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Home Ask A REL What research resources are available on ambitious instruction and school improvement/effectiveness?

What research resources are available on ambitious instruction and school improvement/effectiveness?

Midwest | September 01, 2020

Following an established Regional Educational Laboratory (REL) Midwest protocol, we conducted a search for research reports, descriptive studies, and literature reviews on ambitious instruction and school improvement. For details on the databases and sources, keywords, and selection criteria used to create this response, please see the methods section at the end of this memo.

Below, we share a sampling of the publicly accessible resources on this topic. The search conducted is not comprehensive; other relevant references and resources may exist. We have not evaluated the quality of references and resources provided in this response, but offer this list to you for your information only.

Research References

Blazar, D., & Archer, C. (2020). Teaching to support students with diverse academic needs. Educational Researcher, 49(5), 297–311. Retrieved from

From the ERIC abstract: “Policy and practice communities increasingly are emphasizing conceptual, cognitively demanding, and ‘ambitious’ instruction. Within this context, we examine whether such practices serve the needs of students with specialized academic needs. Across upper-elementary classrooms in four districts, we find that exposure to ‘ambitious’ mathematics practices is more strongly associated with test score gains of English language learners (ELs) compared to those of their peers in general education classrooms; furthermore, this teaching practice is associated with the math self-efficacy of students with individualized education programs (IEP), and the self-reported behavior of general education students. We also find links between teachers’ emotional support and students’ self-efficacy and engagement, with the strongest relationships for students identified both as an EL and with an IEP.”

Note: REL Midwest was unable to locate a link to the full-text version of this resource. Although REL Midwest tries to provide publicly available resources whenever possible, it was determined that this resource may be of interest to you. It may be found through university or public library systems.

Cawn, B. (2020). Ambitious instruction: Teaching with rigor in the secondary classroom. Bloomington, IN: Solution Tree. Retrieved from:

From the ERIC abstract: “Ensure all learners have opportunities to engage deeply in meaningful intellectual work. In ‘Ambitious Instruction,’ author Brad Cawn offers a blueprint for how to make rigor visible, accessible, and actionable in grade 6-12 classrooms. The resource guides readers toward using the twin tenets of problem-based learning and synthesis to significantly strengthen students’ ability to read, write, and think within and across disciplines. With this resource, teachers will: (1) Develop a working understanding of rigor that will serve as the basis for rigorous, instructional excellence; (2) Discover how to integrate inquiry and dialogue into your instruction to help learners engage in meaningful exploration of complex problems; (3) Become familiar with actionable strategies that can be utilized to develop and increase rigor in the classroom; and (4) Learn how to create and organize tasks, texts, and processes in order to improve teaching and learning.”

Note: REL Midwest was unable to locate a link to the full-text version of this resource. Although REL Midwest tries to provide publicly available resources whenever possible, it was determined that this resource may be of interest to you. It may be found through university or public library systems.

Cawn, B., Ikemoto, G., & Grossman, J. (2016). Ambitious leadership: How principals lead schools to college and career readiness. New York, NY: New Leaders. Retrieved from:

From the ERIC abstract: “As school leaders adjust to the demands of new college-and-career-ready (CCR) standards, research is showing a yawning gap between what students need to know and be able to do to succeed in college and beyond and how schools are currently preparing them. These higher expectations demand a more challenging curriculum, more sophisticated instruction, and more intensive instructional supports. The transition to CCR standards has been a challenge even for the most talented principals, as this work calls for a deep understanding of what the standards are and what they are asking of students and teachers, along with a much more intensive and intentional approach to instructional leadership. To address the issues of what principals need to know and do to effectively lead to higher standards, researchers identified 10 urban schools that were outpacing their district or state peers. Data from interviews, observations, and focus groups with teachers, administrators, and parents found six key instructional leadership practices: (1) Setting a vision for ambitious instruction; (2) upgrading curriculum and instructional materials; (3) Creating systems to support data-driven instruction; (4) Creating opportunities for individualization and intervention; (5) Creating systems for group professional learning and collaboration; and (6) Providing consistent coaching and feedback to individual teachers.”

Cobb, P., & Jackson, K. (2011). Towards an empirically grounded theory of action for improving the quality of mathematics teaching at scale. Mathematics Teacher Education and Development, 13(1), 6–33. Retrieved from

From the ERIC abstract: “Our purpose in this article is to propose a comprehensive, empirically grounded theory of action for improving the quality of mathematics teaching at scale. In doing so, we summarise current research findings that can inform efforts to improve the quality of mathematics instruction on a large scale, and identify questions that are yet to be addressed. We draw on an ongoing collaboration with mathematics teachers, school leaders, and district leaders in four urban school districts in the US. The provisional theory of action that we report encompasses a coherent system of supports for ambitious instruction that includes both formal and job-embedded teacher professional development, teacher networks, mathematics coaches’ practices in providing job-embedded support for teachers’ learning, school leaders’ practices as instructional leaders in mathematics, and district leaders’ practices in supporting the development of school-level capacity for instructional improvement.”

