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December 1, 2011
Vol. 69
No. 4

School Improvement, Step by Step

Like so many schools today, Eiber Elementary School faces tight fiscal restraints. Located on the outskirts of Denver, Colorado, Eiber serves a diverse student body. Of its 437 students, 87 percent are eligible for free or reduced-price lunch, 75 percent are racial/ethnic minorities, and 31 percent are English language learners. Despite budget cuts of 8.5 staff positions in 2010, Principal Stacey Bedell and other school leaders were determined to maintain their commitment to improve student achievement.
The school had implemented many improvement efforts over the years, with varying degrees of success. Traditionally, Eiber's improvement efforts had been like those of most other schools—some staff members had faithfully implemented new programs and initiatives while others ignored initiatives that conflicted with their private preferences. Eiber leaders realized that to overcome the school's history of inconsistency and lack of systemic practice, they needed to get serious about monitoring how well teachers carried out initiatives the school adopted.
Research and theory consistently suggest that implementation with fidelity is a key to successful school reform (Fixsen, Naoom, Blasé, Friedman, & Wallace, 2005; Reeves, 2010). As Dean and Parlsey (2010) point out, New improvement strategies do not always guarantee increases in student achievement, but partial implementation and inconsistent implementation will most certainly doom even the best strategies [and programs] to failure. (p. 1)
Thus, one of the best investments a school or district can make is to ensure that all teachers consistently implement reform initiatives.

Schoolwide Implementation of Small Steps

When adopting an improvement initiative, many schools begin with full implementation in a few classrooms. Teachers in the rest of the school wait to find out whether the initiative is doable and effective; if so, the school expands implementation to all classrooms.
Eiber Elementary School decided to take a different approach: breaking down a large improvement goal into manageable parts, expecting the entire staff to take action, monitoring implementation and providing support, and then applying the lessons learned to subsequent schoolwide initiatives. School leaders believed that immediate, schoolwide implementation of initiatives would produce the highest return on invested resources.
With support from a trained team of school improvement facilitators from the Jefferson County School District and an external consultant from Mid-continent Research for Education and Learning (McREL), Principal Bedell formed a leadership team that includes herself, the assistant principal, several teachers, and an instructional coach. Team members met weekly to plan and monitor the consistent implementation and effectiveness of their schoolwide initiatives.

Finding the Manageable Parts

The leadership team, which became a model learning community for the rest of staff, learned to use data systematically. An initial look at the data confirmed the urgent need to improve the school's reading and math scores.
The team decided to begin by focusing on students' oral language skills and reading comprehension. Examining baseline data gathered by observing reading instruction throughout the school, the team noticed that discussions during guided reading instruction consisted of 56 percent teacher talk and only 44 percent student talk. After considering demographic data showing that many students did not speak English at home, along with low oral-language scores from a curriculum-based assessment, the team sharpened its focus to select a manageable goal: increase the amount of teacher-facilitated, purposeful student talk during guided reading lessons from 44 to 70 percent.
Budget cuts dictated that the school could not bring in a parade of expensive external experts, so it provided in-house professional development. Because resources were limited, the leadership team leveraged commonsense, low-cost methods, such as reading professional literature on teacher questioning and student talk. The staff first read and discussed select chapters of the book, Comprehension Through Conversation: The Power of Purposeful Talk in the Reading Workshop (Nichols, 2006), and then proceeded to do a study of the entire book.
The staff agreed to clear expectations for implementation of the improvement strategy. Each day during guided reading instruction, they would encourage more student talk and student-to-student interaction by using sentence stems, asking more open-ended questions, and using nonverbal cues to get students to respond to one another's thoughts. Implementation also became a regular topic in collaborative meetings, and staff meetings were repurposed as professional development opportunities aligned to the student talk initiative.

