Focus the school improvement planning process solely on increasing student achievement.
Make sure that school improvement team members understand the premises on which the school improvement planning process is based and the direct connection between these processes and increasing student achievement.
School improvement planning is based on the premises are that student achievement will increase when:
Team members need to be reminded continually that the ultimate criterion on which school planning is to be judged must be student achievement. Bruce Joyce has found that a relentless focus on bottom-line goals is a necessary component of any school improvement initiative because, as significant effort is invested in a project, “the centrality of student learning becomes lost as the details of program implementation become ends in themselves.”1 The end of the school improvement process is not an outstanding plan. The result must be increased achievement if the process is to have any value to our students.
Studies by the Baltimore County Public Schools have shown that there is a clear tendency for schools with the highest MSPAP gains to have strong plans and schools with declining performance to have poor plans.
Align the components of the school plan and process.
“I believe that much of the current discussion on school improvement misses the mark badly — not because the ideas are wrong but because they are disconnected and lack a sense of clarity and purpose.
Education is not a collection of parts. It is the whole process that must make sense to people. Disjointed and unconnected events have disjointed and unconnected outcomes. It is only through combining efforts and tying them together that synergy is achieved. The whole is really greater than the sum of the parts.”
American Association of School Administrators
AASA Newsletter (1998)
Paul Houston was right on the mark. Disjointed and unconnected events do have disjointed and unconnected outcomes. Each part of the school improvement planning process must be carefully aligned with components of instruction and assessment so that the synergy that Houston speaks of can be attained.
Effective school improvement plans are aligned around the following desirable attributes:
Allow sufficient time for a deep and rich understanding of the data before improvement strategies are decided upon by team members.
Data by itself have no meaning. Data are merely pieces of information. Individuals and groups must create meaning by organizing, analyzing, and interpreting data. The school context and the prior experiences of team members are powerful influences on the meanings that team members derive from the data that are collected.
A deep and rich understanding should precede planning. When confronted with data, individual and groups tend to want to assign causality too soon and determine possible solutions without clear problem definition. They tend to seek the comfort of action rather than the discomfort of ambiguity. Skilled school teams, however, cultivate what Lipton and Wellman call "purposeful uncertainty" as a pathway to greater understanding in the first phases of the needs assessment process.2
Cycles of inquiry, action, and reflection accelerate continuous growth and learning. The rigorous pursuit of meaningful student achievement goals arises from thoughtful data analysis, including identifying root causes; implementing powerful research-based strategies; and ongoing monitoring of gaps between goal attainment and current achievement levels.
Structure the distinct stages of improvement team conversations that accompany the school planning process.
The ongoing process of continuous improvement focusing on increasing student achievement occurs as school teams converse about data. There are four stages to the process:
The language used in team discussions matters. Ensure that school improvement team leaders follow a carefully designed process of data-driven conversations.
Sample Discussion Openers and Questions to Use to Start the Conversation in the School Improvement Team
Questions such as the following may be used to start the data-driven conversation:
Sample Discussion Openers and Questions to Use to Structure the Conversation in the School Improvement Team
Questions such as the following may be used to structure the data-driven conversation:
Sample Discussion Openers and Questions to Use to Sustain the Conversation on Strategies in the School Improvement Team
Questions such as the following may be used to sustain the data-driven conversation as the team selects broad strategies:
Sample Discussion Openers and Questions to Use to Sustain the Conversation on Activities in the School Improvement Team
Questions such as the following may be used to sustain the data-driven conversation as the team identifies specific activities:
Sample Discussion Openers and Questions to Use to Support the Conversation on Monitoring Implementation of the Plan in the School Improvement Team
Questions such as the following may be used to support the data-driven conversation as the team evaluates strategy and activity implementation:
Sample Discussion Openers and Questions to Use to Support the Conversation on Using Milestones to Measure Student Achievement Progress During the Year
Questions such as the following may be used to support the data-driven conversation as the team develops milestones and evaluates student achievement results:
Include only a few powerful strategies to be implemented at a time in a school improvement plan.
In his book Smart Schools, David Perkins talks about the “everything agenda” schools often have. He calls the everything agenda an “energy vampire” that sucks all our energy and serves to leave us tired and frustrated because we can never fully accomplish what we hope to do.3
Keep in mind that the team is writing a school improvement plan, not a school operation plan. In the complex context of public schools, there are many events that will occur that will not be mentioned in the school plan. The focus of the plan should be the planned upgrades the school is committing itself to do for the year. These become the ways in which the school will continuously improve its operation in each goal/objective area, the ways in which “business as usual” will change. A dedication to continuous improvement is at the heart of the school planning process.
Often, the tendency is to attempt too many strategies and activities in a school improvement plan. The team should carefully consider how many new strategies can be accomplished in a quality way at the same time by the school staff. In general, it is better to implement, at the most, three research-based strategies well than to try to implement many strategies incompletely or ineffectively. A focused school plan, including a limited number of powerful strategies, can turn an “everything agenda” into a “student achievement” agenda.
Describe the identified strategies and activities as completely and specifically as possible in the school plan.
While only a limited number of strategies and activities should be identified at one time for implementation, those that are included in the plan should be described as detailed and specifically as possible. Studies in the 1980s by Research for Better Schools found that about two-third of the action plans developed by schools and businesses were never carried out in full because:
The most effective school improvement plans are limited in scope, clear, specific, and monitored for implementation on an ongoing basis.
1 — Joyce, B.; Wolf, J.; and Calhoun, E. (1993). The Self-Renewing School. Alexandria, VA.: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, p. 20, as quoted in Stigler, J. and Hiebert, J. (1999). The Teaching Gap. New York: The Free Press, pp. 132-133.
2 — Adapted from Laura Lipton and Bruce Wellman, “Pathways to Understanding: Developing Data-Driven Dialogue,” Presentation given at the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development Conference, March 6, 1999.
3 — Perkins, David. Smart Schools. New York: Free Press, 1992.
4 — Presentation at Maryland Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development Annual Retreat, Towson, Maryland, January 2000.