Gordon, M., Klugman, J., Sebring, P. B., & Sporte, S. (2016). Expanding the 5Es from Chicago to Illinois: How the 5E’s relationship to student outcomes varies by content. Paper presented at the Society for Research on Educational Effectiveness Conference, Washington, DC. Retrieved from

From the ERIC abstract: “Why are some schools able to thrive and produce strong student outcomes, while others struggle? To answer this question, researchers have surveyed teachers and students in Chicago Public Schools (CPS) since the 1990s, asking them about their schools’ organizational climate and practices. From these data, researchers at the Consortium on Chicago School Research (CCSR) concluded that five essential supports of the schools’ organization facilitate engaging instruction and learning: effective leadership, collaborative teachers, involved families, supportive environments, and ambitious instruction. Schools strong in these practice domains were much more likely than schools weak in these areas to see improvements in student outcomes, including attendance and learning gains. Research on school climate and school organization, including that of CCSR, influenced Illinois legislators in 2011 to mandate the collection of data on teacher and student perceptions of schools’ instructional environments to provide feedback to principals. Illinois took measures of essential supports tested and refined in one context (CPS) and required its administration statewide. Using this statewide data, the authors address two overarching research questions: (1) How does strength and weakness on the five essential supports vary according to urbanicity, enrollment size of school, and socioeconomic characteristics of school communities?; and (2) Are the five essential supports related to student outcomes including attendance rates, test scores, and graduation rates? Surveys measuring the essential supports were administered to students and teachers in nearly all public schools in Illinois in the spring of 2013. Students in grades 6-12 and all full-time classroom teachers in public schools in Illinois were eligible to take the survey. Survey data were collected via the web. Cross-sectional survey data were linked to official data on school and community demographics and student outcomes, aggregated at the school level. The ‘5Essential’ survey items are submitted to Rasch measurement models to create 22 different measures, which in turn are averaged to constitute the five essential supports. This study had two goals. First, to document disparities in essential supports across schools in the entire state. The authors show that students in rural schools and socioeconomically disadvantaged schools are less likely to experience strong essential supports. The fact that students attending socioeconomically disadvantaged schools have much less access to the essential supports raises substantial equity concerns. Indeed, these students may be most in need of schools that are especially strong. It is important to note that locational inequalities are strongest in ambitious instruction, the essential that is theorized to have the most direct influence on student outcomes. The second goal was to examine the predictive validity of the ‘5Essential’ survey outside of Chicago. Overall, the essential supports have positive albeit small associations with student outcomes. However, some of these associations, particularly test score growth in elementary schools, are sizable when they are compared to the associations between student outcomes and socioeconomic disadvantage.”

Hitt, D. H., & Tucker, P. D. (2016). Systematic review of key leader practices found to influence student achievement: A unified framework. Review of Educational Research, 86(2), 531–569. Retrieved from

From the ERIC abstract: “The field of educational leadership has accrued a body of research that explains how leaders influence student achievement through the enactment of various practices. Yet, differences exist in the substance of the frameworks that assert the areas to which leaders should attend. The specific purposes of this article are to identify and synthesize the empirical research on how leadership influences student achievement and to provide evidence on how school leaders should direct their efforts. During the literature review, we consulted experts for recommendations and searched peer-reviewed journals from 2000 to 2014. The literature review yielded 56 empirical research studies of relevance to the topic and 3 frameworks consisting of clustered practices. We then grouped the 28 practices according to systematic criteria and found 5 overarching domains. In doing so, this study unifies existing frameworks through developing a cohesive set of practices to inform the work of researchers and practitioners.”

Note: REL Midwest was unable to locate a link to the full-text version of this resource. Although REL Midwest tries to provide publicly available resources whenever possible, it was determined that this resource may be of interest to you. It may be found through university or public library systems.

Jackson, K., Garrison, A., Wilson, J., Gibbons, L., & Shahan, E. (2013). Exploring relationships between setting up complex tasks and opportunities to learn in concluding whole-class discussions in middle-grades mathematics instruction. Journal for Research in Mathematics Education, 44(4), 646–682. Retrieved from

From the ERIC abstract: “This article specifies how the setup, or introduction, of cognitively demanding tasks is a crucial phase of middle-grades mathematics instruction. The authors report on an empirical study of 165 middle-grades mathematics teachers’ instruction that focused on how they introduced tasks and the relationship between how they introduced tasks and the nature of students’ opportunities to learn mathematics in the concluding whole-class discussion.”

