How to democratize your school improvement planning process

In our last post, we talked about how it’s insufficient to rely solely on student outcome data like grades, graduation rates, and test scores to inform school improvement. Focusing too narrowly on outcome data often leads to technical solutions, such as new textbooks or curriculum overhauls, that don’t necessarily get to the heart of the matter. To address the root causes and underlying factors that impact student outcomes, a deeper approach is needed. School leaders need access to holistic data that represents not only quantitative outcomes, but also insights into the school’s learning conditions, such as the relationship between teachers and students.

This need for a holistic data set is the basis of UChicago Impact’s 5Essentials. The 5Essentials model is grounded in decades of research that shows a link between the learning conditions in a school and student performance. Specifically, the 5Essentials model is structured to help schools make meaningful improvements in the five key areas that, according to research, matter most: Effective Leaders, Collaborative Teachers, Involved Families, Supportive Environment, and Ambitious Instruction. In our previous post, we emphasized that just having data is not enough. It is what you do with the data and how you apply it to improvement planning that matters.

That brings us to one of the most critical aspects of improvement planning and data collection: diversity of voice. To create a school improvement plan that is equitable and more likely to deliver on its promises, school leaders must reach beyond their own perceptions of their schools’ strengths and challenges. They need to bring more voices to the table and ensure that their improvement plans reflect the authentic needs of their school community. Leaders can do this by listening to the very people that school improvement plans aim to serve: teachers, students, and families.

Much more than checking a box

There’s no shortage of school improvement plans out there, mainly because many schools are required by their districts or states to submit them. These plans, usually based on student outcome data, can be useful documents. But too often, good intentions to craft meaningful plans buckle under the weight of compliance. A school leader’s time is always stretched too thin, and their list of responsibilities seems to grow daily. It’s easy to see how the pressure to comply leads to plans that aren’t treated as living documents that can be continually returned to for reflection, iteration, and learning.

To create a school improvement plan that is equitable and more likely to deliver on its promises, school leaders must reach beyond their own perceptions of their schools’ strengths and challenges.

Rarely do schools have the necessary systems in place to both meet fast-approaching deadlines and engage in continuous, intentional, and collaborative improvement planning. As a result, schools may have checked the “improvement plan” box without using an inclusive process to craft their plans. When this happens, improvement plans often fail to deliver real value to the people who need it most.

Furthermore, school leaders who develop their improvement plans in isolation, without hearing from a diverse group of voices, run the risk of creating frustration and incoherence in their systems. If the adults in a school aren’t on the same page with respect to where the school is struggling and where it’s strong, and if these divergent opinions aren’t reconciled, then any improvement plan is likely going to be based on siloed assumptions.

It’s natural for principals, teachers, students, and families to have different perspectives. The objective shouldn’t be to decide who’s right but, rather, to have honest conversations aimed at building consensus around what’s going well at school and what may need to change. That’s the path to true progress.

While it can be challenging to integrate diverse opinions and perspectives, it is worth the effort. When you dig into the root causes of a school’s challenges and make a point of hearing from numerous voices in crafting your improvement plan, you ensure widespread buy-in and equity that allow you to move forward in new and authentic ways. The teacher experience is fundamentally different from an administrator’s, and in a democratic improvement process, both voices are worthy and valid.

Diverse feedback = deeper insights

So how exactly can leaders democratize the improvement process? While a school leader may say they welcome feedback and advertise an open-door policy, relying on others to come forward isn’t the same as proactively engaging them. Leaders need to initiate the process. Not only do they need to model receptivity to feedback, but they also need to implement systems that give stakeholders the opportunity to be heard and share their experiences.

[T]oo often, good intentions to craft meaningful plans buckle under the weight of compliance.

Schools often turn to surveys as a way to gather feedback as part of their improvement planning process. Surveys can certainly be convenient tools, but not all surveys are up to the task of directly capturing teacher, student, and family experiences and producing data that’s immediately actionable. In our experience, schools that choose a survey that’s designed to meet these objectives—like the diagnostic survey at the heart of 5Essentials—end up with better data, deeper insights into the diversity of perceptions throughout the school community, and a clearer path to sustainable improvement.

To make the feedback-gathering process as inclusive and productive as possible, keep these best practices in mind:

  • Don’t mistake silence for approval. Just because you aren’t receiving unsolicited feedback doesn’t mean there aren’t concerns. As mentioned above, leaders shouldn’t depend on stakeholders to approach them. There are plenty of reasons why someone might not initiate that conversation, but rarely is it because they don’t have any feedback to share.
  • Ask personally relevant questions. People want to tell their stories. Give them a chance to do so by speaking directly to their situations and drawing them in with specifics. For example, instead of asking a student, “Do you like your teacher?” try asking questions like, “What do you like or not like about your class? Do you feel challenged in class? Do the grownups listen to you?”
  • Meet people where they are—literally. For example, if your school is working through some issues around student behavior and you need more family involvement, be creative as you seek to engage parents and other caregivers. This could include reaching out to community organizations that might not typically be looped into a school improvement planning process. The same goes for students: find the places where they gather—after-school clubs, for example—and engage them there.
  • Follow up and follow through. It’s worth repeating that it’s not enough to have the data. It’s what you do with the data that matters. In the same vein, it’s not enough to just ask for feedback. Inclusivity shouldn’t end with the ask; that’s just the beginning. That brings us to a critical part of the improvement process: showing participants how their feedback helped shape the school’s improvement plan or, at the very least, how it contributed to the discussion.

Learn more

We hope the ideas we’ve shared spark new conversations around the great potential of school improvement plans to be real catalysts of change. Fulfilling this potential depends on having the right mix of quantitative and qualitative data and taking steps to make the planning process as inclusive as possible. With a commitment to transparency, ongoing dialogue, and follow-through, school leaders can achieve continuous improvement by ensuring that the bonds of trust grow stronger and that honest, valuable feedback continues to flow.

To learn more about school improvement with NWEA and UChicago, visit NWEA.org/school-improvement and uchicagoimpact.org.

Elliot Ransom, co-CEO of UChicago Impact, co-authored this post.

This is the second in a two-part series on using data for school improvement. Read the first post.

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