The Internal Coherence Framework: Sometimes Great Books Have Daunting Titles!

Harvard professor Richard Elmore is one of my favorite education researchers and advocates. The creator of Instructional Rounds, and a tireless voice for crafting teaching into a profession, Elmore has mentored hundreds of educational leaders, including three who recently published the book, The Internal Coherence Framework: Creating the Conditions for Continuous Improvement in Schools.

When my friend and colleague Jackie Walsh recommended the book for use with our statewide group of collaborators, The Key Leaders Network, I was skeptical. What an off-putting title! I wondered whether a book with such a theoretical name could be both compelling and practical?

Jackie’s response, “It may be a daunting title, but it’s a great book!”

My skepticism faded as I read the Foreword, written by Richard Elmore himself. This sentence convinced me to read the book:

If one were to build a profession around learning, this [book] would be a good place to start. (p. xi)

Okay, I thought. Let’s get started!

What I found inside

The three authors of The Internal Coherence Framework (Michelle L. Forman, Elizabeth Leisy Stosich and Candice Bocala) were students at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education when their enterprise, which would later be known as The Internal Coherence Project, began.

Lest you think this book is comprised entirely of theory (we are talking Harvard, after all), you’ll be relieved to learn that the ideas were fleshed out, tested and adapted hand in hand with educators in Massachusetts, Texas, and California.

Best of all, the book is brimming with practical tools, research insights, and best practices that readers can instantly put to use.

Why “Internal Coherence”?

Perhaps the best way to answer that question is to first provide the authors’ definition of internal coherence: It is “the collective capacity of the adults in a school building or an educational system to connect and align resources to carry out an improvement strategy” (pp. 2-3).

And why is internal coherence important? To help a school or district focus on a few high leverage areas. Let me break down the authors’ more eloquent explanation. The bullets are mine:

Internal coherence requires educators to  

  • work in concert to assess their current status,
  • identify existing problems of practice,
  • commit to the implementation of a collective solution and the new learning this entails,
  • reflect on the impact of their efforts, and
  • return to the next cycle of joint learning.

In other words, internal coherence enables a faculty to  

  • coordinate the work of leaders, teachers, and teams around a shared improvement strategy,
  • engage in collective learning about instructional content and practice to advance this strategy, and
  • use that learning to provide all students with richer educational opportunities (p. 3).

The authors suggest an improvement cycle captured below.

One key principle of internal coherence really resonated: Improvement is a challenge of learning, not of implementation. How often have educators been told that they were going to adopt a new [fill in the blank] program or initiative, without being given the time to consider it, voice their views and opinions and, most importantly, have time to learn about its ins-and-outs with colleagues?

The authors stress that “Asking teachers to work with students and content in new ways to produce better outcomes in student performance requires learning” (p. 10). Imagine the word “learning” in that sentence with a double-underline.

Seeing is Believing

The authors of The Internal Coherence Framework caution us not to be taken in by the fallacy that a change initiative’s success is dependent on initial teacher buy-in.

Instead, they say, look to the research of Tom Guskey, a noted expert on evaluating professional learning, who has demonstrated that we come to believe in a new way of doing things after we see and experience it working. The authors quote Guskey:

Attitudes and beliefs about teaching in general are…largely derived from classroom experience. Teachers who have been consistently unsuccessful in helping students from educationally disadvantaged backgrounds to attain a high standard of learning, for example, are likely to believe these students are incapable of academic excellence. If, however, those teachers try a new instructional strategy and succeed in helping such students learn, their beliefs are likely to change.  

Again, the point is that evidence of improvement or positive change in the learning outcomes of students generally precedes, and may be a prerequisite to, significant change in the attitudes and beliefs of most teachers” (Guskey, “Professional Development and Teacher Change,” Teachers and Teaching: Theory and Practice 8, no. 3, 2002, p. 384).

Instructional Rounds at East Elementary in Cullman City Schools

Structure of the Book

The book is organized into eight chapters. The first two explain the what’s and the why’s of internal coherence. Chapter 3 stresses the importance of teaching as a public act, where teachers work together to improve their craft and student learning.

Chapter 3 offers tools that schools can use to help teachers commit to shared learning and participating in productive conflicts/challenges. It also suggests the use of several of my favorite professional learning protocols – including the Compass and Save the Last Word for Me – to engage faculty in this work.

The remaining chapters further explicate the Internal Coherence Framework by explaining the purpose and use of the Internal Coherence Survey and the Internal Coherence Development Rubric, two tools that we’ll use with members of the Key Leaders Network this school year.

A Concluding Thought

There is so much more to this book with the daunting title. It is truly a handbook for schools and districts interested in focusing on what matters most: improving learning and teaching.

Rather than paraphrase, I think I’ll let the authors have the final word by referring to the last paragraph of their excellent work:

The Internal Coherence Framework and professional learning series are designed to grow educators’ belief in their collective ability to improve the learning experiences that all students encounter in classrooms.

It is our hope that by engaging in this shared adult learning journey, teachers and leaders will find intellectual challenge and satisfaction in their own work and in the ever-more ambitious learning outcomes they are able to generate for their students (p. 203).