School Improvement in Maryland
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tips
by Dr. Ronald S. Thomas
 
TIPS FROM SCHOOL IMPROVEMENT LEADERS

    Tip 1: Focus the school improvement planning process solely on increasing student achievement.
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    Tip 2: Align the components of the school plan and process.
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    Tip 3: Allow sufficient time for a deep and rich understanding of the data before improvement strategies are decided upon by team members.
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    Tip 4: Structure the distinct stages of improvement team conversations that accompany the school planning process.
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    Tip 5: The language used in team discussions matters. Ensure that school improvement team leaders follow a carefully designed process of data-driven conversations.
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    Tip 6: Include only a few powerful strategies to be implemented at a time in a school improvement plan.
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    Tip 7: Describe the identified strategies and activities as completely and specifically as possible in the school plan.
     

 

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1

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:

  • There has been an analysis of the needs of the students as revealed by the data.
  • Efforts and resources are focused towards the most pressing student academic needs as shown by the data-driven needs assessment.
  • The school improvement plan includes measurable long-term goals and short-term objectives as well as aligned strategies, activities, milestones, professional development plans, and budgets.
  • There is regular monitoring of the plan to maintain the focus and ongoing modification of the plan as new data become available.
  • Progress towards goals and objectives is recognized and celebrated.

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.

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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.”

Paul Houston
Executive Director
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:

  • There are informative presentations of the data in graphic or tabular form and meaningful discussion of the data through summary conclusion statements.
  • Discussions of root causes are complete and evolve appropriately from the data.
  • Goals, objectives, strategies, and activities address identified root causes.
  • Systemwide priorities are reflected in the plans.
  • Goals and objectives reference important data areas and are measurable.
  • Strategies and activities are clearly differentiated.
  • Strategies and activities are targeted to identified groups of students and for specific timelines.
  • Strategies and activities are focused on improving daily instruction.
  • Follow-up and coaching activities are designed to ensure implementation.
  • Evaluation data bases are aligned with objectives.
  • Appropriate milestones are included which could lead to modifications of the plan if needed.

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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.

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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:

  • Start the data-driven conversation:
    At this first stage, the focus of the conversations is on developing deep and rich understandings of the current status of student achievement in the school, changes over the past few years, and hopes for the future.
  • Structure the data-driven conversation:
    At this stage of the school improvement planning process, focus is on interpreting the data, giving meaning to it, and identifying root causes or contributing factors to the data.
  • Sustain the data-driven conversation:
    At this stage of the process, the school improvement team is determining how to use the data to identify the broad strategies and the specific activities to carry out the strategies in the school improvement plan.
  • Support the data-driven conversation:
    At this stage of the process, the school improvement team is analyzing strategy and activity implementation data as well as formative student achievement data to evaluate the success of the plan and to make adjustments if needed.

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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:

  • Where do these data come from?
  • What do these numbers represent?
  • What are the units of measurement?
  • Who are the students included in these data?
  • What do the data seem to indicate?
  • What do the data not tell us?
  • What patterns do we see in the data over time?
  • In what ways is achievement this year similar to (or different from) student achievement in the same data base last year?
  • What good news is here to celebrate?
  • How close is the school to meeting state or county standards? How much improvement will be needed in future years to meet these standards?
  • How is student achievement in _____ (data point) connected to achievement in _____ (data point)?
  • What other data or additional information are needed before we can identify possible root causes?

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:

  • Why are these data important?
  • Why might these data have occurred?
  • Why do the data look like they do?
  • What factors might have contributed to the student achievement results we are seeing?
  • Which of these factors might have contributed to why the data are at their current levels:
    • Staff changes
    • Professional development in the school and system
    • School climate
    • Curriculum implementation
    • Use of time and scheduling
    • Use of human and financial resources
    • Special programs of remediation and enrichment
  • What other factors might have played a part in obtaining these results?
  • In what ways have programs changed from the previous year?
  • How can we explore our assumptions about possible root causes a little further?
  • What professional development might have occurred or not occurred that could have impacted these data?
  • Why and in what ways did the curriculum change?
  • In what ways did the staff change?
  • Which of the factors identified as possible root causes are within the control of the school to change?

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:

  • If we implement _____ strategy, then we anticipate that _____ will happen.
  • How might _____ strategy help us to improve student achievement in _____ data area?
  • What is the research base behind this strategy?
  • What data do we have or can we locate in educational literature that indicate that a particular strategy will work in our context?
  • In what similar school contexts has a strategy like this been successful in increasing student achievement?
  • What are the advantages and disadvantages of each strategy?
  • What strategy has the best record of success in schools like ours?
  • What resources (such as time, personnel, materials, training, and funding) will be needed to implement the strategy initially and sustain it over time?
  • How can existing funding sources be integrated to support the implementation of the proposed strategy at the school?
  • How will the proposed strategy mesh with other initiatives currently underway in the school?

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:

  • What specific steps will need to occur in our school to implement this strategy?
  • What professional development will be necessary to implement this strategy?
  • What staff members will organize the strategy?
  • How will students be identified for the intervention?
  • When will the intervention start and stop?
  • What follow-up and coaching will be provided to teachers to ensure successful implementation?
  • How much will implementing this strategy cost?

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:

  • Did the planned activities occur as scheduled?
  • What adjustments in activity implementation had to be made? Why?
  • What feedback will be collected to ensure that the activities were successful and reached the expected results?
  • What evidence will we accept that the activities are moving the school toward completion of the strategy?
  • What will we do during the year if our activities are not reaching their intended results?
  • How will progress on activity implementation results be reported to the faculty, school improvement team, and community?
  • How can we convey support and celebrate the successes of our students, staff, and community?

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:

  • What evidence will we accept during the year that students are progressing satisfactorily toward the student achievement objectives?
  • What milestone assessment will be used to determine the success of the strategy?
  • How often and at what logical points will we use the milestone assessment to check for evidence of student achievement progress?
  • Is the milestone plan adequate? Will we get all the information we need?
  • What resources and time will be needed to administer the milestone?
  • How will scoring and analysis of results be done?
  • What will the grade or schoolwide expectations be for student achievement on the milestone assessment? (Or, in other words, what will good achievement on this assessment look like and how will we be sure there will be similar high expectations for all students throughout the entire grade or school?)
  • What will we do during the year if we find that the students are not progressing satisfactorily toward the achievement objective?

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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.

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 7

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 plans were not specific and detailed enough. It was unclear what exactly was intended to occur.
  • The plans were not results oriented; that is, there was not an expected result for each step. It was unclear what would be happen as a result of each activity.
  • The plans were not monitored. It was unclear who would do what and when to implement the plan.4

The most effective school improvement plans are limited in scope, clear, specific, and monitored for implementation on an ongoing basis.


References

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.