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Enhancing Student Achievement

by Charlotte Danielson

Table of Contents

Chapter 14. Action Planning

School improvement does not happen by itself. Serious school improvement, along the lines described in this book, does not consist of merely fiddling around the edges of the school's organization, implementing a single new program, or establishing a partnership with a business in the community; rather, the process should be comprehensive and should encompass everything done in the school. Research confirms what educators know well from their own experience: that visionary leadership makes an extraordinary difference in any complex undertaking. A comprehensive project of school improvement requires clarity of vision, breadth of view, and a determination to overcome inevitable obstacles that permits others to participate with confidence. Many teachers are weary of constant change, and are not convinced that the latest new program will be any improvement over the old way of doing things. Because teachers recognize that they will likely still be teaching at the same school long after the principal has left, they can easily adopt an attitude of “this too shall pass.”

Leaders of serious school improvement efforts face the challenge of marshalling the energy and expertise of their staff in the service of the project. A leader's skills extend far beyond running meetings efficiently; clarifying a vision for school improvement, helping staff members to understand how their daily work supports (or possibly undermines) the vision, and serving as an advocate for both students and staff are all critical for success. It is essential that teachers and support staff regard their actions in light of the core mission of the school: ensuring student success.

Leadership does not reside solely with administrators; in many schools, team leaders or department chairs also serve as educational leaders. However, administrators must also develop and exercise strong leadership. The very positions of principal and assistant principal include within their job descriptions the exercise of leadership within the school; without this leadership, no school improvement effort can succeed. The activities described in this chapter are assumed to be under the direction of a visionary administrative leader who sees the big picture as well as the details and who can help a school's staff maintain forward momentum.

Developing Consensus on the Foundation

The foundation of any school program is predicated on a clear grasp of the school's goals, belief structure, and research base. Any school improvement effort should begin with consensus in those areas.

Establishing Consensus on “What We Want”

It is essential for a school community to be exceedingly clear about its broad goals, which should encompass student learning, the professional culture, and the school's relationship with its larger community. Some goals, particularly those related to student achievement, will later be articulated in the school's curriculum; one reasonable aim, therefore, might be for all students to master the curriculum. Other goals might include the establishment of a professional culture of collaborative inquiry, a positive environment for students and their families, and links with the broader community.

Many schools have experience developing mission statements, and thus will have given thought to these goals. Such statements typically reflect a philosophy, and include such broad objectives as “helping each student reach his or her potential” or “meeting the intellectual, social, and physical needs of all students.” Some mission statements may overlap with statements of “what we want.” Unlike the former, however, the latter must be written in a manner that provides specific direction. A set of statements about “what we want” might look something like this:

  • High-level learning for all students (including but not restricted to achievement of state or district content standards)
  • A positive culture for students
  • A culture of professional inquiry for teachers
  • The school as a center for learning in the community

In general, fewer goals are better than more; as will be seen later in this chapter, just a few significant goals can generate many demands for data collection and analysis. In addition, each broad goal includes a number of sub-goals, each of which should be examined and analyzed individually.

Establishing Consensus on “What We Believe”

School practices rest on assumptions that are deeply held but frequently unexamined by both educators and the community, virtually ensuring that schools are resistant to meaningful change. Any process of school improvement must include systematic attention to the beliefs that influence action, policies, and practices in the school. This process is not easy, and suggests an important role for leadership. Educators must connect beliefs to actions and point out when certain actions are incompatible with stated beliefs. The examination of beliefs is challenging and may be uncomfortable, since the beliefs may stand in contrast sharply with facts. It is easy to adopt noble-sounding but essentially superficial belief statements, such as the ubiquitous “all children can learn.” Such a statement, when combined with the extensive evidence that not all students are in fact learning well, cries out for an explanation. If all children can learn, but only a small percentage has passed the state's test of its content standards, why is this? If a school also adopts the belief that “schools control the conditions of success,” then its educators can't let themselves off the hook for poor student performance.

These considerations confront educators with another challenge: namely, their own professional confidence. If a school adopts the belief that all students can achieve at high levels if they apply themselves and commit to learning, the teachers must believe that they can make good on the promise; adults in a school must believe that—through their work in the classroom and with the programs, policies, and procedures they establish in the school—they can ensure successful learning by all students.

