partnerships Aimed at Developing Capacity and Coherence

Education Coherent Instructional Systems at the School and School System Levels in the United States
by
Charlotte Sharpe, Paul Cobb
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 October 2020
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756810-0262

Introduction

The notion of a coherent instructional system builds on the Newmann, Smith, Allensworth, and Bryk’s concept of instructional program coherence, which the authors define as “a set of interrelated programs for students and staff that are guided by a common framework for curriculum, instruction, assessment, and learning climate” (Instructional program coherence: What it is and why it should guide school improvement policy. Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis 23.4: 257, cited under Foundational Works). A coherent instructional system includes an aligned set of policy instruments as proposed by Newmann and colleagues. However, it also encompasses a set of supports for teachers to improve their instructional practices. The motivation for this elaboration stems from the implementation of more rigorous college and career readiness standards (CCRS) in all US states. Research on teaching indicates both that most US teachers will need to develop new forms of instructional practice if their students are to attain these more rigorous learning goals and that the development of these instructional practices requires sustained support. Thus, the core elements of a coherent instructional system include instructional materials that aim at rigorous student learning goals, student assessments that are aligned with the instructional materials, and supports for teachers’ learning, the most common of which are school or district professional development, teacher collaborative meetings (sometimes called professional learning community meetings), and content-focused coaching. Some accounts of coherent instructional systems include additional elements, such as added supports for currently struggling students, routines for hiring teachers, and so forth. Looking beyond the specific elements, the key characteristic of a coherent instructional system is that the elements are tightly aligned and mutually reinforce each other. In this regard, it is important to distinguish the notion of a coherent instructional system from the closely related concept of curriculum coherence. Schmidt, Wang, and McNight clarifies that the content that teachers are expected to teach in a particular subject matter area is coherent if that content is organized as “a sequence of topics and performances consistent with the logical and, if appropriate, hierarchical nature of the disciplinary content from which the subject-matter derives” (Curriculum coherence: an examination of US mathematics and science content standards from an international perspective. Journal of Curriculum Studies 37:528, cited under Foundational Works). Thus, curriculum coherence is a highly desirable characteristic of one of the core elements of a coherent instructional system, the instructional materials that teachers use as the basis for their instruction. The notion of a coherent instructional system foregrounds the relations between these materials and other influential aspects of the immediate school and district contexts in which teachers develop and refine their instructional practices. To this point, a number of investigations of curriculum coherence have been undertaken. In contrast, surprisingly few studies have investigated what coherent instructional systems look like in practice and how school and districts can develop and sustain such systems. This article focuses first on the small number of papers and reports that outline the benefits and challenges of developing a coherent instructional system. Then the empirical research that clarifies key aspects of coherent instructional systems is examined before consideration is given to the role of school and district leaders in supporting the development of such systems, and of state policies in facilitating their development. Finally, given the challenges inherent in initiating and guiding the development a coherent instructional system at the school and district levels, studies are included that clarify how external partners and external service providers can support school and district leaders in improving instructional coherence.

Foundational Works

The concept of a coherent instructional system is often confused with that of curriculum coherence. Newmann, et al. 2001 describes core elements of a coherent instructional system, whereas Schmidt, et al. 2005 defines and illustrates the related but distinct concept of curriculum coherence.

  • Newmann, F. M., B. A. Smith, E. Allensworth, and A. S. Bryk. 2001. Instructional program coherence: What it is and why it should guide school improvement policy. Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis 23.4: 297–321.

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    This frequently cited article provides a conceptual grounding for the notion of a coherent instructional system by articulating clearly and succinctly why it is important to think systemically about the various elements of the school and district contexts in which teachers work by focusing not only on the qualities of particular aspects but also on the relations between them.

  • Schmidt, W. H., H. C. Wang, and C. M. McKnight. 2005. Curriculum coherence: An examination of US mathematics and science content standards from an international perspective. Journal of Curriculum Studies 37:525–559.

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    A foundational article that both defines the concept of curriculum coherence and illustrates its explanatory power by comparing US mathematics curricula with those of high-achieving countries in the International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement’s Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS).

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