Monitoring Implementation, Providing Support

After the initiative was launched, leadership team members systematically monitored implementation throughout the school by doing biweekly walk-through observations in each classroom. The leadership team members split up and visited classrooms in pairs or groups of three so they could observe instruction, share the data, and debrief what they had seen. They then compiled the data from all classrooms to understand what was happening schoolwide. They were pleased to find increases in the instances of student talk; technically they were moving toward their goal.
They were not satisfied, however, with the quality of the student talk. They observed that students did not usually formulate extended responses or interact with one another. The teacher was still typically the hub of communication in whole-class and small-group discussions.
Although the team had equipped teachers with stems and prompts to encourage more student talk, those tactics had yielded only basic responses to teacher questions. The mechanical use of the prompts did not result in discourse among students that would improve their oral-language development and higher-level learning. In addition, the team observed that implementation was uneven among different teachers across the school.
These observations enabled the leadership team to make timely adjustments to the initiative. After looking back to the research literature to better understand the strategy, the team changed its short-term goal to include both quantity and quality of student talk and created <XREF TARGET="rubric">a rubric to define the quality of student talk</XREF>. During a staff professional development session, team members introduced the rubric and clarified for teachers the purpose and updated implementation expectations of the initiative.
Rubric for Quality of Student Talk During Guided Reading Instruction

School Improvement, Step by Step - table





Contribution/ParticipationSome students consistently and actively contribute to the conversation with prompting or reminding.Most students consistently and actively contribute to the conversation with some prompting or reminding.All students consistently and actively contribute to the conversation with minimal prompting or reminding.All students consistently, actively, and equally contribute without prompting or reminding.
Instructional FocusStudent talk is not related to the instructional focus.Student talk is somewhat related to the instructional focus and makes minimal use of identified vocabulary.Student talk is related to the instructional focus and makes sporadic use of identified vocabulary.Student talk reflects connections between the text and the instructional focus and integrates meaningful use of identified vocabulary.
Quality of ConversationsStudents offer simple responses to teacher questions with the teacher prompting each response.Students offer opinions and thoughts related to teacher prompts.Students offer extended responses and opinions, sometimes responding to one another without teacher prompting.Students offer extended responses and pose follow-up questions, prompting one another to contribute with minimal teacher intervention.
To address the uneven implementation, the school provided differentiated, targeted professional development to individuals and groups of teachers who needed it. Groups of teachers discussed their progress at weekly collaboration meetings. They shared their individual successes and challenges, and the instructional coach provided feedback from observations and modeled strategies that encourage student talk. The coach and administrators met individually with teachers who had specific concerns about implementation or needed more specific guidance, such as demonstrations in their own classrooms.

Improving Student Outcomes

The initiative to increase student talk evolved over the fall and into the spring. The ratio of student talk during literacy instruction rose from 44 percent to 56 percent in the first monitoring period and then up to 64 percent by December. Although the school did not achieve its goal of 70 percent student talk during the first monitoring period, the staff saw the work as ongoing improvement rather than something that would be "done."
  • Most students contributed during conversations.
  • Students were more engaged in literacy lessons.
  • Student talk was more evenly distributed within groups.
  • Student talk was more closely aligned to the instructional focus.
  • Teachers provided positive feedback to students.
  • Teachers sought and tried additional strategies to encourage student talk.
  • Student talk reflected a higher level of thinking.
It is common for initiatives to yield such results in some classrooms. The big difference at Eiber, though, was that the improvements occurred throughout the school because the leadership team had focused on implementating and monitoring of the initiative in all classrooms. This result stood in contrast to the school's past practice of purchasing programs and resources and then waiting for these initiatives to "fix" the school's problems.
Pursuing the school's short-term goals proved valuable in achieving its long-range goals. By the end of the year, students' literacy scores on the districtwide benchmark assessment had jumped significantly, with an average increase of more than 15 percent in the proportion of students scoring in the highest two tiers.