Unfortunately, not all educators have this much confidence in their own abilities; perhaps their professional preparation was weak, or they are not aware of new developments in instructional approaches, or maybe they lack sufficient time to prepare lessons that ensure student engagement and learning. Whatever the case, many educators fear that they don't have what it takes to guarantee student success, and it becomes easier for them to blame anything—students, parents, the schedule, the system—but themselves for the poor performance of their students. Lacking confidence in their own abilities, many educators succumb to the prevailing social attitude that school success is highly correlated with the socioeconomic status of students' families and that there is not a lot they can do to overcome this fact.

The process used to establish a school's beliefs must respect the highly personal nature of these types of beliefs and their tight connection to results. Those leading the process of establishing beliefs for a school must ensure that everyone involved is treated with respect, and that individuals are not cornered into defending beliefs that might undermine the school's goals: for example, a teacher who defends the bell curve on the grounds that it maintains high standards should not be attacked for his views. But if the school culture is such that the teacher cannot admit to his beliefs, the beliefs will simply go “underground,” continu-ing to influence his practice, but hidden from pub-lic view. The professional culture must be one of respect and mutual exploration; individuals must feel safe stating their views. They must also be pro-vided time and support to change them.

Establishing Consensus on “What We Know”

Educators in any school trying to improve student learning must stay abreast of current research in education, psychology, organizational development, and so on. This is a tall order, made more challenging by the following factors:

  • The faddish nature of education.
    Education is a profession prone to fads: there is always a reform practice du jour that will be superseded by tomorrow's trend, and woe betide the educator who implements yesterday's craze today. Cooperative learning may be all the rage one day, only to be replaced in the professional consciousness by multiple intelli-gences. It is as though there can be only one “truth” at a time; attending to more than one aspect of practice appears to be the educational equivalent of walking and chewing gum simultaneously.
  • Little time available for staying current.
    Most educators are extremely busy people, so time is often the scarcest resource of all. Teachers and administrators have very little time to devote to scholarly pursuits; just staying current in their respective fields is enough of a challenge for many. Not only do educators need to stay abreast of current developments in educational research—they must also understand the impact of research on daily operations. Therefore, educators must pay attention to findings related to learning in general, such as those that deal with class size, grouping practices, and motivation.

Schools must adopt a coherent approach to keeping current with research. One possibility is as follows:

  • To satisfy district or state requirements for professional development, teachers within a school are assigned a professional journal (e.g., Educational Leadership, Phi Delta Kappan, Learning K-8, Instructor, journals devoted to individual disciplines).
  • The teachers each assume responsibility for monitoring the articles in their respective journals and determining how the articles' findings relate to the school's program.
  • The teachers summarize the articles that they think have something to offer the rest of the faculty—perhaps as part of faculty, grade-level, or departmental meetings. If appropriate, they distribute copies of articles to colleagues.

Because these activities satisfy requirements for professional development, they may be undertaken by teachers without the sense that they are yet another burden added to their already overloaded jobs.

Reviewing and Revising Policies and Practices for Consistency with Research Base, Beliefs, and Goals

It is not unusual for a school to inherit policies and practices that are inconsistent with its own stated beliefs and goals or disavowed by recent research. Many schools operate without a clearly defined curriculum, approach to scheduling, or system of learning support. Such practices can per-sist without anyone really noticing that they are actually undermining the school's stated goals with respect to student learning. Unless these practices are changed, the desired results will never be achieved.

School Organization, Policies Regarding Students and Staff, and Linkages Beyond the School

Student attendance and homework policies at a school may be incompatible with a success orientation, or the school's procedures for teacher evaluation or professional development may not contribute to a culture of respect and professional inquiry. And a school's master schedule may make it more difficult to implement the type of instruction that teachers believe would promote higher levels of student learning. Of course, revising these systems is not a small undertaking; the procedures have usually been in place for a long time and are familiar to the students and staff. Even if educators are inclined to revise certain policies and practices, there is a limit to the number of major initiatives that a school's staff can manage simultaneously; many schools encounter “reform fatigue” when they embark on multiple projects at the same time or in rapid succession. On the other hand, dysfunctional practices should not be permitted to remain intact, particularly if they are actually working at cross-purposes to the school's major goals.

There is no easy solution to this difficulty, which is chiefly a resource problem: Where should staff spend its time and energy? Which projects are most critical, and which can wait? Clearly, planning is essential. As deficiencies are noted, it is important that a plan enabling educators to address the most serious concerns first, followed by others of lower priority, be implemented.

Program Organization

Daily instruction is directly supported by, and cannot be wholly successful without, attending to the different aspects of the school program's organization. Teachers cannot teach well without a clear curriculum aligned to the state or district content standards, well-designed assessments, clear and flexible procedures for assigning students and teachers, and a learning support plan. Without these systems in place, teachers' efforts are seriously compromised; they simply cannot accomplish their best work.

