A Case for School Improvement

“Better is possible. It does not take genius. It takes diligence. It takes moral clarity. It takes ingenuity. And above all, it takes a willingness to try.” –Atul Gawande (Better)

I hate school improvement.* It’s resource-intensive, polarizing, and it triggers indignation and anxiety in teachers: “You think we’re not working hard enough?” “You’re saying we’ve been doing it wrong all these years?” These negative emotions fuel stern resistance, and in response, school leaders are compelled to provide air-tight proof-points and perform a time consuming period of counseling to reassure the anxious faculty.

But what choice do we have? Most schools and programs were designed for a world that no longer exists. Right now, schools are either intentionally getting better or unintentionally getting worse. The same could be said for many teachers, especially those with long careers.

As educators, we’re in the business of helping young people grow and improve themselves, so why is it so difficult for us to model growth and improvement throughout our own organizations? If we want to prepare students for the changing world they will inhabit, schools must evolve and improve.

School improvement is a powerful magnet: depending on its orientation, it can be negative or positive, repellent or attractive to faculty. But the hard reality is that school improvement is only accomplished on the backs of teachers: lots of extra work is required, and this work forces teachers out of their comfort zones—transforming them at least initially from experts to novices. Understandably, teachers tend to be repelled by this prospect and, hence, school leaders must make an attractive case for change.

It’s relatively easy to make a case for change if status quo spells certain doom: a) applications are decreasing; b) enrollments are declining; c) revenue is declining; and/or d) the school faces possible eventual loss of accreditation or closure. Many schools see negative indicators on each of these fronts, but these data are slow-moving and long-term enough to inhibit any real sense of urgency. Without the urgency of these existential threats, leaders need to communicate a clear vision, find a way to make people feel the need for change, and make change easy to adopt.

The case for change begins with identifying a worthwhile target for school improvement: a vision. What would most improve student learning? For which improvements are the community most ready or hungry? For leaders, which targets would justify the likely personal sacrifices of sleep, colleagues, friends… and possibly jobs? Any targets perceived as change for the sake of change will crash and burn—but a clear vision that portrays a demonstrably improved school can smooth the path for leaders to earn the requisite buy-in from teachers.

Next, the case needs: strategy, planning, and measurement. Elizabeth City, Richard Elmore, et. al. in Instructional Rounds in Education, advise strategy through a theory of action: “if we do X activity or approach, then we are likely to get Y outcome.” For example, “If we give students choice regarding the books they read (or questions they research, or topics on which they write), we will likely see an increase in agency (or zest, or depth of learning).” For skeptical or anxious faculty—who may not be experienced in strategic planning—these direct linkages between action and outcome can be a critical element in making the case for change and improvement.

In promoting school improvements, leaders also need a comprehensive implementation plan—the heart of which must provide tactics for faculty training and support. Whatever programmatic improvements are undertaken, teachers will be the driving force, and they will need to master new approaches to their work. These are best learned if faculty are given:

  • Experts who model what success looks like
  • Observation, coaching, and feedback throughout the learning process
  • Time (i.e., workload relief) for learning
  • Explicit permission to be imperfect

Finally, in making the case for change and improvement, school leaders need to show how they will measure growth. As Peter Drucker (and perhaps W. Edwards Deming before him) instructs, “If you can’t measure it, you can’t improve it.” Metrics help guide the implementation plan, and they help to justify the resources needed to make improvements—but measurements also help achieve buy-in and elevate morale. Measuring growth helps faculty see and feel that their hard work is making a positive difference, and it gives the entire school something to celebrate as a community.

With such elements in place, school improvement presents an invaluable opportunity for institutional alignment: it can nurture teachers’ connections to mission, students, colleagues, and their own intrinsic love of learning. While none of the above is easy, incorporating these ideas can re-orient the strategic planning magnet from repelling to attracting faculty, transforming the improvement process from negative to positive.


*Anyone lucky enough to hear Yong Zhao’s keynote address on creativity at the San Francisco Learning and Brain Conference will appreciate this allusion.