Leading the instructional core: Richard Elmore


In this interview Professor Richard Elmore* discusses the need for schools to establish their own internal systems and professional cultures to improve student outcomes. When these are in place, he says, the schools can meet external requirements. External requirements on their own do not produce improved student outcomes.

Elmore reiterates the research evidence that we use here in New Zealand. For example, he lists the conditions for improvement as:

  • strong educational leadership
  • good systems which allow teachers to talk professionally together
  • expertise about effective teaching
  •  internal and external professional learning opportunities.

He goes further, explaining that focusing only on external requirements may cause a plateau in improving student outcomes. He says that teachers and educational leaders need to focus as well on “the actual experience of kids in classrooms”.

The reason for this is that teaching to preconceived tasks and levels may lead teachers to underestimate the abilities of students. Teaching to the task, he says, even when done efficiently, may ignore what the students already know and can do.

Elmore states that both teachers and students develop a mutual incentive to keep the work simple in order to meet the standard or assessment, but both could actually teach and learn at much higher levels of cognitive complexity.

As the interview goes deeper and becomes more specific, Elmore gives some examples of ways of working with students who are at different levels, which extend them all. “It turns out that kids can pretty much do anything you ask them to do with the right kind of instructional practice. It’s downright scary!"

This is quite a challenging article, but the richness and complexity of ideas could easily provide the basis for a long-term professional learning plan.

*Richard Elmore is the Gregory R. Anrig Professor of Educational Leadership at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

Reflective questions

These reflective questions might guide you in your reading of this article:

  • In discussions with your leadership team or cluster group consider the best ways to introduce the ideas in this article to your groups of teachers. What are the key risks and challenges about using the article with teachers in the New Zealand setting?
  • Consider who are the best-qualified external leaders of professional development to help you lead the initiatives or changes that Professor Elmore suggests in the context of your school.
  • Professor Elmore throws out the challenge that every school can plateau in terms of the ongoing improvement of teaching and learning. Where is your school at in terms of a constant cycle of improvement in the outcomes your students are achieving? What use can you make of the ideas in the article to push past the level your school is currently at and improve the outcomes of students?
  • How can you communicate the changes you want to make to your local community? What are the key issues about effective teaching practice and the achievement of students that you need to convey to them to bring them on board with the changes you make?


Ontario Ministry of Education. (2010). Leading the instructional core: An interview with Richard Elmore. In Conversations, Summer, Volume 11, Issue 3.

Read the article online (Scroll down the page to the title)

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