Of course, if a school does not have a coherent curriculum or aligned assessments in place, it is not going to acquire them overnight. Such projects require considerable effort and time yet are critical for successful teaching and learning. If found to require attention, then, such matters should be addressed with all deliberate speed.

Implementing a Process of Continuous Improvement

The quality movement has had an enormous impact on many companies in the private sector: by paying systematic attention to the details of their operations, companies have seen increased productivity, efficiency, and customer satisfaction. Employees at companies that invest in quality initiatives typically experience a considerable degree of job satisfaction as a result of their direct participation in (and sense of responsibility for) the company. If the company manufactures products, there are fewer defects and returns and less waste. If the company sells insurance, records are well kept, customer satisfaction is high, and profits are healthy. And in all cases, employee morale is high, deriving from a sense of satisfaction that comes from a job well done.

Although few schools have made a formal commitment to a quality program, all can implement many aspects of such an approach. School improvement requires educators to define and identify indicators of that success; it also involves an unflinching examination of evidence (typically through data collection and analysis) and an uncompromising commitment to action.

Indicators of Success

For each of a school's goals, educators must determine indicators of success, the school's current degree of attainment, and reasonable targets for improvement. In order to do this, they must pay particular attention to how the goals are assessed. Clearly, the evidence of different types of goals must be appropriate to each type. And student test scores on standardized tests are only one among many sources of evidence; although they are important pieces of information, they fail to provide anything like a comprehensive answer to the question of “how are we doing.” As practition-ers recognize the power of becoming data-driven, they must take seriously the matter of determining what serve as indicators of success for all their important goals. Figure 14.1 is intended to provide educators with guidance for local thinking and decision making about data collection and analysis, but is not an ironclad prescription for program evaluation.

Figure 14.1. Possible Data Sources for Different Goal Areas



Possible Indicators

Sources of Evidence

High Level Learning for All Students

All students have access to a rigorous curriculum

Students are taught for understanding, in a challenging curriculum, rather than only rote repetition.

  • Curriculum outcomes reflect rigorous learning.
  • Assignments and activities require students to develop and demonstrate understanding.
  • Classroom teaching engages students in higher-order thinking and problem solving.
  • Course offerings are challenging and are appropriate to level.

  • Curriculum analysis
  • Random sampling of assignments and student work
  • Classroom observations
  • AP course offerings or equivalent

Students learn at high levels

Virtually all students master the basic (but rigorous) curriculum.

  • High passing rates on state assessments.
  • High grades on school-based assessments and end-of-course exams.

  • State assessment data
  • School grades

All students succeed at high levels

High averages do not conceal large differences in achievement between different subgroups of students.

  • Students from all groups enrolled in high-level courses and skill groups.
  • State assessment results show high levels of performance of all groups of students.
  • School-based assessments show high levels of performance of all groups of students.

  • Course and ability groups analyzed by sub-group
  • State test results disaggregated by sub-group
  • School-based assessments disaggregated by sub-group
  • Student dropout rates

A rich and varied school program

The school program develops not only cognitive skills, but also interpersonal skills, dispositions, aesthetics, athletics, and responsibility.

  • Curriculum guides articulate varied outcomes.
  • The school program includes opportunities for students in the visual and performing arts, and athletics, as well as in academic subjects.
  • Classroom instruction includes, where appropriate, varied types of goals.
  • Feedback to students and comments to parents include information on varied goals.

  • Curriculum analysis
  • Analysis of program offerings
  • Classroom observation
  • Classroom observation, samples of student work with feedback, and reports to parents

A Positive Culture for Students

Environment physically safe and attractive

The physical environment is free of hazards such as peeling paint, falling ceilings, violent weapons, and nonfunctioning water fountains and restrooms. In addition, equipment and supplies are adequate, student work is displayed, and the environment conveys a focus on learning.

  • Absence of physical hazards.
  • Adequate equipment and supplies.
  • Classroom furniture arranged to be conducive to learning.
  • Classrooms and public areas honor student learning.

  • Observation throughout the school, absence of concern by students, staff and parents
  • Classroom observation, absence of concern by staff and parents

Environment emotionally safe

The school environment is a safe place for students, tolerant of diversity of appearance and views.

  • Students are not belittled by teachers or staff.
  • Students not subjected to ridicule or bullying by other students.
  • Students feel respected.

