By leveraging data effectively, educational administrators can transform school improvement planning from a confusing, ambiguous endeavor into a straightforward four-step process.
Creating a school improvement plan (SIP) can sometimes feel like a nebulous task, and without a firm implementation roadmap in place, executing on one can often feel the same. In the past, school improvement plans have relied heavily on gut feelings and anecdotal evidence of actions that have worked at other schools or in other districts. Unsurprisingly, this has proven to be a less-than-effective approach, and without a firm grounding in specific benchmarks, schools often fall short of their improvement goals.
However, in the wake of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), requirements for evidence-based school improvement planning have become more stringent, and thus data-driven decision making has become all the more imperative. ESSA requires that any planned school improvement actions are backed up by historical data demonstrating past successes. This shift in standards means that, moving forward, the SIP creation process will involve more time and energy, more stakeholders, more big ideas, and much more data.
Fortunately, as long as schools adopt a strategic approach to planning, this shift will ultimately result in the kinds of SIPs that can deliver end-to-end improvements to student outcomes. For most schools, crafting such an approach begins with adhering to the following four core principles of effective improvement planning.
Now more than ever, it’s important that principals formulate school improvement plans with clear and quantifiable goals in mind. Principals should begin this process by inviting a cross-section of stakeholders — including students, parents, and teachers with a range of experience and subject matter expertise — to contribute to a comprehensive needs assessment (which should be formatted as a quantifiable rubric).
It’s vital for administrators to make a concerted effort to then use the data from these self-assessments to shape the overarching vision for their schools’ improvement plans. It can be incredibly tempting to sketch the contours of a plan (even if only subconsciously) prior to considering all the facts, but doing so can prevent certain stakeholders’ voices from being heard — and thus prevent their input from being factored into a school’s goals — hurting the improvement plan’s chances of success in the process. Fortunately, with the proliferation of digital technologies in schools, principals can easily implement surveys, visualize the survey data, and ensure the data is used to inform their schools’ goals.
After a principal has a set of data-informed goals, the next step is to create an action plan comprised of concrete steps designed to lead to the achievement of those goals. In order to do so, they should assemble a task force of different stakeholders who will be assigned specific action items pertinent to their individual specialties. For example, one group of ELA teachers may research best practices in reading instruction, while another may look into current trends in ELL education.
Typically, these small teams will bring their findings back to the large group to talk through what they’ve learned and explain which strategies they recommend, though the details of these collaborative discussions may vary between schools and districts. That said, the “research and development” step of school improvement planning should almost always involve more parties than just the principal and their leadership staff, not only because this step is too time-, resource-, and energy-intensive for a single administrative team to handle, but because a diversity of voices, perspectives, and data points is a necessary condition of any effective action plan.
Once concrete action steps have been formulated, the principal must act as their school’s lead communicator of metrics. A school improvement plan should be a “living document,” meaning that it is at the core of decision making, and that all invested parties are frequently referencing it.
The principal should act as the key player in keeping the document “alive,” working with the school improvement team to track the progress of the plan and adjust it when necessary. While in the past, this step of school improvement planning was largely about gut feelings — “it seems like the students are more prepared for exams than they were last year” — by utilizing a cutting-edge educational data platform like Hoonuit, principals can now track key performance indicators in close-to-real time, taking the guesswork out of SIP evaluation.
Keeping a school improvement plan “alive” requires constant check-ins, and one of the most impactful ways to facilitate these check-ins is to ensure certain stakeholders are responsible for certain key data points — though the principal should always be monitoring the entire plan’s progress at a high level.
The shorter the increments between check-ins, the more motivating the data can be and the more relevant it stays to the school’s actual progress. For this reason, it’s important for schools to have access to data dashboards that can display weekly — or even daily — progress.
Ultimately, executing on a school improvement plan effectively means doing everything in one’s power to keep the plan relevant to on-the-ground realities. When a school improvement plan remains relevant, it’s much likelier to produce the elevated student outcomes every school aims to achieve.