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3 key levers for school improvement

Big initiatives may attract attention, but to move the needle on student achievement, the smartest choice is investing in teachers and school leaders

District and school leaders today are being asked to do more with less. Shrinking budgets and changes to federal and state policies have made their jobs harder. In addition, to help increase student achievement, leaders are trying all kind of new initiatives—curricula and assessment systems, school-improvement-planning processes, learning methods—that have promised to deliver greater student achievement results. However, as the recent findings from the USDOE School Improvement Grants show, most school-improvement initiatives—especially in high-needs, disadvantaged schools—are continuing to fail or create little improvement.

The strategies and techniques that used to work, even a couple years ago, just aren’t working anymore. We all acknowledge that change takes time, but it is important to put systems in place that allow for the examination of signals along the change horizon that help ensure that leaders’ decisions lead to improvement, result in some early wins, and ultimately ensure a good use of human and fiscal resources.

3 levers for improvement
While many factors go into successful school improvement, research and on-the-ground experience have helped us identify three levers that create systems for investing in teachers and school leaders—and increasing student achievement.

(Next page: ILTs, PLCs, and more)

Lever 1. Create and develop instructional leadership teams (ILTs) at the school level and district-wide. We know that a healthy leadership team is the key to sustaining a thriving organization. The ILT is the key driver of the school-improvement process. The team cultivates the implementer’s mindset of focus, discipline, and accountability within every staff member, and sees that concrete actions are taken every day toward goals. ILTs not only set the vision and goals, but as a cohesive group of leaders they proactively and efficiently work through issues that impede progress so that real student achievement and learning can happen.

Lever 2. Build an effective instructional-coaching program for every educator. At the end of the day, everyone is looking for feedback—no matter what role they play in an organization. As research has shown, coaching provides the differentiation, support, and accountability that can help teachers, instructional coaches, principals, and district leaders improve their practice and create a positive impact on their organization.

Lever 3. Maintain productive professional learning communities (PLCs). Teachers, like doctors and other practice-based professionals, are most willing to try something new when someone they trust recommends it. PLCs have tremendous potential to improve teaching. In healthy PLCs, teachers can work with one another to discover and develop new practices to help their students succeed. Teachers in PLCs can develop trust among colleagues who support their efforts to improve through models like the Supporting Teacher Effectiveness Project (STEP), developed in partnership with Insight Education Group, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and American Institutes for Research to identify the assets that can be leveraged and scaled toward greater improvement and replication.

The three levers should not be merely a collection of disconnected events. They should be part of coherent, focused program that drives toward particular outcomes for each staff member and serves the overall vision of the school or district.

Networked improvement communities
To increase the traction of the three levers, consider having your school or district join a networked improvement communities (NIC) of similar schools or districts. A NIC provides principals, assistant principals, teacher leaders, and teachers with a broad network of peers for meaningful, job-specific collaboration across (not just within) schools. Stemming originally from the ideas of Douglas Engelbart of SRI International and then further developed by the Carnegie Foundation, a NIC is a distinct group that arranges human and technical resources so that the community is capable of getting better at getting better. An effective NIC can be the critical force needed to help the three levers make powerful changes within a school or district.

Return on investment
As a leader, creating effective systems does take an upfront investment of time, but the return on that investment can be significant, including earlier and more frequent wins in the improvement process, better climate and culture, increased retention of your best educators, and confidence that the allocation of your resources is leading to student achievement.

If you want to avoid getting caught up in doing too many things, build in regular time for reflection for you and your ILTs to unpack what’s really working and what should be taken off the table.

Superintendent Mark Comanducci from ACCEL summed it up well in a recent article: “There is no silver bullet in education. The only way to consistently and sustainably increase student learning and improve the social emotional growth of students is by investing in the people who work with them every day.”

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