Administrators and teacher-leaders devote an extraordinary amount of time to developing school plans. But principals frequently tell me these documents amount to little more than a frustrating waste of time that are done only for the purpose of complying with state and district requirements. Here are five ways to transform school plans from document drills into effective tools for collaborative leadership.
First, focus is essential. We have reviewed plans with dozens of goals at the school level and hundreds of goals and indicators at the district level. The evidence from our research is clear: When schools have more than six priorities, student achievement is diminished as the attention from leaders and teachers is fragmented.
Second, translate goals into progress indicators. Too often the plans only explain where the school should be at the end of the year: higher achievement, better attendance, and fewer suspensions. All of these are data about student results, but none of them shed any light on the specific actions of teachers and administrators about how to achieve that goal. For example, if the goal is to have more student scoring at a proficient level in math at the end of the school year, a progress indicator might be “The percentage of students whose math diagnostic assessment – administered in the first week of school – shows a danger of math failure and who have an explicit support plan in place by the second week of school.”
Third, translate professional development into specific actions. Lots of plans talk about teacher training, but very few talk about how professional development will be reflected in specific classroom actions. This summer there will be a lot of time and money spent on workshops on everything from data analysis to social and emotional learning (SEL) to equity. Make those investments worthwhile by identifying specific actions for adults. For example, we don’t promote equity by merely sending people to equity workshops. We should be able to monitor the percentage of classrooms that have visible and respectful reflections of student cultures in the room. If we want to translate SEL workshops into action, then there must be evidence of student-to-student and teacher-to-student communication that reflects empathy, deep listening, and respect.
Fourth, share ownership of goals and progress indicators, allowing teacher teams to share progress and challenges every month for goals on which they have collected data, success stories, and specific examples of progress. Too often all of the data resides in the principal’s office and is disconnected from the daily lives of classroom educators. If these are school-wide goals, then they deserve school-wide visibility and support.
Fifth, make bold mid-course corrections. If we aspire to improve reading and writing performance, and we have a student who we learn in the first week of school is three years behind in reading, then ask, “How will this student’s curriculum, schedule, and support be different as a result of what we know is a critical need?” In a shocking number of instances, especially in transition grades such as the first year of middle or high school, the answer to that question is, “There isn’t any difference. All kids get the same sixth- or ninth-grade schedule, even when we know some are desperately in need of support. Let’s be blunt: If a child is having difficulty reading in ninth grade, it is a crisis and should be treated as if the child’s safety is in danger. Indeed, the evidence is clear that school success is a health and safety issue, because when students fail (or get a diploma without basic literacy and math proficiency), they face a lifetime of risk. These students don’t need a German elective; they need to learn to read and write English so that they can succeed in every other class that demands proficiency in English literacy.
School plans don’t have to be vacuous wastes of time and energy. They can be vibrant living documents that inspire faculty and are the focus of improvement every day of the school year.