Getting to the Heart of School Improvement

July 16, 2019

Getting to the Heart of School Improvement

By Laura Encalade, Senior Vice President of Strategy and Innovation

One of the issues that education leaders and advocates have devoted the most time and energy to is the challenge of "school turnaround" or improving low-performing schools. All of us are hungry for a "silver bullet," and wide-scale success seems elusive.

This issue has consumed leaders at the school, district, and state levels, and rightfully so. The challenges to improve a low-performing school can be immense, but so is our responsibility to ensure that all students have a high-quality education. The education field has implemented many different strategies in an attempt to dramatically increase student achievement—school takeovers, new governance structures, millions in school improvement grants, changing school leadership and staff, and providing new programs focused on everything from student engagement and behavior to curriculum and remediation.

No one wants a school to struggle, and the education field has tried to find a variety of creative solutions to bolster student growth. But in these efforts to implement new reforms, we are too easily distracted from the core work of school improvement, which is about teaching and learning, and instead too often turn our attention and efforts to implementing the latest program or initiative.

This is not to say that programs and initiatives, like increasing student access to technology or implementing a new governance structure, don't have a role in school improvement—they can and do under the right circumstances. But they cannot be implemented at the expense of a lack of focus on the school's teaching and learning structures and supports. Otherwise we risk being like the teacher who spent more time developing a flashy bulletin board display than on developing the student assignment posted on it. 

Too often we throw every program or support at the leader of a "turnaround" school, giving that principal the nearly impossible task of coordinating and focusing the, at best, related but often disparate improvement efforts. This leaves leaders, like the teacher and her bulletin board, trying to cram in all the work and make it look pretty. As educators and leaders, we have to do better to help low-performing schools focus deeply on improving the quality of instruction.

At NIET, we have spent the last year supporting several schools and districts in their journey to dramatically increase student achievement. In this process we have learned a lot about our own School Improvement Solutions work and ways that we can help school and district leaders achieve that relentless focus on teaching and learning. Here are some of our biggest learnings on how we can help leaders focus on instruction:

  1. Instructional Excellence: Having a laser-like focus on instruction means coordination of all the people, programs, and supports in a school. This requires both a discipline to say no to the things that detract from the core work of improving teaching and learning, and the ability for a principal to anchor the school's work in a common vision for instructional excellence. Ensuring that the full team, and everyone who comes into the building as a support, is united around the same vision for instruction is critical.

  2. Collective Leadership: The role of the principal is important in any school improvement effort, but their impact is magnified when the principal is supported by a strong leadership team. Investing in the collective leadership of the school is essential, and district leaders have to be an active part of the process and support structure to develop the principal's instructional leadership capacity.

  3. Collaborative Learning: Because improvement work is so challenging, we must invest in structures that allow teachers to learn alongside their peers and leaders. This values their expertise and professionalism and provides them with both the collaborative learning and growth opportunities that break down silos, increase job satisfaction, and as a result reduce turnover.

  4. Reflective Culture: Building a school culture that values reflection and continuous improvement is a precursor to any type of improvement. Leaders must be supportive of fostering an environment that emphasizes learning and growing together. They must model vulnerability and openness to feedback in a way that encourages everyone to embrace the hard journey of collective improvement.

  5. Strengths-based Approach: Finally, leading and teaching in a "turnaround" environment is hard, taxing work, and we must honor the efforts of teachers and leaders through taking a strengths-based approach to instructional improvement. There are always strengths to celebrate in every school, and we must take the time to do so and find ways to leverage and build on those strengths.

Our teachers serving in our most challenging schools deserve a turnaround plan that has a focus on improving teaching and learning at the heart. Anything less than a dedicated effort to build the capacity of educators and culture of collaboration will fall short of its promise to deliver improvements for students.