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Sustainable School Improvement: The Gradual Release of Responsibility in School Change

The Gradual Release of Responsibility in Literacy Research and Practice

ISBN: 978-1-78769-448-4, eISBN: 978-1-78769-447-7

Publication date: 26 August 2019


Purpose – This chapter discusses the application of the Gradual Release of Responsibility (GRR) to school change and the learning of groups of leaders, teachers, and students. Specifically, the authors describe the Seven Levels to Success, a model for school change that supports teachers in building their school’s own staircase (coherent) curriculum in literacy. The authors discuss the effectiveness of this model for capacity building – giving schools a “deep bench” of leaders and teachers who can sustain improved student achievement over a period of years.

Design/Methodology/Approach – The theoretical underpinning of this research is provided by the Vygotsky Space, a construct that shows how learning may be understood in terms of the intersections of collective and individual actions, and public and private settings. This construct allows us to understand what drives a school’s advancement through the Seven Levels and how that advancement can be restarted after it has been slowed or interrupted. The authors report findings about school change from 20 years of work in 264 elementary and secondary schools, reflecting a wide range of students and communities across the United States.

Findings – While schools’ typical advancement in the Seven-Level model is neither steady nor linear, it adheres to an overall pattern: Leaders must take ownership first, followed by teachers and then students. To build their school’s staircase curriculum, teachers must see themselves as creators rather than consumers of curriculum. Teachers who see themselves as creators take ownership of their curriculum. Their deep understanding of the curriculum promotes continuous improvements and related success in improving their students’ literacy learning. Four case examples illustrate change in a variety of school settings, providing existence proofs of how the Seven-Level model functions to improve students’ literacy learning.

Research Limitations/Implications – The authors highlight the importance of the school as the unit of analysis in change efforts, and of understanding a school’s progress over time. The authors emphasize considering the role of multiple constituencies, beginning with school leaders and encompassing teachers, students, and families. One implication of this study is that more attention should be paid to the role of school leaders – administrators, curriculum coordinators, and teacher leaders – in setting the stage for sustainable improvement.

Practical Implications – The authors provide guidance to practitioners working on school change within the framework of the Seven Levels to Success and other social constructivist models. Specifically, the authors give examples of relevant actions external consultants and school leaders take at critical junctures in a school’s progress.

Originality/Value of Paper – This chapter breaks new ground in applying the GRR model and the Vygotsky Space to the area of school change in literacy. Summarizing 20 years of work with the Seven-Level model demonstrates potential of teacher-developed curricula for the sustainable improvement of students’ literacy learning.



Au, K.H. and Raphael, T.E. (2019), "Sustainable School Improvement: The Gradual Release of Responsibility in School Change", McVee, M.B., Ortlieb, E., Reichenberg, J.S. and Pearson, P.D. (Ed.) The Gradual Release of Responsibility in Literacy Research and Practice (Literacy Research, Practice and Evaluation, Vol. 10), Emerald Publishing Limited, Bingley, pp. 67-89.



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