Research and Evaluation Reports

The Instructional Turn on a New Theory of Change

This brief report makes a case for focusing on the instructional core to bring about educational change in schools and improve learner performance, using the system as the unit of change. The “instructional core” is a term coined by international education researcher, Prof. Richard Elmore.

It is defined as the interaction between teachers, learners and learner materials in a particular context and over specific content. The argument is advanced through tracking the theoretical changes in the field of education improvement in South Africa over the past decade.

It then looks at literature on key elements of the instructional infrastructure that must be in alignment and coherence to facilitate instructional change. It concludes by considering change strategies that are most effective for different school types.


This paper is a response to the request from Zenex Foundation for a briefing document on current education change/curriculum change debates. In particular, Zenex Foundation requested insights on the following:
a) What do the terms curriculum management, curriculum leadership, managing teaching and learning, curriculum coverage, instructional core and instructional leadership mean and how does the literature differentiate these terms.
b) What does the literature say about where to focus education development efforts to transform schools and improve learner performance?
c) If it is assumed that the schools that the Zenex Foundation is working with are semi functional (functioning poorly but not dysfunctional) what does the literature suggest should be the characteristics of an intervention that would result in the most gains.

1. Focus on Instruction

In the past decade there has been a shift in the education improvement field to a renewed focus on ‘instruction’. Why the focus on instruction and is it relevant in South Africa? First, from the work of van der Berg (2008), Spaull (2012), Carnoy and Chisholm (2012), and others there is a growing recognition, particularly from international comparative analyses, that there is substantial gap between learners’ potential and the actual aggregate performance. This fact is clearly illustrated in the results from the SACMEQ studies that show that learners with the same or lower SES in other Southern African countries are able to perform substantially better on mathematics and language tests than South African learners. In other words, while SES remains the single most significant predictor of achievement levels, a significant proportion of underachievement is attributable to the failure of the schools rather than learners’ home background. This provides a rationale for focusing on schools as institutions that have the potential to substantially improve aggregate learning outcomes.
But within the schools, are there levers to improve learning outcomes? The first generation of school improvers, the education economists, focused on the specific set of input levers that have the potential to improve the outputs. The production function analyses have proven to be of limited utility, save for the important insights some of the policy choices that are unlikely to yield improved efficiency. These include learner-teacher ratio and improved qualification and years of experience. While the negative findings are important in that they help avoid expensive but ineffective policy choices, they seldom assist driving improvement (possible exception is the distribution of textbooks). The second generation of school improvers go beyond the large easy to measure ‘input’ like learner-teacher ratios and computers in schools, and begin to uncover aspects of improvement within the ‘black-box’ of schools, what Crouch and Mabugane (1996) called the residuals not explained by measurable inputs. Nick Taylors (2013) school effectiveness study is possibly one of the best examples of the South African version of school effectiveness research. In this panel study, the researchers were able to discover a range of in-school variables that explain why some schools serving poor learners are able to perform better than others with the same level of resources.

NSES found that effective schools serving poorer learners had the following features in common:

An organised learning environment signified by curriculum planning for the full year; a functional timetable; good quality inventories for LTSM; low teacher absenteeism and up‐to‐date assessment records. (Taylor, 2011)

In the school effectiveness research, the newly discovered variables include aspects of curriculum management such as curriculum coverage and curriculum pacing. It also identified the frequency of which classrooms made use of certain kinds of learning activities or tasks, i.e. extended reading and writing. NSES also discovered key difference in teachers’ content knowledge between performing and underperforming schools and school management variable like the existence of learner support materials inventories.

The problem with the school effectiveness research, which Taylor acknowledges, is that it could be misinterpreted by policy makers as uncovering a series of policy levers. For example, if the research identified one of the statistically significant variables is curriculum pacing, that is, that the underperforming classrooms work at a slower pace with less material covered at a lower level of difficulty, it could be assumed that the policy lever is to put in place a set of ‘pace setters’ that ensure that all classrooms are at the right ‘pace.’ This policy analysis is obviously too simplistic. The variable ‘slow pace’ is a visible manifestation of a set of internal and often less visible generative mechanisms. While it is associated with low achievement, the real causal factor may be linked to teachers responses to learners actual cumulative under- achievement in prior grades. If learners have not mastered the basics of mathematics, or have very slow average reading speeds, the observed pattern of slow pacing serves to accommodate learners real reading capabilities, even if it exacerbates the achievement gaps.

