Making School Improvement Accessible | Andrew Taylor

5 Steps to Moving Forward and Improving Schools

All schools can improve. And, like state schools, many independent schools are looking to engage in some form of improvement process. In fact, the phrase ‘school improvement’ has become ubiquitous across education today. But what is school improvement and what should the process ‘look like’? 

 In my mind school improvement is simply anything that can change in a school that directly leads to improved student learning and student outcomesThis leads to the recognition that everything that happens in a school can, and should, have an impact on student learning, no matter the degree of separation; that all staff in schools have a role in providing excellent learning opportunities for their students, not just classroom teachers. This then leads to the notion that improvement is a non-negotiable. No matter the role a staff member plays in a school, their capacity and readiness to improve can, and does, lead to improvement in student learning and ultimately student outcomes.  

Schools are complex organisations filled with people who have differing knowledge, experiences, views, opinions and agendas. To add to this complexity is that education is one of the few, if not only, professions where every member of the broader community, including parents, have an opinion of education and schooling based on their own experiences. Leading a school improvement agenda can be overwhelming for a Principal or school leadership team, particularly if they don’t really know where to start. To start schools on their school improvement journey Christian Schools Australia have developed a 5-step overview of a school improvement process. 

“In the ever-changing ecosystem of education, [schools] must be willing to be agile. The only way they can truly achieve this is by regularly monitoring progress and being willing to make adjustments…”

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STEP 1: KNOW WHAT YOU WANT TO ACHIEVE 

  • What is your preferred future?
  • Set your desired outcomes.
  • Determine what achievements should look like.

I travel a lot in my current role. And I drive. A lot. Before I set off, I set my GPS app to the destination. It often gives me some alternative routes, usually based on the criteria I have predetermined or set up. More often than not, however, I will just follow the suggested route to my destination. It is essential that the start of the school improvement journey with a good idea of where you want to go on the journey and what would you anticipate the school ‘looking like’ at key points along the journey. By doing this, you will ensure that the decisions made will move the school in the predetermined direction and also provide opportunity to regularly monitor progress and make any adjustments as needed along they way. The CSA Architecture School Improvement Tool (ASIT) supports this step by providing key aspirational component statements that identify key elements of an exemplary Christian school. 

STEP 2: KNOW YOUR CURRENT SCENARIO 

  • Determine a starting point.
  • Find your base-line data.
  • What, or who, are your key influencers?

Now that you have some idea of the way forward, you also should have a strong idea of your starting point. A key question to ask at this stage is; What is our focus? Where do we currently stand? What is our base-line data? By identifying this data it not only enables you to continuously track progress, but to also celebrate small wins at key juncture points. Small wins are significant. Alone they seem insignificant, but over time they set in motion transformational forces that lead to more small wins which, in turn, lead to greater accomplishments and continuous progress. The CSA Architecture School Improvement Tool (ASIT) External Review Team process affords the opportunity for schools to engage with colleagues external to the school who give perspective to the current school picture, based on the levers and components of the tool. 

STEP 3: DESIGN & IMPLEMENT 

  • Design an evidence-based improvement strategy.
  • Implementation is a process, not an event.
  • Give it every chance to succeed.

Once you have determined your goal and where you currently are, there might be a big ‘gap’ in between. This is the stage at which plans are put in place to address the ‘gap’. There is a temptation to jump into specific actions or strategies. However, the most effective school improvement journeys are framed around an improvement process. Often referred to as action planning, the process provides structure and accountability in implementing school improvement strategies. There are a number of different models of action plans, but they all tend to include the same key elements:

  •  identification of a strategy
  • timeline for implementation
  • responsible personnel
  • resources required
  • success indicators

The CSA ASIT process incorporates an action planning process which includes ongoing support from respective state Executive Officers. Another key element at this stage is in the formation of a team to drive the school improvement agenda. The burden and responsibility of this lies on all staff, not just the Principal, or another school leader or administrator. Research is clear that top-down driven change initiatives often fail, while bottom-up driven initiatives regularly falter as key decision makers are not included. The most successful school improvement initiatives are collaborative efforts from all areas of the school community. 

STEP 4: MEASURE, MONITOR & MODIFY 

  • Evaluate progress and impact.
  • Sometimes things work, and sometimes they don’t.
  • Be prepared to be agile.

Failure to properly implement this step is one of the most common reasons that school improvement processes lose momentum is at this stage. It is essential that the team who is leading the school improvement process meets regularly to sustain and monitor progress against key outcome indicators. The reality is that sometimes things work and sometime they don’t. In the ever-changing ecosystem of education, the school and improvement team must be willing to be agile. The only way they can truly achieve this is by regularly monitoring progress and being willing to make adjustments, or significant changes, if indicated by the data. In the CSA ASIT process, the respective state Executive Officer journeys with the school over a three-year period, regularly connecting with the school improvement team to facilitate a reflective process and support the school in any changes required.

STEP 5: REFLECT 

  • Reflect on what you’ve learned.
  • Apply the learning by transferring to other situations.
  • Continue moving forward.

While it is important to note that school improvement is an ongoing cyclic process that never actually stops, it is also important to note that meaningful school improvement only thrives when a culture of reflection focusing on teaching and learning exists. Regular and strategic reflection, therefore, is an essential step of the process. Key questions to ask during this time include: 

  • What progress did we make against the preferred future we established, and the goals and success measures we identified? 
  • What impact has the school improvement strategy(s) had on student learning and outcomes? What is the evidence of this impact? 
  • What have we learned from the process that will inform ongoing school improvement strategies? 
  • What would we change? What would we repeat? 

    The CSA ASIT process incorporates a reflective element though two actions. After 12 months the state Executive Officer returns to the school and conducts a reflective process with the school improvement team, supporting them in responding to the questions above. After three years the original External Review team returns to the school and undertakes another external review process which is designed to identify progress and success points from which to learn. Moreover, the team identifies changes to celebrate and assist in facilitating the school on the next stage of its school improvement journey. 

    For schools to continue to meet the individual and collective needs of their students, it is now a non-negotiable that school must focus on a continuous improvement agenda. Christian Schools Australia is well placed to support their member schools in this space.

    Simply reach out – We’re here to help.

     

    “Research is clear that top-down driven change initiatives often fail, while bottom-up driven initiatives regularly falter as key decision makers are not included. The most successful school improvement initiatives are collaborative efforts from all areas of the school community.”


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