School Improvement in Maryland

Key Understandings For CFIP

These key understandings will help school teams use the Classroom-Focused Improvement Process (CFIP) to improve teaching and increase student learning.


The Classroom-Focused Improvement Process is a data dialogue protocol. This section explains how each component is essential for its success.


Data are observations, facts, or numbers that, when collected and organized, become information and, when used productively in context, become knowledge.1

Data are merely numbers or words and, alone, have no intrinsic meaning. It has been said that data do not laugh or cry. Individuals or groups give meaning to data by organizing, analyzing, interpreting, and using them. Our context and prior experiences have a major influence on the meaning we derive from the data we collect.


In the best-selling leadership text The Fifth Discipline, Peter Senge noted that, "In dialogue, a group accesses a larger 'pool of common meaning,' which cannot be accessed individually. . . . The purpose of a dialogue is to go beyond any one individual's understanding. In dialogue, people gain new insights that simply could not be achieved individually. . . . We are not trying to win in a dialogue. We all win if we are doing it right." 2

Sparks has identified the following characteristics of true dialogue:

  • Making known the assumptions that underlie our perspectives
  • Inquiring into and examining the assumptions of others
  • Remaining open to the perspectives of others and willing to be influenced and to change our thoughts and actions because of them
  • Suspending judgment until all relevant data have been shared
  • Respecting differences of opinion as a healthy characteristic of a team
  • Suspending role and status distinctions
  • Sharing responsibility and leadership
  • Speaking to the group as a whole, as opposed to holding side conversations
  • Practicing empathy
  • Holding assumptions loosely, as opposed to "the truth"
  • Listening carefully to what is being said without interrupting others
  • Refraining from offering comments, commiseration, or offers of assistance, until they are appropriate
  • Instituting periods of silence at contentious points in meetings in order to calm emotions and provide participants with time to reflect on what is being said and on their current points of view3


A protocol consists of agreed-upon guidelines for dialogue -- which everyone understands and has agreed to -- that permit a certain kind of conversation to occur, often a kind of conversation which school team members are not in the habit of having.

Protocols can help teams to navigate difficult and uncomfortable conversations by providing:

  • A logical series of questions for team members to discuss sequentially
  • A template on which to record conclusions
  • The opportunity for all team members to become actively involved
  • A comprehensive analysis that will lead to definitive actions

Mc Donald, et al., have noted that, "In some educational organizations, protocols may at first seem foolish -- an unwarranted interference in ordinary business. The more dysfunctional the organization, the stronger the negative reaction may be. . . . One could argue that…communication precision, faithful replication, and scripts would prove counterproductive here. Don't we learn best by just talking with each other?" 4

They conclude, however, that "Among educators, especially, just talking may not be enough. The kind of talking needed to educate ourselves cannot rise spontaneously and unaided from just talking. It needs to be carefully planned and scaffolded. Protocols force transparency. . . . Protocols make clear the differences between describing and judging, between talking and listening, and between proposing and giving feedback." 5

Protocols may be hard to stick to at first. They may seem strange and stilted. We tend to want to take the conversation in other, more natural, directions. But this can be counter-productive and not lead to definitive actions. For the dialogue to be effective, we should "trust the protocol" and let it work. In time, the questions will seem much more natural, and we will become more comfortable with them. In time, too, we may see opportunities to modify the protocol and perhaps eliminate components or combine questions. But for the first few times we try it, we should strive to be true to the process.

  • 1 Definition suggested by the work of Davis, S. & Botkin, J. (1994). The monster under the bed. New York: Touchstone Books, pp. 42-51.
  • 2 Senge, P. (1990). The fifth discipline. New York: Doubleday, pp. 240-241.
  • 3 Sparks, D. (2007). Leading for results. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press, pp. 62-78.
  • 4 McDonald, J., Mohr, N., Dichter, A., & McDonald E. (2007). The power of protocols: An educator's guide to better practice. (2nd. ed.). New York: Teachers College Press, pp. 1, 5.
  • 5 Ibid., pp. 5, 7.