In the newest iteration of the focus on instruction or what Richard Elmore calls the ‘instructional core’, the instruction is defined as the dynamic and ongoing interaction between teachers and learners and learner materials in specific context around specific content (Cohen, 2005; City, 2009). Instruction is the chain of instructional activities and tasks strung together over an extended period. The key insight is that these instructional activities or tasks anticipate or predict performance. Put the other way, if learners have few experiences with particular kinds of instructional activities or tasks like silent independent reading for meaning of unfamiliar passages in a range of genres, they could not be expected to perform on these types of tasks on standardised tests.

While the shift of focus towards the ‘instructional core’ is a key move in the theory of change, it remains under theorized. The first aspect that needs additional theoretical elaboration is to move from a theory of the instructional core to a theory of instructional practice. The core concept helps focus us on the classroom dynamic, the concept of ‘instructional practice’ helps us to see that the set of discrete tasks or activities have a structural quality and are embedded in socio-cultural systems. This helps explain why instructional change is so complex, and why the ‘grammar’ or ‘culture’ of schooling is hard to change (Tyack, 1994; Sarason, 1971). The structural constraints are proximal to instruction. For South African education, the structural and socio-cultural include the absence of key learning technologies, e.g. graded reading schemes in African languages, overcrowded classes and teachers’ expectations of learners and related approaches to learner differentiations, teachers’ literacy culture and their experiences of reading in public and private spaces.

2. Alignment and Coherence

The centrality of alignment and coherence in a theory of change has been around for more than two decades in the international literature (Fuhrman, 1993). In South Africa, the second generation of school improvement projects recognised certain aspect of alignment as many of the large school improvement projects of the 2000s focus on multi-level interventions. For many, the alignment was vertical (ensuring engagement at provincial, district, school, classroom and even learner levels), rather than horizontal, between aspects or elements of the instructional process itself. There was an erroneous assumption that if a programme addressed each level in the vertical system, change would be inevitable. While vertical alignment remains a key element, (and will be discussed later in the section on going to scale), the problem of horizontal coherence was often neglected.

In the most recent work by Cohen (2011), horizontal alignment and coherent has been articulated through the notion of ‘instructional infrastructure’. Cohen and others argue that to drive instructional change, each of the various elements of instructional process needs to be aligned and cohere. These elements include the (1) curriculum frameworks and associated policy instruments, (2) the learner resources and materials, (3) the assessment systems, both internal and external, (4) teacher professional development and (5) teacher accreditation. Cohen’s argument centres on the importance of a coherent set of signals that is sent by each of these instructional guidance elements. This is mostly clearly evident in the approaches to teaching of Foundation Phase literacy. Does the instructional guidance system associated with the national curriculum send the same signal as the learner materials and resources available to teachers in disadvantaged schools? Is there alignment between the national curriculum expectations and internal assessment processes? Is there a strong coherent linkage between teacher development and learner materials and resources? Cohen and Spillane in Fuhrman (1993) and Cohen (2011) make a further argument, that is, that it is not sufficient to have alignment and coherence, but that a high level of specificity or presciptiveness is necessary to ensure real alignment, particularly in systems confronting structural and socio-cultural constraints. Elmore makes the point that alignment and coherence needs to be experienced by teachers in their daily practice, cannot simply be part of the vision of the planners or the curriculum developers intentions. It is interesting note that a variety of scholars from very different perspectives agree on the value of prescriptiveness for poorly performing systems (see Hargreaves, 2005 and Mourshed, 2010).

3. Detailed Lesson Plans, High Quality Learner Materials and Instructional Coaching

Detailed Lesson Plans

From the previous sections, the literature points to the importance of (1) focusing on the instructional practice, (2) ensuring high levels of coherence and alignment between the various elements of the instructional infrastructure and (3) the prescriptiveness in the initial stage of the change process. But what does the literature tell us about the key elements of the instructional infrastructure needed to overcome the inertia caused by the structural and socio-cultural constraints? If the first stage in the change process is to re-engineer the instructional practice (with the second stage to institutionalise the new practice), the catalyst for change within the instructional infrastructure include the use of detailed lesson plans, the provision of high quality learner resources and materials and the deployment of instructional coachers.
The first and most basic element is the provision of detailed lesson plans. While there has been a very strident critique of scripted lesson plans and principled objections to them within the teacher education community, this element of the instructional infrastructure is receiving growing recognition. Beatty(2011) reminded the research community that many of the key progressive education reform movements of the past, particularly Montessori’s early childhood instructional programme relied heavy on tightly scripted lesson plans to fracture old patterns of instruction and put in place newer approaches and methods. Reeves (2011), while only partially supportive of scripted lesson plans, shows how teachers moving into a new domain of teaching benefit from designed scripted lesson plans to learn the new teaching practice. Most recently, Hiebert and Morris (2011) has argued persuasively that detailed lesson plans, what they refer to as ‘annotated’ lesson plans are a key resource or set of artefacts to guide the new practice that move the debate from a focus on teachers to a focus on teaching.

