We say we are engaged in school improvement...but are we actually doing this work or are we trapped in saying we are and believing it without much evidence of impact? This can be a slippery slope. We can answer this question with clarity when we have access to objective, verifiable data and evidence that aspects of the school organization are improving, whether it is student achievement, measures of culture, or other indices. Too often, schools are almost unknowingly trapped inside cycles of believing that they are working on school improvement when very little has changed year-over-year. It is important to look at current data sets and examine whether we see improvements in graduation rates, literacy and numeracy, teaching and learning strategies, and student behavior. And delve into whether these improvements are significant.
Let’s address some of the fundamental reasons why we have schools that engage in planning processes each year only to discover that the results are less than what were expected. From our experiences working with schools at PLC Associates, we see five areas, or traps if you will, that hinder schools away from creating school plans that result in measurable impact.
1. Strategic Abandonment of School Improvement Tactics
This is an interesting concept. It calls for school leaders to carefully review current and past plans to accurately determine whether or not they have the right strategies in place, examine what is working, and determine what did not work. If a particular strategy or intervention has been in place for a reasonable amount of time and there are no measurable results, it is time to strategically abandon that strategy. It is also time to reflect on why a particular strategy did not achieve the intended result to help develop more effective strategies going forward. A good example comes from one of the large districts we were recently in conversation with. They explained that they had been with the same consultancy for over 10 years, but little had changed school by school. When we asked why they were continuing, the response was “our staff is used to this group and it’s easier than going with a new strategy.” Of course, this response doesn’t make any sense if they are truly seeking transformation; strategic advantage abandonment calls for courage and openness to changing tactics.
2. Building a Foundation Based upon The Right Work
The education field offers tremendous resources such as the meta-analysis and research provided by key contributors. From John Hattie and his collective advocacy effect size, Marzano’s comprehensive research, Himelle’s total participation strategies, Wiliam’s focus on common formative assessments, and Fullan’s coherence quadrant, we have plenty of information to rely on to determine the evidence-driven structures, practices, and strategies to create high-performing organization. It is time to ask some critical questions about the extent to which our plans are built upon these well-vetted research-based strategies and interventions that have been field-tested as effective and successful in schools. We do not need to reinvent the wheel.
3. Methodical Execution and Fidelity of Implementation
After creating a school improvement plan, it is useful to examine whether you have intentionally planned its execution. Are you involving, in some way, all teams and all individuals that work within the organization? Have you established clear expectations around the process? These are key considerations to having a well-organized strategy that starts with a vision for the school and goals for its future state. Stated simply, to be effective, you must clarify what is your desired state and how will you know when you are there. Implementation is another area where it is possible to have structures and practices in place, but not fully implemented across all elements of the school. For example, in a recent district conversation, school leaders explained that they indeed have operating data cycles. But when we dug deeper, we discovered that data cycles were only collecting information and the information was not shared with grade level or content area teams. This did not allow these teams to leverage it to make data-driven decisions and examine whether the strategies they developed were working. So, there are two parts to this. The first is planning out the cadence of execution and then monitoring the degree to which the plan is implemented with fidelity across the school.
4. Monitoring Metrics
It is essential to establish a set of metrics to measure progress of your plan. The common practice of quarterly checks of common formative assessments are not sufficient to actively and continually monitor student results. We encourage classroom teachers to design and adhere to strategies that give us more immediate information on student results. We can do the same thing in monitoring improvements in school culture. PLC offers a helpful Data Triangle which features several benchmarks in a comprehensive survey. It is possible to spot-check results based upon 3 to 5 benchmarks on a more regular basis so you can see improvements in critical areas as you move through the academic year. The key question to consider is whether you are satisfied with established short-term and long-term metrics to determine school improvement in all areas of focus.
5. Take Advantage of An External Partner
There is a reason Michael Fullan talks about external and internal accountability in the last quadrant of his coherence model. He makes a very good case for the blending of position power and expertise power. School leaders and others within the organization have the power to determine the path forward for the school. When this power is blended with subject matter experts who truly understand a particular area of work, there exists a powerful combination for moving the school forward. We find that in the schools we work with we cultivate a strong collaboration among stakeholders within the organization and the members of our team. This is a co-constructing model. It not only builds that all-important trusting relationship but also takes advantage in a very positive way of blending positionality and expertise power.
By avoiding these five traps, you can create an effective plan and implement it with fidelity to achieve real school improvement. Let us help you get this work done well and you will achieve your expected outcome – a transformed and improved school!
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