School Improvement in Maryland

Tips from School Improvement Leaders
by Lani Seikaly

As project director for the MDK12 school improvement website, I have enjoyed observing, talking, and working with school leaders around the state. As a result, I have learned a lot about how leadership teams function, what barriers they identify to improving student achievement, and what strategies they have found that work.

I have observed that schools appear to be challenged by two major barriers:

  • Too many demands and too little time to meet all of them
  • Too many priorities and too little clarity on where schools should focus efforts

There is no question that there are an exorbitant number of demands made on schools, probably felt most keenly by principals. There’s no question that principals (as well as teachers) who try to meet those many demands often feel tired, confused, and fragmented. So how do effective principals focus their school on improvement efforts?

When a principal takes his/her staff through the data analysis process, comes out of that process with clear school improvement objectives and a game plan for attaining them, collects data to monitor progress toward those objectives, and aligns time and staff development resources, then the school staff has a clear idea about how they should prioritize their efforts.

This aligned school improvement system is exactly what schools need. They need to clearly focus their limited resources, particularly time, around priority objectives and to monitor regularly what strategies are working and eliminate strategies that aren’t.

When principals buy into the premise that the school improvement process should drive the school’s resources and activities, then the following tips will probably be self-evident. These tips are directed to principals and team leaders, the people most responsible for providing leadership for improving student achievement.

  1. School improvement is the work of the entire staff. Even when the school has identified a school improvement team, they cannot replace the critical, ongoing work that grade level teams, interdisciplinary teams and departments play in improving student achievement. It is important for you to clearly delineate the role of each team in the school improvement process. Equally important is making sure that everyone on staff knows the student achievement goals for the school and their role in attaining them.

  2. After analyzing your AYP and MSA or HSA data (or any other data) be sure to spend time clarifying your problem. Many schools spend little or no time exploring why the data looks like it does. Instead, they move immediately to identifying strategies and activities to improve student achievement in a weak area. The problem with failing to clarify the problem is that the already over-extended school staff is now asked to implement a series of strategies and activities that may not address the real barrier to student performance. For example, if your data looks like it does because your curriculum is not aligned with the test and, therefore, you didn’t teach something tested, then the strategy you identify will need to address that lack of alignment. However, if the problem is that teachers don’t understand the intent of the indicators they are expected to teach, then the identified strategy will need to address that issue. Focus your problem clarification on the key processes that need to be in place to meet a student achievement target. If, instead of focusing on instruction, you have teachers hypothesize all the reasons why they think the data look like they do, they usually identify all those external factors that schools have no control over. For example, they will often hypothesize that their performance is low because we have too many poor students, or too high a mobility rate, or uninvolved parents or too many students with disabilities. You’ve probably heard these before. So focusing the problem clarification on the key instructional processes will save time and guide the discussion toward those factors over which you have the most control.

  3. Make sure staff understand the difference between your accountability data, benchmarking data, and formative assessment data and how you use each of them. For Maryland public schools, the accountability data is your AYP, MSA and HSA data. The state AYP targets are your accountability targets and gaps between your performance and these targets should drive your school improvement goals. Benchmarking data are the data you decide to use to track your progress toward these goals during specified times across the year. Both of these data sets (accountability and benchmarking) are summative data as opposed to the formative assessment data which are data used to diagnose strengths and weaknesses and used by teachers to address student instructional needs. It is only when the information from the assessment is used to help students learn that the assessment becomes a formative assessment. If the assessment were scored and the score placed in a grade book and not used in any other way to inform instruction, then it would be a summative assessment. Formative assessments are where your school needs to focus when you are trying to move all students to proficiency on state standards. Good formative assessments provide the information about what a student knows and still needs to learn that will guide teachers to differentiate their instruction to meet individual student needs.

    In a 1998 Phi Delta Kappan article entitled, "Inside the Black Box: Raising Standards Through Classroom Assessment," authors Paul Black and Dylan Wiliam summarize their review of the research that would help answer the question, “Do improved formative, classroom assessments yield higher student achievement as reflected in summative assessments, and, if so, what kinds of improvements in classroom assessment practice are likely to yield the greatest gains in achievement?” They found several dozen research projects with sufficient scientific rigor and experimental control to permit firm conclusions. After reviewing the research, they asserted that, “There is a body of firm evidence that formative assessment is an essential component of classroom work and that its development can raise standards of achievement. We know of no other way of raising standards for which such a strong prima facie case can be made." This research reveals that these achievement gains are maximized in contexts where educators increase the accuracy of classroom assessments, provide students with frequent informative feedback (versus infrequent judgmental feedback), and involve students deeply in the classroom assessment, record keeping, and communication processes.

  4. Create a monitoring system aligned with the state content standards that yields timely, meaningful and diagnostic results for classroom teachers about where students are and what they still need to learn. An NCREL Learning Point web document, entitled “From High-Stakes Testing to Assessment for School Improvement” reports that “The most important challenge for teachers, schools, and districts is to support each student's journey toward proficiency in meeting established learning standards. However, extracting information from a student that demonstrates his or her progress toward the goal can be difficult. Ongoing observation of a child at the classroom level—day in and day out— may provide the most accurate information about what a child genuinely knows and what progress is being made. Classroom teachers are most qualified to give input on student progress toward meeting academic standards, but they need to be given the time, the training, and the support to provide more than just test scores.”