  • Phone calls from parents
  • Incident reports from playground
  • Observation of interactions
  • Student surveys
  • Student focus groups

Hard work valued and rewarded

Student perseverance, effort, and application are cultivated and rewarded.

  • Teachers promote student effort in the classroom.
  • Grading system reflects effort as well as achievement.
  • Students believe that hard work is important.

  • Classroom observation
  • Feedback to students in the classroom and on student work
  • Report cards
  • Student surveys
  • Student focus groups

School culture recognizes student excellence in many arenas

Student contributions and achievements (progress as well as absolute levels) in scholarship, the arts, athletics, etc., receive recognition.

Awards, displays of student work, and public recognition of student achievement includes virtually all students.

Analysis of recognition patterns

Students have multiple opportunities for success

Initial difficulty in learning is not perceived, by students or teachers, to indicate that success is not possible.

  • Classroom interactions encourage multiple attempts to learn content (neither students nor teachers “give up”).
  • Support systems are available to provide additional assistance as needed.
  • The grading system does not discourage multiple attempts.

  • Classroom observation
  • Analysis of support systems (Title I, LEP, etc.)
  • Analysis of grading systems used

Students have multiple opportunities for initiative, responsibility, and leadership

Students are viewed not only as “clients” of the school, but also as contributing partners to its culture; they deliberate on issues that affect them and serve in roles such as office and laboratory aides, tutors to younger students, etc.

  • High percentages of students are involved in leadership roles; these roles are not dominated by a few students.
  • Students believe that they can make a positive contribution to the school.

  • Analysis of participation lists for various activities and responsibilities
  • Student surveys
  • Student focus groups

A Culture of Professional Inquiry for Teachers

All teachers engaged in high-quality professional learning

Professional development is self-directed, is focused on enhanced student learning, is job-embedded and collaborative, and is continuous and ongoing.

  • Time is available for teachers to engage in important professional inquiry.
  • The professional culture expects all teachers to participate and supports collaboration and professional inquiry.
  • Professional activities satisfy state requirements for relicensing.

  • School schedule
  • Teacher survey
  • Analysis of re-licensing records

Professional inquiry is recognized and rewarded

There are opportunities for teachers to share and celebrate their investigations and findings.

  • Time is available in staff meetings for professional sharing and celebration.
  • Results of professional work are distributed to teachers in other schools.
  • Teachers are encouraged to attend professional conferences, either as participants or presenters.

  • Faculty meeting agendas
  • Newsletters, other communications
  • Memos to staff, teacher records of participation, staff survey

The sources of evidence named in this chart are fairly extensive, and may include more data than educators in many schools are able to collect. Of course, some sources can serve as evidence for multiple goals: for example, a single student survey could be designed to provide information on students' views about the school's atmosphere of safety, its rewards for hard work, and their opportunities for leadership within the school.

Collection and Analysis of Baseline Data

Few schools would ever collect and analyze all the data suggested in Figure 14.1; choices must be made and priorities set according to the time and energy available. Still, systematic planning is essential, and individual staff assignments for data collection must be able to be incorporated into normal school routines. In addition, educators should consider the effect of using data gathering and analysis for promoting a professional culture. When teachers disaggregate their end-of-course assessment results, for example, they gain insight into their teaching that is not available by any other means. Similarly, a group of teachers can identify areas of their school's curriculum needing improvement by analyzing the state's assessment of content standards.

It is important for all teachers to be involved in data collection and analysis, as all educators should become more data-driven and more focused on results. Such an arrangement promotes a spirit of problem solving and collaboration, particularly when improving school performance is regarded (as it should be) as a team effort. Because of the time required for data collection and analysis, both activities must be carefully planned. In addition, different teachers should have different assignments: some could be responsible for designing and administering student surveys, for example, whereas others could be in charge of gathering information related to student attendance or analyzing course enrollments by student ethnicity.

Establishing S.M.A.R.T. Objectives

Once school personnel have acquired comprehensive baseline data, they can use it to establish objectives for improvement. For example, if the data analysis reveals that 53 percent of the school's algebra students achieved a grade last year of A or B on the end-of-course exam (reflecting mastery of a given portion of the curriculum), teachers must establish a reasonable objective for the current year: would it be 60 percent or 65 percent?

Little else motivates people as well as do clear, worthwhile, and attainable objectives. They provide a focus for energy and action, and achieving them offers tremendous satisfaction to educators. Trivial goals invite trivial effort, and educators who attain them feel that they have not accomplished much. Worthwhile goals reflecting broad aspirations, on the other hand, encourage serious effort and yield great satisfaction when achieved.

