This post was co-authored by Dr. Shelly Dunaway
Every year, educators throughout the United States participate in School Improvement Planning (SIP). For some, it is a burdensome, mundane but required task. For Two Rivers Middle School in Nashville, Tennessee, the principal, Dr. Shelly Dunaway, used the School Improvement Planning process as a way to inform and empower teachers to support student success.
Collaborative Inquiry Process
The process we used for the School Improvement Plan is “Collaborative Inquiry.” “Collaborative Inquiry is a data-based team process that consciously uses the collaborative learning cycle and the qualities of effective groups” (MNPS Community of Practice, 2016; Wilkerson & Johnson, 2017). The Collaborative Inquiry process puts teachers in the driver’s seat of school improvement planning and empowers them to develop a SIP that they can truly own.
The objective for the first meeting was to have teachers analyze data from multiple sources and record their observations using the Collaborative Inquiry process. First, teachers were asked, “What is your vision for Two Rivers Middle?” By beginning the process with an open-ended question, psychological safety was fostered, thereby empowering teachers to voice their desires for their students. In the next step of the process, teachers were given multiple sources of school data and asked to examine the data and note their observations. It was during this step of the process that inferences, explanations, and conclusions were suspended, and only the facts were reported on chart paper. Because of time constraints, teachers decided to save the next step, which is to develop theories of causation, for the next meeting.
The objective for the second meeting was to draft SIP goals. A protocol called, “Aha Moments” (Lipton & Wellman, 2011), was used to start the meeting with a discussion about “Ahas” since the last meeting. Prior to this meeting, the data observations from the previous meeting had been disseminated, and were hung throughout the back of the room.
During the next part of the meeting, participants were asked to identify theories of causation. Often times, educators tend to want to jump into action. As a result, sometimes valuable time and resources are spent on addressing issues that are symptoms of a problem and not the root cause. There are five areas of causation in education: curriculum, instruction, infrastructure, teachers, and students (Lipton & Wellman, 2017). Using this framework, theories of causation were discussed and recorded. During the last part of the meeting, smaller teams drafted a SMART goal for their assigned SIP area: Graduation, Numeracy, Literacy, Achievement Gap, or School Culture and Climate. These drafted goals were the springboard for the final meeting.
The objective of the final meeting was to get feedback from others regarding the SMART Goal draft, and recommended action steps. In this final meeting, the facilitator began by activating and engaging participants in a discussion of accomplishments. During the exploring and discovering phase of the collaborative inquiry process, participants participated in a chalk talk protocol (Wentworth, n.d) for providing feedback for the draft SMART goals and added recommended action steps to the chart paper. Once feedback was provided, respective teams used the feedback to finalize their assigned part of the SIP.
Using the collaborative inquiry approach for school improvement planning allowed us to learn some invaluable lessons for helping teachers get fired up and motivated by the school improvement planning process. We offer the following recommendations based on lessons learned:
Put Data in the Hands of Teachers – In the past, it was our experience that data were interpreted by a data expert and then shared with teachers. Using the collaborative inquiry process, teachers worked in small groups to make observations of the data. By putting the data into the hands of teachers, different perspectives were engaged and better ideas were generated for the school improvement plan.
Buy-In versus Ownership – Because teachers were an integral part of the SIP process, there was no need for buy-in. The SIP was their plan, so they had ownership in working the plan throughout the school year. The implementation of the 2017-2018 SIP has been easier than ever before because of the teachers’ commitments to seeing their ideas for supporting student success implemented.
Develop Teacher Talent – In the past the SIP process had been an arduous task where data was presented to teachers instead of teachers discovering the data for themselves. Using the collaborative inquiry process honed and developed the wealth of talent already in the organization and helped foster positive change management. Teachers were an integral part of the process so any action plans they created through the process were not seen as something extra on their plate but necessary for the success of their students and the organization.
In the age of increased accountability, it is imperative that teachers feel empowered and supported, so they can support student success. “The process [collaborative inquiry] is truly transformation as it empowers teachers to take on leadership roles for transforming our school. It is a truly bottom up approach” (S. Dunaway, personal communication, February 2017). Using the collaborative inquiry process for school improvement planning helped Two Rivers create a culture where teachers were empowered to be change agents and supported throughout the process.
If you are interested in learning more, please feel free to reach out to Dr. Margie Johnson for more information.
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