Academic Rigor for All: Leveraging a Playbook to Move Every Student to Mastery


In schools across the country, many leaders are asking themselves the same question: What else can I do to accelerate student learning now?‍

This has been a perennial question, though the COVID-19 pandemic has taken an extra toll on student wellness and achievement. Yet there is little agreement about what to do. High dosage tutoring, increased time on social emotional learning, or more small-group instruction are but a few of the strategies leaders may be considering to meet student needs.‍

Each of these have value. And yet, in our observations of the most effective school leaders — especially those who saw student achievement increase over the last two years — we see a similarity: leaders and teacher teams focused on constantly renewing their strong instructional foundation, built on high-quality learning materials, research-based instructional strategies, and effective use of time. Habits, systems, and practices sustain this focus.‍

To create this culture, we have worked with thousands of leaders to create “Playbooks,” — which are not only strategic planning tools, but also an approach to school leadership that enables a leader and her team to clarify their vision, identify the highest-leverage areas of focus, and align their time to their priorities. In just a few pages, a Playbook captures what, when, and how the leadership team will address its instructional and school culture priorities at each point in the year. The power of a Playbook is that it sharpens each team’s focus.‍

We have already shared how a Playbook can guide a strong start to the school year, focused on school culture. In this guide, we explore how one principal, Jamila Hammett, creates and uses a Playbook focused on academic rigor. Through the Playbook process, she can identify the exact skills her teachers need to master to create high-quality lesson plans, engage students, help them through “productive struggle” with key concepts, and respond to student error.‍

Through examples, self-assessment questions, and usable tools, this guide will give you actionable steps to create your own Playbook and elevate the academic rigor in every classroom.‍

Get the Academic Rigor Playbook Guide

Dr. Ben Klompus and Katie Yezzi are former teachers and school system leaders, currently serving as senior leaders of Professional Education Programs at Relay Graduate School of Education. Jesse Corburn is Assistant Superintendent at Uncommon Schools.

This Guide is supported by a grant from the Barr Foundation.

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