Good objectives translate broad, long-term goals into prescriptions for action. In addition to being short-term, they are specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, and time-bound—in other words, S.M.A.R.T.:

  • Specific. Good objectives are not vague or general. Although we may want our students to behave more respectfully, a specific objective would not state, “students will be more respected by their peers”; instead, it might specify that bullying should decrease by, say, 50 percent.
  • Measurable. Good objectives are measurable. Let's say that a school wants its female students to have a greater sense of confidence in math and science. A worthy goal! But how would it be measured? Confident students are more likely to enroll in advanced courses, and will probably earn better grades in them. Because proxy measures for confidence will have to be used, it makes sense to express the objective in a directly measurable form, such as “20 percent greater female participation and achievement in advanced mathematics and science courses.”
  • Attainable. Good objectives are not so far from current performance levels that they cannot be achieved, but they still present a challenge. Appropriate goals represent a manageable stretch from present levels, and serve to inspire rather than discourage effort. Achieving even a small goal can motivate people to pursue the next ones.
  • In addition, objectives that are challenging yet attainable can contribute enormously to a faculty's sense of community and common purpose; it is in achieving their goals, after all, that members of a school faculty come together as a team. Good teamwork is highly energizing and made meaningful by the common pursuit of important goals.
  • Relevant. Good objectives are relevant to the purpose of the school. It would be possible to formulate objectives that meet all the other criteria but that aren't really relevant to the school's broader purposes; however, worthy goals should concern themselves with the school's core mission, not with tangential but easily measured matters. For example, a school team might establish as an objective that “86 percent of students bring their lunch to school.” This is specific, and measurable, but who cares? What is the connection, if any, between students bringing their lunch to school and the attainment of important school goals?
  • Time-bound. Lastly, good objectives have specific deadlines. They are not to be achieved “some time in the future,” but rather “by May of next year,” or some such date. A time limit allows people to focus their energies by setting a cut-off date. Deadlines are closely related to the issue of attainability, of course: certain objectives might be attainable next year, but not this year.

Planning and Implementing Actions to Achieve the Objectives

Action plans will reflect the same focus whether the established objectives are schoolwide or related to small groups of students. For example, if a survey reveals that students don't believe they have the opportunities to play leadership roles in the school, the issue of student leadership would probably be addressed at least initially as a matter for schoolwide decision making and action.

Clearly, the planning guidelines described in this chapter can be used by any school or even by individual teachers. Many states and districts mandate planning activities for their schools, and the plans that would emerge from the process discussed here would certainly meet their requirements.

Monitoring Indicators of Goal Achievement

Some might think of the collection and analysis of baseline data as a one-shot effort, particularly if it represents a departure from past practice. It may have required educators to plan and prioritize as well as to allocate resources beyond what had previously been dedicated to the purpose. It can only be hoped that such efforts, once expended, will have been seen to be valuable.

But the collection and analysis of data is not a one-shot affair; it must be a habit. Data regarding student achievement, attendance, and dropout rates must continue to be collected, disaggregated, and analyzed on a regular basis. Likewise, student, parent, and teacher attitudes; the condition of the physical plant; and activities with local businesses, colleges and universities, and community agencies must continue to be monitored.

Because most jobs require their employees to know how to collect and analyze data and commu-nicate the results, there is an important role here for students. Naturally, students of different ages will contribute differently to the effort, but all can play a part, whether by suggesting questions for the student survey, comparing this year's data to last year's, or determining the best approach—graph, table, raw numbers—to communicate the data analysis results to the entire school community.

Recognizing and Celebrating Progress

This step is frequently skipped, and it should not be! By the time they have implemented an ambitious school improvement effort, many educators are too drained to step back and celebrate their efforts. They should, however, do so: recognition and celebration of progress is a high-profile activity that is most successful when broadly shared; students, parents, community, and all staff should be involved in meaningful ways. Members of the support staff should be recognized for their contributions to the life of the school. The celebration of progress should be a validation of the school's program and of its school improvement efforts, communicating to the entire community what the school is about, what it stands for, and what is important.


When educators “put it all together” to improve their schools for enhanced student learning and success, they enjoy the greatest exhilaration that the profession can offer: bringing their entire expertise to bear on providing a first-rate education to all children. What could be more exciting than that? The satisfaction of making a difference in the lives of young people, of seeing them become successful, is what keeps educators in this demanding and at times trying profession.


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