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Finding Common Ground

A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. He can be found at www.petermdewitt.com. Read more from this blog.

School & District Management Opinion

Stop Wasting Your Time on School Improvement Plans That Don’t Work. Try This Instead

Ditch the outdated model of improvement.
By Peter DeWitt — November 21, 2022 6 min read
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  • School improvement plans.
  • Walk-throughs.
  • Academic plans.
  • Formal observations.
  • Faculty meetings.

Too often, the required actions leaders must accomplish from year to year become acts of compliance rather than opportunities to learn. When this happens, leaders often feel more reactive than proactive and feel as though they can never engage in the instructional-leadership practices they read so much about.

The examples above are just a few of those actions that are sometimes viewed as tasks to get over with instead of tasks that we can learn from in our profession. In these times of increased workloads, teacher shortages, staff burnout, and high levels of anxiety on the part of teachers, staff, and leaders, we need to refocus our efforts on those areas that can bring us the most value and perhaps improve our mindsets around those actions we have always taken but didn’t get much bang for our buck.

Theory of Action

A few weeks ago, I was facilitating days 3 and 4 of a six-day instructional-leadership professional learning series with teams across Arkansas. The focus of the learning is developing collective leader efficacy (which you can learn more about in this video). It occurs when leadership teams develop a shared conviction that they can have an impact on student learning and achievement. Basically, collective leader efficacy is a “researchy” way of understanding how teams come together from a social-emotional and academic perspective.

One of the most useful actions that teams can take when they are working together is to create a theory of action. Theories of action help teams understand what problem they are trying to solve and will help those teams develop a common language and common understanding around that problem. It provides them with a space to engage in conversations about how teachers in the school are doing the work already and creates an opportunity to talk about how they can go deeper with practices to help them solve their problem. Additionally, theories of action help the instructional-leadership team stay focused, so they can be empowered and feel proactive as opposed to feeling reactive.

I recently developed a theory of action for work I’m involved in as a lead advisory for the state of Washington with directors of teaching and learning and am providing it as an example here. If we want leaders and teachers in our district to possess the necessary understanding, knowledge, and skills to impact student learning, then we as directors of teaching and learning need to focus on what necessary understanding, knowledge, and skills are needed to do that work.

Problem we are trying to solve:

In our district, teachers are using a lot of high-impact strategies but are not implementing those strategies correctly and, therefore, not making an impact on student learning.

Assumptions:

  • Leaders/teachers want our help.
  • Leaders/teachers know there is an issue.
  • We understand the necessary understanding, knowledge, and skills needed to help them.

Actions:

  • Offer effective professional learning.
  • Model these strategies at our district meetings.
  • Engage teachers in the discussion about this focus before, during, and after instead of just creating workshops for them where they have little background knowledge.

As you can see, developing a theory of action includes understanding our assumptions and choosing a few high-impact strategies we can take to put our theory of action into … well, action. Not to get into the weeds in this blog, but theories of action should also include success criteria, meaning what will success look like if we effectively complete our theory of action?

From there, we create a program logic model to outline how we will implement the work. This brings us back to our school improvement plans. School improvement plans should focus on helping teams focus on the problem they are trying to solve and be seen as a workable document that is useful to help schools improve or go deeper with their learning as an organization.

School Improvement Plans Are Not Always Practical

Unfortunately, in many educational circles, the mention of school improvement plans sucks the oxygen out of the room and makes the eyes of educators gloss over to the extent that they begin daydreaming about a day when school improvement plans will prove to be useful, because, in too many cases, they are acts of compliance. This is not new information, because many researchers who have come before me have talked about this. Sadly, though, it is still an issue with many leaders.

Why do we do that? Why do we spend countless hours creating a document that we really do not plan on using in practical ways because we only created it to check a box of compliance for our districts or state education department. We can accuse the district or state for requiring such complicated and unuseful documents, but in many cases, they are not to blame. We all have a tendency to create a document using big educational words when, in reality, we should be creating documents we can actually use and those teachers and staff around us understand.

It’s a missed opportunity and one that we desperately need to change. The stress and workload of leaders and teachers has increased tremendously over the past decade, and we need to identify those actions we take that our impactful and replace those actions that do not have an impact at all. One such action that needs to be replaced is that of putting together a school improvement plan that we cannot, or choose not, to use.

Replacing

I recently began discussions about de-implementation and published a book on the topic in the late spring. De-implementation is the abandonment of low-value practices, which you can learn more about here. There are two ways of looking at de-implementation, which is through a partial reduction or a replacement action. In this blog, I focus on partial reductions, but I believe the discussion about school improvement plans should be a focus for the replacement action.

When working on a school improvement plan, or what some schools may refer to as an academic plan, it’s important for its creators to make sure that it is useful. How do we do that? We do that by:

  • Making sure that we do not have too many priorities;
  • Taking time to reflect on how many actions and activities we should engage in;
  • Including teachers and staff in the discussion and not just creating the document in isolation;
  • Not storing them away only to look at next year when we have to create our next school improvement plan; and
  • Making the document workable and based on our needs.

Think of all the time that goes into creating a school improvement plan. Just imagine if that time spent on creating the plan actually proved to be useful in our meetings, planning, and day-to-day walk-throughs and conversations with teachers.

Inserted below is an example of a program logic model I created for our work in Washington. I provide it as an example, because when we can include conversations about our school improvement plans, we will more likely see an increase in their effectiveness in our school improvement process.

Screen Shot 2022 11 14 at 7.14.47 AM

In the End

Some of this seems complicated, right? Problems of practice, theories of action, assumptions, success criteria, and program logic models all seem like a lot of work. However, what is more work is when leaders create a document in isolation that they never intend to use and never engage in conversations with teacher leaders about areas of focus they could work on together.

Areas of focus and problems of practice are not just about gaps and where schools are not doing a “good job.” Problems of practice are also about areas where teachers and leaders want to have a deeper impact on student learning.

School improvement plans can be a resource that helps teachers and leaders see the interconnectedness between faculty meetings, PLC meetings, instructional-leadership team discussions, and faculty meetings. We no longer have the time to spend on worthless activities that bring no value and perhaps we can start with how we approach our school improvement plans.

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The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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