Note: REL Midwest was unable to locate a link to the full-text version of this resource. Although REL Midwest tries to provide publicly available resources whenever possible, it was determined that this resource may be of interest to you. It may be found through university or public library systems.

Mantzicopoulos, P., French, B. F., & Patrick, H. (2019). The quality of mathematics instruction in kindergarten: Associations with students’ achievement and motivation. Elementary School Journal, 119(4), 651–676. Retrieved from

From the ERIC abstract: “We examined associations between the quality of kindergarten teachers’ mathematics instruction and their students’ achievement and motivation in mathematics. Using a sample of 20 kindergarten teachers and their 285 students, we rated 5 video-recorded mathematics lessons per teacher throughout the spring semester with the Mathematical Quality of Instruction (MQI). We collected information about students’ achievement from teacher ratings of student performance relative to state standards and an individually administered standardized measure of mathematical reasoning. We obtained data about students’ mathematics motivation (self-competence beliefs, interest, effort expenditure, and need for support) through individual interviews with the children and via teacher ratings. Multilevel modeling analyses indicated that scores on the MQI’s ‘ambitious mathematics instruction’ scale and the ‘whole lesson’ scale predicted students’ end-of-year progress on kindergarten mathematics standards but not their standardized test scores. The whole lesson scores were associated with teacher-rated students’ motivation for mathematics (interest and need for support).”

Note: REL Midwest was unable to locate a link to the full-text version of this resource. Although REL Midwest tries to provide publicly available resources whenever possible, it was determined that this resource may be of interest to you. It may be found through university or public library systems.

Oakes, J., Maier, A., & Daniel, J. (2017). Community schools: An evidence-based strategy for equitable school improvement. Boulder, CO: National Education Policy Center. Retrieved from

From the ERIC abstract: “This brief examines the research on community schools, with two primary emphases. First, it explores whether the 2015 federal Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) opens the possibility of investing in well-designed community schools to meet the educational needs of low-achieving students in high-poverty schools. And second, it provides support to school, district, and state leaders as they consider, propose, or implement a community school intervention in schools targeted for comprehensive support. The brief is drawn from a larger research review, available at This review shows that the evidence base on well-implemented community schools and their component features provides a strong warrant for their potential contribution to school improvement. Sufficient evidence meeting ESSA’s criteria for ‘evidence-based’ approaches exists to justify including community schools as part of targeted and comprehensive interventions in high-poverty schools. This evidence also supports community schools as an approach appropriate for broader use. Policymakers who want to incorporate a community schools strategy into their ESSA state plans--as well as other plans for state and local school improvements--can benefit from the research-based lessons presented in this brief.”

Rosenquist, B. A., Henrick, E. C., & Smith, T. M. (2015). Research-practice partnerships to support the development of high quality mathematics instruction for all students. Journal of Education for Students Placed at Risk (JESPAR), 20(1-2), 42–57. Retrieved from

From the ERIC abstract: “The gap in achievement in mathematics between at-risk students and their more advantaged counterparts is a persistent problem of the U.S. education system. Although some research-based curricula and pedagogy have demonstrated promise in supporting students from diverse backgrounds to develop conceptual understanding and procedural fluency in mathematics, scaling up instructional change across a district organization is a significant challenge. The Middle School Mathematics and the Institutional Setting of Teaching (MIST) Project is a research-practice partnership seeking to understand how large urban school districts can support the development of rigorous and equitable middle-school mathematics instruction at scale. This article enumerates the goals and design of this multiyear, multidistrict partnership, and describes one illustrative example of how our partnership activities informed and supported one district’s efforts to improve mathematics instruction over multiple years. General recommendations for district-researcher partnerships are discussed.”

Note: REL Midwest was unable to locate a link to the full-text version of this resource. Although REL Midwest tries to provide publicly available resources whenever possible, it was determined that this resource may be of interest to you. It may be found through university or public library systems.

Sebring, P. B., Allensworth, E., Bryk, A. S., Easton, J. Q., & Luppescu, S. (2006). The essential supports for school improvement. Chicago, IL: Consortium on Chicago School Research. Retrieved from

