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3 Keys to Unlocking School Improvement

Written by
September 8th, 2016

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Someone once said that if you fail to plan, you plan to fail. School improvement is a process that takes planning and careful attention. Just like any process, there are systematic ways to approaching and enhancing it. In today’s global economy, school improvement is essential to help people grow into all that they can be.

School improvement is synonymous with the concept of quality improvement. Carnegie Foundation’s Continuous Improvement in Education defines quality improvement as “the disciplined use of evidence-based quantitative and qualitative methods to improve the effectiveness, efficiency, equity, timeliness, or safety of service delivery processes and systems.” The goal of each plan, and of any quality educational institution, is to help increase student achievement.

But even though many schools have a school improvement plan in place, they continue to fail to meet state requirements. Why do their plans fall short?

Are there too many initiatives?

According to Collaborative School Improvement: “The common pattern in schools is for leaders to implement multiple new initiatives in an attempt to address a broad range of problems. In trying to solve everything at once, nothing gets the attention it really needs, and ultimately nothing gets solved” (Kaufman 2012).

When 97 district chief technology officers were asked at the Two-Day Summit of the Council of Great City Schools “What are the primary challenges, problems, or areas of volatility you face?” responses included:

  • “Creating and disseminating the vision, goals, objectives, and expectations from the top to the bottom.”
  • “Multiple visions, objectives, models, systems, ideas, technologies, and agendas all competing for time and resources.”
  • “No uniform direction so we can’t possibly get to a single direction” (School Improvement Network 2015).

It is important to consider how much time they spend each day, week and month dedicated to accomplishing the goals of the organization. Along with constant changes in direction and poor communication throughout the organization, having too many objectives could be a distraction.

Focusing on a few

Even though the needs are great for districts, focusing on too many goals rather than a few practical goals can detract from the goal of increased student achievement.

Instead, districts should strive to be intentional about activity. There are many initiatives that a district can take on to work on and accomplish, but the leaders must ask themselves the hard questions.

During the two-fold process of identifying areas for improvement and prioritizing the issue areas (North Carolina Department of Public Instruction 2000), schools need to be aware of the scope of the project. Education Week reported, “The debate regarding the sophistication and specificity required for effective school improvement, coupled with the potential to overwhelm implementers and muddle results, indicates that particular attention should be paid to scope when districts are designing school improvement models.” Therefore, experts advocate that districts aim at 2 to 5 priorities within a school improvement plan (Ontario Ministry of Education 2000).

Keys to accomplishing school improvement

A crucial first step in developing an improvement plan is to involve teachers, school councils, parents, and other community members to work together in a comprehensive needs assessment that helps inform a plan to move forward. (Here’s a link to a free needs assessment tool.) Together they can gather and analyze information about the school and its students, so that they can determine what needs to be improved in their school (Ontario Ministry of Education 2000).

  • Collaboration is crucial

In his book, The Courage to Teach: Exploring the Inner Landscape of a Teacher’s Life, P.J. Parker encourages community and collaboration in the educational ecosystem. In chapter 4, he describes the school improvement process as “the pursuit of truth in the company of friends,” and that the rigors of this journey “require a bond of affection between the expeditionary team.”

It’s important to understand that a school is like a living organism. Just like a living organism, the school needs perceptive people to recognize when it’s healthy and when it’s not. Having a strong school improvement plan helps identify, monitor, and even strengthen the school and the people that thrive in it.

  • Shared vision creates ownership

Transformational leaders must guide the process with vision to inspire stakeholders. They can use tools like the Breaking Ranks Framework, which emphasizes “quick wins” (National Association of Secondary School Principals). This is effectively the journey that the School Improvement team embarks on together and hopefully persuades all actors to join.

In order to get a group of people to own the goals, they must buy into the vision and understand how to execute on the plan. Collaboration is a must, and so is having a few understandable goals for people to implement. School improvement helps educators find purpose in their activity and when done right, allows them to see the fruits of their labor.

  • Continuous improvement fuels transformation

Some argue that schools aren’t structured for continuous improvement because they’re more like learning “silos” rather than integrated systems (Park 2013). PDSA cycles of improvement or other models are a means to meeting the goals of the organization, but building in a culture of innovation starts with a growth mindset. The collective impact is then reinforced with follow-through and execution as the cycle builds upon itself.

In spite of good intentions, not every intervention will be successful for every child. At times, the efforts may not lead to the results that were anticipated. But with rigorous measurement of the work, informed decision-making and a willingness to change, the improvement process can guide and encourage stakeholders to press on towards their goals. Without a concentrated effort, the goals of school improvement will not be realized.


Illuminate Education is a provider of educational technology and services offering innovative data, assessment and student information solutions. Serving K-12 schools, our cloud-based software and services currently assist more than 1,600 school districts in promoting student achievement and success.

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