Examining school improvement through a holistic lens

In my three decades in education—in both public and private schools, at the classroom level as well as in district administration—I’ve witnessed and been part of many efforts to improve the way we educate our kids. Every school is different, of course, and you can see that in the wide variety of strategies and tactics they bring to school improvement. In general, though, they all approach the work with the same good intentions and the shared goal of making their buildings better places to teach and learn.

At its best, school improvement strengthens a school’s culture, raises the quality of instruction, and improves academic outcomes for all students. But school improvement initiatives often fall short of these desired outcomes, for various reasons. In my experience, schools can set themselves up for disappointment if they focus on individual problems they want to solve without looking at the bigger picture—the context in which those problems arise.

And the schools that succeed in their improvement efforts? They understand that school improvement isn’t just about making instruction better. It’s about creating a healthy and change-oriented culture, building effective systems, and getting as much stakeholder engagement as possible at all levels of the organization. Truly successful schools also consider the whole student, which means they focus not only on children’s academic achievement, but also on their social and emotional growth, their personal learning needs, and all the things that make them who they are.

At its best, school improvement strengthens a school’s culture, raises the quality of instruction, and improves academic outcomes for all students.

When these considerations come together—the whole student as well as the whole system—we can say we have a holistic approach to school improvement. It’s an approach that says, let’s do more than push for better outcomes. Let’s create sustainable conditions that will naturally result in those outcomes, conditions in which the system is equitable and responsive to the child’s needs instead of the other way around.

It’s not easy work, but I can’t imagine more important work. And I’ve found that when schools begin to experience some of the benefits of school improvement, and when long-standing barriers to progress begin to fall, they find it to be well worth the effort. Let’s take a closer look at some of these benefits and barriers—and why it all matters, now more than ever.

Creating sustainable systems, processes, protocols, and practices

When school improvement is done in a comprehensive, systemic way, schools create durable best practices that can be passed down to new leaders and staff. That’s important because we often see initiatives that are tied to individual leaders, for better or worse. If an initiative doesn’t succeed, then the departure of a school leader may be a welcome opportunity to try something new. But on the other hand, even a successful initiative might wither on the vine if a departed leader doesn’t leave behind a clear plan for continuing the work.

To create a legacy of change that stands the test of time, schools need to focus on four connected elements—systems, processes, protocols, and practices—that work together to make school improvement a guiding principle that is truly ingrained in a school’s culture. Briefly, here’s how these elements work (in reverse order) in the context of school improvement, using classroom observation as an example.

  • Practices are the individual activities that schools carry out in their day-to-day work. For example, a school’s practice could be to observe classroom instruction for the purpose of providing feedback to teachers.
  • Protocols describe how a practice is implemented in the real-world setting. For example, how are classroom observations done, and by whom? A well-defined protocol helps ensure that practices are carried out consistently, producing useful data.
  • Processes are how schools make sure that their own practices and protocols actually take place and are done right. To ensure the effectiveness of classroom observation, for example, a school might assign certain grade-level teachers to watch each other’s classes, creating a healthy feedback loop in which best practices can be shared.
  • Systems describe how all of these components work together and inform a school’s ethos. A school that builds a system around classroom observation is setting the expectation that this practice is integral to how it operates and must be done consistently. The school has shaped its identity, in part, around the role that classroom observation plays in its overall system for teaching and learning.

It takes time to establish coordinated and well-oiled systems, processes, protocols, and practices, but the benefits can endure long after the leaders who created them have moved on.

Consistency gets results—and creates a stronger culture

Each step of the four-part framework depends on the others. You might observe what appears to be an effective classroom practice, only to later learn that three different teachers in the same school approach the practice in different ways. In this case, the absence of a documented process means the school as a whole gets uneven results from the practice and misses out on the opportunity to continually refine it through the sharing of best practices.