Improving the System

Eiber's leadership team structured opportunities for the staff to reflect on what they had learned from implementing, monitoring, and adjusting this manageable initiative. They concluded that some of the structures, processes, and attitudes they had established contributed to success and could support the success of future initiatives.
For example, the school had solidified a grade-level collaboration structure in which teachers from each grade-level and groups of specialists throughout the building held weekly 35-minute meetings during a common planning period. Within those groups, they had instituted a protocol for analyzing data: (1) They collected and organized data around an agreed-on focus question prior to their meetings. (2) During the meeting, they analyzed patterns in the data, celebrated their successes, and prioritized the challenges. (3) They discussed possible interpretations of the data and root causes of the challenges they identified. (4) They ended by planning instructional steps that would address the challenges and improve student outcomes.
Eiber had also implemented weekly three-way coaching sessions in which individual teachers would meet with the principal or assistant principal to reflect on student data. The instructional coach observed the meetings and planned coaching to help the teachers achieve their individual goals for students.
The leadership team also learned lessons from challenges it had encountered. In the future, to avoid the need for midcourse corrections, team members determined that before implementing new initiatives, they needed to develop a deeper understanding of both the school's needs and research-based strategies for meeting those needs.
Building on its successes and steering clear of past mistakes, the team worked with the staff on additional initiatives, including selecting an effective instructional focus based on data and the district's curriculum guide and choosing texts appropriate for addressing students' various skill levels.

District-Level Support

Although focusing on successful implementation of school and district initiatives is not a novel idea, systems are often not aligned to ensure the level of implementation required to improve student achievement. Therefore, results often include missed opportunities for improving education practice and wasted financial and human resources.
Some of the credit for Eiber Elementary School's success must go to the Jefferson County School District, which had established the conditions for effective implementation of school initiatives. The district's schools range from high-poverty, high-minority urban schools to schools serving affluent mountain communities. The central office organized a system that was poised to provide differentiated support to schools in the face of severe financial challenges.
Using data to identify 18 schools (including Eiber) that needed varying levels of intervention to move to performing status as designated by Colorado's accountability system, the district reorganized its division of instruction into teams that shared collective responsibility for under-performing schools. The district partnered with these schools to ensure effective implementation of their improvement plans. Through monthly site visits and reports, instructional teams monitored each school's progress toward clear, measurable goals.
On the district's benchmark assessment, given three times a year, 17 of the 18 schools receiving intensive district support saw overall gains in the percentage of students scoring in the highest two tiers. Twelve of those 18 schools saw double-digit gains.

Achieving More with Less

Eiber Elementary exemplifies Jefferson County School District's vision of ensuring success for all students in the face of diminishing resources. The school's leadership team and staff implemented manageable initiatives over the course of a school year, building on successes and addressing shortcomings. Principal Stacey Bedell remarked, We found that we couldn't purchase a silver bullet to fix our school. We worked hard every step of the way to achieve what we did here.
The school carefully implemented and monitored the selected initiatives and identified, documented, and applied the lessons learned. With each application of the process, the staff came closer to being fully prepared for full implementation and student success.
By the end of the year, the school was planning the following year's improvement strategies and initiatives, including schoolwide implementation of a balanced literacy block. School leaders approached their investment of time and resources in this new initiative with confidence, knowing that their system of timely monitoring and targeted support would ensure that resources were not wasted.
Eiber had created the right conditions for the leadership team and staff to grow in their capacity to implement and sustain initiatives of increasing scope. This expanded capacity was a return on the school's investment that budget cuts could not take away.

Dean, C., & Parsley, D. (2010). Success in Sight: Segment 3.1. Denver, CO: McREL.

Fixsen, D. L., Naoom, S. F., Blasé, K. A., Friedman, R. M., & Wallace, F. (2005). Implementation research: A synthesis of the literature. Tampa: University of South Florida.

Nichols, M. (2006). Comprehension through conversation: The power of purposeful talk in reading workshop. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Reeves, D. B. (2010). Transforming professional development into student results. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

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