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December 1, 1998

Six Steps to School Improvement

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Leadership
School Culture
Schools that want to renew themselves often dive right into developing an action plan for school improvement, observed Kathleen Fitzpatrick, executive director for the National Study of School Evaluation (NSSE). These schools would be better advised, she said, if they laid some necessary groundwork first.
Fitzpatrick outlined a six-part framework for school improvement planning based on research into high-performing schools. Developing an action plan comes late in the process, she noted, not at the beginning.
The first step is to develop a school profile, establishing a baseline. "We need to know where we started," Fitzpatrick pointed out. Schools should be sure to collect and analyze data in at least four categories: student performance, student and community characteristics, school characteristics, and stakeholder perspectives. To gain better insights, schools should disaggregate student performance data (by gender and race, for example) and look at changes in community characteristics over time, Fitzpatrick suggested.
In the second step of the process, educators define the school's beliefs and mission. They must answer the questions, What do we believe about teaching and learning? and What is the primary purpose of our school? Schools sometimes define a mission merely "as an exercise," Fitzpatrick said, but to be useful, the beliefs and mission must be "vibrant" and serve as "a decision screen."
The third step in the process is to define desired results for student learning. Educators at the school must determine with precision what they expect students to know and be able to do as a result of their learning. Also, the educators must set priorities for improving student learning.
Step four is to determine how the school's instructional practices and organizational conditions help or hinder achievement of the mission and the desired results for student learning. In this phase, educators move from reflecting on student work to reflecting on their own work: their curriculum, instructional strategies, assessment practices, professional development, and so on.
Only after this point in the process should the school begin step five: developing its action plan, Fitzpatrick said. When deciding on action steps, educators should identify research-based strategies for improvement. (The action steps should be "grounded in what we know as a profession," Fitzpatrick emphasized.) The educators must also set a time line, identify resources, assign responsibilities for implementing the plan, and develop ways to evaluate the plan's effectiveness.
Step six is to implement the plan and document results. Educators at the school must decide what measures they will use to assess the effectiveness of the plan in terms of growth in student learning. These six steps are recursive rather than rigidly sequential, Fitzpatrick noted. Together, they create a cycle of continuous improvement. If educators move through this process "in a thoughtful way," she said, "they can bring about enduring change" in their schools.

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