From the ERIC abstract: “This report sets forth a framework of essential supports and contextual resources for school improvement, examines empirical evidence on its key elements and how they link to improvements in student learning, and investigates how a school’s essential supports interact with community context to affect student learning. The purpose of this research is to establish a comprehensive, empirically grounded practice framework that principals, teachers, parents, and school-system leaders can draw on as they work to improve children’s learning. The focus of this report is Chicago public elementary schools during the period of 1990 through 1996, a period during which the system as a whole made progress, with substantial variation across school communities in achievement trends. These conditions were favorable for exploring why some elementary schools were able to make substantial progress and others stagnated. Five supports were identified as essential for school improvement. The first, leadership, acts as a catalyst, stimulating the development of the four other core organizational supports: parent-community ties, professional capacity of the faculty and staff, a student-centered learning climate, and ambitious instruction. Parent-community ties and professional capacity of the faculty and staff reflect the individual and collective capacities of the adult actors in the school community and, in turn, result in the conditions that directly affect student learning: learning climate and ambitious instruction. The development of the five essential supports depends in significant ways on features of local context. Previous studies have linked relational trust across a school community, school size and the stability of the student body to school improvement. This report adds new findings about the linkage between the social context of school communities and their capacities to improve, finding that schools with strong essential supports, even when located in communities with relatively low levels of social capital and high densities of abused or neglected children were able to improve and show higher-than-average learning gains. The report concludes that the greatest improvements occur when there is organizational strength in all the essential supports. Each support appears to facilitate the functioning of the other supports. The opposite is also true: a weakness in any organizational element can undermine strengths in other areas. The importance of strength in multiple essential supports suggests that narrow interventions will have limited success in improving student learning and that the resources necessary to achieve substantial improvement in socially isolated, crime-ridden communities where there is little social capital are daunting. The school system must press forward to strengthen the essential supports in these schools, building and supporting partnerships at community, city, county, state, and federal levels, to address the serious challenges that go beyond the schoolyard.”

Tung, R., Carlo, V. D., Colón, M., Del Razo, J. L., Diamond, J. B., Raynor, A. F., et al. (2015). Promising practices and unfinished business: Fostering equity and excellence for Black and Latino males. Providence, RI: Annenberg Institute for School Reform at Brown University. Retrieved from

From the ERIC abstract: “Boston Public Schools (BPS) commissioned companion studies as part of its efforts to address achievement gaps for Black and Latino males. The first study revealed the increasing diversity of Black and Latino males and stark opportunity gaps throughout the system that contribute in large part to wide attainment gaps for these students. We hypothesized that in schools doing comparatively better with Black or Latino males than their counterparts, educators would be strategically and comprehensively implementing evidence-based cultural, structural, and instructional practices tailored to meet these students’ needs and aspirations. Through qualitative case studies of four schools, we identified several cross-cutting themes that provide the district and school leaders with some positive news about effective practices found in all good schools: strong school cultures, professional collaboration, differentiated instruction, and, in the elementary schools, family engagement. While we observed pockets of best practices specific to Black and Latino male education, we also brought to light unfinished business, in that none of the four case study schools had an intentional and comprehensive schoolwide approach to educating Black and Latino males. This lack of intentionality resulted in a paucity of evidence that the school administration and faculty as a whole: (a) know and value students’ cultural and linguistic backgrounds; (b) adopt explicit and responsive approaches to race and gender; and (c) develop and implement a comprehensive approach to culturally responsive curriculum and instruction. We posit that lack of knowledge, intentionality, and coherence impedes further progress in educating Black and Latino males, and has implications for educators in schools, for staff members in community partner organizations, and for family members of BPS students.”


Keywords and Search Strings

The following keywords and search strings were used to search the reference databases and other sources:

  • Ambitious instruction

Databases and Search Engines

We searched ERIC for relevant resources. ERIC is a free online library of more than 1.6 million citations of education research sponsored by the Institute of Education Sciences (IES). Additionally, we searched IES and Google Scholar.

Reference Search and Selection Criteria

When we were searching and reviewing resources, we considered the following criteria:

  • Date of the publication: References and resources published over the last 15 years, from 2005 to present, were included in the search and review.

  • Search priorities of reference sources: Search priority is given to study reports, briefs, and other documents that are published or reviewed by IES and other federal or federally funded organizations.

  • Methodology: We used the following methodological priorities/considerations in the review and selection of the references: (a) study types—randomized control trials, quasi-experiments, surveys, descriptive data analyses, literature reviews, policy briefs, and so forth, generally in this order, (b) target population, samples (e.g., representativeness of the target population, sample size, volunteered or randomly selected), study duration, and so forth, and (c) limitations, generalizability of the findings and conclusions, and so forth.
This memorandum is one in a series of quick-turnaround responses to specific questions posed by educational stakeholders in the Midwest Region (Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio, Wisconsin), which is served by the Regional Educational Laboratory (REL Midwest) at American Institutes for Research. This memorandum was prepared by REL Midwest under a contract with the U.S. Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences (IES), Contract ED-IES-17-C-0007, administered by American Institutes for Research. Its content does not necessarily reflect the views or policies of IES or the U.S. Department of Education nor does mention of trade names, commercial products, or organizations imply endorsement by the U.S. Government.

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