School & District Management Opinion

Your School Improvement Plan Will Only Work If You Do This

The 4 questions you must ask to make it count
By L. Sha Fanion — January 30, 2024 4 min read
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When I was a school leader, my mentor often asked, “Are you leading your school or are you walking around looking like a leader?”

This question always motivated me to be strategic, intentional, and analytical when I drafted my school improvement plan. For me, the school improvement plan was our school’s road map for getting better, faster. It laid out the three to five things we needed to focus on. I defined goals, who’s in charge, when things should happen, and how we planned to nail those goals by the end of the school year. We made sure our budget matched up with the plan to ensure that we had the resources for what we needed.

This plan wasn’t just paperwork—it kept us on track and made us responsible to everyone inside and outside the school. It was our starting point each year that allowed our team to strategically focus on our glows, grows, and next steps.

About This Series

In this biweekly column, principals and other authorities on school leadership—including researchers, education professors, district administrators, and assistant principals—offer timely and timeless advice for their peers.

I see four essential questions to consider when drafting a meaningful school improvement plan. I encourage each of you to consider these steps when you are engaging in strategic planning for your schools.

1. Did I use a collaborative process that included key stakeholders to increase buy-in?

Starting and completing your school improvement plan can feel like an arduous process. You are often writing it hastily at the end or start of the school year. Once it is submitted, there is seldom any feedback provided to ensure it will yield the best results.

However, seeking input from your staff members, students, families, and community members makes the process more worthwhile. Collaboration allows you and your team the opportunity to reflect together, dream together, build together, and discuss things together as a school community.

Below are some things you can do to make your school’s strategic-planning process more collaborative.

  • Identify any local, state, or federal accountability requirements and start framing your school’s goals.
  • Meet with all stakeholders, including students, before the end of the school year in focus group settings; share and discuss key data.
  • Use those data to agree on the top focus areas for the new school year.

2. Did my plan have goals that were specific, measurable, attainable, realistic, and time-bound (or SMART)?

As we often hear in K-12 leadership circles, “what gets measured, gets done.” This advice highlights the importance of having clear performance metrics that allow the work to stay focused on what is urgent and important.

Goals are most effective when they are specific, measurable, attainable, realistic, and time-bound. Goals should also be inclusive of all stakeholders’ voices and be developed with a lens of equity.

  • NONEXAMPLE: This year, we will increase the number of students performing on grade level in reading.
  • EXAMPLE: By the end of the 2023-2024 school year, at least 70 percent of students in grades 3-5 will score proficient on the state assessment—applying the “at least 70 percent” to our multilingual learners and neurodivergent students.

In the example, the goal is specific, measurable, attainable, realistic, and time-bound. It is also inclusive of multilingual and neurodivergent students and considers their needs though a lens of equity.

3. Were there consistent pause points where I planned to lead my team in a thorough process to reflect on our progress?

It is critical to schedule time to reflect on the progress made toward the goals outlined in your school improvement plan.

These intentional pause points—or what I referred to as quarterly step-back meetings—allowed my team and me the opportunity to assess how we were advancing toward our goals. Based on data, not our opinions, we looked to see if: we had met, were on track to meet, or if we were off-track toward meeting our goals.

Next, we discussed what we would start, stop, or continue doing to ensure we would surpass our end-of-year goals. We agreed on the next steps we would take to assure continuous improvement.

Lastly, we identified who we would appreciate. Showing appreciation was our way of celebrating individual and collective successes to move our school forward together.

4. Did I have the necessary systems and structures in place to advance the work of our school improvement plan?

Collaboration is great to have—so are SMART goals and pause points. However, these elements won’t matter if systems and structures are not in place to drive the work.

Systems and structures are the steps you and your team will take consistently and intentionally to ensure the necessary tasks are done with fidelity to yield expected outcomes. Systems and structures are clear, are expected and inspected, and are assigned to key people for accountability. For example, during our grade-level planning meetings, we followed the same process each week:

  • After discussing upcoming lessons and standards, teachers selected one or two lessons for exit-ticket data collection.
  • The grade-level administrator observed a portion of these lessons to provide initial feedback.
  • During the next grade-level team meeting, teachers analyzed student work and/or exit-ticket data.
  • Each teacher shared overall outcomes and discussed key teaching moves that led to desired results.
  • Based on the data, a “reteach” plan was outlined for students with unfinished learning.
  • Teachers, either individually or as a team, identified actionable steps to enhance student outcomes.

These steps will be key to the success of your school and the successful implementation of your school improvement plan. If I was unable to answer each affirmatively, my mentor would tell me, “You are not leading your school! You are simply walking around looking like a leader!”


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