Recommended Book: Learning First! A School Leader’s Guide to Closing Achievement Gaps

learning first book cover


Authors Kelley and Shaw begin by painting a grim picture, albeit a real one: students in the high range of the socioeconomic scale are eight times more likely to graduate from college than students in the low range. Why? “Resource gaps” based on differences in property taxes persist, causing urban districts to receive much less funding per student than suburban districts receive. Within school districts, schools with diverse learners often receive less funding than wealthier schools. But it isn’t always about money. Even within schools, students are marginalized in tracked classes with the teachers who were most recently hired (once teachers have experience, they are able to lobby for classes with less diversity and, therefore, less difficulty).

Even with these challenges, we can minimize gaps in learning. The authors lay out the framework to do so, divided into three intertwined categories.

Socio-Cognitive Leadership defines what leadership looks like when school members collaborate to analyze and address problems. Here’s the process: it begins with establishing a shared vision, then moves to defining the problem with data, build an evidence-based plan, assess the value-added results, reflect for continuous improvement, and then begin the process again (continuous improvement).

The Three Dimensions of Leadership for Student Learning define where leaders focus their attention in order to close achievement gaps and advance learning for all students. It includes engaging the community, building teacher capacity, and aligning resources.

Levers of Change show how leaders transform schools by focusing on specific strategies or shared approaches. Levers include individuals (students, teachers, administrators, etc.), organizations (school, district), and community (businesses in the community, nonprofits, etc.)


Data profiles allow school stakeholders to assess the current reality of a school compared to the shared vision. They can include student grades, demographics and observational data on teachers, student placement and behavioral patterns and processes, community survey data, budget information, master schedule and curricular information and processes, technological capacity, and curricular information. (The book includes several rubrics for assessing your movement along the Learning First continuum.)

“(Learning First) implies that school leaders and teachers, along with children, families, and communities, have a responsibility for learning outcomes as well as learning opportunities.” (I added the italics.)

Why I Recommend It

I appreciate books that help me organize my thinking. This book goes beyond the assertion that all children must be given the tools to succeed. It goes into great detail about how leaders should view their current reality and work with the other staff members to meet their goals and reach their vision.

Because of its unique way of breaking down the process of leadership, it takes some time to wrap your head around the three major components of the Learning First framework (socio-cognitive leadership, three dimensions, and levers of change). But as you read each chapter, it becomes easier and easier. And it really is a great way to think about leadership.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s