Kim Bailey

Kim Bailey is director of staff development and instructional support for the Capistrano Unified School District in California. She is also an adjunct faculty member at Chapman University in Orange, California.

The Power of Going Vertical

A great deal of our work to improve student learning is accomplished through powerful conversations at the team level. Collaborative teams answer the guiding question, “What do we want students to know and do?” by identifying essential standards and examples of proficiency in those standards. As they teach, they monitor whether their students have learned those skills by collaboratively examining evidence and then identifying students who need additional assistance. Through ongoing reflection, they gain insights about effective instructional practices that impact their students’ learning.

Generally, collaborative teams are horizontal in nature—in other words, the members of the team are working with students at the same grade level or within the same course. However, schools can periodically expand beyond the horizontal team level and engage the entire school in these powerful conversations. By periodically building in vertical conversations, schools can maximize their efficacy and ensure that they are building a staircase of proficiency in student learning.

Vertical conversations can be structured to address student learning at a variety of levels. Here are three types of vertical conversations and descriptions for their implementation:

  1. Vertical Articulation of Essential Standards: After horizontal teams identify their draft essential standards, they create posters. Grade level posters of draft essential standards are arranged around the room. Teams are equipped with sticky notes and pens and stationed at their poster. Given a signal, teams move in a clockwise fashion to the next grade level. Teams examine the next grade’s essential standards, looking for patterns, omissions, redundancies, or any questions that might need to be clarified and leave messages on the poster using their sticky notices (Teams can use prompts such as “We saw…” or “We wondered.” Teams move from poster to poster, repeating the conversations until they reach their original grade level poster. Together, they read the comments and feedback and discuss implications for any revisions or clarification.
  2. Vertical Articulation of Expectations for Student Learning/Rigor: Horizontal teams bring exemplars or expectations for quality of their essential standards in a particular strand in literacy, math, or other content areas. The exemplars can be glued onto a ledger size piece of paper. Teams examine the level of rigor across the grades by “passing the papers” from one team’s table to the next and provide feedback about the level of rigor they see in the exemplar. As a school, the staff discusses the progression of expectations and rigor.
  3. Vertical Articulation of Student Work Samples: At key times during the year, teams bring artifacts of the work that students have produced in the focus area. Using the “pass the paper” strategy, teams provide feedback about what they notice. Through the process, common patterns in student responses can be identified and teams can discuss effective instructional strategies to improve the area of learning.

Vertical conversations can strengthen the school as a system, and can be a powerful vehicle for building a staircase of proficiency as students move from grade to grade. Building upon the work of horizontal teams, vertical conversations promote a wide-angle view of student learning and further promote collective responsibility for the students within a school. Start looking for the opportunity to go vertical!



Bailey, K. and Jakicic, C. (2016). Simplifying Common Assessment: Practical Strategies for Professional Learning Communities at Work. Bloomington, IN: Solution Tree Press.

DuFour, R., DuFour, R., Eaker, R., & Many, T. and Mattos, M. (2016). Learning by Doing: A Handbook for Professional Learning Communities at Work (3rd ed.). Bloomington, IN: Solution Tree Press.


Morgan Kitzman

I love these ideas! We are currently realigning our curriculum. These will be great activities after we get everything lined out in our grade levels. I love that there will be multiple people from multiple grade levels who are looking them over to make improvements. We sometimes focus so much on aligning things for our grade level that we forget their background knowledge and the rigor they'll be expected to perform at going forward. I can't wait to share these activities with our team the next time we meet!

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Morgan Kitzman

I love this thought process! At times we focus so much on what our grade level needs to know that we forget about what they've already had or the level they'll be expected to perform at going forward. Our district is currently realigning our standards and these strategies will be perfect after we are finished within our grade levels. I also like the idea that you will have multiple people looking at your work, which means that you have that many more suggestions to make effective. I can't wait to share these suggestions with our curriculum team!

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