To a large degree, holistic school improvement is about making sure each part of the framework is present and optimized, and that all four parts are working together and are used consistently on a day-to-day basis. When this happens, a lot of positive things become possible. For example, you’ll probably find you’re able to gather much more reliable data, allowing you to accurately measure the extent to which practices are improving instruction and student outcomes. And you’ll probably see an increase in morale as leaders, teachers, and even students have the sense of rallying around a shared purpose.

[H]olistic school improvement is about making sure each part of the framework is present and optimized.

Consistency is more than a way of doing business; it can make a huge difference for kids. A school that has a well-defined set of systems, processes, protocols, and practices is a more proactive and less reactive organization, allowing them to focus on students’ needs in a way that’s a lot harder when you don’t have all your ducks in a row. That means a greater awareness and appreciation of the different experiences, assets, and strengths that kids bring with them into the classroom—as well as their learning challenges and opportunity gaps.

When a school orients itself around the specific needs and circumstances of its students, it fosters a much more equitable environment in which all kids can thrive.

Shifting mindset, seeking partnership

Transformational changes to a school’s culture and systems don’t come easily. Not only are educators already working through numerous challenges and competing demands, but it can be difficult to accept the need for change. That’s why I tell educators and school leaders that the first thing they must do in order to bring about real school improvement is examine their mindset and be open to changing it. Once they’ve done that, they can start asking the right questions and seek out partners and coaches who can help them implement change.

Changing one’s mindset is no small matter. Education is a deeply personal field that calls upon our hearts as well as our minds, and every educator I know is trying to do what they think is best. If we’re asked to question whether we’re meeting our kids’ needs as well as we could, it can be a painful and vulnerable feeling.

But mindset is truly where change begins. It’s where schools find the courage to assess whether they have the right systems, processes, protocols, and practices in place. And with an open and flexible mindset, schools can ask themselves all kinds of productive questions: When was the last time we had an objective voice assess the efficacy of our practices? Are we meeting our improvement goals? Are our students hitting their learning targets? Are families engaged? Even before these questions are answered, the very fact that they’re being asked can be a paradigm shift for schools.

[E]very educator I know is trying to do what they think is best. If we’re asked to question whether we’re meeting our kids’ needs as well as we could, it can be a painful and vulnerable feeling.

In addition to keeping an open mind, new conversations and new partnerships are key drivers of improvement. School leaders and educators don’t need to have all the answers themselves; they just need to be receptive to working with experts and coaches who have experience helping schools and districts develop improvement strategies that meet their unique needs. A good coach brings an impartial perspective to a school’s systems, processes, protocols, and practices and is able to show exactly where these fundamentals are either missing or not working together as holistically as they could.

Seizing the moment

We’re living through an unusual time in which schools, ready or not, have been forced to make radical changes to the way they deliver instruction. They’ve had to figure out how to teach during a pandemic and adapt to an increasingly virtual world. They’ve also had to take a fresh look at the inequities in education, which the pandemic has revealed in new ways. These are big challenges for an already stressed system, but they also create an opening for new approaches to school improvement that could lead to positive and lasting change.

As we look to the near future and the likelihood that some form of remote learning is here to stay, are school leaders thinking strategically about what that’s going to look like? How many are using this time to establish systems, processes, protocols, and practices that will help ensure the success of these new instructional models?

Granted, it’s not easy for leaders to take the long view when they already have their hands full dealing with attendance, engagement, and all the other day-to-day challenges of teaching kids in the current environment. That’s why partnership is so important. The right coach can help school leaders collect and analyze good data, evaluate the effectiveness of their current system, and identify areas for improvement.

One final thought: The critical work of school improvement isn’t about turning bad practices into good ones, or correcting things that are wrong. It’s simply about finding opportunities to do better. And one thing I know for sure is that all educators want the very best for our kids. At a time when schools are navigating their way out of a pandemic and giving renewed attention to equity concerns, school improvement work is a crucial step toward actualizing our ideals.

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