In a recent article, we outlined four keys to successful school improvement. These four steps have been validated by decades of research, including studies mentioned in that article.
The first step we described was establishing a strategic plan. This is by far the most important element, because without a clear plan to guide your improvement efforts, success is nearly impossible to attain.
At School Improvement Network, we’ve helped more than 20,000 schools worldwide achieve measurable improvement, and we’ve had the opportunity to observe what works and what doesn’t when it comes to establishing a plan. Based on our experiences, here are five key elements of an effective school improvement plan.
1. Start with a vision
What should your vision for improvement look like? This will be different for every school or district, but you’ll need to establish a common definition that will guide your improvement efforts. In other words, what are you looking to achieve—and how will you define success?
2. Conduct a needs assessment
To get from point A to point B, you have to know not only where you’re going, but also where you’re starting from. That requires an honest assessment of your current practices and results.
Begin with a comprehensive needs assessment that accurately gauges your strengths, weaknesses, and areas for improvement. Tools that can help you assess your needs include student achievement data, classroom walkthrough information, and surveys of students, parents, teachers, and administrators.
Don’t be afraid to confront hard realities. Sound decision making relies on having a clear picture of the facts. In his bestselling book series: Good to Great, Great by Choice, and Built to Last, Jim Collins and his research team studied the core success principles of the greatest high-growth companies in the country. They found these organizations infused their entire planning process with “the brutal facts of reality.” As Collins put it, when you “start with an honest and diligent effort to determine the truth of the situation, the right decisions often become self-evident.”
3. Identify goals and objectives
Once you have a clear sense of where you are now, you can begin mapping out a strategy for progressing to where you want to be. Your plan should include concise, measurable, and achievable goals and objectives that will lead you on the path to success.
For example, suppose your needs assessment determines that some students are struggling because they are bored, frustrated, or overwhelmed with the pace of instruction. You also discover that many students are failing to see the relevance of what they are learning.
To address these problems, you might establish the following goals: (1) implement more personalized learning to meet every student at an appropriate level of instruction; (2) connect what students are learning to authentic, real-world tasks; and (3) use a variety of formative assessment strategies to verify students’ understanding before advancing to a new topic.
Limiting your objectives can yield better results, faster. Because time and resources are always limited, the best course of action is to focus on the most important goals, the ones that are going to make the largest impact. This point has been echoed by numerous researchers.
“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,” wrote Trent Kaufman, Emily Grimm, and Allison Miller in their book Collaborative School Improvement.
4. Outline specific action steps
One of the most common roadblocks that repeatedly prevents districts from achieving success is that their plan is not actionable.
A strong vision and a list of goals and objectives is not enough. You also need to outline what you will do to achieve those goals. Without specific action steps to guide your progress, your plan will falter.
Successful school districts map out strategies for every employee, making sure each person understands his or her role in fulfilling the plan.
5. Involve all stakeholders in the process
Research shows that strategies developed collaboratively become more widely supported and adopted—and that the most effective leaders know how to listen to their constituents.
According to Collins, the most successful organizations “create a culture wherein people have a tremendous opportunity to be heard.” He observes that great leadership “means having the humility to grasp the fact that you do not yet understand enough to have the answers—and then to ask questions that will lead to the best possible insights.”
Develop a process that involves all stakeholders—teachers, administrators, students, parents, and community leaders—in establishing a vision, setting goals, and outlining action steps. Solicit feedback throughout the process, and listen to what your stakeholders have to say.
To learn more about crafting an effective strategic plan, as well as the other key elements of success, download the free white paper, “Four Keys to Successful School Improvement.”