Detailed lesson plans are the blue-print for the new instructional practice. Not only do they assist teachers with segmenting or chunking the learning outcomes into manageable pieces, they systematically sequence the learning tasks and activities in appropriately developmental ways. Well designed lesson plans assist in maintaining learning momentum, pacing the work consistently across the academic year. Lesson plans that contain ‘built-in’ assessment tasks and instruments also ensure appropriate and relevant articulation between that which is taught and that which is assessed. One of the major strengths of lesson plans is that they can introduce new teaching techniques and methods in balanced and appropriate ways. Hiebert (2011) observed “[a]nnotated lesson plans can store the knowledge acquired for improved methods of teaching, and common assessments can ensure that changes to lessons are improvements, not just changes.” For example, for Foundation Phase teachers that had never used systematic phonics for second additional language learners, the lesson plans provides a clear and simple guide - when, what and how - to introduce various ‘blends’. These would be reinforced with linked vocabulary development oriented wall charts, ‘look and say’ word lists and graded reading books.

Although detailed lesson plans greatly reduce the time required for planning as the complex task of mapping the daily lessons against the national curriculum requirements has been largely pre-determined, the lesson plans demand that teachers spend considerable time preparing for the lessons, ensuring that they are familiar with the content of the upcoming lessons and that they have all the resources and materials ready.
High Quality Learner Materials
The cost-effectiveness of providing learner materials and resources have been documented consistently over forty years and has been confirmed in a number of recent South African studies. From the perspective of ‘instruction’, Ball and Cohen (1996) made a strong case for the centrality of learner materials and resources in large-scale change. They suggest that many education reformers have tended to disparage the following of textbooks or reading schemes because of an idealised version of teacher autonomy. As was common with the implementation of Curriculum 2005, it was assumed that teachers would not follow textbooks but would make their own curriculum. This is a deeply problematic assumption as it often means that learners are without the key tools for their academic development.

There is clearly a related problem in South Africa, that some of the key learner resources/materials have never been available or even developed. For example, while almost all Quintile 5 schools have reading schemes or graded readers that allow learners to have extensive opportunity to read at independent reading level (reading with 99% accuracy and in phrases with expression and 90% comprehension), such resources have never been produced in African languages and therefore are not available to schools that have African HL policies.

This learner materials problem has been recognised and, in part, has begun to be addressed with the provision of the Department of Basic Education’s Workbooks. While these sources are an important starting point, they certainly cannot and do not fulfil the variety of learning needs. It is clear that teachers require not only workbooks, but quality and appropriately levelled readers, books for independent reading, word lists, oral development oriented wall graphics, and various kinds of manipulatives.

There are three key issues related to learner materials that need to be noted. First, schools often do not have sufficient quantity of the high quality materials to make an effective component of the instructional processes. Although sharing between two learners may not be disadvantageous, it is often not optimal. Second, schools tend to view learner materials as consumables rather than moveable capital assets. This has been reinforced by the provision of the DBE workbooks. This prevents a school from developing and implementing a medium term procurement strategy, placing effort and care on using, maintaining and enhancing an appropriate and balanced learner materials collection. Third, Ball and Cohen (1996) have observed that learner materials are often seen as part of improving teaching and learning but are seldom understood as one component of a systematic approach to teacher development. There is clearly a need for tight alignment between learner materials and teacher development strategies.

Instructional Coaching

Detailed lesson plans and the quality learner materials are a necessary but not sufficient condition for large-scale change at the instructional core. Without teacher learning and teacher agency, these elements of the instructional infrastructure have little chance of transforming the everyday learning activities and tasks in the classroom. There is a growing recognition in South Africa, (reflecting international trends), that conventional forms of in-service training, that is short-courses and workshop and accredited academic programmes, fall short of transforming instructional practice. As such, a new generation of approaches to teacher development have emerged, many of which focus on the development of communities of professional practices. While teacher led communities of practice may be appropriate for high-functioning system where the primary concern is sharing of best practice between teachers, this approach is unlikely to be effective in a low-function system that has few examples of good practice that could be easily shared. As such, the other main approach to teacher development, i.e. instructional coaching, is likely to be a more promising option.