    Teachers can and should collect daily information about where students are in relationship to what is being taught. They can use multiple measurements that may include tests, assignments, presentations, or oral responses to questions. They need the diagnostic information to determine what they need to teach and re-teach and when they need to provide additional interventions.

    Since the ultimate goal is to have teachers regularly collecting, discussing, and using the data to inform classroom instruction, principals may wish to see evidence that this is happening every two weeks. Waiting much longer to find out if teachers are collecting monitoring data or not wastes student instructional time. Principals will want to see that the data have been submitted, because it will be their responsibility to deal with any teacher not complying with the expectation. However, they will likely prefer that another school leader be the first level of receiving the data. A team leader, resource teacher, department chair, content specialist, staff development specialist, or assistant principal are instructional leaders who could play this role.

    De-emphasize the use of report card grades for monitoring purposes. Report card grades preceded standards-based education and are rarely aligned with state content standards. They are not an indication of whether a student has met the proficient standard but rather an indication of where the student is performing in relation to other students.

  5. Set expectations and structure time for teams to regularly examine student work to inform instruction. I have found the regular examination of student work to yield the highest dividends in improving student achievement and in improving teaching. The protocol that we used asked the team to first reach consensus on what they would accept as proficient work and then diagnose student responses against that criteria. Teachers then discussed what individual feedback selected student responses would receive and what re-teaching was necessary for the class. Not only will teachers begin to get a better handle on what their students know and still need to learn but they will also be reaching consensus on what proficient work looks like, what they need to be sharing with students about the proficiency criteria, and some additional instructional strategies they might try. It will probably come as no surprise to hear that teachers struggled with reaching consensus on what they were looking for. Without this consensus, you can imagine the different messages students in different classes were hearing about what was important.

    Teachers also need to understand that diagnosing what students know and still need to learn is a critical part of the planning process. Too frequently teachers think of their planning time as time for them to plan all of the activities and assessments for a unit before they teach it. What they sometimes don’t recognize is that planning also includes revising the plan to differentiate instruction after teachers have examined student work and other formative assessment data to understand what students know and what they still need to learn. The goal here is to take students to mastery on the objectives they need to learn, not to cover the content and move on regardless of whether students learned it.

  6. Model for your staff the importance of making data-driven decisions about their instruction. Emphasize what we can learn from the collection of data, rather than what we did wrong. For example, share data that is evidence of something you tried that didn’t work as a positive example of how we learn from strategies that don’t work. Let them know that you might have continued the unsuccessful strategy if you had not collected and reviewed the data. Ask staff often the following questions:

    • What student achievement data did you collect as evidence of learning or of the effectiveness of a particular strategy or program?
    • What evidence would you accept that the program or strategy was successful? How can you collect that data?

    Showcase the use of data by including in staff meetings or staff development activities examples of how data was used in individual classrooms or teams to make a decision about an instructional strategy or classroom activity. One strategy I used successfully as principal of a middle school was to use 10 minutes of each staff meeting to showcase an instructional strategy being used by identified teachers that exemplified good instruction. A Successful Practices Committee chose the practices to be showcased, and staff members seemed particularly flattered that a committee of their peers singled them out for recognition. The recognition also carried some special rewards---a special parking spot, a celebration balloon, a lunch certificate to a local restaurant, and a couple of hour class coverage by an administrator so that the staff member could go to lunch during the school day. But the main point is that the recognition and showcasing is most effective when it is aligned with the school’s instructional priorities.

  7. Benchmark successful schools. Identify schools whose data show that they have been more successful than your school, and talk to them about what they are doing. You will have identified some schools that are outperforming you on MSA or HSA when you worked through the data analysis section. Since schools may be unsure what made the difference, ask them what data they collected to determine which of their strategies were successful. You may have identified other schools in the Benchmarking Successful Schools section of the web site. Set aside sub time or staff meeting time for your staff to talk to their staff about successful strategies. Remind your staff that they are looking for strategies that address their problem. Of particular interest is what structures other schools have put in place to monitor student achievement data and examine student work and how they use that data to improve student achievement.

  8. Monitor what you value. Staff are very conscious of what you are monitoring. If you talk at staff meetings or in memos to staff about the importance of being in the hallways during the transition of classes more than you talk about what kind of instructional activities are taking place in those classrooms, then staff will assume you are more interested in managing students’ behaviors than in managing students’ instruction. This is not to minimize the need to have good management skills but rather to remind you that staff will believe you value most what you pay most attention to. The same is true of what you recognize or showcase at staff meetings or newsletters. Staff will only believe you value instruction if you recognize and showcase good instruction.

    A critical role that you play in the observation process is to monitor what you expect when you are conferring with teachers about their instruction. For example, asking the following questions will help teachers understand better what you want them to look for and how you expect them to use data.

    • How do the students demonstrate for you they are proficient on the indicator/objective(s) I observed you teaching?
    • When and how will you reassess their performance on the same indicator/objective?
    • What percent of your students improved on the re-assessment?
    • What are you planning to do for the students who are not improving?
    • What does an examination of their work tell you about what the students know and still need to learn?