School & District Management

These Three Mistakes Can Hamstring Improvement Even in Good Schools

By Sarah D. Sparks — December 13, 2017 2 min read
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As states and districts work to refine their plans for school improvement under the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, a new study suggests that focusing on simple goals and building capacity for them can lead to more sustained success.

The nonprofit AdvancED—which oversees a nationwide school improvement network of 34,000 schools and systems—analyzed some 5,000 accreditation reviews of schools during the 2015-16 school year. Each of the schools was scored based on a 400-point scale, which took into account seven areas of school quality: clear direction, resource management, healthy school culture, implementation capacity, effective engagement, student engagement, and high expectations.

“The plan isn’t the result. The average state-required Title I school improvement plan is more than 100 pages long. It’s not actionable; it’s compliance,” said Mark Elgart, the president and chief executive officer of AdvancED. “We measure the extent to which the behaviors in the plan are actually embedded in the classrooms. You can write a great continuous school improvement plan on one sheet of paper that’s more impactful than one that’s 100 pages long—if you have everybody committed to that.”

Among the results, AdvancED found three areas in which high-performing schools implemented their plans differently from low-performing schools:

  • Data tracking: Schools whose leaders continuously monitored not just student test data, but faculty surveys on implementing initiatives, had overall quality ratings of 297. That’s 36 percentage points higher than schools whose leaders reportedly struggled to regularly monitor data.
  • Alignment: High-performing schools were rated 35 to 41 percentage points higher than low-performing schools on how they aligned resources—from time, to materials, to information—to meet school needs and goals. “In most cases the resources are there, but it’s in how they are using the resources,” Elgart said. “Often budgets are built every year based on past practice, not new turnaround efforts. We’ll look at the budget of a school and the practice they want to improve, and the budget doesn’t support it.”
  • Engagement: The group also observed individual classrooms in each school, and found the more opportunities teachers gave for students to collaborate with other students and work on projects that called for discussion and higher-order thinking, the better the school’s overall quality rating. But Elgart said this was one area that seemed very common in school improvement plans but less often seen in the classrooms. “One district had a districtwide initiative to get kids talking about their learning. Well, in one classroom we observed, the teachers moved kids into groups of two or three, but ... they were still talking about the same worksheets they were using before,” Elgart said. “There was no improvement in the way they were engaged in learning and what they were learning.”

Interestingly, the group also found even among schools rated among the highest-performing in 2015-16, nearly 30 percent of schools in the top 10 percent had at least some classrooms that performed below the average of all schools in “requiring students to ask and respond to questions requiring higher-order thinking, such as applying, evaluating, and synthesizing information,” and a quarter of the schools provided few opportunities for students to “take risks in learning.”

You can read the full analysis here.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Inside School Research blog.