Behind instructional coaching is a particular professional learning theory. The assumption is that professional learning needs to be long-term, experientially-based and heavily dependent on interaction between the novice and an expert in situ (D’Amico & Stein, 2002). The acquisition of the complex skills and knowledge associated with the new instructional practice involves a social learning process that begins with the novice observing a coach (1) modelling the new practice, (2) facilitated meetings guiding the use of the new practice, (3) observation and evaluation of the teachers implementation of the new practice and (4) finally full independence and ongoing peer teacher learning. While coaching is seen as an active ingredient in instructional change because it makes use of social learning, there is a second and equally important role that coaches play in instructional change. Since Fullan (2007) and Hargreaves (2005) seminal studies on the meaning of educational change, there has been a growing recognition of the significant impact, both positive and negative, that emotions have on educational change. There is an emerging body of evidence that suggests that instructional coaches can play a positive role in mediating the anger, insecurity and feelings of inadequacy that teachers experience as they shift their instructional practice (for South African research on coaching and emotions see Masterson, 2013) .

For instructional coaching to be effective, their role needs to be very clearly defined. There is evidence that in the absence of clearly defined roles, coaches increasingly take on administrative functions like distributing materials and collecting information (Fullan & Knight, 2011). Coaches that do not received adequate initial training, insufficient ongoing training and support and careful monitoring and evaluation are unlikely to make an impact on changing instruction (Gallucci, 2010).

4. Going to Scale/System-wide Reform

Over the past two decades there has been a shift from an emphasis on school-by-school improvement, improvement of one cluster or district at a time to whole system reform (Levin, 2008; Mourshed, 2010; Hopkins). While Fullan suggested two decades ago that changing one school could be done in a few years, a district in five and a system seven, that optimism about smaller units of change has given way to the increasing recognition that the most effective unit of change is ‘the system’. In some instances, systems are concurrent with countries; systems are more often not concurrent with provinces or even regions or districts.
With the increasingly prominent role of the state in policy reform, schools are reluctant to invest in innovations that are not seen as carrying official sanction. With growing policy fatigue and scepticism about the durability of programmes, small-scale ad hoc innovations fail to mobilize the powerful combination of capacity building and accountability (pressure and support). Moreover, many of the factors that inhibiting change are system-wide, particularly issues like labour relations, funding and political leadership. If these are addressed, the conditions for large-scale change are made possible. Changing the entire instructional infrastructure often requires substantial alteration to system policy environment. Levin, Fullan and Mourshen and colleagues consistently suggest that one of the most important factors in change is system level leadership. 

While the new unit of change is the ‘system’, there is simultaneously a growing consensus on the need for research-informed or research-based programmes and products. Small-scale pilot studies, followed by larger counterfactual evaluation trials, particularly those that include cost-effectiveness components, are increasingly seen as the most powerful basis for establishing a policy or programme warrant (Raudenbush, 2005).

5. School Types and Change Readiness

What does the research indicate about appropriate change strategies for semi-functional (functioning poorly but not dysfunctional) schools? In the past two decades there have been two approaches to school differentiation. Hopkins (1996, 1997) early school improvement research suggested that school-by-school improvement strategies should move away from a uniform approach, and that change strategies need to be tailored to specific school types. Hopkins developed a template that included three types of schools. In his framework, Type I schools, also known as ‘stuck’ schools are failing schools that need high levels of external support to improve. Strategies for Type I school included a limited set of basic curriculum and organisational initiatives that are clear and direct. The purpose of these interventions would be to build school confidence and competence to begin the improvement journey. In contrast, Type III schools, while they also require improvement strategies, need to focus on internal processes, i.e. refining the school mission, sharing best practice between teachers etc. Hopkins’ school typology has been used extensively in the English-speaking world and has had a large influence on the school improvement strategies. Slavin (2005) has a similar school typology, differentiating schools as sand, brick and seed schools. Sand schools are dysfunctional schools, brick schools are functional but are not moving or improving, and seed schools are those that are flourishing. Slavin argues that the most appropriate improvement strategy for ‘sand’ school is reconstitution or closure. For ‘brick’ schools, Slavin suggests a very intensive external and largely prescriptive instructional programme not unlike the ‘Success for All’, which is a comprehensive school improvement programme. Mourshed and colleagues (2010) has taken the education improvement typology in a slight different direction. McKinsey suggests that the new typology should not be of school types, but rather of system types. They differentiate education systems as ‘poor’, ‘fair’ ‘good and ‘excellent’. Like the typologies developed by Hopkins (1995) and Slavin (2005), the McKinsey team suggest specific types of interventions for school systems in different stages in the change journey. For schools moving from ‘poor’ to ‘fair’, they recommend ensuring a basic set of resources be in place, a focus on curriculum basics, i.e. mathematics and language, and the implementation of a prescriptive instructional programme.


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