5 Things School Improvement Leaders Do: What to Do When Your District or School is Placed on the School Improvement List
Your organization has just been officially placed on the school improvement or district accountability list. As a leader, this likely comes as no surprise to you. In fact, you may have already taken steps over the last several months to make significant improvements around climate, instruction, curriculum, and leadership. However, for your staff, and likely the rest of the community, this announcement can be jarring and bring a range of emotions - embarrassment, discouragement, and even anger. That said, it is critically important that you actively take steps now to set the foundation for future success – for your students, staff, and community. Moreover, you should be mindful about how you engage with your community, how they perceive your ability to manage your organization through the improvement process, and how they might take ownership of an improvement process that will build critical momentum.
To that end, here are five concrete actions you should take within the first 45 days.
1. Establish transparency with your team leaders (and their teams)
School improvement requires a high-level of involvement and buy-in from the school, department teams, and teachers. Having clear communication and decision-making processes for each of these teams will help ensure that everyone is informed of the process, clear about the progress, and engaged in the pivots along the way. In fact, a 2020 RAND study, showed that teachers, who had a deeper understanding of their school’s improvement plan, were more likely to believe in its effectiveness (Doss et al., 2019). And, we know from John Hattie’s research that collective efficacy, in turn, has a dramatic impact on classroom outcomes (Hattie et al., 2013). Your distributive leadership should include grade-level and content- area teams, professional learning communities, principals, student support services, and curriculum and staff development teams, and your leadership council.
2. Craft a Communication Plan
As the leader, you should be the first to share the news with the community and be seen as the central figure for communication going forward. Proactively sharing the message demonstrates to the community that you are accountable and enables you to provide context, provide the proper narrative, and acknowledge the challenges that lie ahead. And, when crafted properly and in concert with your leadership team, a plan can help guide you through many important questions such as:
- Key constituencies - What groups make up our educational community? Teachers, parents, and students to be sure. But what about curriculum leaders, human resources administrators, bus drivers and cafeteria workers? How about local business and community leaders? How about key subgroups and multi-language families; how are they included?
- Resources - What informational tools do I need to create? Which ones will be the most effective in helping me manage communications with the community? Educational staff, teachers, and parents, are all going to express their concerns and questions, though different ones, and rightfully so. They’re going to want to know what’s going right or wrong, how you’re addressing challenges, what kind of progress is being made and more. There are myriad tools you could create. Our experience is that these are must-haves at the very least:
- FAQs (tailored for each group) to address the most common inquiries
- Talking points to ensure consistency with how leaders position the plan, the process, and the progress
- Improvement roadmap – Which milestones are you targeting and when do you expect to reach them?
- Newsletter – if your school doesn’t already employ one, this is a great vehicle for things like brief updates covering important areas, interviews with community members, and links to detailed information. Consider creating a school improvement dedicated version.
- Office hours – Create the opportunity for your leaders (at regularly scheduled days and times) to answer questions, receive updates, and make improvement suggestions
- Cadence - How often should I provide progress updates? The journey to high-quality schooling can take three or more years. The community will want to hear from you regularly; this could begin weekly, and evolve to monthly, and eventually quarterly. Craft the schedule and share it with the community as appropriate so they know when to expect to hear from you.
- Channels - What channels should your communications utilize? These may include the predictable: email, social media, video, your web site, and notifications and alerts. But you will also want to establish how you’ll monitor engagement so you can be systematically responsive.
Education Elements offers a suite of guides and best practices for crafting communications plans. Recommended tools include: Best Practices For Communicating With Families During Crisis, or How to Best Engage Your Community.
3. Gather, organize, and summarize your data
Gather data in these areas at a minimum, looking for patterns and opportunities for improvement:
- Attendance: Have a comprehensive understanding of chronic offenders, absentee percentage rates, and patterns. Consider looking at patterns among teachers as well. One school found that some teachers habitually missed school after Sunday night football games, impacting student achievement.
- Behavior: Behavioral data is needed so that you have a clear picture of the students who are at-risk, the classrooms where classroom management may be a persistent challenge, as well as the types and effectiveness of various interventions.
- Achievement: Here your focus is primarily summative data, which most likely would include students’ standardized test results, information about what standards they have mastered, classroom-based assessments, rubric-scored writing portfolios, and class grades. Additional insightful data would be students’ teachers in previous grades. You’ll also want to identify the prevalence of high-quality instructional strategies and any measurements available on the current status and/or demonstrable impact.
Organize and summarize data in such a way that your internal teams and the community can process the information, provide their own insights, make informed, data-driven decisions based on the current state, and recommend strategies and tactics going forward.
4. Embrace the value of community insights
- Engage your community to gather the data and provide input – their perspective is invaluable for shaping your improvement plans. Methods include, but are not limited to: surveys, focus groups, town halls, community walks, and 1:1 interviews. Ideally, your school climate data will reflect a combination of these methods, but it’s important to note that districts and schools on the improvement list are required to conduct annual surveys of staff, students, and parents - soliciting input.
- Surveys are an invaluable tool for gaining deep, actionable insight into district and school climate. This can be a large undertaking that requires a structured, scientific approach. Leaders may choose to partner with organizations that specialize in survey development, implementation, and analysis.
You can learn more about community engagement tactics including PLC’s proven survey tool - the Data Triangle.
5. Establish a new vision for your school and the path forward
- Revisit the mission and vision of your district or school – ensure that this vision will provide the clarity and inspiration needed to move your school forward. It should reflect the ambitions of the school community. “It ensures that everyone is moving in the right direction and pulling towards the same goals. With an up-to-date school vision statement, school improvement planning is so much easier and more meaningful,” writes Claire Williams.
- Be sure to inform the community about whether your plan will engage outside providers with expertise in specific areas, taking care to share the qualifications and experiences of that partner because in challenging times credibility and trust can be very vulnerable. There is a direct relationship between the confidence that the leaders of the organization put forth and the capacity of the district to intentionally and positively begin the process of school and district reviews.
While ultimately your destination is a return to good standing, it’s important to stay centered on the journey’s events, engagements, and achievements that occur along the way. These five action items will help that journey begin with a positive tone and forward-leaning energy towards not what has happened, but what’s going to happen, giving the community trust and confidence that the ship will be righted.
Are you looking for the right partner to monitor your progress and improve school quality? Contact PLC Associates.Scholarus Learning Company, along with Education Elements.
Doss, C. J., Akinniranye, G., & Tosh, K. (2019). School Improvement Plans: Is There Room for Improvement?. RAND.
Hattie, J., & Yates, G.C.R. (2013). Visible Learning and the Science of How We Learn (1st ed.). Routledge.
Williams, C. (2021). Looking to the Future: Developing A School Vision Statement. Twinkl Education Blog.