School & District Management

Teachers Are Cynical About ‘School Improvement Plans.’ What Principals Can Do to Change That

By Denisa R. Superville — May 21, 2019 7 min read
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Nearly every school has an improvement plan—a document that’s supposed to guide academic and other decisions that principals and their staff members make.

But what do educators really think about those blueprints and do teachers and principals believe they will make their schools better over time?

The answer depends on whether you’re asking principals or teachers, according to a recent brief from RAND Education and Labor, which polled its American Educator Panels on their views of school improvement plans and their opportunities to improve schools.

Principals expressed much more positive views of school improvement plans and their potential than teachers. That’s not an unsurprising finding since those plans are largely composed by principals and members of their school leadership teams, and they hold more weight for them in how they are evaluated.

Fewer than half of teachers polled—44 percent—said their school’s improvement plan led to changes in their teaching practices, compared to 67 percent of principals. And there’s also a big gap between how teachers and principals expected such plans to improve schools in the long run: 81 percent of principals expected the plan to make their school better over the next five years, while only 62 percent of teachers thought so, according to the survey.

Real-world school leaders said that level of skepticism from teachers is a distressing sign.

“It would be disappointing if only 44 percent of my teachers—less than half—said this plan is meaningful to me and it’s actually made a change in my practice,” said Hannah Nieskens, the principal of Whitehall Middle and High school in Whitehall, Mont. “That, to me, is like having a failing grade. That would mean that it was the wrong plan; or I did not support the plan correctly; or I did not implement it with the teachers correctly; or I did not get the buy-in; or they don’t have some tools that they need to implement it—whether that’s training or an actual resource—I would be horrified if this were my school.”

“I can’t imagine that you can think you are being effective if less than half of your teachers are impacted,” she added. “It’s not having a great enough effect.”

Principals and teachers on the RAND educators’ panel, who do not work in the same schools, were asked whether they were familiar with the major points of their building’s school improvement plan, whether it had led to any changes in their teaching practices, and whether they thought the plan would lead to a better school in five years.

Nearly all principals said they were familiar with the major points in their school improvement plans, while 75 percent of teachers did so.

Three principals who spoke with Education Week said they would expect that principals know more about their schools’ improvement plans than teachers. But, the principals said, if teachers are included in developing the document, that would guarantee more knowledge of the plans and co-authorship. That, they said, would increase teachers’ buy-in.

If teachers were part of creating the plan and were provided with the resources they needed to make it work, they were also more likely to believe that it would change their teaching practices, the principals said.

Howard Fields, the principal of Steger Sixth Grade Center and Givens Elementary School in the Webster Groves school district in suburban St. Louis, said principals ought to have favorable views of their schools’ improvement plans. That’s because in many cases, a principal’s job literally depends on accomplishing the goals set out in the document, he said.

He noted that schools are always likely to have a certain percentage of teachers who may not be able to articulate the plan if asked about it, but who are nonetheless taking the necessary steps to make it work, he said.

“They are just taking care of business,” Fields said. "[They say]...'tell me what to do. I don’t have to understand it, and it is what it is.’ ”

And there will almost always be a handful of teachers who don’t believe in the plan. In those cases, and principals must have frank conversations with them about their hesitance, he said.

Creating a ‘Shared’ Vision

But familiarity with the major points in the plan also had a bearing on whether teachers thought they worked, according to RAND. Among teachers who had knowledge of their school’s improvement plan, 72 percent said they believed it would help make their school better in the next five years, and 55 percent said it had led to changes in teaching practices. In comparison, among teachers who said they didn’t know about the major tenets of the plan, just 30 percent said it would make their school better and 12 percent said it had changed their classroom practice.

The results, according to RAND “suggest that a lack of teacher knowledge may be one major impediment to proper [school improvement plan] use.”

Nieskens, the principal from Whitehall, Mont., said she was taken aback by the low percentage of teachers who said the school improvement plan had not led to changes in teaching practice. Both principal and teacher share that responsibility, she said.

While principals have the vision, they also have to be “the ones that are making sure that all the pieces come together and that the teachers are motivated and are following the plan and have all the tools and resources necessary to implement the plan,” Nieskens said. “If the principal isn’t actively doing that, there is a good chance that some piece of that just gets left out or the teachers don’t see the principal as actually valuing the plan. Why should they value it if the principal is not at least as invested as they are or even more invested?”

Once a principal has worked with teachers to develop a plan, they should share data to reinforce why specific goals and targets are necessary, make sure there’s good professional development, educational opportunities, and other resources to accomplish what the plan asks of them, and provide examples of accomplishments from previous plans, the principals interviewed said.

The plan must also have actionable steps, who is responsible for taking those steps, and how the school will measure progress, the principals said. Doing so creates an environment in which the plan is not just the principal’s vision for the school but also teachers,’ Nieskens and others said.

Nieskens creates an individual plan for each staff member with specific measurable goals that are tied to the building’s overall plan.

“Sometimes... there are great goals, there’s a great action plan, and there are people working towards those things, but then the school never really measures or compares and contrasts between pre-plan and after-plan,” she said. “That’s really discouraging for teachers, I would think. You don’t get to see the fruits of your labor, so to speak, if you’re not revisiting your data and saying ‘hey, this is working, this is improving, this is making a difference.’ You have to do that piece to keep staff morale high and to keep people invested in what’s happening, and the purpose for it, and keeping that goal in sight.”

RAND said that the quality of the school improvement plans and whether the school is capable of ability to accomplish its goals may be two of the reasons why teachers have such low expectations.

Chasing the ‘New, Shiny Object’

The principals interviewed by Education Week said that it may have a lot more to do with the environment in which educators work and less of a value statement about school improvement plans themselves that so many teachers and even principals did not think the plans would lead to better schools in five years.

“Five years is an eternity” for both teachers and principals, said Fields. And some of the teachers who were surveyed could be influenced by having experienced lots of leadership turnover, as well as many discarded school improvement plans along the way.

“There is a large majority of principals that won’t be around in that same building in the next five years,” he said. “That’s an element that we have to acknowledge.”

The same may be true for teachers.

Additionally, the constant change in state and federal education policies, what Eric Cardwell, the president of the National Association of Elementary School Principals and a Michigan school leader calls “the new, shiny object syndrome,” means that educators often have to change course and scrap well-crafted plans.

“If we have sustainability, I fully believe that teachers will change their teaching practices; right now it’s kind of like a Yo-yo,” with one initiative one year and another the next, Cardwell said. “I do think it’s the lack of sustainability in a lot of the plans that leads to the cynicism that it’s not going to change practice because the goals are all going to change.”

“There is always this newest and greatest thing that’s coming along,” he said. “Instead, schools should focus on doing what they are doing well.”

Still, for school improvement plans to work, both the teachers and principals must treat the plan as a living document, Cardwell and others said.

“I think it should be viewed as the guiding document for the school, and it’s not something that’s an event that’s held once a year to complete,” Cardwell said. “Rather it’s a living, breathing document that the staff revisits together, periodically, throughout the year to gauge growth on their goals. It’s kind of like taking the pulse. Or if you are not making any progress, let’s retool some of the activities associated with that goal to get to where you want to be.”

Image: Getty

A version of this news article first appeared in the District Dossier blog.